Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, was written, produced and directed by Mario Van Peebles in 1971 with great intention. He wanted to make a film African-Americans could “walk out standing tall instead of avoiding each other’s eyes looking once again like they’d had it.” This ambition came from Van Peebles growing up feeling ashamed of his African-American roots each time he watched a film in which blacks appeared. These films either depicted the African-Americans in them as servants or savages or Bill Bojangles Robertson – a music hall great who had allowed himself to be out-danced by Shirley Temple in order to stay in the limelight. Films such as these presented a very marginalized view of blacks in terms of their sexuality, power, importance, and the reality of their ghetto environment.
As the opening dedication of the film so eloquently states, Sweetback was made for all the “brothers and sisters who had enough of The Man” marginalizing them in films and in actual life. In his book discussing the film, Van Peebles stated himself to be “tired of us being portrayed that other way. Turns out I wasn’t alone. There were a whole lot of other bloods who wanted the same thing.” In fact, there were so many African Americans who wanted the same thing, that the film grossed eleven million dollars, and became one of the highest grossing films of the year. This was during a time in which the movie industry was suffering greatly financially due to the result of a number of intersecting causes, such as an anti-monopoly legislation, television, and suburbanization. When Hollywood witnessed the surprising success of Sweetback, the film immediately became the paradigmatic text of what would soon come to be defined as the Blaxploitation film genre. For the first time in film history, movies sought to give some semblance of a black community with a set of attitudes, aspirations, and grievances all its own. Three of the top grossing films capitalizing on elements of the Sweetback formula were Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972).
The aforementioned films, as were the over 200 Blaxploitation films to follow, were made for an extremely low financial cost to the studios. Shaft, which cost just over a million dollars at years end racked up $12 million in North America, and is credited with “saving” MGM. It was the most profitable film of 1971. Super Fly, which cost well under a half-million dollars, went on to gross more than 12 million in 1972 .
One reason for the genre’s popularity was the specific make-up of its primary audience: young, male, urban, black. This audience was becoming increasingly weary of the emasculated characters played by the likes of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte who while considered sexually attractive, were rarely permitted to be sexually aggressive in their films.
Van Peebles’ Sweetback was the first to present a film containing a sexually virile African American. The first real character development of Sweetback shows him as a barely teenage boy in a whorehouse (where we later find out he grew up) sexually satisfying a much older woman. While this is occurring, this film has brief flashes of him running down streets and alleyways as an adult. The flashes back and forth defined Sweetback as the most sexually virile character audiences had ever seen (even as a child he exceeded what they had seen adults displayed onscreen). As an adult, throughout the film, he beds many women and each is show explicitly, ending with an extremely satisfied woman.
Gordon Park Sr.’s Shaft was released a couple months later. This high level of sexuality in the hero character was replicated with the focus of the film, Shaft. Shaft, a private eye, is introduced to the audience with the lyrical question “Who’s the private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks?” to which a female chorus emphatically answers “Shaft!” This, as in Sweetback, is the first insight we get into the main characters personality. The editor, Hugh Robertson, recalls that he had “to fight for any human element to the story. (MGM) kept pushing for all sex and violence.” These were two of the main elements Hollywood perceived contributed to the success of Sweetback and therefore they pushed heavily for them.
Much like Shaft and Sweetback, Super Fly’s main character Priest was also defined in large part by his sexuality. And as in the two aforementioned films, Super Fly focuses heavily on the hero’s sexual prowess. Like Sweetback, sexuality is what first defines the main character, Priest – his character is established as he lies nude in bed with his white lover and drug customer Cynthia. The big sex scene in Super Fly (a bathtub sequence), like the sex scenes from Sweetback and Shaft “was more graphic and lingering than any such scene in white movies at the time.” While the films unremittingly “sought to avoid the stereotype of the asexual tom, they fell, interestingly enough, into the trap of presenting a wild sexual male” (Donald Bogle).
When Sweetback was released, it was an immediate success in large part due to presenting an image of self-defense that gave on-screen legitimization to violent retaliation against racist police brutality. When the Los Angeles police department is in need for a “patsy” to stand in as a murder suspect, Sweetback is “volunteered” by his boss. On the way to the police station, the two police officers pick up Mu-Mu, a young black revolutionary, whom they take to a secluded area to beat. Sweetback, incensed at this, beats the policemen with their own handcuffs until the handcuffs are dripping with blood. This marks the premise of the majority of the film – Sweetback fleeing from the police. This particular scene transforms, the non-law abiding, Sweetback into a picaresque hero in the eyes of the audience. It does so because he was picked up for a murder he did not commit, and is then chased for protecting a young black man whom the police had no real reason to pick up in the first place. Black audiences were finally able to see successful resistance to specific wrongs of the inner city – disenfranchisement, decay, and unchecked police brutality.
Priest is also established as a picaresque hero. Priest is a cocaine dealer who is forced into a situation where he is controlled by corrupt police officers. He not only beats the system – but also gets out with a half-million dollars. This represents successful resistance to disenfranchisement and also poverty. And while he is a drug dealer, he only deals to the upper-class whites (which adds to his hero-status by bringing down The Man).
Shaft director, Gordon Parks, Sr., took a cue from Sweetback by presenting a film he knew black audiences would “go see because they want to see a black guy winning.” The hero in this case was John Shaft. He is established as a hero because he is a character the audience can look up to. The second line in the introductory theme sings of how “He doesn’t take orders from anybody, black or white, but he’d risk his neck for his brother man.” He gains further credibility as a hero throughout the film through his social conscience (he yells at a gangster for manipulating the black community through drugs and gambling, he gives a poor kid some money to eat) and is also an intelligent man with the ability to deal with police and those around him. He is not scared of whites or the Mafia and does not back down when a mobster makes a racial comment towards him. He was a legitimately successful black man, living on his own terms (not pandering to The Man), and was extremely adept in the bedroom. “A swift fist and a stiff penis, that’s the Shaftian way” is how black critic Clayton Riley summed up the black heroes of this era. Priest and Shaft both share the characteristics of the black hero Van Peebles created in Sweetback, particularly their sexual and physical abilities.
All of these films focus on the central hero; the fact that their title is the character’s name is a great indication of that. Based on “a long history of the trope of the outsider, their characteristics of distance, silence, and independence also made them heroes for the youth audiences that filled the theatres“ (Mark A. Reid). Sweetback’s “rejection of authority figures, his sexual success, and his proven cunning link him with similar figures played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood” (Charles Massood). Shaft, and Priest as well as a long line of other African American heroes took on these same three characteristics.
The third staple in the formula Van Peeble’s created with Sweetback was that the black community was given focus (in an authentic way). In 1972, a Newsweek article noted this when it said “The strongest of the new black films are rooted in the audience’s back yard – Super Fly and Shaft in the squalid, decayed slums of Harlem, Sweetback in a barren bleached out Watts” (Jamie Michener.) What gave these black ghetto films their impact, in large part, was their inclusion of the clearly identifiable ghetto monuments. Sweetback’s flight from the police allowed Van Peebles to map out certain urban areas. In many of the Blaxploitation films set in New York – such as Shaft – there is an “almost obligatory walk-down, or at least a shot of, well known Harlem landmarks” (Charles Massood.) These “tours” of the city were often used in films featuring detectives such as Shaft, and were the catalyst for a moving montage through the city.
In Super Fly we are actually introduced to the city five minutes before the main character, Priest, enters the narrative. A defining moment in establishing the film’s setting is when Priest chases a junkie who has attacked him. This pursuit again exposes the ghetto’s streets and alleyways, however in a much more intimate manner. In maneuvering through the ghetto, Priest is more immediately part of the city. The city, as introduced here, contains all the characteristics of the ghetto as seen in Sweetback – its buildings are burned out, deserted or corroding; most of storefronts have been boarded up; and trash covers the gutters and sidewalks. Super Fly’s construction of Harlem is much more dystopian than in the race films of the 1930s. The use of the city in this way was not simply to add “local colour”; in the complicated and interwoven dynamics of these films it becomes apparent that the city enables events that occur in the films.
It was not only setting that allowed “black inner-city youths and black street people to (identify) with the film’s imaginative reflection of their real lives” (Mark A. Reid). Blaxploitation films modeled after Sweetback were often reduced to focusing on a single character whose heroic status was enabled as much by the city as the clothes he or she wears. As we have seen in Sweetback, Super Fly’s urban cape includes a variety of idioms and fashions of the inner-city black community” all of which contribute to the film’s urban appeal. Priest is familiar not simply because he resembles the “urban trickster but also because he dresses in the urban fashion of the time period … Priest shares similarities with Sweetback: they dress alike, (and) they share the same outlaw aura. Shaft’s black urban dress was used to free him from the white heroic role usually associated with detective .
Another element contributing in a major way to the success of the blaxploitation film was the auralscape. The black dialogue in these films was hot off the streets and had a biting authenticity, which contributed to the ghetto aura. Additionally, music added “a key element to the city’s auralscape and emerged as an important characteristic of the cinematic ghetto.” Van Peebles calculated the film scenarios “in such a way that sound (could) be used as an integral part of the film.” Super Fly, Shaft and the majority of the 200 some films in the blaxploitation genre took their cue from this. The music entered actual city spaces, blurring the boundaries between film and reality. Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” played over combined shots of Priest’s trip uptown and the film’s opening titles, defined not only the character but also his surroundings. Donald Bogle noted that some of Super Fly’s drive could be attributed to Curtis Mayfield’s sensual score. Isaac Hayes’ Academy Award winning soundtrack for Shaft was pulsating background music that also added to the film’s texture.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, was released not long after the civil-rights upheavals of the late 1960’s; freedom from the boundaries of race was every African American’s dream. The boundary of race that the film industry put on them (prior to Sweetback) was one that marginalized their sexuality and denied the realities of black inner city life (disenfranchisement, poverty, decay, police brutality and corruption). It also denied them black heroes. Sweetback was a catalyst for Shaft, and Super Fly, which followed almost immediately after. The financial success of these three films quickly gained the attention of Hollywood, and black films began turning up with startling regularity. To look at the catalogue of these films, it becomes apparent that the same film was essentially being made over and over. Eventually, these films came to be known as the blaxploitation film: a movie that played on the needs of black audiences for heroic figures without answering those needs in realistic terms. In the midst of the onslaught of these films, the NCAAP asked that “our children are not constantly exposed to a steady diet of so-called black movies that glorify males as pimps, pushers, gangsters, and super males with vast physical prowess but not cognitive skills.”
Many of the people involved with these black films countercharged that such accusations were imperceptive, and condescending to their own people. Gordon Parks, director of Shaft, called it “ridiculous to imply that blacks don’t know the difference between truth and fantasy and therefore will be influenced by these films in an unhealthy way. These films are serving a therapeutic function.” Perhaps actor James Earl Jones summed it best when he said “If they’re going to put a damper on John Shaft let them put it on John Wayne too and they’ll find there are a lot of people who need those fantasies.” The fantasy and therapeutic function these films provided was a world in which whites were the outsiders, in which African Americans were in control of their own environment and finally getting their due; a song of freedom and empowerment heard initially and most loudly in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
Jef Kearns is a Soul Flautist proving that the flute can get down-and-dirty.
Check him out at www.jefkearns.com