Who's the only brother won't let a brother down?
Baadasssss Cinema has moments of energy and interest, but fails to deliver a satisfying whole. The ambitious vision is thwarted by the relatively low number of films and actors explored. The small chunks of source material are stretched and twisted to cover a scant 56 minutes, telling us how exciting the blaxploitation movement was without making us feel it. Baadasssss Cinema did manage to whet my appetite for these cult sensations despite its lack of focus.
Facts of the Case
Harvard Professor Isaac Julien interviews filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino, Mario Van Peeples, Fred Williamson), actors (Pam Grier, Gloria Hendry, Williamson), and a handful of critics and pundits. He melds their views with footage and film clips from the Blaxploitation Era, lending weight to their testimony. The documentary covers some of the social and political reactions to blaxploitation, but primarily focuses on the experience of the actors and filmmakers.
Baadasssss Cinema unknowingly reveals its true colors as soon as the DVD hits the tray. The first thing we see is an ad for the soundtrack to Baadasssss Cinema. We haven't seen one shred of footage, and already the CD is being pimped. Could it be that IFC is exploiting blaxploitation?
The documentary begins with a montage of unadulterated funk. The momentum slows when we hit the first interview. Not "Shaft," not "Coffy," but Quentin. Why kick off a documentary on blaxploitation with an interview of a white filmmaker who didn't direct any films during that era? Is this a tacit approval from the man that it's okay to proceed?
We next hear from the inimitable Sam Jackson. Closer to the mark; at least he is black. But still, where are the blaxploitation stars? Where is the heart of the genre?
Sadly, we never quite get to the heart in Baadasssss Cinema. The documentary wends its way around the heart of the matter, providing brief glimpses of color. Van Peeples, Williamson, Hendry, and Grier give authentic accounts that resonate the truth of the blaxploitation genre. A spattering of well-spoken film critics and historians add a provocative tenor to the discussion. We even have a fashion designer and Tupac's mom getting in on the act. That is part of Baadasssss Cinema's authority problem; we hear from the periphery and not the center. Furthermore, the account is remarkably one-sided. We hear very few dissenting voices.
This would be forgivable if not for several missteps. The first is the promotion. Baadasssss Cinema is promoted as the definitive look at the blaxploitation genre, but it is not. It reads as a cursory "Blaxploitation 101" with a few peeks into "Advanced Blaxploitation Studies." Julien's original vision was compromised though lack of reprint rights for some major genre works, and Shaft and Superfly didn't show. IFC should have taken a little more time to pitch the documentary properly. Baadasssss Cinema: How Black Films Saved Hollywood.
The second misstep is the price/performance ratio. IFC lists Baadasssss Cinema for $24.95, but the feature is under an hour long. And we aren't talking a high profile hour either. The price is out of proportion to what is delivered.
The biggest transgression is the false advertising: "…interviews with such key players as Richard Roundtree, Quentin Tarantino, and Pam Grier." As mentioned, I'm hesitant to label QT as a key player in blaxploitation. But that isn't the problem. Richard Roundtree is nowhere to be seen. I'm not sure which is worse: not having interviewed Shaft, or telling us you did anyway.
[Editor's Note: I feel compelled to defend Tarantino. He has likely done more to bring mainstream recognition to the blaxploitation genre than any other personality of any race, most notably through Jackie Brown and his annual film festival in Austin, Texas.]
The visuals and pace may have something to do with the stilted feel. There are long periods where the camera stares unwaveringly at interviewees. It is odd that such a piece was shot in 16x9. Thus, we have Tarantino in his bright yellow Afrika shirt and beret, with a hallway behind him. I found myself inspecting the pictures on the wall in the hallway, longing for someone to walk by in the background. There was also a distracting band of white noise across the top of the picture throughout.
The sound was energetic, incorporating many fine blaxploitation grooves. Catch the soundtrack on CD.
Baadasssss Cinema seems like a feature that had a direction in mind but had to change course. The viewer is often left confused as to the direction of the piece, and disappointed at the notable absences.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fortunately, Baadasssss Cinema gets some things right. They show some of the seminal images of Blaxploitation: Pam Grier pulling a derringer out of her afro. Richard Roundtree walking down the street, yelling at cabbies. Pimps decked out in white fur and tophats. Kung fu. Hai-ya!
The interviews are remarkably candid. The actors admit they were just trying to get paid. It wasn't about a political statement per se. Van Peeples keeps it real: "It's all about poontang." Hendry is open about her resentment at getting dropped by Hollywood. Williamson is roguishly defiant, the ultimate independent filmmaker.
What is even more interesting is watching the extended interviews and seeing how the footage was massaged and supplemented in the documentary. The craft of making a documentary becomes evident.
Finally, there are moments where the films were placed in political context. It was heart-wrenching to hear about the grandmother watching Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. She was convinced that the black hero was going to die, because African American's didn't make it to the end of movies in those days. There are a few moments like this that bring blaxploitation home.
I admire this documentary for what it wanted to do, and what it is able to accomplish given a relative dearth of participation. The expectations are simply pitched too high, which leaves the viewer disappointed. Also, Quentin Tarantino sure does wave his arms around a lot.
IFC is charged with false advertising. Quentin Tarantino is sentenced to one hour in a straight jacket. The rest of the cast is sentenced to shut yo' mouth. The court has heard your testimony, but the jury is still out. Court is in recess until further evidence comes to light.
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