Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

In the past, I've expressed an appreciation for low budget seventies cinema with a funky soundtrack and a counterculture beat. With that in mind, you might expect me to be well-read in the blaxploitation genre. Truthfully, I'm not nearly familiar enough with this section of cinema. This is the purpose of Blaxploitation Month, thirty-one days of nothing but soul cinema. As with past marathons, each review will be accompanied by a checklist, running through twelve story elements associated with films of this style.

For those who need a crash course, here's the easiest definition. “Blaxploitation” is traditionally defined as cinema starring black actors and designed for black audiences, churned out quickly and cheaply, during a few years of popularity in the seventies. The exploitation element comes from the movie's often salacious content, a way to make back their small budgets quickly. Though the movement was actually fairly short-lived, it has been frequently referenced since its heyday.

I suppose some people will call this experiment - a pasty white kid watching a bunch of movies made by and for black people – “cultural appropriation” or something. I'm not too worried about that. Instead, I'm really looking forward to watching these indelible and iconic motion pictures that gave black audiences a voice. Let's get started.

It may be hard to believe now but films made by black filmmakers, for black audiences, were once quite rare. Though there's a few prototypical examples, the first blaxploitation movie is generally accepted to be “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.” The story behind Melvin van Peebles' landmark film is well-known. You've probably read about how he tossed a three-picture deal with Columbia to make the movie independently, with a 50,000$ loan from Bill Cosby helping some. How he raised much of the budget from selling the soundtrack, how he risked life and limb to make the film, how he intended the story to make black audiences feel confident and proud. Watching the movie for the first time in 2017, it still seems cutting edge in many ways.

An orphan raised by the women working in a brothel, Sweet Sweetback would receive his nickname due to his incredible skills in the bedroom. As an adult, Sweetback uses his unique gift to entertain in live sex shows. After a black man disappears, facing pressure from the local urban community, the police decide to frame Sweetback for the crime. On the way to the police station, they pick up a young revolutionary. When the cops beat the boy, Sweetback is sicken and strikes back. This leads to a manhunt across the city, Sweetback going on the run to avoid the cops who are constantly on his trail. Along the way, he becomes a folk hero.

Some have questioned “Sweetback's” status as a blaxploitation film, taking umbrage with the 'ploitation part. Indeed, the movie doesn't quite resemble the particular genre it would more-or-less birth. Instead, Van Peebles seems to have set out to partially make an art movie. The editing is experimental, sometimes jarring and generally unconventional.. There are long, handheld shot scenes of the protagonists running around different areas. One such montage is overlaid with animation of Sweetback's running legs. A sequence devoted to Sweetback sexually satisfying a biker woman has images from earlier in the scene stationed over it. When a gun goes off near an ear, bright colors flash on-screen. Music cues will play unexpectedly. Even now, there aren't very many movies that share “Baadasssss Song's” stylistic inclinations. It's a bold artistic statement.

Despite that, “Sweetback” would still birth many of the stereotypes associated with the blaxploitation genre. The movie is certainly full of fucking. In the early half of the story, there's nearly no problem that Sweetback can't solve with his dick. The sex is abundant, with some of it reportedly being unsimulated. Naturally, there's lots of nudity too. Combined with the sweaty, gritty atmosphere the film summons, the production can't help but feel slightly sleazy. The violence is lo-fi but savage, beatings and stabbings coming suddenly and viciously. “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss” was not intended as a piece of “exploitation.” Van Peebles wasn't seeking to exploit his audiences. Yet it undoubtedly features many elements associate with that type of film. (Even the glorious tagline - “Rated X by an All-White Jury” - would be emulated by some future films.)

As a white guy from the suburbs watching this movie forty-six years after it was released, I probably have no room to comment on Van Peebles' status as a landmark black movie maker. Having said that, the director's revolutionary intentions are clear. Future blaxploitation films would make the racist authority figures, murderous cops and redneck sheriffs into cliched hallmarks of the genre. In “Sweetback,” you can feel the filmmaker's anger directed at these characters. Sweetback is striking back against a blatantly hateful, repressive system. No shit. He spends the whole movie running because an entire society is trying to kill him. No wonder he strikes back. And when he gets away at the end? When he gets one over on an oppressive, racist system? Yeah, it's satisfying and inspiring. When the final title promises violent retaliation against racist institutions, the very real rage is palpable.

Melvin Van Peebles reportedly played the title character because every actor he auditioned asked for more dialogue. In the role himself, Van Peebles projects a stoic demeanor. Sweetback is tough but not self-consciously so. (Though you do wonder about the motivation for the director writing a character for himself mostly defined by his improbable sex skills.) He does what he has to in order to survive, becoming a symbol of black revolution almost by accident. But it's a title he happily accepts. As a director, Van Peebles' style is engagingly strange. The combination of harsh crash-zooms and handheld photography creates a sense of constant movement. It's gritty and practical without loosing a single piece of its artistic skill.

When you read that Earth, Wind and Fire provided the film's soundtrack, you might expect something like their top twenty radio hits. Instead, the musical score is as propulsive as the film accompanying it. Melody is often abandoned in favor of jazzy experimentation. Sometimes, the sound mix only features whispering voices. Though undeniably rough and frequently self-indulgent, “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song” is still a movie that you have to see to truly understand. Reading about it doesn't really prepare you. You walk away dazed but with a rushing head. You just watched a very powerful, totally singular work of art. No wonder it would birth a movement. [8/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

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