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Sweet's Back Again

    In the early '70s, blaxploitation upended Hollywood stereotypes

    By Nicky Baxter

    Melvin Van Peebles, director of the controversial ghetto epic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971, gets credit, willing or not, for inaugurating the blaxploitation genre--low-budget action movies aimed at black audiences. This period marked the first time in American film history that Hollywood had welcomed black talent with anything resembling enthusiasm.

    Capitalizing on the brief moment when black was beautiful, Hollywood cannily seized the opportunity to make a quick buck, churning out scores of action-packed cheapies. Significantly, this phenomenon was accomplished by reintroducing the Big Black Buck stereotype first seen in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Only this time around, that dark, ominous figure was transmogrified into the Great Ghetto Hero. Though the blaxploitation era, was brief, running roughly from 1971 to 1975, its impact would range far and wide.

    Sweet Sweetback introduced the biggest and baddest buck of the bunch. Warts and all, the film is perhaps the closest analogy to the progressive aims of the then-flourishing Black Arts movement. Indeed, it can be argued that because it was written, produced and directed by an American-born African outside of Hollywood, the film is not truly part of the blaxploitation genre, yet it cannot be denied that it shares certain thematic similarities.

    The film centers on a slick, sly and wicked stud who, after witnessing a police beat-down of an innocent black youth, splits the cops' heads open with their own handcuffs and flees. Sweetback is, at first, hardly a revolutionary figure. Raised in a whorehouse, he has been tutored in the fine art of lovemaking, but his encounter with the police becomes the first step in a series of events that pricks his amoral conscience. Borrowing elements from film noir, Van Peebles takes us through the dimly lighted streets of the black ghetto where pimps, hustlers and cutthroats rule.

    The film works best when it follows Sweetback's odyssey from stud boy to proto-nationalist consciousness. Unlike the Horatio Alger-style integrationism propagated in past films about blacks, here we see an outlaw among outlaws, nourished by a community segregated from the mainstream. It is in this disenfranchised community--and not the sterile offices of the NAACP--that he seeks and finds refuge. The sordid sexual trysts, the faux fantasies in the desert are, finally, less interesting than Sweetback's quest for self-realization.

    Though lambasted by critics when it was released, Sweet Sweetback is now considered a marred masterpiece by some. The fact that a black man met violence with violence, was openly sexual, and triumphed over a corrupt white system was a signal event in film. Yet perhaps its most "revolutionary" aspect is that Sweet Sweetback was an uncompromising effort made outside Hollywood's stultifying good-old-white-boys' system, setting an example for future auteurs like Spike Lee and Robert Townsend. The blaxploitation films that followed, such as Superfly (1972), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974) and Friday Foster (1975), were colorful if less successful takeoffs on the superbad ghetto rebel theme.

    In Gordon Parks' Superfly, Van Peebles' stud-buck radical is transformed into a cocaine dealer named Priest who lacks even the pretense of social consciousness--an incorrigible hedonist who uses then discards women like they were born for that purpose. Yet there is something alluring in Ron O'Neal's protagonist.

    With his shoulder-length waved hair, long, flowing trench coats, and flamboyantly outsized hats, Priest epitomizes the coolly self-contained Harlem mack daddy. Parks' slummy setting looks authentic. The streets bustle with seedy activity; the run-down tenements and piss-stained alleyways paint a picture of urban decay. In this war zone where drug lords and pushermen battle for control, the protagonist reigns supreme. Operating outside the law--and indeed, the law is itself corrupt--Priest has created his own rules.

    Although Priest finally takes the money and runs, leaving the cocaine business behind, the picture was criticized for sending mixed messages. One is both attracted and repelled by the hero's illegally acquired opulence. It's as if the filmmakers were saying it's OK to sell dope as long as you eventually get out of the game. Curtis Mayfield's superb soundtrack certainly doesn't help matters; seductive as all get-out, like the movie itself, the music is a maddening confluence of dread, desire and hopelessness. Yet in the end, it is impossible to resist its evil temptations.

    Coffy, Foxy Brown and Friday Foster (1975) represent the feminization of nihilistic studliness. As noted in Donald Bogle's compelling interpretation of black film history, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammys and Bucks, Hollywood had for decades marginalized and distorted the portrayal of African women.

    In film after film, black women were depicted as either stout, obsequiously devoted appendages to flighty white women (e.g. Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind) with no discernible lives of their own, or tragic figures, doomed by their mixed racial heritage (Lena Horne in Stormy Weather). With the arrival of blaxploitation, black women traded in the old stereotypes for a set of new ones. Gone were the girthy, saucer-eyed asexual creatures of yore; the new stars were curvaceous and statuesque women who flaunted their sexuality and took shit from no one.

    In her starring roles in Coffy, Foxy Brown and Friday Foster, Pam Grier proved to be the most durable queen of colored B-movies. Unlike her buckish counterparts, Grier's characters were motivated by high-minded moralism. Running the neighborhood like it was her private domain, Grier's women feared no man, and were thus interpreted by some as a beacon of proto-feminism.

    And indeed, there is something exhilarating about seeing a superfine sister track down and smoke a gang of dope pushers. As Foxy Brown, Grier cuts a memorable figure as a revenge-seeking vigilante. In one particularly gruesome scene, she castrates a bad guy and then delivers the prize to the victim's girlfriend! And if Grier's undeniable sexuality is exploited, she does manage to turn the tables on occasion, preceding Madonna by more than a decade.

    Yet, taken as a whole, these roles reified a stereotypical image that preceded Hollywood, that of the sexually insatiable black mama. More white male fantasy than anything else, it is little wonder that few if any U.S. African women identified with these roles.

    In the end, it became apparent that U.S. Africans as a group found the limitations of the genre too obvious to ignore; the price for cheering on putative black heroes was simply too high. Almost as suddenly as they arrived, blaxploitation's supervixens and bucks would soon limp off the set, gone but not forgotten.

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From the Nov. 9-Nov. 15, 1995 issue of Metro

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