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BaadAsssss Cinema: A Bold Look At 70's Blaxploitation Films
If you're looking for a primer in the so-called "black exploitation" craze of three decades ago, getting on the bus is made easy by this hour-long historical retrospective, aired last August on the Independent Film Channel. Pegging the start of the movement to the 1971 release of Melvin Van Peebles' X-rated, politically inflammatory and completely seminal "Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song," the doc follows black action up to its ensuing pinnacle of bankability -- and down into a mid-decade implosion that few of the 13 experts interviewed are able to adequately explain.
But listening to the featured actors, filmmakers and theorists share their memories of the genre is almost as much fun as re-encountering the fly threads, kung-fu moves and string-scratching musical scores of the movies themselves, all of which are exhumed via archival footage. (For a soundtrack party that never stops, pick up the companion CD on Tee Vee Toons.) The energy of the clips pervades a sit-down with avowed disciple Quentin Tarantino, who punctuates his fondest matinee recollections with incessant hand flapping and dorky, hyperenthusiastic chuckles. How whitey can you get?
One-time blaxploitation queen Pam Grier looks back on her box-office reign with typical grace and good humor. But documentarian Isaac Julien has said that the rise and fall of also-ran starlet Gloria Hendry is actually "the subject of the film." Perhaps you had to be on the set: Through a TV screen, Hendry comes across as a minor talent still undeservedly bitter that her moment in the sun didn't blossom into a full-fledged career.
Extended versions of some of the interview segments are included as DVD extras. Viewed in their entirety, they variously amplify or belabor the points made in "BaadAsssss." They're also unavoidably static, reminding you how well the movie is served by its drop-ins of period flavor.
This isn't the last word on blaxploitation, by any means. And a few times, its warts-and-all willingness to entertain the most common criticisms of the form -- that is, gratuitous violence and misogyny -- verges on self-punishment. So who do you call when the deconstructive doo-doo starts to get too deep? "Shaft!" Samuel L. Jackson, an audience member turned action hero, professes unrepentant affection for the best and worst the era had to offer. As he notes, the overdue arrival of genuine black heroes more than mitigated the films' frequently questionable values or the preponderance of white folk controlling the purse strings.
Of all the ways to read black action cinema, Jackson's purposeful innocence works best. Sometimes, a razor blade hidden in an Afro is just a razor blade hidden in an Afro -- with all the potential for wonder that entails.