In its down-and-dirty lesson in early ’70s blaxploitation movies, the Independent Film Channel succinctly explores — through the eyes of critics, filmmakers, actors and one overenthusiastic fan — the appeal of the movies that grew from the boffo B.O. of Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” “Baadasssss Cinema” docu, thanks to articulate reflection by Pam Grier and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, is a suitable introduction to the pics that will be shown on IFC in the coming weeks: “Foxy Brown,” “Superfly” and “Shaft’s Big Score.”
New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, one of docu’s better talking heads, draws a superb distinction between the black films and other pics of the day: “Black movies had heroes who won.” And the clips back it up, showing the outrageousness and outlandishness of the characters in films such as “Black Caesar,” “The Mack” and “Coffy.” Pics were an unapologetic celebration of pimps and gangsters, ghetto-set portrayals that drew the ire of black leaders at the time. Doc fails to bring in any of the genre’s critics, such as Jesse Jackson, to see if their opinions have changed.
Beyond scenes of Isaac Hayes recording the score for “Shaft” and Curtis Mayfield performing “Superfly” material, music is underexplored, though TVT Records has issued a stellar compilation in conjunction with the doc. Blaxploitation’s biggest fan among contempo filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino, accurately rants about the poor use of Hayes’ music; the rest of the time, he just rants.
Filmmakers tried to blend the genre with other styles — “Black Belt Jones,” “Blacula” — and it quickly faded, making blaxploitation’s timeframe, 1971-75, that much easier to define. Much as it covers its topic, docu fails to explain its downfall or how the typecasting of actors such as Ron O’Neal and Grier kept them out of mainstream Hollywood pics for decades.
Andy Cowton’s music evokes the era splendidly.