While every month is Black History Month at my house (and Italian-American Week, and National Kung-Fu Appreciation Day, judging from my DVD consumption), the officially sanctioned version is right around the corner. I would wait until February for this column, but will run it now in deference to those who would like to pretend Blaxploitation isn't a part of Black History.
BaadAsssss Cinema (Docurama)
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Xenon)
Undercover Brother (Universal)
'R Xmas (Artisan)
A short but sweet new doc called BaadAsssss Cinema (Docurama) makes no bones about the problems many NAACP types had with the very brief cinematic movement which brought us John Shaft, Superfly, and (thank you!) Pam Grier. It's easy to see what bothered 'em — many of the genre's protagonists are pimps and pushers, and what's more, many of the movies are incredibly lame — but BaadAsssss gives most of its sympathy to those who saw black exploitation films as a positive thing, if only for the vicarious kick they gave audiences who had never been allowed to see a man or woman with a 'fro kick a bunch of white asses. It's a skeletal but informative look at the genre, and it is affectionate even when Fred Williamson makes a dope of himself by claiming that Jackie Brown was just a bad imitation of the kind of classic cinema in which he had been involved.
Conveniently, this month sees the DVD release of the micro-budgeted film that started the movement. Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Xenon) is definitely the weirdest thing I've seen in months — and I just watched Jean-Luc Godard's new movie. It's lucky the plot is so basic — Mr. Sweetback assaults some racist cops, then spends the rest of the film running from the law — because Van Peebles does everything in his power to make the movie incomprehensible: bizarre color effects, random edits, and occasional interludes of near-hardcore sex make this by far the most challenging of all the black-oriented '70s films; while never quite boring, it's baffling that this film was a large enough hit to start a trend.
Two recent films beg to be included here. Undercover Brother (Universal) is much funnier than it has a right to be, exploiting the old and new clichés of black culture as cleverly as the original Austin Powers did those of the James Bond universe. Eddie Griffin balances self mockery with retro cool, meting out Chaka-Khan-karate-chops and enduring a hilarious Clockwork Orange-inspired, Bootsy-Collins-inflected crash course on white culture. Drawn from a moderately funny series of internet-distributed cartoons, this is a rare case in which the adaptation definitely surpasses the original.
Meanwhile, Abel Ferrara's latest, 'R Xmas (Artisan), is only related to the genre because Ice-T's character seems to be on a Coffy-style vigilante crusade, albeit one in which he stands to make some money. The film's not about him, though, but about the drug-dealing Dominican couple he's hassling; in the best moments of this very spare, very simple film, the two coke dealers almost seem like real people, like characters we haven't seen yet in the vast array of drug movies out there. It's a minor film, but holds out some hope for Ferrara's declining career.
A million miles away from Blaxploitation, the French-language Lumumba (Zeitgeist) is one of those movies that Black History Month was made for. It's the kind of real-life political drama that begs to be an epic, but the tragically short career of Patrice Lumumba — he held his office in the newly liberated Congo only a few tumultuous months before being ousted and executed — dictates the film's form: we enter the drama at zero hour, with no time for the standard biopic's background development, and hurry through it at the speed of a coup d'etat. It can be difficult viewing for somebody who doesn't know much about Africa's colonial history, but there's enough visceral tension in the air to carry unfamiliar viewers through the rough spots.
ANOTHER KIND OF '70S
In my review of Joe Carnahan's gripping new film Narc, I made numerous references to The French Connection. As if to say "Hey, what about me?!" Paramount Home Video just released one of the other giants of '70s cop drama, Serpico, on DVD. Point taken. While the gritty look and feel of Narc owe more to TFC, the film's character dynamics owe just as much to Serpico, in which Al Pacino's idealistic cop struggles with a corrupt establishment. It's a fantastic film, and while the plotlines are completely different, Carnahan would have had to work a lot harder to establish Jason Patric's situation if Serpico hadn't already taken us the places it had.
John Defore writes for San Antonio Current, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to