Hollywood’s past is littered with dead genres. The road musical. The screwball comedy. The giant insect attack picture. It’s inevitable that certain styles will outlive their usefulness and grow stale; they end up in the scrap yard of ideas, waiting to be salvaged for parts. Even something as hopelessly camp as blaxpoitation, forever associated with funky grooves, Cadillacs and huge lapels, never really gets buried. Instead it ends up absorbed into the collective bloodstream, influencing other genres, sharing its tropes, popping up from time to time as a resurrected spoof.
The lineage of blaxpoitation doesn’t go back far, but it’s strong, fixed to the present by a wave of continued influence, laying the groundwork for films as current as the recent “Cop Out,” which recalls the pioneering mixed-race dynamic while disposing of the racial element. And while the buddy cop movie wasn’t born from the blaxpoitation flick, they did grow up together, sharing a common antecedent in 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night,” then merging completely five years later for “Across 110th Street,” which combined the partner dynamic into the matrix of interracial hatred, fear and queasy respect that characterized the genre.
A spoof like the recent “Black Dynamite” takes a more direct route back to the heart of the subject. Poking fun at the outlandish limits of these films, it also acts as a crash-course in the genre’s shorthand. Conceived by martial artist Michael Jai White, “Black Dynamite” has a big, willing cast and a close eye for fine details. It’s a great spoof, silly but not too broad, showing love for its subject but never undue reverence. Yet as a representation of the classic aesthetic, “Black Dynamite,” is more than a little overblown. As a tribute, it tells us more about what these movies have come to stand for than what they actually represented.
This is because, like most things that have poked fun at the silliness of this aesthetic, “Black Dynamite” is less a blaxpoitation spoof than a “Dolemite” spoof. It faithfully spits back decorative minutiae: the massive tape decks, the hideous patterned coats, the circular wads of cash rolled up with rubber bands. But its prevailing sense of absurdity stems from late-period movies like that Rudy Ray Moore classic, a hopelessly messy, lumbering disaster that was mostly a spoof itself. This is fitting material for a comedy, and it’s not wasted here. But the by-now standard image of blaxpoitation as the sum of all these silly qualities – kung-fu fighting pimps in sleazy, low-budget disasters – is unfortunate, ignoring the serious, ground-breaking work done around the genre’s inception.
This is not to say that relatively outstanding films like “Shaft” and “Super Fly” and “Sweet Sweetback” aren’t silly. They are (with the exception of the latter, which exists in a class all it’s own) flamboyant wish-fulfillment exercises, framing the joys and difficulties of urban black life in blunt, flashy terms. They employ violence both as a reflection of reality and a cinematic convention, taking the structures of white movies and changing their specifics. They’re loud, obvious and often sloppily made, but they have heart. Their ingenuousness plays more as earnest and charming than embarrassing.
These incipient presentations of black identity still resonate as fierce new versions of old heroes, angrily jaded characters like John Shaft, who radiate a kind of worldly, seasoned menace. Shaft is probably the first true Blaxpoitation film (released a year before the equally influential “Super Fly”) and is arguably the best. It works as a straight action movie, with a strong protagonist and some nice set pieces, but also as a kind of hyperrealist representation of black life, with the noble-minded Shaft trapped between the dual machinations of black criminals and white cops, bridging the two groups while struggling to retain his own identity.
This kind of depiction, where the black everyman (or his superhero representation) is wedged between the twin pillars of ghetto criminality and uncaring, often racist white institutionalism, is a common genre indicator. By the time of “Dolemite” it’s shaped into a lazy signifying conceit, with karate-proficient pimps and fey, shady cops, who plant drugs on Dolemite out of fear of his tremendous penis. Yet in earlier, more serious-minded films this middle is portrayed as the home of a forever hassled majority, a place that’s tough to live in and too easy to fall out of, claimed by the tugging demands of either side.
The flashiness and violence of these films is often mistaken as a glamorization of this criminal element. In truth, violence is used as readily and ostentatiously as in any action movie, but not glamorized. “Super Fly,” falsely remembered as a celebration of the pimp lifestyle, is actually a trenchant study in the dead end nature of crime. Its protagonist Priest (played by Ron O’Neal) repeatedly and fruitlessly tries to “go straight,” finding ample resistance from both sides. What he discovers is a completely rigged game, where malevolent white forces pull all of the strings.
This ‘black power’ aesthetic, where the white majority is twisted into varyingly intense representations of scheming evil, is one of the harder features to swallow. But it’s a natural response. The blanket statements it applies function as symptoms of anger and distrust, bubbling up via understandably exaggerated responses to a culture of racism. Like 1950s horror movies, which sublimated nuclear fears into overgrown monsters, these illustrations operate as cathartic outlets for frightened, frustrated people.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song,” the most strident, irate and haphazard of this early trifecta. A kind of hazy gonzo fever-dream channeled as outlaw picaresque, it follows the title protagonist’s efforts to evade a manhunt after being framed for murder. But Sweetback (a committed Melvin Van Peebles), pushed over the fence and into the prototypical role of the black criminal, finds it impossible to get back. Subjugated from childhood as a kind of untamed sex performer, he’s ultimately unable to escape the self-fulfilling criminal characterization that’s been foisted upon him.
The kind of fiery rage espoused here seems recherché now, in an America that touts itself as post-racial, a place where Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis can play partners without ever acknowledging their race. It’s partially for this reason that the outsized political message of early blaxpoitation has become anathema. You can see this rage softening even through the early ‘70s, from the mainstream treatment of “Across 110th Street,” (still angry, but workably so) to the cartoonish provocations of fluff like “Boss Nigger” and finally “Dolemite” which represents a definite terminus in the genre’s progression, effectively burying the political agenda under waves of inane absurdity.
It’s not surprising that in the modern view, it’s the silliness that mostly gets remembered. Always-acceptable qualities like John Shaft’s bravery or Sweetback’s unwavering pride still get recognized, but they’re placed on an equal plane with less important aesthetic markers. The appropriate mass appreciation of these films requires the suppression of their unsavory quantities, their frank suggestions of poverty and hate. The cushy flair of a gaudy fur coat is the easiest method.
In his review of “Sweet Sweetback” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby accused director/star MelvinVan Peebles of not dramatizing, but “merchandizing” injustice. That may have been partially the case, but that merchandising was a natural form of exorcism, creating a recognizable set of heroes and demons to sort out sort out an otherwise inapproachable problem. Now however, as reflected in the funny, entertaining “Black Dynamite,” that kind of merchandising has a different face. Our cultural memory of blaxploitation admits only its most asinine characteristics. It prizes the costume while forgetting the heart.