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BAADASSSSS CINEMA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Featuring:  Pam Grier, Quentin Tarantino, Melvin Van Peebles, Gloria Hendry, Richard Roundtree, Isaac Hayes, Fred Williamson
Director:  Isaac Julien
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Docurama
Features:  Extended Interviews
Length:  56 Minutes
Release Date:  January 28, 2003

“DAMN right!!”

Film ***

Blaxploitation was a singular and definitive art movement in cinema.  Like many, it was born out of a need to reflect certain social conditions, it grew into its own style and structure, and eventually, it ended up looking more like a parody of itself than what it originally set out to be.  But it ended up as more than just a cultural curiosity.  As explored by filmmaker Isaac Julien in Baadasssss Cinema, the rise and fall of the blaxploitation movie left a resounding influence that today’s director’s like Quentin Tarantino have channeled into a new vocabulary of cinema.

Throughout Hollywood history, African Americans had never enjoyed the privilege of seeing themselves portrayed on screen the way they would have liked.  All of that changed in 1971 when an angry young filmmaker named Melvin Van Peebles unleashed Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, a revolutionary picture that managed to depict the black culture’s growing frustration with American society while offering plenty of action and sex to boot.  It was controversial, defiant, and provocative…and black audiences responded to it with big box office dollars.

Suddenly, Hollywood realized there was a vast source of green in America they had never really tapped into, and it was the green flowing from black society that started keeping them out of the red.  When Shaft was released, Richard Roundtree became a big star, Isaac Hayes won an Oscar, and a new cinema styling was well underway.

Julien’s documentary features plenty of movie clips mixed in with modern day interviews with the likes of Van Peebles and Roundtree, along with Fred Williamson (still as smooth as ever), Pam Grier, Gloria Hendry and even Quentin Tarantino, who credits blaxploitation as the only form of filmed entertainment that was bold enough to tap into the worlds of the popular crime novels of the time.

Films like Coffy, Superfly and Foxy Brown gave African American movie audiences their first depictions of empowerment.  Suddenly, young black men and women could be stylish, brash, and heroic…fighting against the oppression of the system and…surprise…still be left standing at the end of the picture!

But like many movements within the world of film, the years of blaxploitation would soon wind down.  The colorful stylings, funky theme songs and exaggerated sex and violence grew into a formula that was so repeated as to become self-depreciating.  And Hollywood studios were also realizing that they had huge numbers of African American audiences coming to see movies like The Exorcist and The Godfather.

Critics called it exploitation, but when the movement faded away, a lot of talented African American performers and filmmakers seemed to fade away with it.  Stars with charisma and flair were suddenly no longer bankable.  Many quietly disappeared from the screen.  A few lucky ones, like Pam Grier, enjoyed a brief return to the spotlight, and Tarantino casting her in Jackie Brown helped bring modern movie goers attention to a period of cinema that helped define a decade.

Though just under an hour, this is an enjoyable and informative romp through some wildly entertaining years of movies that speaks to the right key players, keeping it all in historical perspective.  Better still, it’s enough to send today’s movie lovers out to their video stores to take a peek at some of what they’ve been missing for the last 25 or 30 years.  Can you dig it?

Video ***

No qualms in this department…the video looks good overall even though it’s a collection of modern interviews intertwined with old film clips from the 70s.  The mix of video and film strikes a commendable balance…nothing to complain about.

Audio **

The stereo mix is serviceable, but unextraordinary by nature  (again, because it’s mostly modern dialogue mixed with old movie bits).  It works well enough…and hey, who doesn’t get pumped up hearing the theme from Shaft?

Features *1/2

The disc contains bonus interview footage with Pam Grier, Quentin Tarantino, Fred Williamson and Gloria Hendry, plus a filmmaker bio and some info on other Docurama titles.

Summary:

Baadassss Cinema?  The title says it all…treat yourself to a look back at one of American cinema’s most dynamic and still influential movements.