Saturday, October 13, 2007

Pay the cost to be the boss

Sitting here in a relaxed state, watching Turner Classic Movies' excellent Underground movie series (which I look forward to every Friday!) and tonight, we get Black Caesar, one of the more infamous Blaxploitation movies of the 70s. (Coincidentally, the remake of SHAFT, starring Samuel L. Jackson, just ended on another channel.)

Fred Williamson is so beautiful, it's impossible to believe he wasn't a multimedia star of galactic proportions... but then, this was the 70s.

David Kalat (on the TCM website) writes, about Black Caesar:
Despite Fred Williamson’s riveting star turn and the memorable James Brown soundtrack, Black Caesar is generally stronger in its ideas than its style. Put another way: [Larry] Cohen’s a better writer than a director (at least at this early stage in his career).

For all that Tommy Gibbs does to build his empire, spend lavishly, and dispense extravagant gifts and violent payback in equal measure, none of these measures ever hide the hurt. Sure, he gets his revenge on McKinney, the corrupt and racist cop who maimed him, but the problem is Gibbs’ wounds are deeper and more intractable than his limp. Getting even with Whitey is fairly straightforward but ultimately unsatisfying, because what he really needs is to reconcile with his parents. Coming to terms with his painful childhood is a prize that eludes him to the last.
During a particularly nasty rape scene, Black Caesar/Tommy Gibbs does not seem to be enjoying it. This made an impression on me; I remember thinking, "Why is he doing that? He isn't having fun." And so, a Blaxploitation movie was one of the first places I ever saw rape portrayed as a simple act of aggression, rather than uncontrollable male lust.
As the film builds to its brutal climax, Cohen has gradually yet masterfully turned Gibbs’ story into an epic myth about American race relations. Gibbs and McKinney square off over a tin of shoe polish—a small prop, but by now imbued with enough symbolism to represent not just Gibb’s hardscrabble youth but centuries of white-black inequality. Now, this is a movie that features a severed ear in a plate of spaghetti, an exploding turkey, a rape scene, and a phony priest who launders dirty money through his collection box. For a film jam-packed with two scoops of outrageous ideas, this one little can of shoe polish becomes the most powerful and evocative of them all.
Any favorite movies of this genre? Do you think they were (on the whole) a negative or positive cultural phenomenon? I always liked the movies (they were very popular where I grew up, with whites at the drive-in, too) but I later learned they were tacky and low-rent, and was ashamed to admit to my fondness for them. After Quentin Tarantino's blatant thievery (homages!--he would say) and Pam Grier's comeback, they seemed to be getting another look.

Bright Lights Film Journal: Blaxploitation
Sticking it to the man: Heroes of Blaxploitation
Black Cinema: Blaxploitation

Excerpt from the great funk score, by James Brown:

The Boss - James Brown

[via FoxyTunes / Black Caesar]


bryce said...

love the song!

shadocat said...

I remember Fred Williamson! Not so much for his films, but for his career in sports; he used to play for the Kansas Chiefs (back when they didn't suck).

I loved Pam Grier's movies, like "Foxy Brown" and "Cleopatra Jones". And of course there are some I like for their camp appeal, like "Blacula" and my all-time favorite, "Dolemite"!

antiprincess said...

I want to come visit you someday so we can get into a relaxed state together. :)

misscripchick said...

didn't know TCM had an Underground movie series, will definitely have to check it out as well as read more about blaxploitation (haven't seen any of the listed movies on wikipedia).

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site said...

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