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It was Quentin Tarantino's famous interest in the old 1970s blaxploitation films, as well as Pam Grier, that first got me interested in the genre, but not knowing what the genre was really about, or at least not knowing the history behind it's formation, its themes, even its actors, made me not enjoy the first handful of the films that I watched, like Coffy, Foxy Brown, Black Mama, White Mama, and Sheba, Baby. Granted, I don't think any amount of documentaries could make me enjoy Sweet Sweetback's Badaaasss Song, but I suppose I can certainly understand the society in which it was made.
What I loved about this documentary is the way it gives a look not only at the blaxploitation films of the 19670s, but also gives the historical context under which they were made, including their level of popularity in places like Los Angeles, where I live, and Hollywood's response. There are a number of debatable claims made in the documentary, such as blaxloitation saving Hollywood or Hollywood killing the blaxploitation genre, but what I really appreciated were the interviews from some of the original actors as well as brief looks at several of the more prominent blaxploitatoin films, some of which I enjoyed, like Black Caesar, and some of which remain not really my favorites, like Sweet Sweetback and Super Fly.
The cast give very revealing interviews, both about their experience in being involved in the blaxpoitation genre, as well as giving their insights into the meaning and fate of the genre. I was glad to see that Quentin Tarantino appears to talk about blaxploitation's influence on him and his films because he is obviously so heavily inspired by them, but there were some other heavyweights that are far too conspicuously absent, most notably the tremendously successful Spike Lee. Odd, since this documentary was released in 2002, far too early for them to have already been mad at Spike for She Hate Me.
Gloria Hendry tells the story about getting her first role in Black Caesar and becoming instantly famous, and others talk about their involvement and experience with the genre, such as Samuel L. Jackson and even Ameni Shakur, Tupac's mother, who was a member of the Black Panther party. Pam Grier gives a brilliant interview, revealing a depth of character and a studied intelligence that far surpasses anything that she has ever been able to reveal in any of her films. She speaks so intelligently that this interview alone almost makes it look like she has been accepting roles far beneath her ability for the majority of her career. And she's good, too, I'd like to see a lot more of her in the future. I really think she has adapted well to the changes that have taken place in her life and in the film industry since the end of blaxploitation.
Fred Williamson, one of the most famous actors from the genre, gives a rather sour, disillusioned interview, focusing on pretty negative subjects and ideas. The one that stuck out to me the most was that he said something like no one ever wanted black film, their was never any real desire or need for it, people just wanted to see black people on film. Something like that, at any rate, he claimed that no one ever really wanted blaxploitation, it happened for other, more superficial reasons, which I don't agree with at all. The people that packed those theaters sure wanted it.
Blaxploitation is something of an offbeat subgenre in cultural film history, but I think that it is one that needs some explanation before a lot of people will really enjoy, and some people won't enjoy it even then. Sort of like how some supplemental documentaries included with DVDs will make you enjoy certain movies more than you otherwise would have, this documentary is an excellent way to get a basic introduction to the genre, and make sure to have a pen and paper handy when you watch it, because you'll want to write down some of the movies that it talks about so you can remember to watch them!
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