Friday, February 26, 2010

Blaxploitation Week: Superfly - The Music

Aside from violence and sex, blaxploitation entertained their audiences with something else: music. The soundtracks from these movies were huge and made the artists big stars, and big stars like Marvin Gaye weren't too famous to contribute their voices to movies. People who've never seen Shaft (RIP Isaac Hayes) know the theme song and all its parodies. I've known the soundtrack for Superfly (1972) long and, I'm ashamed to say it, I still haven't seen the movie. Some of Curtis Mayfield's most famous and most incendiary songs are from this album. The most iconic, after the jump.

The person that posted this video says this is from about 1973:

A live performance of Superfly:

And the softer side of Curtis:

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Blaxploitation Week: Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Melvin Van Peebles ushered in the blaxploitation genre with the batshit insane Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Sweetback tells the story of a male sex performer; people from all over town pay to watch him have sex with women. Sweetback is a stand-up guy, though. He gets in trouble with the law for beating up the white cops that wrongfully beat up a young black man. Sweetback humps his way to freedom in Mexico. The trailer [NSFW, after the jump] does a much better job of explaining it than I do.

Sweetback has about 8 lines throughout the whole movie, but boy, do we see a lot of his butt. The film, starring Melvin Van Peebles, opens with his son Mario Van Peebles having sex with one of the prostitutes where Sweetback works. Little Mario was 10 at the can bet a lot of people were upset about that.

Van Peebles shot his movie on a tiny, tiny budget but came out successful in the end. The MPAA ratings board was horrified by this movie and wanted to give it an X rating. This only gave Van Peebles the fuel he needed to argue that the man wanted to thwart his film, and had t-shirts made up saying "Rated X by an all-white jury". That same slogan is in the corner of the original Sweetback posters. People bought into it, and the movie was huge, X rating be damned.

That isn't to say people didn't have complaints. Vocal Black Panthers argued the movie wasn't political enough, and more conservative black leaders thought it was dirty and one-sided. Film historians really love to try to rescue this movie, insisting that Sweetback is a hero because he uses the one thing was traditionally held up as scary and dangerous to win out in the end: sexuality. They of course say nothing about the prostitutes and their agency, but the sheer ridiculousness makes it easy to just sit back and watch.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It's Blaxploitation Week on Pop-o-matic Deluxe!

The week before last, Pam from Go Retro! awarded me with the One Lovely Blog Award. Thanks so much, Pam! I have to pass it on to other winners, and that's going to be tough, because she and I like a lot of the same blogs. Stay tuned for that list.

February is Black History Month. A lot of people don't like this--why just one month? Black history is American history--but it seems like a good time to indulge one of my guilty pleasures: blaxploitation movies. In my senior year, I made blaxploitation films the subject of my U.S. History term paper. I got a B/B-, because my teacher felt the paper too much of an art paper and not rooted enough in the racial politics of the time. This one's for you, Ms. Foster.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines blaxploitation as "a genre of American film of the 1970s featuring African-American actors in lead roles and often having antiestablishment plots, frequently criticized for stereotypical characterization and glorification of violence." A neologism created from the words black and exploitation, blaxploitation has gotten a nasty reputation for, well, exploiting stereotypes about black people. But if Dr. Harvard Sitkoff, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and author of The Struggle for Black Equality is right, then the Civil Rights movement and the subsequent Black Power movement are at their core a fight to control images. With blaxploitation movies being almost solely the product of black directors, producers and actors (usually, only the studios were white-owned), what better medium than film to try to control these images? Film theorists and historians have argued that, while there is more to the black experience that guns and drugs, you can't really blame the directors of trotting scores of black outlaws standing up against a larger system across the screen. Mainstream Hollywood had been doing it for years with white actors; they call them Westerns.

Check back for more movies and backstories during Blaxploitation Week.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Repeat (1): Sweet Baby of Mine by Ruth Brown

Egads! I've been gone from the blogosphere too long! So long, that I've lost a follower, unfortunately. Don't fear! Pop-o-matic Deluxe is not dead, just a bit stalled; school, interning and freelance projects have really picked up recently, but I'm here. And though I haven't left tons of comments, rest assured that I'm reading.

To refresh our memories: Repeat (1) is where I feature the songs of days gone by that are stuck in my head. These days, I find myself singing Sweet Baby of Mine by Ruth Brown in the shower.

What a song. The melody is pretty standard 50s rhythm and blues, full of bluesy guitar and walking bass, but she really delivers the yearning that comes from not seeing your darling for a long time. Really great lyrics, my favorites being

"If I had a million dollars,
I wouldn't be worth a dime
If I couldn't spend that million dollars
With my valentine."

It's the catchy, toe-tapping stuff that made music of the 50s so much fun. And fun fact: her nephew is the rapper Rakim!

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