Tuesday, January 16News That Matters

The return of blaxploitation: why the time is right to bring back Shaft and Foxy Brown

The 70 s genre is set to predominate big screens again with a batch of remakes and reboots. But where will these films fit in contemporary America?

If it’s true that the past is prologue, then it’s also fair to say that we live now in an age of remix, remakes and reboots. Everything old-fashioned is new again in this world-wide of popular culture and social media, where the lines between past and present are invariably blurred if not completely invisible. On Instagram, we celebrate Throwback Thursdays while the daily drama that comes out of the White House often builds it seem as though we are literally being hurled backwards into a past that many naively thought was long gone or perhaps never existed.

Over the past time “theres been” several bulletins about new cinema and television services and facilities programmes in the works that come from the period in the 1970 s known as blaxploitation. Remakes or reboots have been announced for Shaft at New Line, Super Fly at Sony, Cleopatra Jones at Warners, and Foxy Brown on Hulu, while brand-new Taraji P Henson action thriller Proud Mary looks to have been influenced by the genre as well.

Why so much better contemporary interest in a motion from so many years ago? The answers lie in several unexpected similarities that have emerged between this previous era and our present moment.

If we rewind to the late 60 s and early 70 s, we find traditional Hollywood studios were is difficult to connect. With black activists, Vietnam, campus protests and the counterculture predominating the conversation in Richard Nixon’s ” law and order ” America, watching the nightly news often seemed more compelling than attaches great importance to anything that might have been playing at the local movie theatre.

Hollywood, like nature, loathes a vacuum-clean, so this is where blaxploitation received its lane. The arrival of cinemas such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Shaft, Super Fly, Cleopatra Jones, The Mack, Blacula, The Legend of Nigger Charley, Trouble Man and Coffy, all liberated between 1971 and 1973, offered black audiences attributes, themes, music and style that was now consistent with the cultural instant off-screen. The chill, sexual, powerful, conscious, irreverent , nonchalant, quick-witted behaviour of these brand-new ultra-hip cinemas spoke to these audiences in different languages that they both understood and enjoyed. At the same day, these low-budget makes grown high profit margins for the fighting studios and for a period urban audiences of colour and studio clothings were pleased with the results.

Tamara
Tamara Dobson as Cleopatra Jones. Photo: Supplied

In words of rogues, blaxploitation cinemas often featured resolutely evil racist lily-white caricatures, along with comically duplicitous black sycophants eager to sell out the race for their own personal gain. It was the job of the film’s supporter to disclose and eliminate these figures who sought to destroy the community. Thus, blaxploitation cinemas had both a moral the objectives and a political mandatory. It is in this context that audiences espoused these films as every opportunity to “talk back”, to “stick it to the man”, while passing righteous revenge and communicating truth to influence in talk that is likely to now sound like a hip-hop diss way. These films were cathartic, funny and uniquely virtuoso at capturing the culture zeitgeist in a period of a freshly free feel of black identity.

Before long, though, the haters would emerge, to rain criticism, contempt and mistrust upon the cinematic procession stirring its course through the movie houses of black America. The actual word “blaxploitation” emerged as black reviewers of the movies suggested that these intoxicating images were like a ethnic sugar high-pitched, get black audiences all hopped up on what the Last Poets referred to simply as” party and bullshit “. Further, although there are these films featured black castings and revolved around themes that resonated with black audiences, many of the creative personnel behind these movies were overwhelmingly white-hot. In hour, the phrase” black exploitation” became one word, “blaxploitation”, and before long this was the commonly accepted mode to describe a range of cinemas from a variety of different genres that were being lumped together under a moniker that stirred blackness the central component.

By the late 70 s though, as the sunup of Ronald Reagan’s original Make America Great Again era loomed on the horizon, blaxploitation was in drop-off. The studios had stimulated their fund and moved on. There was Richard Pryor, of course, who had become a movie star, and the occasional blaxploitation film such as Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary in 1979, but in general black images on screen had gone from being abundant to virtually invisible.

Though Blaxploitation has always had its commentators, the epoch still is a part of the most sustained the times of cinema featuring black themes and black musicians of any in movie record. blaxploitation is like a cultural warehouse, a sample mill, and a storehouse for reboots all rolled into one.

Yet the 1970 s were long ago, so how do these cinemas remain relevant today? Upon closer inspection, one might question, is this present moment really that different from the 1970 s? In some behaviors the answer is yes, but in others it is suggested that what goes around was coming.

Consider the varied images of objection and opposition that have risen throughout the culture that were first spotted in the second word of Barack Obama, but have grown significantly since. The contested image of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players, so-called ” sons of bitches “, taking a knee during the national anthem that remind us of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the Mexico City Olympics. The clenched black fist once raised by Carlos and Smith and forever associated with the Black Panthers is now to so ubiquitous that it is even available as a dark-skinned emoji on your phone.

Obama’s dignified approach to the US presidency rekindles the cinematic image of the iconic Sidney Poitier, the more popular actor in the two countries before the sunup of the blaxploitation period. Dignity, nonetheless, has been replaced by a kind of culture barbarism wherein coded political mottoes, such as Nixon’s ” silent majority” and “law and order”, have been appropriated and applied to the present as though we were stuck in a time warp from 45 years ago. Further to the point, current investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election are now compared with Watergate on an almost daily basis.

But perhaps what is most analogous between the early 70 s and the present is the way in which blaxploitation movies then were like the urban precursor to superhero films today. Though the latter are set in an urban surrounding represented as real, the universe of these cinemas was an specially fictional landscape.

The characters were cool, self-confident, physically prevailing and defiantly anti-establishment, owning “superpowers” often directly connected to their blackness, which allowed them to see through the bullshit of American life, while simultaneously utilizing everything available to them in waging war against the evils of white ascendancy. Their flashy Eleganza and Flagg Brothers-inspired garbs and extravagantly tricked-out vehicles could certainly be called futuristic for that time. And the moral battles of good versus villainy, with a distinct ethnic spin in the first decade in accordance with the civil right move, committed blaxploitation a meaningful purpose beyond what was otherwise an elaborate though enjoyable fantasize. Black audiences in the 1970 s awaited the next empowered blaxploitation film the mode that contemporary audiences now anticipate the liberate of Black Panther. The trailer for this month’s Proud Mary searches as though it is a mash-up of both blaxploitation and superhero films.

Yet despite the deep affection that many have for blaxploitation, these movies were not regarded as” great cinema “. The limitations of what were often low-budget guerrilla-style films were visible to audiences even back in the 1970 s. The appearing of boom mics on screen or people listing their zodiac signs next to their call in the credits were par for the course. Audiences embraced them not in spite of this, but often because of it.

Part of the pleasure of watching these cinemas lies in the fact that you were watching something raw, unpolished, unsophisticated and, in many cases, unfinished. But that’s what established it cool, this sense that what Hollywood held trash, black culture contemplated wealth. It was not the strength of Hollywood that stimulated blaxploitation significant, it was the strength of the audience, the power of the person or persons that transformed the genre into a culture army that continues to influence and inspire.

Contemporary film-makers now have the possibility of developing better cinemas than those that inspired them. If contemporary audiences respond to these brand-new movies with the same enthusiasm that audiences responded to blaxploitation back in the 70 s, then this is an indication an specially triumphant return.

  • Dr Todd Boyd is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He is the author of several, volumes, articles, and essays, including The Notorious PhD’s Guide to the Super Fly 70 s