Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

BaadAsssss Cinema

Decades after Melvin Van Peebles' incendiary Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song fired the opening shot in the blaxploitation revolution, the subgenre retains its power to shock, titillate, outrage, and inspire. Isaac Julien's excellent documentary BaadAsssss Cinema explores the blaxploitation era's complicated and contradictory legacy through film clips and interviews with blaxploitation icons, filmmakers, Afeni Shakur, and film critics Armond White and Elvis Mitchell. Bookended by the releases of Sweetback and Quentin Tarantino's influential blaxploitation homages Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, BaadAsssss addresses how blaxploitation movies provided black audiences with strong, empowering icons, but also reinforced pejorative stereotypes of blacks as lawless hedonists. In BaadAsssss, Tarantino attributes the blaxploitation-era casting of blacks as drug dealers, pimps, players, and private eyes to the demands of the crime genre, but the films themselves often played to viewers' voyeuristic instincts in ways not fully explainable by genre conventions. Pam Grier vehicles, for example, offered a veritable orgy of mixed messages: Grier generally played strong women who won out in the end, but often only after enduring some form of sexual humiliation. Julien is obviously a fan of the era, its music, and its culture, but he doesn't shy away from looking into its darker aspects. Running a brisk 58 minutes, BaadAsssss doesn't have anywhere near the time to do justice to its complex subject, but as a vibrant video Cliffs Notes on the blaxploitation age, it's entertaining and informative. The BaadAsssss DVD helps compensate for the film's abbreviated running time by including extended interviews with Grier, Fred Williamson (who unfairly pans Jackie Brown as a second-rate blaxploitation knock-off), Tarantino, and Gloria Hendry. Tarantino's candid, rambling interview is worth the price of a rental alone, although the always-chatty filmmaker's comments end up revealing more about him than the era he's ostensibly discussing.


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