25 July, 2011Issue 16.6Film & TVNorth AmericaThe Arts

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Angel of Harlem

Christopher Fennell

Shaft

40 years ago to the month, in the summer of 1971, a lone black hero, the eponymous Shaft (Richard Roundtree), rose from the 42nd Street subway into the public consciousness, fresh and full-blown on the gigantic cinema screen. Against the mack-daddy vibe of Isaac Hayes’s Oscar-winning theme song, Shaft sweeps through the ghetto-as-noble-jungle of Harlem, dodging traffic, moving with the crowd yet utterly distinct from it. He emerges as a Harlem globe-trotter, a counter-Poitier persona, who succeeds in erecting a radically different stereotype for racial characterisations in American cinema—the Blaxploitation film. “Blaxploitation,” a none-too-discreet portmanteau of “black” and “exploitation”, is a term retrofitted to a cycle of ghettocentric 1970s films that feature glamorous black characters in glamorous criminal situations. These films attempted to exploit the sensitive images of the contemporary black experience with an easy-riding aesthetic du cool style that is best exemplified in Shaft, the memorialised face of the genre.

On the 40th anniversary of its inception, how have we come to understand Blaxploitation? Over time the genre has been repeatedly disparaged: as celluloid prostitution that failed to channel representations in socially useful directions; as static counterrevolutionary film that perpetuated the generalised images of black communities it set out to condemn; as risible, low-brow entertainment that got away with being risible and low-brow precisely because it was entertainment. Yet it is possible to assess the achievements of Blaxploitation and its legacies in a more radical way. These films can’t help but express concerns that are properly political by finally registering the racial composition of American inner cities in the 1970s—and this remains true despite the fact that most attempts the genre made to subvert were harnessed by the generic conventions of a Hollywood model that turned out to be as restrictive and confining as the ghetto.

The mainstream crime films of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood—the abandoned streets and glistening half-lights of New York-set gumshoe noirs like Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) and Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)—failed to represent the six and a half million black Americans who moved from the rural South to the urban cities of the North and West during those decades. By 1970, African Americans had moved into the spaces vacated by the mass white exodus to suburbia, and pioneering independent films such as The Cool World (1963), Nothing But a Man (1964) and The Learning Tree (1969) had established the credibility of providing a detailed social anatomy of the black landscape. Working from the same tradition, Blaxploitation returned to the familiar ground of generic archetypes to carry messages of social import for young black audiences, the newly targeted constituency of Blaxploitation. Hollywood had not suddenly taken an interest in the real physical geography of urban centres, however. These films were cheap to make and easy to market in the inner cities where the black consumer dollar was taking on extra significance; Shaft, after all, had grossed $13 million on a budget of $500,000.

The success of Shaft at the box office persuaded major and independent studios to release over 200 Blaxploitation films in the 1970s, most of which were vilified as backhanded glorifications of heavy drugs, prostitution, and other forms of self-destruction. Black studies theorist Cedric Robinson refers to Blaxploitation as a “degraded cinema” in the sense that “it degraded the industry which prostituted itself to political and market exigencies; it degraded the Black actors, writers and directors who proved more affectionate to money than the Black lower classes they caricatured; and it degraded its audience who were subject to a mockery of the aspiration of Black liberationists.” In contrast to the dominant postmodern wisdom, by which a film can be “so bad it’s good”, Robinson refuses, then, the ironic retrieval of Blaxploitation as depthless and ahistorical camp. Yet the Blaxploitation film should not be cut loose from its contemporary context—it did, in fact, reflect the exaggerated black culture of American inner cities and the steep rise in violent assaults and murders there during the 1970s, and should therefore be seen as a symbolic and worthy replica of the African-American experience.

Although as underfunded as the black urban lumpenproletariat they represent, Blaxploitation films emulate elements of action, colour, speed, style, and music identified with the Harlem Renaissance: criteria close to the daily life and dear to the hearts of urban African-American people as demonstrated in late hard bop jazz music. Shaft, for example, pulsates with an exuberant irreverence towards just about everything. Audiences could recognise, for the first time, original versions of their unique life on the cinema screen; shot on location, the verité look and sound of the city’s street corners formed the Harlem equivalent of the industrial waste and the almost-dry Los Angeles riverbed depicted in the first Blaxploitation film, Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971).

Yet if there is a black aesthetic, it should, as African-American scholar Lerone Bennett, Jr. says, be more than “empty bellies and big-bottomed prostitutes”. Alongside the myth that white Americans live in secure neighbourhoods with little rational fear of crime or danger is the myth that African-Americans have for generations come of age in environments that are rife with danger and delinquency. As Shaft purposefully strides past the neighbourhood residents sitting out on the steps, who signify the diversity of black urban subjectivity, the camera dismantles the central myth of Harlem; we see it as, as novelist LeRoi Jones puts it, “an actual place where actual people live”, that is “alive and changing each second with each breath any of its citizens take”. In a manner akin to the dominant paradigm of Gangster Rap, a self-styled product of the ghetto, the neo-black cinematic experience sees the neighbourhood as both a great place where the residents love to live and a dangerous place that the residents want to escape. Shaft, for example, relies heavily on his ghetto instincts in dealing with trouble, but has a level of material success that moves him an uncertain distance away from them. He lives in a book-lined Greenwich Village brownstone duplex but is at home everywhere in his beige cashmere turtleneck and black leather trench coat, so there is a sense that he has bettered himself without forfeiting his ghetto savoir faire. He is a private dick who works both with and against the establishment, straddling the liminal space between rebellion and acceptance of the dominant society—much like the film itself.

It is surprising, perhaps, that a style and technique indebted to a white cinematic framework could spotlight the colourful and exciting lifestyles of black communities to show that there was something different going on up in Harlem. The contribution of Blaxploitation to a black aesthetic and a black film culture, then, may actually be as much in what the characters say as in who says it and to whom they are saying it. Shaft poetically articulated the everyday experience of black street life in a way that spoke to black audiences who identified with the film’s imaginative reflection of their real lives. Pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), who thought that Blaxploitation did not offer enough positive role models for black audiences, brought the genre to a premature end in the mid 1970s, but it never really disappeared. It lives on 40 years later in the cultural nostalgia as a cooler-than-cool relic that, to call upon LeRoi Jones again, “vacillates between euphoria and nightmare”, for that is the subjectivity of “the life”.

Christopher Fennell will commence study for a MSt in Film Aesthetics at St Anne’s College, Oxford in October 2011.