Damn right!

A host of 70s blax­ploita­tion re­boots are in the pipe­line. on why now is the per­fect time to wel­come back Shaft and Foxy Brown

The Guardian - G2 - - Lost in showbiz -

Todd Boyd

though these films fea­tured black casts and re­volved around themes that res­onated with black au­di­ences, many of the cre­ative per­son­nel were white.

By the late 70s, blax­ploita­tion was in de­cline. The stu­dios had made their money 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 al­most in­vis­i­ble.

The era still rep­re­sents one of the most sus­tained pe­ri­ods of cinema fea­tur­ing black themes and black per­form­ers of any in film his­tory. So why do the films re­main rel­e­vant? Upon closer in­spec­tion, one might ask, is this mo­ment re­ally that dif­fer­ent from the 70s? In some ways, the an­swer is an ob­vi­ous yes, but in other ways, it ap­pears that what goes around comes around. The orig­i­nal and best …

Richard Roundtree as Shaft and a 1973 poster for Cleopa­tra Jones

Con­sider the im­ages of protest and re­sis­tance that emerged dur­ing Barack Obama’s sec­ond term as pres­i­dent and have mul­ti­plied since. The im­age of Colin Kaeper­nick and other NFL play­ers tak­ing a knee dur­ing the na­tional an­them re­minds us of John Car­los and Tom­mie Smith at the Mex­ico City Olympics. The im­age of the clenched black fists raised by Car­los and Smith and for ever as­so­ci­ated with the Black Pan­thers is now so ubiq­ui­tous that it is even avail­able as a dark-skinned emoji on your phone.

But per­haps most anal­o­gous be­tween the early 70s and the present is the way in which blax­ploita­tion films then were like the ur­ban pre­cur­sor to su­per­hero films of to­day. Al­though they were set in an ur­ban mi­lieu rep­re­sented as real, the uni­verse of these films was an es­pe­cially fic­tional land­scape.

The char­ac­ters were cool, con­fi­dent and de­fi­antly anti-es­tab­lish­ment, pos­sess­ing “su­per­pow­ers” of­ten di­rectly con­nected to their black­ness, which al­lowed them to see through the “bull­shit” of US life. And the moral bat­tles of good v evil with a racial twist, com­ing in the first decade af­ter the civil rights move­ment, gave blax­ploita­tion a pur­pose be­yond what was other­wise an elab­o­rate, though en­joy­able, fan­tasy. Black au­di­ences in the 70s awaited the next em­pow­ered blax­ploita­tion film the way that mod­ern au­di­ences now an­tic­i­pate the re­lease of Black Pan­ther. The trailer for this month’s Proud Mary looks as though it is a mashup of both blax­ploita­tion and su­per­hero films.

Part of the en­joy­ment of watch­ing these films lies in the fact that you are watch­ing some­thing raw and un­fin­ished. But that’s what made it cool; this sense that what Hol­ly­wood con­sid­ered trash, black cul­ture thought of as trea­sure. It was not the power of Hol­ly­wood that made blax­ploita­tion sig­nif­i­cant, it was the power of the pub­lic that trans­formed the genre into a cul­tural force.

To­day’s film-mak­ers have the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate bet­ter films than those that in­spired them. If au­di­ences re­spond to these films with the same en­thu­si­asm that au­di­ences re­sponded to blax­ploita­tion back in the 70s, then this would in­di­cate a tri­umphant re­turn.

Todd Boyd holds the Kather­ine & Frank Price en­dowed chair for the study of race and pop­u­lar cul­ture at the USC School of Cin­e­matic Arts

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