Screened as part of NZIFF 2003
With a rapid decline in ticket sales and the seemingly unstoppable rise of television Hollywood was in dire straits at the end of the 1960s, but salvation was at hand from an unlikely source. A quick killing was to be made with a series low budget, highly profitable films aimed at black audiences. Hollywood’s brief onscreen flirtation with the imagined violence and sex of ghetto life provides the focus for this richly entertaining documentary.
Isaac Julien’s film mixes up action-packed clips, soundtrack funk, interviews with the main players – actors and filmmakers such as Melvin Van Peebles, Pam Grier, Fred Williamson and Larry Cohen – and some well chosen words from critics and commentators such as Armond White, Elvis Mitchell and bell hooks. Super-fan Quentin Tarantino shares his infectious enthusiasm and his own underrated Jackie Brown gets a look-in as hooks comments on the way that Tarantino had channelled his love for Pam Grier’s cartoonish image into a vibrant and positive realistic character.
The interviewees marvellously capture the feeling of the time, increasing your desire to revisit these oft-maligned films. Melvin Van Peebles describes the experience of attending a screening of his film Sweet Sweetback’s BaadAsssss Song – the prototype of the entire genre, although with its contempt for the niceties of narrative it is any but by the numbers – and the audience’s expectation that Sweetback would be killed before the film’s end. “You could’ve heard a rat pissin’ on cotton” And when Sweetback finally escapes and promises to return ‘Takin Names and Collecting Dues.’ “The place exploded” Van Peebles relates “Nobody could believe he had survived.” Actor Fred Williamson glories in the time, his contract stipulated he would win all his fights and always get the girl. “If I wanted her, that is” he’s sure to add. — Michael McDonnell
"Julien’s on up the key figures, including Pam Grier, who, as Foxy Brown, kept a Derringer in her ’fro, and there is cracking footage of Issac Hayes in the studio scoring Shaft, the pulsebeat of blaxploitation. White cinema in the 1970s was defeatist in outlook, but black movies were sexy, crammed with superfly guys, women whose bodies resembled African art. Black Power loved the films, black intellectuals didn’t – the characters were all pimps, drug dealers or, in Grier’s words, ‘whoop-yer-butt sisters’. Hollywood just carried on with exploitation: Shaft saved a studio that had been pawning off Judy Garland’s ruby slippers just to keep its doors open, and yet Roundtree was paid a paltry $10,000 for a flick that made box-office millions…" — Aidan Smith, The Scotsman