Class began with Evan’s presentation on Howard Zinn’s “Or Does it Explode?”. Evan summarized the straight, factual history presented in the article as it followed the evolutionary history of Black culture in the United States. Zinn described the memory of slavery as a “living presence”, documenting its effect on later generations of Black Americans. The title of the article, “Or Does it Explode?” is from a Langston Hughes poem, illuminating the expression of suppressed Black sentiments and ideas in the arts. Looking at the 1960s, Zinn recounts the Civil Rights movement, highlighting its key figures and defining moments like Rosa Parks and the Freedom Rides. Zinn discusses the appropriation of Black figures to further the greater cause of the Civil Rights movement and Black America, including the assassination and resulting martyrdom of Malcolm X in the late 1960s. In his presentation, Evan linked these events to their manifestation on-screen in the 1970s.
Next, Jaap led the class in discussion of Ed Guerrero’s “The Rise and Fall of Blaxploitation”. The article claims that the emergence of Blaxploitation films was the result of the rising sociopolitical consciousness of Black Americans, criticisms on Hollywood’s conservative conventions, and the collapse of the Hollywood studio system. Blaxploitation films, which found success in the 1970s for about five years, are characterized by black characters/actors/narratives, triumph over white authoritarian power, action and adventure. These films were marketed to young Black audiences. We then watched two clips from 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, which follows a black detective from the North as he investigates a murder in the corrupt and bigoted South. The film stars Sidney Poitier and marked the first time a black character slapped a white character in mainstream cinema.
Discussion next turned to this week’s feature, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song and the many questions it raised. In considering whether or not the film was Blaxploitation, the class was divided. One student said that the film was not Blaxploitation for it was not made for profit but rather to affect a statement; therefore, it did not exploit Black culture. Another student countered this notion, explaining that the film was made to attract young black audiences and was the highest-grossing independent film of 1971. Regardless, the film provided a “road map” for the many Blaxploitation films that followed in the coming years.
In discussing racism and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, discussion deemed that the Peebles used racial stereotypes to affect the satire of the film. This led us to discuss whether or not In the Heat of the Night is a racist film. Again, the class decided that the film itself is not racist but played upon racial stereotypes to an effect. We then discussed the criticism Sidney Poitier received from the Black community, concerning ourselves with the gentrification of the Black Man as Poitier depicted him. Jaap brought up the 2011 film, The Help, reflecting similar criticisms raised only last year.
Jaap closed class with a clip from the 1974 Blaxploitation film, Foxy Brown. In the clip, the titular character, played by Pam Grier, is help captive and raped by two grimy white men. We discussed the same questions of race and misogyny raised with the other two films we’d watched. One student pointed out that because Foxy Brown is a revenge film it is not actually misogynist but incorporates misogyny to raise awareness of unjust social conventions.