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A whole new generation has grown up since Shaft burst onto cinema screens in 1971, launching what has since become a wide-ranging genre called Blaxploitation. Isaac Hayes' Oscar winning theme from the film is its anthem, and Richard Roundtree's "flamboyant and tough talking" (The New York Times) Detective Shaft its prime role model. But there is more; ANDREW L. URBAN reports.

The funky beat-heavy music starts as soon as the credits begin to roll, and the black dude in the 'look me over' threads walks through the black 'hood with the hip and the cool dripping off him. His body language matches the music, a strut with laid back attitude. It's my street, my 'hood, my music, my kinda people. The name's John Shaft. . . and the game is movies made for a market Hollywood ignored for decades: Black America.

Chances are many of you first heard of Blaxploitation in 1998, when Quentin Tarantino introduced you to Jackie Brown, played by Pam Grier - one of the icons of Black American movies of the 70s; Jackie Brown revisits the genre broadly described as Blaxploitation. (You'll have noticed that four of the titles in this collection are R rated: there's occasional drug use, plenty of colourful street language and the action is sometimes violent - although tame by today's standards; so is most of the sex.)

Grier co-stars with Richard Pryor and Beau Bridges in Greased Lightning (1977) in this collection, but her best known work was in films like 'Sheba, Baby' and 'Foxy Brown', (title roles). And then there was Grier playing Lisa in Scream, Blacula, Scream! Yes, well, as I say, Blaxploitation is not really a genre - it's all the white genres with black soul added.

"the seminal thriller, Shaft"

Take this collection, ranging from the seminal thriller, Shaft, to the entertaining caper movie, Let's Do It Again (a softer, funnier black Sting) and the mad son of a gun of a movie, the off-the-wall I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, which combines action with scenes of hilarious spoofery. (IGGYS is written by, directed by and stars Keenen Ivory Wayans, with Isaac Hayes in a supporting role as Hammer the Rib Joint owner.)

Set in 'Any Ghetto, USA', the film opens with the discovery of a body in the street. The cop tells his superior the guy "O-Geed . . . " That's not a drug overdose - it's a gold overdose: OG. The dead man's corpse is covered in gold chains and inspires a running gag I won't spoil here. But gold also pops up throughout the film as a metaphor for drugs; the film is either insane or brilliant, but I think it's a clever subterfuge aimed at getting a message across to black kids without alienating them. If I'm wrong, no harm done; it's just a crazy bit of fun.

The film has many such elements, including a riotously funny sequence involving a community festival in the ghetto main street, where competitions are held in activities that the locals are familiar with. Hence there is a race that is borrowed from the egg and spoon race of more genteel events. Here, the items being carried on the run are stolen tv sets. The team competition is car stripping.

Then there is the Pimp of the Year Awards . . . and Laurence Fishburne (uncredited) as a revolutionary leader in a freewheeling tribute to Peter Sellers' Dr Strangelove, complete with black gloved right hand. . . and the pick up from hell, in which our hero take a bimbo home with side splitting (and other bodily surprises) consequences. Throughout this film, the humour is what counts, although the action story gets released periodically to cause mayhem. But it takes nothing seriously.

Gather a few friends, open the bar and prepare your endorphins for a night on the town with this - it's a label-defying movie starring black actors.

"the sense of humour links all these movies"

If anything, it is the sense of humour that links all these movies, even those like Shaft that are genuine thrillers. John Shaft is the smart, sharp shooting, resourceful private eye who takes on the mob (among others) while looking for a kidnapped girl. Manhattan is his home turf, but In Africa, Shaft gets a crash course in African customs and love relations from a princess (Vonetta McGee) when asked by African diplomats at the UN to investigate a sinister slave trading scam.

Superfly stays firmly on the streets, following Priest (nicknamed after his habit of carrying his dope in a crucifix) as he tries to set up the big deal so he can quit crime.

But black men aren't the only ones who can tackle danger, kick butt and look funky; Cleopatra Jones (70s supermodel Tamara Dobson) stands tall - 6' 2" - especially notable in the Hong Kong setting of Casino of Gold - and manages to vanquish her foes and doesn't even lose her pink hat. As a special agent fighting drug dealers world wide, In the self-titled Cleopatra Jones, she meets her nemesis, black leather-clad Mommy, played with relish by Oscar winning Shelly Winters, whose oddball stooges are Doodlebug, Pickle and Snake.

In a typical Blaxploitation film, even if the humour is temporarily absent, the wardrobe never is. Sharp suits, colour-drenched outfits, hats, high heels (sometimes verrry high heels, very colour saturated) and tailor made suits that Paul Keating would die for are de rigeur for every significant character.

Super Fly, for example, has a nice white suit and matching shoes and red shirt; Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby (in Let's Do It Again) get to wear classy threads in the preparation for their boxing sting, and, of course, Shaft is a 70s fashion icon.

"maybe you've heard Blaxploitation!"

But the first thing that strikes you with all these titles, is the music: it's as funky as the humour and the wardrobe, with a cool beat that drives the mood and sets the tone.

As English writer Edward Griffiths notes, "Blaxploitation had an enormous musical influence on film and television. Many of the police shows of the 1970s and 1980s in America and abroad had instantly recognisable funk themes and incidental music which, again, have survived better than the visuals.

"Notable examples include Tom Scott's 'Starsky & Hutch', Pat Williams' superb jazz-funk crossover 'Streets of San Francisco', 'Charlie's Angels' which Henry Mancini covered to great success, and the classic US No.1 hit 'Theme from S.W.A.T.' by Rhythm Heritage. 'Kojak', Quincy Jones' 'Ironside', New Generation's camp classic 'Wonder Woman',

Morton Stevens' 'Hawaii Five-O', Oliver Nelson's 'Six Million Dollar Man' theme, 'Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow (Baretta's Theme)', Jack Jones' easy listening with wah-wah 'Love Boat' all exhibited a Blaxploitation influence."

So maybe you've heard Blaxploitation!

"the unique 'metier' of 'the brothers'"

What all these films also have in common is that they portray characters with whom Black Americans can identify; they walk, talk and joke in the unique 'metier' of 'the brothers'. But it's equally entertaining for us white trash.

September, 1999

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Let's Do It Again


Blaxploitation Collection (Sept. 1999)
Warner Home Video, RRP $14.95 each

Black Belt Jones (R)

Black Eye (M)

Black Samson (R )

Cleopatra Jones (M 15+)

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (M 15+)

Greased Lightning (PG)

Hot Potato (M 15+)

I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (M 15+)

Let's Do It Again (PG)

Shaft (M 15+)

Shaft in Africa (R )

Super Fly (R )


I'm Gonna Git You Sucka

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