In class we began with a presentation on Howard Zinn’s “Or Does it Explode?” Zinn explains America through the eyes of the common person and emphasizes the executive branch’s failure to pass civil rights laws. The fact that 75% of schools were segregated is evidence to this inequity and therefore riots became a result. The title “Or Does it Explode?” comes from Langston Hughes’ poem about a dream of fighting black suppression. Do we just let this dream hang “dry” “or does it explode?” Hughes parallels the work of MLK, Black Panthers and Malcom X. These themes of Black equality began to emerge within cinema with movies such as “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner.” Zinn explains that the government needed to do something to stop the riots so they implemented more Blacks on TV. This became the social context for Blaxploitation movies in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Jaap continued the recitation with a brief discussion on the links between the civil rights movements and other movements. 1) Communism: The common themes of equality, owners of property, poverty (distribution of riches) and class. 2) Feminist/ Gender: Capitalism is a male system (compared to blacks, where it is a white system) 3) Anti-War movement: Peace among all nations. 4) Youth Movement: Highlights the existence of the youth and their rights. 5) De-colonization: (Supports the idea that blacks can fight oppression).
We then watched a scene from “In the Heat of the Night,” when Sidney Poitier slaps Larry Gates. It was the first time a black man hit a white man on screen. This caused a huge scandal. As a class we discussed whether Poiter’s character was patronizing to the black community, because instead of seeing him as a hero, he was just portrayed as an idealized black man.
Our class followed with another presentation on Ed Guerrera’s “The Rise and Fall of Blaxploitation.” Guerrera discusses how films tried to appeal to black audiences and how it eventually failed. Even though movies like “In the Heat of the Night” had leading black actors, the movies didn’t play to the black conscious. Poitier’s character was very desexualized and too idealized for the black community to relate to. This stirred the era of Blaxploitation films. The audience felt that Jim Brown was a better black star, more sexualized. More blaxploitation films began to emerge, such as “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” “Super Fly” and “Shaft.” This was evidence of Black nationalism. When Hollywood took hold of this niche market to create more blaxploitation films with higher production values, the audiences didn’t like it. Audiences became upset that blaxploitation films were glorifying the ghetto and drug use. As black conscious arose, the movement died.
Jaap ended our recitation with a clip from “Foxy Brown.” He showed us the scene where Foxy Brown is captured by two white men who then rape her. Jaap brought up the question of whether these blaxploitation films were misogynistic? The class answered with, not really, because in “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” he wasn’t raped. The raped scene was more an expression of anger about oppression. He also brought up the question of whether or not “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” is a racist film? The class agreed that within the context of that time, it was more seen as a satire.