5.05.2011

Three Honkies the Hard Way


"The way I saw it then and still see it now is that the biggest obstacle to progress in America is our conditioned susceptibility to the white man's program. Our minds have been colonized by images of black humiliation, marginality, subservience, impotence and criminality that are ubiquitous in mainstream American cinema. These are the supposed self-images seen when African-Americans look into the socio-cultural mirror of the cinema. We've been violated, confused and drained by this colonization and from this brutal, calculated genocide the most vicious racism has grown. It was with this starting point in mind and intention to reverse the process that I went in to cinema in the first fuckin' place."

- Melvin Van Peebles, "Classified X"


From cinema's beginnings the white man has called the shots with a white audience in mind. As early as when Thomas Edison first put images to film in the 1890s began the most widely influential characterization yet of blacks as ever-quaking, watermelon-chomping hoofers - a stereotype placing our brothers and sisters only a rung or two above apes and ultimately, however unintentionally, keeping the brown man down. Viewed from a white perspective, this could be and was revered as simple fun with no harm done, but subconsciously these characterizations grew inside brains both white and black. In all, even the most ingenuous, is the great educator propaganda, and in a fashion that still exists through media today, whites' prejudices were being seasoned and blacks were being further alienated and confused by their screen portrayals.

Come the end of WWII, once racism had been given even worse a reputation and America needed to embrace its status as a "melting pot", Hollywood introduced "the new negro". Though this was a more fleshed-out, less minstrel approach to black characters, whiteness still reigned in the mainstream and "the new negro" (and "pinky" films, for that matter) only inflicted deeper insults through boxing in and subtle justification. All-black films reflecting genuine humanity but still plagued with the acceptance of white class supremacy were produced on tiny budgets and distributed to rare blacks-only theaters, but it wasn't until 1971 with Melvin Van Peebles' independent break "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" that studios realized good money was to be made from black audiences... and "Sweetback" wouldn't be anything without the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

It is fitting that the Panthers made "Sweetback" required viewing for all members thus spawning the blaxploitation wave (most prolific from 1971-'74) as it can easily be said that blaxploitation films perpetuate racism against whites within the black community, which was to an extent a mentality of the Malcolm X-inspired movement. So if I'm white, how come I love these films so much? Here's the thing - I think the vast majority of us everyday people, black, blue, white or green, can relate to being kept down by "the Man". I sure can, thereby I find it empowering to watch those who have famously been treated unfairly in reality and represented unfairly in film in unfair manners rise up in the public eye with supremely funky attitudes and fight for what's right.

Then, what are the parameters of blaxploitation? The more I look into them, the more vague they appear. Some may trace blaxploitation (an iffy label that may or may not mutate through the ages depending on who you're talking to) back decades upon decades while others confine it to the post-"Sweetback" '70s. I think it has more to do with subject matter. What is really being exploited, and what held more precedence - the message or the money? With this in mind, certain films regarded within the genre may not be as such at all. All kinds of discussions can and may be had over the origins and consequences of blaxploitation, but from where I sit a retaliation was needed, has proved mostly positive with its effects and sure makes for good moviegoing.

"Three Honkies the Hard Way" is a thread on The Corrierino in which Blevo, Colonel Kurz, Mod Hip and their brother that the pusher put out of commission, Derninan (who may cameo with a guest review here and there), have had enough of the Man! We've each selected a number of blaxploitation films we've not yet seen to view and report on at our own pace along with several already-beloved titles to highlight as entries in the soul cinema canon. They bled our mommas, they bled our poppas, but they won't bleed us.

Follow "Three Honkies the Hard Way" and read further thoughts on blaxploitation in general here.

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