Fred Williamson: Original Gangsta
He’s the baddest of the bad, and he’s been it for forty years. Now that’s a legacy.
He played pro football for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, and Kansas City Chiefs, where he got to play in Super Bowl I. He’s shared the screen with the likes of Leslie Nielsen, Lee Van Cleef, Roddy McDowall, Elliott Gould, Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, and Ben Stiller. He guest-starred in TV shows such as “Star Trek”, “Fantasy Island”, “Police Story”, “CHiPs”, and “Lou Grant”. He even let it all hang out in a nude pictorial in Playgirl (ladies, check eBay for the October 1973 issue). And you know what? The man who helped define black action films in the 1970′s is busier than ever.
In working on my article on “blaxploitation” cinema of the 1970′s, I really wanted to talk to the man who made so many memorable contributions to the genre, not just as an actor, but also as a writer, producer, and director. He was kind enough to take time from his schedule to chat with me for this CrackerHammer exclusive.
CRACKERHAMMER: What I’m really looking at…
FRED WILLIAMSON: No, man. Don’t prime it. Just put it out.
CH: Okay. How did you make the jump from football to film? Let’s start there.
FW: Well, I’m one of those rare human beings, an athlete who has brains and jock all in the same body. I’m a graduate of Northwestern University, in Architectural Engineering. So I’m an architect, an AIA (American Institute of Architects) architect. So, part of my demand was to pick a football team in California so I could practice architecture. So, during the off-season when I was a pro football player I was an architect for a steel corporation. After ten years of pro football, I retired and went full time as an architect. The transition wasn’t smooth though. I couldn’t make that transition, of nine-to-five and an hour for lunch. After nine months of being an architect, the walls started to close in on me, so I had to find something more lucrative that fit my lifestyle. One night I was watching the show “Julia”, and I saw the guest star that night was [playing] her new boyfriend. I looked at those guys and said, “I’m better looking than any of those goddamn guys, so why shouldn’t I go to Hollywood and become Diahann Carroll’s regular boyfriend?” So I did. I went to Hollywood. Two weeks later, after a whole bunch of bullshit, my bullshit to them, they wrote a script for me called “Dancer In The Dark”, about a pro football player coming to work for the same company Diahann Carroll worked for, and after that they signed me to a three-year contract. So I was Diahann Carroll’s boyfriend on the Julia show for three years. Then I was in the commissary one day, having lunch. A guy walked by and says, “I’m doing a movie that has a football scene in it. I don’t know shit about football. Would you do it?” And I said yeah, okay. The movie was M*A*S*H. So my first movie was M*A*S*H, where I played Spearchucker. And I said shit, this is easy. I made more money in that movie than I made in my whole twelve-year career of football. So I said okay, I’ll go make my own movies. So I started doing my own thing.
CH: Now, how did you get to starting Po’ Boy Productions?
FW: Well, I had a plan in Hollywood. When I came to Hollywood I said, “I’m gonna be a hero, I’m gonna be the star.” I’ve got three rules, based on my lifestyle: one, you can’t kill me; two, I’ve gotta win all my fights; and three, I want the girl at the end of the movie. You can’t do that, I’ll go make my own movies. So, I was way ahead of my time. This was like, in the sixties, man. This was like, no black exploitation, none of that. So I formed Po’ Boy Productions, started making my own movies. And I knew damn well I wasn’t gonna die in my own movies. I had an idea of the image I wanted to portray, and I wasn’t gonna succumb to what Hollywood saw us as at that time, which was all comedy and black ignorant people, and I wasn’t going that way.
CH: You’re familiar with the term “blaxploitation”. What does that mean to you?
FW: I have no idea what it means. I have no idea who was being exploited. The public loved the movies. All the actors were being paid. I mean, if you compare it to Burt Reynolds movies of the same time, Clint Eastwood movies of the same time, they never called them “white exploitation”. So I never knew quite what it meant. It was a terminology they had to use to distinguish black films, because black films with heroes didn’t exist. So, all the heroic black films that came out at the time, like mine (Black Caesar, Hell Up In Harlem, Bucktown), they had to find some way to pigeon-hole them, and distinguish them, so they called them black exploitation movies.
CH: When you were a kid, who were your role models on the screen?
FW: The guy in the mirror, looking back at me. I had no role models, dude. I was my own role model.
CH: You didn’t catch any movies as a kid and say –
FW: I didn’t know about movies, I didn’t know about athletes, I didn’t know about football players, I didn’t know about basketball players. I came up in the fifties, man. There weren’t any blacks around. The only black guy around in the fifties, forties, was Joe Lewis, Ezzard Charles. I don’t remember any football players, basketball players. Boxing was it. We hadn’t broken into the arena yet. So, you know, I had to look to my own strength to decide who the hell I was.
CH: Had you seen Shaft, or Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, or Cotton Comes To Harlem, Ossie Davis’ picture, before going in and making your own films in 1974?
FW: I was ahead of them, man. I was way ahead of them. I started in ’68. I was doing M*A*S*H in ’68. I did the first movie where they had a black James Bond-type character, which was That Man Bolt (1973), which I shot in Hong Kong. So I was way ahead of them.
CH: What year was that?
FW: I didn’t need them to motivate me. I knew what I wanted to do in Hollywood. I was not influenced by them, not at all.
CH: So, I’m trying to get a sense of where your filmmaking style comes from. This is all coming from a completely internalized process then?
FW: I don’t fit in nowhere, man. My motivation and my style come from who I think I am, and what I represent to me. So, I just carry that over into the kind of movies I make, and the lifestyle I live. I don’t compare it to anybody else. It’s more them comparing their stuff to me. When you look at some of those movies, they’re trying to be Fred Williamson. But Fred Williamson is the real Fred Williamson, that comes from the ghetto, from the streets of Chicago. So I don’t really have to look to them for a style. My style came from the ghetto.
CH: One of the things I notice about your work especially, is that you tend to have positive characters. Even Tommy Gibbs, who is a gangster, can be more of a positive role model than someone like Superfly, who was a drug-dealing pimp.
FW: That’s all by plan, man. That’s all by plan. My movies, in the so-called black exploitation era, were never about “Get Whitey”. Most of the films in that era were all about payback time, about “Get Whitey”. I was an equal opportunity employer: I killed white people, black people, yellow people, pink people. If you were bad, you went down in my films.
So, my films didn’t have that racial undercurrent, that “Get Whitey Back” theme. I knew that, even someone that I wanted to portray as a gangster, was like what we grew up watching in the forties and fifties: they rob from the rich and give back to the poor. You respect your mother, and you help the little old ladies across the street. That’s the kind of gangster I portrayed in Black Caesar.
CH: Were you thinking about the kids who might be watching these on a Saturday afternoon when you were making the films? Were you consciously trying to be a role model in any way? Or were you just making films that fit more what you wanted to see in a movie?
FW: I’m a role model, man, from the get-go. It’s not just my movies, it’s my whole lifestyle. It’s my sports background. When an athlete tells you he’s not a role model, it’s bullshit. Because you are a role model. People watch you, kids watch you, so it’s a responsibility you take upon yourself. And I respect that highly, and I live my life accordingly. I know what I represent to kids, I know what I represent to people. But that’s easy to do, because that’s me, man. I’m not falling off the log, dog. You’re not gonna hear about me doing drugs or being in some kind of bullshit. It ain’t happening. And if you do, it’s a trap. They got me in a trap. But I’m too smart for that, so it ain’t likely to happen.
CH: All right. The explosion of black action films that happened in the seventies. Do you see any cause for that? What opened the door for you to be able to move into Hollywood and say, “I’m setting up shop”?
FW: No, that ain’t happening, man. Ain’t never happened. Ain’t nobody ever moved to Hollywood and set up no shop. None of those films were ever made by blacks, so that doesn’t fit.
CH: But yours were.
FW: Yeah, but that’s me. I’m different. I’m not part of Hollywood.
CH: You didn’t work out of the Hollywood system at all?
FW: No, man.
CH: You were strictly outside of Hollywood, so you got your own financing…
FW: Still outside of Hollywood. I got my own financing. Some of it was partnerships, some was from going to Europe and pre-selling the film, then bringing the contracts back to the bank and having the bank loan me money against the contracts. Being part of the Hollywood system is not something I want. It’s just another controlled environment. And when you say go out and set up shop, that never happened. The only reason they started making the films is because Hollywood in the late sixties and seventies was in real financial trouble. So they were looking for a way to make a whole bunch of films that would make lots of money. And that’s why they jumped on the black wagon. They started making low budget movies. None of those movies cost over a million bucks, and they were grossing twenty, twenty-five million, which was not a lot of profit for them, but at least it paid their light bill and got them out of the hole. And once they did that, they backed away from them, because that’s not enough money for them. Hollywood wants to do 100 million dollar grosses, and 90 million, they don’t want a twenty million. That means nothing to them. And that’s why they stopped making them, because the profits weren’t big enough.
CH: How did you set up distribution?
FW: I don’t need distribution. I wasn’t interested. Any time you’ve got a product that’ll make people money, you take it to them. It’s simple. You know? People like money. I don’t have to go to their house for dinner. They usually come to my house for dinner. If I can show you how you can make money, why would you say no? You’re an idiot if you say no.
CH: All right. So, let’s talk about the films you’ve made so far. Which ones are you most proud of?
FW: All of them. I only do what I like, man. I don’t do shit I don’t like. I don’t sing, I don’t dance, I don’t do funny. All I do is kick people’s ass.
CH: But everybody’s got a favorite.
FW: Hey, all my movies reflect a part of me. I don’t do anything outside of me. Therefore, they’re all good. To me, they’re all good.
CH: I’m not saying they’re not all good…
FW: I’m not saying to you they’re all good. I’m saying to me they’re all good. And if they’re all good to me, what else can I achieve, man?
CH: But you never had that one experience on a film, where you step back and say, “Man, everything’s clicking nice”?
FW: Every film has one of those moments.
FW: No film has all those moments. But every film has one of those moments. There’s one of those moments in all my films where I say, “Hey, this is real shit here”.
CH: The young filmmakers coming up today, who are following in your footsteps. What advice do you have for them?
FW: Get a job.
CH: Outside the industry?
FW: Fucking jobs. You know, following in my footsteps is not the easiest thing to do, because I wasn’t working for the money. Which means I turned down a lot of jobs, as I do today, that don’t fit my character, or don’t fit my image, so I turn down work. Kids today, money is their motivation. If money’s your motivation, then go do something else. Money has never been my motivation. Doing what I want to do, and staying in line with who the hell I think I am, is my greatest motivation. And it has cost me jobs. It has cost me money. Those are sacrifices that I made. I’m not sure if kids today are concerned about that. They’re concerned about bling-bling, and the cash. And that’s a different kind of person.
|This entry was posted by Michael Mercadante on July 30, 2009 at 1:56 PM, and is filed under Blaxploitation, Interviews, Movies. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.|
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about 3 years ago - Comments Off
There aren’t many movies like Black Dynamite that come along. The new film is the first for production company Ars Nova, and the second for director Scott Sanders. Starring Michael Jai White, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Tommy Davidson and Mykelti Williamson, it also features a cameo by Arsenio Hall as a pimp.
Black Dynamite is a blaxploitation satire film, and as such it’s the third in an interesting evolution. The official “blaxploitation” period of film (see my article “Revisiting Blaxploitation”) lasted from 1971 through about 1975. The first satire came from the Wayans Brothers in 1988. While I’m Gonna Git You Sucka borrowed some character stereotypes from the era (the strong black hero, the ghetto pimp), these characters were mockeries of their original versions, and the film was set in the year in which it was made. Fourteen years later, Undercover Brother created a much more authentic blaxploitation hero, but brought him forward in time, a la Austin Powers or The Brady Bunch Movie, and bought some of its laughs with “fish-out-of-water” gags.
Black Dynamite turns blaxploitation satire on its head. Rather than bringing blaxploitation characters into our modern world, this film pretends to be a vintage blaxploitation film, shot and released somewhere in the early 1970′s. Director Scott Sanders described his vision as “I wanted to make the movie look old, but I wanted it to look like we had a pristine print of an old movie”. He succeeds incredibly well in this. The haphazard cinematography that is sometimes jerky, often poorly framed and over-zooming, and sometimes even catches the boom mic in the shot combines perfectly with the wonderful period look of the film stock. The editor chipped in with jerky mis-matched jump cuts. The costumes weren’t over-the-top in the way of Antonio Fargas’ platform aquariums in Sucka, but still cheesy and effective. Plenty of period cars were used for street scenes and car shases. There’s even one scene with the characters walking through a neighborhood, and every home has an aerial TV antenna on the top. In this age of digital broadcast, that’s either a really lucky find or a very thorough set designer.
All of this effort to create a virtual blaxploitation kingdom would be worthless if not for the power of the king. Michael Jai White brings Black Dynamite to life with extraordinary commitment. Best remembered for roles as Mike Tyson and the comic book anti-hero Spawn in mid-90′s movies, White is a natural for this role. With a ripped physique, six black belts and a sweet afro wig, White certainly looks the part of the blaxploitation hero. At times, his performance channels legends Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (read my interview with him) and Jim Kelly, while other actors conjure the late Rudy Ray Moore (Dolemite) and Antonio Fargas. But Black Dynamite is an inherently flawed hero. He is prone to wild emotional outbursts – one of which provides one of the best laughs in the film, as he grabs a young boy on heroin and screams, “I’m a shake this smack outta ya if I have to!”. At another point, a woman interrupts his monologue, and he launches into a screaming tirade that sends her running from the room in tears.
Some gags are over the top, a la Sucka and Undercover Brother, while a few (Captain Kangaroo Pimp?) are just absurd. But all of them manage to generate laughs easily. Black Dynamite comes across like a blaxploitation homage to Ed Wood – it’s pretending to be a lost print of the worst blaxploitation movie made, whose original creators in 1973 thought it was going to be the greatest film ever. An interesting creative challenge that this team accomplishes expertly. Black Dynamite is a rich absurdist comedy with plenty of funk that will make you laugh your ass off for 90 minutes and then hunt down a copy of Avenging Disco Godfather.
Black Dynamite opens in six cities today. Check out the trailer below.
about 3 years ago - Comments Off
In my mind, there is no doubt that Mel Brooks knew his 1974 film Blazing Saddles would piss off just about everyone who saw it, but I think he intended to also set people thinking. Blazing Saddles is the first film to blatantly satirize white racism toward blacks.
To achieve this end, Brooks wrote the protagonist, Bart, as smart, witty, confident black man with modern-day urban sensibilities, and set him in a town full of white, ignorant, frontier rednecks in the American wild west, circa 1874.
How do the racial stereotypes identified by Donald Bogle in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks apply to this character? Bogle describes the “Tom” as follows: “Always as Toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n’er turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, submissive…”. Well, we can stop there, because Bart hardly remains submissive. Rather, when his “white massas” leave him abandoned in quicksand to die, he avenges himself by bashing one in the head with a shovel. Bart, clearly, ain’t no Tom.
“The pure coon”, offers Bogle, “emerged as no-account niggers, those unreliable, crazy, lazy, subhuman creatures good for nothing more than eating watermelon, stealing chickens, shooting crap, or butchering the English language”. Again, this description ill-fits the character of Bart, who, upon being given the assignment as sheriff of Rock Ridge, fully accepts the burden of responsibility for protecting an entire town of whites who despise him. He even shows loyalty to his former railworkers and forces the town to integrate. Bart is most certainly not crazy or lazy, and possesses the strongest command of the English language of any character in the film.
Two down. As both of Bart’s parents are black, the “mulatto” stereotype is disqualified. And the character’s gender eliminates the possibility of the “mammy”. This leaves only the “brutal black buck”, which Bogle describes as follows: “Bucks are always big, baadddd niggers, oversexed and savage, violent and frenzied as they lust for white flesh”. Again, Bart is an ill-fit for this stereotype. Although he does get a sexual encounter with a white woman, it is she who seduces him, and, despite the action happening offscreen, viewers are left with the distinct perception that Bart was nothing but a gentle, passionate lover. Throughout the film, the character engages in nothing more than minor cartoon violence, certainly nothing to indicate an “oversexed and savage” persona.
None of Bogle’s stereotypes directly map onto the character of Bart. Rather, the character seems to be an pot-luck of elements of various stereotypes. Viewers are reminded of the sexual prowess of the Buck through the utter desire shown by the German harlot after their encounter, as well as by the terrified reaction of the town to his words, “Excuse me while I whip this out.” Bart is also part coon, in that he seems to have an inexhaustible imagination for finding ingenious ways to easily get out of tough situations. Bart is a hodgepodge of the positive elements of these stereotypes, with the negative parts stripped away, or at least unseen.
Creating Bart as a predominantly positive character, with no obvious negative qualities, allows him to present the terrible racism of the white characters in an absurdist way, lending humor to what would otherwise be a socially anxious story.
about 3 years ago - Comments Off
My friend James runs a blog at the website Reduxology, where he is fascinated by the concept of the reinterpretation of material in Hollywood. We’ve had many debates over the validity and value of remakes, and even over the definition of the word. Currently, the top 2 box office films could each be considered a remake, so I am going to look at both of them in this respect. James can then take his turn on his blog, and America, you can decide for yourself.
The new Tarantino film, according to the man himself, derives its title from the 1978 Enzo Castellari flick The Inglorious Bastards, which starred Fred Williamson (read our exclusive interview with him here) and Bo Svenson. But what else do they have in common?
The Inglorious Bastards (1978) is about escaped convict soldiers reluctantly involved in a mission to infiltrate Germany during World War II. Their objective is to capture a secret thingamajig and get back to allied forces without getting captured or killed. Dirty Dozen a la 1978.
Inglorious Basterds (2009) is about a secret organization of Jewish operatives in occupied France during World War II. They are on a revenge mission to kill as many high-ranking Nazi officers as they can. It’s also got a slight sci-fi twist to it, as it takes place in an alternate timeline, where all the Nazi High Command had gathered for a film festival.
So, what do they share in common? Similar title, and they are both set during World War II. Is that enough to call the Tarantino flick a “remake” of the Castellari film? To video retailers such as Redbox and Amazon, it is. They’ve recently added a new print of the 1978 film to their collections, and appear to be marketing it as “the original” in order to cash in on the popularity of the Tarantino flick. Consumer culture be damned. To me, these are two separate films. Tarantino was inspired by the title of the original film, but not its content. If the word “remake” means “to make again”, I don’t think Tarantino has done that. The characters and storyline are completely different. Only the era and the title are similar.
Let’s look at the number two film this week. District 9 is a feature-length adaptation of the 2005 short film Alive in Joburg (see the original short film here). Both films were directed by Neill Blomkamp, and both feature the idea of a restricted zone in South Africa where extraterrestrials are detained. In fact, the 2005 short film plays like a low-budget teaser trailer for the 2009 film.
If “remake” does mean “make again”, I don’t think it gets fulfilled better than this. Not only was the original short film remade into a feature, but the original director got the chance to remake his own film.
So, America, what do you think? Is Inglorious Basterds a remake? Is District 9?
about 3 years ago - Comments Off
In the prime of his career, back in the 1930′s, Lincoln Perry was the first black Hollywood star. His comic gift was respected by fans both black and white, and it made him a millionaire. Since then, his portrayals of lazy black characters have made him an anathema within both communities, and his films are all but forgotten (many are lost entirely).
Former New York Times Book Review author Mel Watkins has finally brought us the definitive biography of this controversial early star. Drawing from interviews and Perry’s own columns written for the Chicago Defender, Watkins shows us, in as much detail as possible, the turbulent rise and fall of one of America’s greatest, and least well known, comedians.
Published in 2006 by Pantheon Books, the 338-page hardcover edition sells for $26.95. Highly recommended.
about 3 years ago - 2 comments
Sweet, funky soundtracks, black superheroes, and a whole lotta ass-kicking. These are the first things people remember about the afrocentric film explosion of the 1970′s which is often called “blaxploitation”. Mostly forgotten, these films represent the adolescence of black filmmaking, as artists and actors alike struggled to redefine the black presence on the big screen.
The history of blacks in film is a turbulent one, with ups and downs like a rollercoaster. The first black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, emerged in the early 1900′s. He gained national prominence among blacks with his 1919 film Within Our Gates, a rebuttal of racist arguments made by D.W. Griffith in the 1915 film Birth of a Nation. But white America never fully accepted this independent black voice, and instead embraced white-created films featuring black performers who reinforced traditional stereotypes, such as Stepin Fetchit. Fetchit, whom the New York Times described in 1937 as a “Negro comic who made a career of laziness,” spawned dozens of imitators in Hollywood, all of whom eagerly performed the stereotype of the lazy coon for white moviegoers. This trend continued through World War II. In 1951, The New York Times looked back on Fetchit’s career, remarking that “He was so good every shoeshine boy in the country began copying his lazy drawl and shuffling walk.”
Postwar America only seemed to have an appetite for the “noble Negro” as epitomized by screen stars Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. These characters were more articulate than their predecessors, but were still trapped in a secondary status, sexless and powerless when compared with equivalent white characters from the era. This lasted through the 1960′s, which limited the roles available for blacks in cinema even while the political conflict between the races was coming to a head.
In 1964, black power and black nationalist movements added fuel to the growing civil rights protests, forcing Congress to finally pass the Civil Rights Act, which led to the destruction of Jim Crow segregation in the South. For the first time, blacks could stand up and demand equal rights, equal representation.
A new genre of film exploded between 1969 and 1975 that came to be known as blaxploitation. Growing from the newfound sense of political identity and empowerment blacks felt after decades of civil rights battles, these films targeted an audience previously overlooked by Hollywood, young urban blacks, and gave them powerful black role models for the first time in screen history. It is these very films that have been stuck with the nickname “blaxploitation”.
But what exactly is a “blaxploitation” movie? The term is generally applied to approximately 200 films made between 1971 and 1975, all of which shared an Afrocentric theme (that is, the films featured black characters, were set in black communities, and dealt predominantly with black culture). These were mainly action films, featuring black actors in dominant roles, usually in conflict with empowered whites. Many of these films used popular and contemporary funk music to help market and sell the movie. While the new characters did provide role models for the politically charged youth of the inner cities, the question became whether those role models were positive or negative.
The word itself is a combination of the words “black” and “exploitation” and implies a negative connotation that has been applied universally to these films. NAACP leader Junius Griffin coined the term in 1972, in an effort to bring attention to what he perceived as a proliferation of negative stereotypes of blacks that were being fed to black audiences by the white film industry. In an editorial published by The New York Times on December 17, 1972, Griffin writes that “these films are taking our money while feeding us a forced diet of violence, murder, drugs and rape. Such films are the cancer of “Blaxploitation” gnawing away at the moral fiber of our community”.
This derogatory term stuck, and every black-themed film from the era has suffered decades of shame and critical disinterest as a result. Some of the films from this era were created by blacks, but the majority were written, directed, financed, and distributed by whites.
But how many of the films saddled with the blaxploitation label were actually exploitive of blacks? Lonne Elder III, who became the first African-American nominated for an Academy Award, wrote the screenplays for the Afrocentric films Sounder and Melinda, both of which appeared in 1972. He wrote an editorial on December 17 of that year, published in The New York Times, in which he said that “…the moral concern and alarm on the part of a growing number of black people about the harmful images these films insist upon reflecting in the name of blackness, is in order, and should be supported by all black people. However, we should be aware of the varied complexities, contradictions, and rhythms to different sides of the questions. For instance, there are black actors and actresses in Hollywood who can only view the current trend of black movies as a long overdue opportunity for employment.”
Elder seems to suggest here that it is excusable, in the eyes of the black community, for black actors to take advantage of the explosion of roles, and that it is white Hollywood that is responsible for creating the negative images of blacks on screen.
Ossie Davis (1917-2005) was a prolific writer, director, and actor. He was well-respected by the black community, and had eulogized both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. at their funerals. In his co-autobiography with wife Ruby Dee entitled With Ossie and Ruby, Davis wrote that “there is from time to time a big brouhaha – sometimes it gets quite excitable – over whether or not a white director can really ever make a film truly representative of black lifestyle and black culture.” He made his directorial debut in 1970 with the movie Cotton Comes To Harlem. This movie is considered by many as the immediate precursor, the inspiration, for the blaxploitation film explosion that followed.
Cotton Comes To Harlem is the story of two detectives investigating a mysterious bale of cotton that lands in the middle of Harlem. Both detectives, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, were black. The characters, as well as the black world they inhabit, are grittier than black characters and settings that preceded them. They established the mold from which future characters, such as John Shaft, would be born. In his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, author Donald Bogle writes that “Cotton…seemed to be telling black audiences that it was now all right to laugh at the old dum-dum characters that would have infuriated audiences of the 1960′s. Now the old ethnic humor seemed blessed with a double-consciousness”.
Is Cotton Comes To Harlem exempt from being considered blaxploitation because it was entirely created by blacks? Discussing the film, Davis wrote, “Though Chester Himes, the original author, is black, the screenplay for Cotton Comes To Harlem was written by Arnold Perl, who was white. This fact didn’t bother me, and I know of no one else, black or white, who was bothered by it.” Here, a black director defends the contributions made by a white writer to an Afrocentric film. There seems to be no hint of feelings of exploitation by the white community.
The following summer saw the release of two very different films, both of which are given credit for actually launching the blaxploitation genre. The first was Sweet Sweetback’s Baddaassss Song, which was written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles. Peebles also played the lead role of Sweetback, a black male prostitute who, after killing two white cops for bullying a young black boy, spends most of the movie on the run, jumping from one woman’s bed to the next. Peebles dedicated the film “to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the man.” New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called Sweetback “a technically fancy, absolutely mindless and dirty political exploitation film.”
Sweetback premiered on April 23, 1971. With a production budget of just $150,000, it grossed more than $15 million. With its graphic depictions of sex and violence, and its evident anger toward white authority, Sweetback portrayed blacks on screen in a way audiences had never seen before. Did it portray a positive or negative role model? Sweetback is a violent, womanizing prostitute who commits crime after crime, but he does so in an effort to fight the oppression of the white man, and his successful escape at the end of the film seems to indicate that he was victorious.
Shaft was released two months later, on July 2, 1971. Like Cotton Comes To Harlem, it was directed by a black man, but written by a white (Ernest Tidyman). Directed by acclaimed photographer Gordon Parks, Sr. (1912-2006), it was the story of a black private detective who first battles, then helps, a criminal whose daughter has been kidnapped by the mafia. In his book Profoundly Disturbing, film historian Joe Bob Briggs describes the black community response to the film: “Every black adolescent and wannabe badass adopted the walk, the style, the swagger…if ever a single movie transformed a whole culture, Shaft was that movie.” His description is reminiscent of that ascribed to the phenomenon surrounding Stepin Fetchit, except that now youthful filmgoers were emulating more confident personalities.
Shaft is one of the films Lonne Elder III cited as blaxploitation in his editorial, because it, like others, “are all products put on the market by white people for black people to buy and…none of them had a black writer-producer-director team involved in its artistic outcome.” Briggs quotes Gordon Parks on the association of his film with the blaxploitation label: “I hate that term, blaxploitation. Shaft has nothing to do with exploitation. I don’t know where they got that. What Shaft was about was providing work for black people that they never had before, letting them get into films. That’s not exploitation.” Times critic Vincent Canby argued that Shaft represented a more positive role model on screen than did Sweetback (which did not make Elder’s list), saying that John Shaft “moves through Whitey’s world with perfect ease and aplomb, but never loses his independence, or his awareness of where his life is really at. He has no identity problems, so he can afford to be cheerful under circumstances that would send a lesser hero into the kind of personality crisis that in a movie usually ends in a gunfight.”
Shaft was made for a little more than $1 million, and grossed $12 million. Both Shaft and Sweetback made similar wild profits from comparable budgets. In contrast, 1971′s Best Picture Oscar went to The French Connection (also written by Tidyman), which was released on October 9, and grossed just over $51 million, with a production budget similar to that of Shaft.
Sweetback was entirely created and financed by Peebles; it was an independent, low-budget film that would serve as a benchmark for a generation of filmmakers to follow. Shaft was financed and distributed by whites. Neither Shaft nor Sweetback brought in the biggest box office receipts for the year, but both turned phenomenal profits for their creators, considering the relatively small production budgets. The lines at some theaters wrapped around the block, and Hollywood was quick to notice their popularity among urban black audiences. And quick to cash in. Over the next few years, Hollywood studios churned out Afrocentric movies at blizzard intensity.
1972 began with Black Mama, White Mama, starring genre-icon Pam Grier, which was released on January 19, followed by The Legend of Nigger Charley (March 17), Cool Breeze (March 22), The Final Comedown (May 31), Shaft’s Big Score (June 8), Come Back, Charleston Blue (June 29), The Thing With Two Heads and Bone (July 19), Superfly (August 4), Slaughter and Melinda (August 16), Blacula (August 25), Hammer (September 20), Black Girl (November 9), Across 110th Street (December 19) and Black Gunn (December 20). All were financed in large part by whites.
Of these, Superfly was the biggest success. Written and directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. (1934-1979), it had more in common with Sweetback than it did with Shaft or Cotton. Superfly is the story of a black pimp (played by Ron O’Neal) trying to get himself out of a dark world of drugs, women, money and crime. The film grossed more than $6 million, roughly one-third the business generated by the Woody Allen film Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask), which was released August 6 of that year.
These number still pale in comparison with The Poseidon Adventure, which grossed more than $84 million, and 1972′s Best Picture Oscar winner, The Godfather, which grossed more than $250 million worldwide. But Superfly, as well as most of the other Afrocentric films that year, made enough of a profit to keep the genre going.
By 1972, white directors also began making black films. The most prominent was Larry Cohen, who directed Bone, Black Caesar, and Hell Up In Harlem. In an interview for Incredibly Strange Films, Cohen discussed how he came to be involved in the Afrocentric film explosion. “The first picture I did, Bone, had Yaphet Kotto, a very fine actor. I showed that picture around and then American International Pictures called me up and said, ‘Listen, we want to make some pictures with black casts, and you know how to direct those black actors.’ One black actor in the whole film and ‘you know how to direct those black actors’.”
Cohen developed Black Caesar originally as a vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr., but eventually black athlete-turned-actor Fred Williamson was cast in the lead role. Cohen says of the project, “it wasn’t a typical black exploitation picture. Usually the black guy beats up all the white people, gets the white girl, becomes successful, and it’s kind of a victory of the black over the white society. But Black Caesar is a picture about a guy who tries to live this dream but is destroyed by it. He doesn’t win, he loses”. Black Caesar is the story of Tommy Gibbs, a poor black man who orchestrates for himself a meteoric rise from shoeshine boy to mob kingpin, only to find that money and power can’t give him everything he really wants.
So, was Black Caesar, having been written and directed by a white man, exploitive of black culture? Its leading man, Williamson, doesn’t think so. In a 1999 interview, he related: “Larry Cohen couldn’t tell me how to relate to the black people and the black public. He had no idea. He left it up to my interpretation and to my lifestyle. All the life that I had lived, I flowed into this character. Larry Cohen damn sure couldn’t tell me. What the hell does he know about the relationships in black communities, about how black people really act and interact with each other?”
Gloria Hendry, who also starred in Black Caesar, addressed her concerns in a 1974 interview with Ebony magazine, saying that “we [black actors] are being exploited at the moment, but the increasing number of black movies has created a demand which only black actors and actresses can fill. At least more people are working.”
Williamson was determined to write his own rules in Hollywood, to not allow the Hollywood system to exploit him. In a recent interview, he said: “When I came to Hollywood, I said I’m gonna be the hero, I’m gonna be the star. I got three rules, based on my lifestyle. One, you can’t kill me; two, I gotta win all my fights; and three, I want the girl at the end of the movie. You can’t do that, I go make my own movies. So, I was way ahead of my time. This was, like, in the sixties, man. This was like no black exploitation, none of that. I had an idea of the image I wanted to portray, and I wasn’t gonna succumb to what Hollywood saw us as at that time, was all comedy and black ignorant people.”
Another prominent white director within the genre was Jack Hill, who discovered Pam Grier and directed her in four films: The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), Coffy (1973), and Foxy Brown (1974). Jack Hill built his career making low-budget films that were considered exploitation in other genres, such as Mondo Keyhole (1966), Spider Baby (1968), and The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974). Was his involvement in Afrocentric film indicative of exploitation as well? Were his movies “blaxploitation”? In his 1974 film Foxy Brown, the title character’s brother, Link Brown (portrayed by Antonio Fargas), is reminiscent of the “coon” stereotype, seemingly a throwback to the prewar days of Stepin Fetchit. Author Donald Bogle describes the coon as “no-account niggers, those unreliable, crazy, lazy, subhuman creatures good for nothing more than eating watermelons, stealing chickens, shooting crap, or butchering the English language.”
The film opens with Link, apparently about to be beaten by white criminals, begging his sister for help and stalling cops at a taco stand. He has ended up in a situation where he must rely upon many others to protect and save him. When his sister does rescue him, he shouts “You saved my beautiful black ass, you really did!” He then says the men were after him for “practically nothin’,” yet goes on to describe his failure to repay $20,000 borrowed from loan sharks to finance some get-rich scheme, seemingly without realizing his culpability. It is then that he delivers a wonderful speech which seems to beautifully summarize the philosophy of the pure coon: “I’m a black man. And I don’t know how to sing, and I don’t know how to dance, and I don’t know how to preach to no congregation. I’m too small to be a football hero, and I’m too ugly to be elected mayor. But I watch TV, and I see all them people in all them fine homes they live in, and all them nice cars they drive, and I get all full of ambition. Now you tell me what I’m supposed to do with all this ambition I got?”
Forty years earlier, Stepin Fetchit’s characters were masters at getting out of work, using any excuse imaginable to maintain their lazy lifestyle. Link has already come up with all his excuses to legitimize his laziness, and to justify his scheming actions. He sees good living through the television, but is too lazy to work toward a similar lifestyle, preferring instead to pursue various get-rich schemes which require little effort.
It is this course which leads him to sell out his sister’s lover, at which point even his own sister seems nearly ready to kill him. Eventually, his scheming does end in an early, violent death. In this, Hill runs counter to prior versions of the coon stereotype. He seems to be telling his audiences that this is a negative way of life, one that has the potential to end badly.
Hill also offsets this traditional coon image with a brand new character for the screen, a strong black female. At first glance, Foxy Brown (portrayed by Pam Grier) seems constructed from the male stereotype of the black buck. She is powerful, sexual, and aggressive. But the female version also adopts a strong maternal sense of responsibility and justice, while keeping a strong sexual desirability. Grier’s characters in both Coffy and Foxy Brown are committed to defending the black community from the evils of drugs and the people who push them. Writing about Coffy, New York Times film critic A. H. Weiler wrote that “despite a good deal of lip service against the evils of drugs and the like, there’s a maximum of footage devoted to exposing Miss Grier.” Writing about her role in Foxy Brown a year later, Weiler said that she “again emerges victorious over mobsters, a bigtime madam, pimps and rapists.”
Writer-Director Jack Hill believes that his films helped achieve crossover success for black talent. In a recent interview, he said that “a few of the films – like mine and a couple of others – showed that there was what they called a ‘crossover potential,’ that a large, white audience would appreciate the movies. So what happened was that the subject matter, black characters and lifestyles, was absorbed into the mainstream films. So there was no longer a need for special black-audience movies, particularly. The characters were integrated into mainstream movies and black audiences went to see them.”
By 1975, the Afrocentric film explosion had diminished, and many black actors were taking roles in more traditional white films. But the roles offered them had none of the raw power of presence that those during the blaxploitation era did. Ten years later, a new generation of black filmmakers like Spike Lee and the Hughes Brothers would fight the same battles once again, seeking to create their own Afrocentric visions on the big screen. And now, more than thirty years later, white Hollywood has embraced the nostalgia value of the blaxploitation era, with the satire Undercover Brother and a remake of Shaft already made, and remakes planned for Coffy and a handful of other classics of the genre.
Looking back, thirty years later, Fred Williamson recently talked about the blaxploitation phenomenon. “I have no idea who was being exploited. Black people loved the movies, all the actors were being paid. I mean, if you compare it to Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood movies of the same time, they never called them ‘white exploitation’. It was a terminology they had to use to distinguish black film, because black films with heroes didn’t exist until [the 1970's].”
It comes as no small tragedy that today there are still few “black films with heroes” being made. Perhaps if the negativity could be stripped away from the Afrocentric films of the 1970′s, and people could objectively see them for the positive things they tried to say and do, there could well be room in today’s Hollywood for more characters like John Shaft.
about 3 years ago - Comments Off
With a sound described as “edgy-sweet retro”, Mad Tea Party is now touring the United States in support of their new album, “Big Top Soda Pop”. Lead vocalist and ukulele player Ami Worthen took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to chat by email with CrackerHammer’s own Michael Mercadante.
MM: Your website describes your music as “modernized-yet-old-school folk”. Talk about what you mean by that.
AMI WORTHEN: Mad Tea Party definitely has a retro vibe, but we don’t limit ourselves to recreating older styles of music. We have our own sound, which is based in the here and now. Our influences include early stringband music, old-time and vintage jazz. We also are into rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic music. We take old songs and put a new twist to them, and we write songs that almost could be from and earlier time, except we’ve put a unique slant to them. A modern flavor, if you will.
MM: Where did the name Mad Tea Party come from?
AW: I relate to Alice in Wonderland. For me, jumping into being a songwriter and musician was like jumping into the rabbit hole. Everything seemed very strange and mysterious. Like Alice, as I have followed this path, sometimes I feel small and sometimes I feel giant. And the things people say don’t seem to make a lick of sense. Or do they?
MM: Ami, the world is your oyster. Why the ukulele?
AW: The ukulele is a wonderful, versatile instrument. It lends itself well to the early styles of jazz we are influenced by. It was extremely popular back in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. In fact, most sheet music from that time period includes ukulele cords. As a songwriter, I find it to be a wonderful tool. In Mad Tea Party, we use it as the rhythmic center of the band. And it’s darn fun to play.
MM: Tell me where your sense of humor comes from.
AW: You tell me where yours comes from first.
MM: When you’re chilling out at home, what music do you listen to?
AW: Skatelites, Louie Bluie, Link Ray, Chuck Berry, the Hollies, the Zombies, Beatles, Desmond Dekker, Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies, Squeeze, Mickey Baker, Black Star, XTC, Beastie Boys…
MM: Tell me how you hooked up with Jason and Valorie.
AW: I met Jason and Valorie through Asheville’s wonderful music and art scene. I am lucky to work with such talented people.
MM: Describe your songwriting process. Do you write the songs by yourself? How involved are Jason and Valorie?
AW: I write songs by myself. In fact, I pretty much have to be alone to write. And I have to wait for a song to come to me. I am not someone who “works” at writing songs. Though of course there is a refining process that I go through after I get the initial melody and lyrics. Once I’ve gotten a song together, I bring it to the band. Jason arranges most of the songs that we do in Mad Tea Party. And Valorie adds bass lines and harmonies. So in the end, my songs are shaped by the band. I really enjoy that aspect of being in Mad Tea Party.
MM: If you could play a live show anywhere and anytime (past, present, future), where and when would it be? Kind of your ultimate fantasy live show. What other bands might you play with?
AW: Oh, I have so many fantasy live shows! One would be a festival in Maine in early August with some of my favorite bands/musicians (ones that are playing out these days): Baby Gramps, Luminescent Orchestrii, the Overtakers, Michael Hurley, Wiyos, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Of course there would be a ton of people there, and excellent sound. Oh, and we would all be paid handsomely.
MM: What does the future hold for Mad Tea Party?
AW: More music, playing, singing, songs. In 2007, we plan on doing a lot more touring. We want to play as many festivals as possible and to hit some new markets. We also want to go back to the west coast (we’ve only been there once). In the future, I also visualize playing on Prairie Home Companion, the World Café, E-Town, etc. We are looking to play nice venues, theaters and listening rooms. And we want to tour in Europe!
Listen to “Big Top Soda Pop”
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