Showing posts with label blaxploitation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label blaxploitation. Show all posts

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

Roots, Bloody Roots

written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz,
Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

Guns on the table: is Tarantino using a shameful period of American history as so much paint to splash upon his hipster pasticheur's canvas, as the Spike Lees and Armond Whites of the world have charged? Is he, in fact, turning the subjugation and mental colonization of a race of people into just another candy-colored Panavision playground for his boundless, grindhouse-fed imagination to romp through?

Of course, he is – and it puts him in the company of approximately every dramatist or storyteller who's ever existed.

Imagine, if you will, a human existence without the eternal Godzilla's foot of war and enmity between nations that looms over us in every era, threatening to stamp us into oblivion. Imagine hearts shielded from the pin-pricks of bigotry and callousness and brotherly betrayal; no random shootings, robberies gone awry or crumbling inner-city war zones blasted daily into our consciousness by op-ed pieces and chirpy anchorwomen. What, then, would our future artistes and essayists on the human condition use to fuel their plaudit-inspiring, name-making masterworks? How many little gold statuettes and industry back-slaps have been dished out on the deaths of soldiers at Normandy or grunts blown apart by Vietnamese land mines, while we swooned over all that Method-acted agony on the screen and inhaled another fistful of Goobers? Does one suppose that the Bard paused in the middle of writing Macbeth to weep for poor souls ground underfoot in man's eternal headlong rush to power? Human suffering is art, and the Tarantino of Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds – comic-book moral intelligence notwithstanding – is no more inherently objectionable than Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam restaging the David Berkowitz killings or Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski slapping wheels under the Holocaust and riding that sucker straight into Oscarville.

What gets folks all indignant about The King of the Fanboys tackling a Serious Subject like slavery is the same thing that makes his work crackle with a charge unmatched in our dickless modern era: he refuses to stick a neat little bow on his intentions for the guardians of human suffering by ladling on the strings, standing back at a respectable distance and putting his sense of humor on ice. He refuses (is unable?) to treat the slave trade as any less of a springboard to rip-roaring action-movie nirvana than botched jewel heists, Mexican standoffs in diners or Uma Thurman and her samurai sword taking on a squad of assassins – hence, the accusations of cloistered geek-boy insensitivity.

But he's not wrong, in essence. To try and understand with twenty-first century minds a world where biblically justified chattel was as intrinsic to daily life as child labor and the outdoor commode is to circle endlessly around a cold black void of the unknowable. What might as well be dystopian sci-fi from the unbridgeable distance of neat schoolbook summaries or dusty daguerreotypes flashed upon in PBS documentaries becomes flesh and blood when couched in the grammar of a big Christmas-season revenge flick. Ancient history merges with the present-day narrative, the freedom of a Nat Turner becomes as tangible a hero’s quest as Batman cleaning up Gotham. Culture-wide catharsis beckons at the pop of an overloaded squib.

That's not to say that Tarantino isn't indulging in the usual Hollywood self-flattery. Your friend who still quotes lines from Pulp Fiction will swear to you that Django is an examination of how every facet of an ostensibly civilized society both benefits from and does its part to sustain institutionalized inequality. Tarantino's not that deep, though – not intentionally, anyway – so what we actually get is a rock-'em-sock-'em Sergio Corbucci/blaxploitation mash-up where modern-day liberals are time-machined back to the mean old past to wreak sweet, bloody havoc on the not-with-it-ness of our backwards forebears. No one with an investment in historical accuracy will mistake Christoph Waltz's kindly, über-progressive Dr. King Schultz for anything but an emissary of our present age of enlightenment, what with his pangs of guilt about buying Django like a horse and his blithe naïveté about riding through town with a black man at his side, while clueless as to what all the slack-jawed yahoos are staring at. His climactic Wild Bunch gesture – a Pike Bishop middle finger in the face of one last compromise – completes his canonization.

Obviously, then, Schultz is our Tarantino surrogate – the lone white swan amidst rotten-tooth redneck ducklings, the white man who gets it, the sole beneficiary of divine wisdom and madcap inspiration who atones for the sins of his race by freeing a black man from the chains of iniquity and molding him into an instrument of heroic vengeance that echoes the legends of his youth. (The Nibelungenlied for Schultz, Coffy and Fred Williamson flicks for the future masthead of the S.S. Weinstein.) It's interracial male bonding not as a balm for lingering social hostilities, not even as a Tarantino-esque tweak of buddy-movie conventions, but as a fundamentally white male artist's assertion of continued relevance in the age of identity politics; an application for renewal of the ghetto pass Tarantino first earned by sporting a backwards Kangol and telling the media of his mother's black boyfriends and his lifelong hard-on for Pam Grier.

I wonder, though: what happened to the mad bomber of Miramax who played around with form and context like a mischievous brat who'd just received the history of cinema for a Christmas toy? Whither goeth the pop revolutionary who delighted in taking stock genre characters and dropping them into the real world with its frustrating refusal to stick to the script? When a pair of bad-ass hit men like Pulp Fiction's Jules and Vincent find themselves faced with the consequences of careless firearm handling in an everyman's L.A. full of observant cops and friends who want your ass gone before the wife gets home, it's how they extricate themselves that epitomized the singularity of Tarantino's gift – the way that their B-movie programming short-circuits at life's improv and sends them scrambling out of the cineplex toward a kind of shaky humanity. "Movies are great," the video store clerk-turned-overnight sensation seemed to be telling us. "But at some point, you've gotta grow up." Jackie Brown's sublime meditation on aging and regret only furthered the perception.

Now his gift's in service of cinematic wish fulfillment, righting the wrongs of history. The bad-boy president of the N-word Fan Club is now defined by his eagerness to liberate himself from the shackles of white maleness and soothe his chapped ankles in the waters of grrl power, anti-anti-Semitism and black hipness. Problem is, that eagerness has blinded him to how underwritten his totems of payback-against-The-Man tend to be. (Unless, of course, he meant to make Basterds the first World War II movie in which the Nazis are complex, three-dimensional magnets for audience identification while the Jews are little more than bloodthirsty comic relief.)

Jamie Foxx, as Django, is supposedly the centerpiece of the Unchained saga, and yet – grim irony – he winds up about three-fifths of a fully sketched lead. (Waltz is the true star of the film.) One guesses that Tarantino almost didn't need to color him in: our disgust for slavery is enough to have us cheering on Django's rebirth as the ebony Siegfried. (Just as motherhood in Kill Bill was the trigger for our investment in The Bride.) And Tarantino was likely motivated by the threadbare characterization and shadowy man-with-no-name aura of any number of spaghetti western protagonists. Still, he somewhat glosses over the psychological scars of a life in bondage by having Django go so easily from human property to damn-the-system avenger and crackshot marksman. We need to feel, as well as see, the spectacle of a black man rising from the prehistoric racial milieu of 1858 and pointing his shotgun toward a better tomorrow. We need to see the nuts and bolts of nothing less than a man's mind being molded. The potentially fatal audacity of learning to put bullets in white men for money, of developing a ruse in order to waltz into the fourth biggest plantation in Mississippi and reclaim his wife, needs to be as eye-opening and as consciousness-transforming for Django as the contact with other lifeforms in Close Encounters of the Third Kind – he's discovering new planets. Instead, we get an amusing scene of Django decked out in Little Lord Fauntleroy regalia and a nifty montage set to Jim Croce.

Foxx is less a pure actor than he is a movie star and comedian (call it The Eddie Murphy Factor), so he keeps us at arm’s length, never truly disappears into the character the way a Don Cheadle or a Chiwetel Ejiofor might have. Tarantino, in a recent interview with Henry Louis Gates, spoke of having to coax Foxx into the mindset needed for Django – the spirit-killing degradation and utter smallness internalized by a man who's used to life as a farm implement. But Foxx doesn’t do "smallness." Here, as in most of his performances (Michael Mann's excellent Collateral being an exception), he's too tethered to his public award-show image of super cool Jamie Foxx-ness, too locked into a shell of 2012 black male hardness that refuses all hints of vulnerability and bristles with anachronistic indignation. It's a variation on the same false note that plagued Spielberg's Lincoln, with its 1865 black soldiers proudly addressing not just any white man, mind you, but the President of the United States of America – and with far too much direct eye contact and (to echo Richard Pryor) "bass" in their voices, to boot.

Here, you can see that hip-hop-appropriate I-ain't-no-muthafuckin'-slave-ness bubbling up long before the narrative has a chance to account for it: on the plantation of the Don Johnson character as Django pumps a hole in the leering sadist who once reveled in whipping Django's wife, or at the beginning as Django struts forward to grab the coat from a dead white man and put his weight on the mangled leg of the dead man's brother. It's there as Django cracks wise and simmers with animus during his and Schultz's visit to the Candie Land plantation under the guise of purchasing mandingo fighters – and it's enough to smother whatever suspension of disbelief we've been able to muster between all the cutesy spaghetti western speed-zooms and flashbacks filtered to look like a faded film print from 1968. It's an admission of this misplaced modernity when Tarantino drops 2Pac and Rick Ross on the soundtrack. And because we haven't fully bought into his kitsch-laden panorama of the past, the choice doesn't jar us nearly as much as, say, Peter Gabriel's synth-drums over the opening battle in Gangs of New York.

It’s worth noting that Django only bonds with Schultz the hip Tarantino stand-in rather than with any black characters. Despite his flair for the verbiage of salt-and-pepper interaction, Tarantino has no real idea how black people might actually relate to one another. (Jackie Brown's tête-à-têtes with Ordell aside, and that's in large part due to Elmore Leonard's source novel – in which she was white.) We keep waiting for Django to offer a helping hand, some ray of hope – something befitting a hero – to his fellow black men as he prepares to ride off into his preordained sunset of ass-kicking righteousness. They stare up at him like a living Greek myth whose legend they'll undoubtedly spread to others, and he looks back at them – knowing yet dispassionate, a god made flesh. And then? Tarantino seems to be nudging us toward something larger, some sparking of a communal flame – perhaps a plantation-wide revolt – that might thrust his fantasia into a broader historical context, that might use his worship of the "bad muthafucka" archetype to scrape decades of Hollywood-applied makeup from the bloodstained, genocide-blemished face of American history.

But nothing comes of it. Was Leonardo DiCaprio's plantation heir Calvin Candie right when he pegged Django as a one-in-ten-thousand rarity among biologically docile blacks? It's as if Tarantino spent all his capital on enriching Django's relationship with a white man and had none left to flesh out the sense of community that undoubtedly existed among slaves, even under the shit-encrusted boot of captivity. Save for a brief, enlightening throwaway of Samuel Jackson's Stephen joking with the kitchen help, we get no hints of the cobbled-from-scraps culture – the humor, the secret communication – that managed to nourish blacks in spite of slavery's every attempt to sever them from human connection and turn them into self-regulating extensions of Massa's whip. There's nothing from Tarantino, that eternally bowed figure at the monument of superficial black coolness, that even nods in the direction of slaves' capacity for aiding one another. Rebellion other than Django's crackles at the margins of the narrative but it's ill-planned – and we do need a sacrificial lamb or two to help showcase the depths of hillbilly depravity – so it's easily quashed. Django, though, has the good fortune to have Schultz; he's given agency and on-the-job training by a Magic Caucasian figure who feels sorry for the poor devil, thus, he triumphs. It's retroactive affirmative action; the auspices of the hipster's White Negro impulse jumping back in time with the cutups from Dave Chappelle's "Playa Haters in Time" skit and rewriting Roots.

As with Basterds, though, the real meat of Django Unchained is around the edges. Laura Cayouette, as Candie's sister (and probable lover) Lara, is a satirist's sketch of blushing Southern-belle coquettishness; Susan George in Mandingo minus the storm clouds of scorned-woman spite. Walton Goggins, as Candie Land henchman Billy Crash, is our grinning death's head of keep-the-niggers-in-their-place-ism – a bud of privileged intransigence that would shortly blossom into the Confederacy and the Klan. (By the way, Quentin, 1858 is three years from the start of the Civil War, not two.) He's in a constant, self-perpetuating fit of arousal: he can't wait to kill you in the most agonizing way possible, and he wants to know if it turns you on as much as it does him. A cineaste could die smiling from all the great character actors that keep popping up: Don Stroud facing down his doom with prickly unawareness, a befuddled Tom Wopat, Bruce Dern, James Remar, Franco Nero – in Tarantino's obligatory nod to the original Django westerns.

From the second he turns to greet us, DiCaprio's Candie is clearly no member of the laboring class. He's a cover-boy dandy for the Esquire of the antebellum South, with his ridiculous Holly Golightly cigarette holder, his pointy cartoon-devil goatee and his air of bored hedonism that can't help but hold a mirror up to the thoroughly average countenance of whoever has the audacity not to have been born a wickedly clever son of the landowning class. Like the insane dreamworld that surrounds him, he's a study in contrasts: he's our gracious host for a banquet on the elevator to hell, balls-deep in chained chocolate as he preaches phrenology and offhandedly instructs a pair of bloodied mandingos to "keep fightin', niggers" while tossing his Southern hospitality around the room like bits of bread thrown to starving pickaninnies. That's no goof on nineteenth-century hygiene when his smile flashes rotting yellow teeth: that's the state of his soul, the silk hanky of the "suh-thun way-a lahf" peeled back to reveal a lump of maggot-infested horse meat.

Candie and Stephen, his head servant and the father figure that's shaped Calvin from childhood, are a crackling minstrel-show duo of his 'n hers interdependence. (Call it Jack Benny and an uppity-as-hell Rochester as sketched by the writers of Blazing Saddles.) Hilariously, Jackson's made up to look like a refugee from a crude Reconstruction-era staging of Uncle Tom's Cabin. He distances himself from the self-loathing of this doddering old sellout with that theatrical old-man look and with funky little touches like the tuft of white hair that adorns his bald geezer's dome. It's another of Tarantino's knowing black men schooling greenhorn white boys in the ways of the world (think Mr. Orange and Holdaway in Reservoir Dogs); yet another Sam Jackson performance that hones Tarantino's genius for triggering manic, queasy laughs to a diamond-bullet sharpness. From his every utterance of "muthafucka" to his Ordell Robbie huckster's laugh (more distancing techniques), to the glorious intro shot of that beady-eyed scowl that breaks over the landscape of his face like sudden nightfall, I couldn't get enough of him.

It's Stephen who runs the show at Candie Land – the original Head Nigga In Charge – and, though he gives great shuck 'n jive while yes'm-ing and mm-hmm'ing away at the side of his boy king, it's Stephen who reveals himself to be the dragon standing between Django and his sainted princess. Stephen drops his mask of servility twice, and indelibly: face to face with Django and, earlier, as he hips Calvin to the ruse that had a house full of fool white folks nodding along like Simple Simons. It's his truest self: the contempt for his socially appointed betters that lurks shark-like under placid waters of sass-tongued coonery. Forget Clarence Thomas, Jackson gives us Stephen as a great-great-grandfather to the flared-nostril surliness that white liberal tastemakers now applaud as Authentic Negro Expression – commodified black rage turned self-applied blackface. And tiny victories are all Stephen's world allows him; if he has to topple another black man just to feel the salve of backroom superiority against his own chapped ankles, then so be it.

Tarantino, divorced as he is from the fat, humorless bitch of highbrow critical consensus, has long championed Richard Fleischer's Mandingo for its big-studio wading into murky exploitation waters. But Mandingo – along with Lars von Trier’s overlooked Manderlay – trumps Django for pure daring. Fleischer and von Trier dig beneath evil-whitey caricatures to stare head-on at the fetishizing of black otherness that kept slavery on life support. That "otherness" eventually curdled into America's fear of miscegenation: for generations of self-styled white Siegfrieds, the black penis became the fire-breathing dragon forever coiled in wait outside the castle of white womanhood. That’s something Tarantino shies away from, cranking up gunshot geysers of tomato sauce in its place – Sam Peckinpah by way of Chuck Jones. It's not surprising, given his career-long aversion to the sexuality that informed much of the cinema he claims as inspiration. Django does bear the scent of sex in one regard, though, and it's the fruit of Tarantino's apparent white-liberal cuckold fantasies: he sits back and watches a black man fuck the legacy of his ancestors. And you know what they say about black virility. No wonder this long-winded film keeps climaxing over and over.

©2013 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Friday, January 13, 2012

On Blaxploitation: The Mack (1973), Willie Dynamite (1974)

The first time I realized that I've got a reasonably hip neighbor in my building? I'd say it was the time I walked past a window and caught a snatch of James Brown's "I was born in New York City on a Monday/Seems I was out shinin' shoes by Tuesday noon," from his eternally awesome soundtrack to the Fred Williamson vehicle Black Caesar. (Tragically, said neighbor turned out to be a guy rather than the cute, ironic B-movie-watching hipster slut he should have been.) Even better was the time I tried dozing off on the red line after a hard day of shuffling papers, only to find my eardrums confronted with some Deebo-from-Friday lookalike and his fucking Radio Raheem-box blasting "Brother's Gonna Work It Out" from The Mack — a moment both Negroliciously obnoxious and hey-wait-can-you-turn-that-up-a-bit? sublime.

And why would broadcasting these particular songs across five counties qualify one for reasonable hipness? Because a) it's fucking Willie Hutch and fucking "Godfather of Soul"-era James Brown and b) it's an ostensible raised fist and "As-Salaam-Alaikum" in salute to that gloriously tacky cultural artifact known as blaxploitation — the most mesmerizing accidental window onto a subculture that '70s Hollywood produced.

How best to convey the low-rent charms of blaxploitation to the uninitiated? Suffice it to say, it's the cinematic equivalent to a circa-'73 Harlem rent party where they're spinning scratchy copies of early Funkadelic and There's a Riot Goin' On and The World Is a Ghetto and Rasputin's Stash and Hustlers' Convention and Miles Davis' On the Corner all night, and you find yourself stoned and sinking ever deeper into someone's faux-leopardskin couch under a huge black velvet painting of Huey Newton or a raised fist, while junkies are nodding off on the side, and the corner preacher's giving a sermon on cleaning up the community, and black beret-wearing cats are mumbling to pimp-suited cats about gettin' their thang together, and Angela Davis-fro'ed mamas are runnin' it down on jive-ass suckas over by the turntable. And in the midst of all the ebonics and kinky 'dos and curious fashions and seething resentment that tend to come out when a particular class of black folks isn't under the microscope of a white America looking for kicks and model minorities, you're thinking to yourself: "Got-dayum, all that fried chicken with collard greens they got up in the kitchen smell good than a muuh-fugga."

Even at its flat-out worst — and this is a genre that gave us Blacula, Dolemite and seven-foot tall Negroes unleashing kung fu on a phalanx of corrupt cops — blaxploitation stands as a time capsule no Tarantinos or Robert Rodriguezes could ever reproduce, as grits-'n-greens authentic as an un-bleeped man-on-the-street interview with the specter of ghetto rage, as revealing an X-ray of black psyches during a troubling snatch of our American history as Miles Davis' autobiography or a Reconstruction-era slave narrative. There's a delirious, am-I-really-seeing-this? quality to blaxploitation's acid-trip mash-up of outrage and fuck-whitey insularity and fetishization of black "otherness." Its fumble-fingered approach to filmmaking conventions like focus and well-placed boom mikes combines with an anything-goes batter-ramming of taboos and good sense to put the "what the fuck?" in "what the fuck?" For audiences numbed on the plasticity of trillion-dollar budgets and Burbank back lots, blaxploitation films serve as yellowing Polaroids of a palpable time and place, thanks to a forced cinema verité aesthetic that often meant venturing where even TV news cameras feared to tread — and capturing some of the unvarnished essence of America's urban slums in the process.

It's a child only the Nixon-and-Soul Train '70s could have sired (after a decade-plus of across-the-tracks flirting), what with the era's thoroughly racialized pop culture and an exploitation market newly animated in the wake of R-ratings permissiveness, Deep Throat and pubic hair in Playboy. That the culture quickly abandoned its nappy-headed bastard to die on a '70s trash heap filled with Pet Rocks, Nehru jackets and "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" 45's — indeed, that the bastard only lived a good five years or so — does nothing to negate the amazing fact of its birth.

Now, whether or not The Black Gestapo or, say, Scream Blacula Scream represented a fully accurate portrayal of Tha Streetz Circa '73 is a discussion I'll leave to people more knowledgeable than myself. But despite what the critics and Spike Lee told you, blaxploitation contributed at least a handful of enduring, visceral classics to the Gritty '70s canon. (No matter how much we still insist on them using a separate drinking fountain from the one that Taxi Driver, The Last Picture Show or McCabe & Mrs. Miller uses.) And films about black folk produced and/or directed largely by well-meaning white guys would rarely — if ever — venture to within an Afro Sheen-smelling distance of the Real McCoy again.

Of course, blaxploitation is a coin whose two sides have to be considered in tandem. Yes, even the gaudiest American International Pictures attempt at taking hoary genre tropes and smearing them with burnt cork could contain moments of startling insight — the kind of self-realization you wish N.W.A or the Geto Boys would have stumbled upon in the midst of one of their Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song-derived porno-violence fantasias. And yet, for every genuine acknowledgement of socio-economic inequalities, for every queasy racial truth met head-on, you've essentially got a group of films that paint blacks in strict shades of Cadillac red — a cinematic movement that took outré pimps, street-corner hustlers and junkies passed out in rat-infested tenements, and crowned them the ghetto ambassadors to mainstream America.

Was blaxploitation Hollywood's gleeful perversion of Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback and its stab at revolution on celluloid? Was it all just a cynical cash-in on black power and the post-civil rights urge of blacks to have their "own thang," which refused to dilute itself or take a Sidney Poitier power sander to its genitalia for the sake of white approval? Was it a "separate but equal" section of the genre landscape cordoned off for black audiences no longer satisfied with a Steve McQueen or a Clint Eastwood to cheer on?

Ask middle-class blacks old enough to have caught these films in theaters and you'll find the oeuvre of, say, Rudy Ray Moore to be the scourge of the upwardly mobile — little more than a compendium of nigger jokes paraded like fine furs for the "oohs" and "aahs" of snickering whites and "Niggroes" too ignorant to know better. They'll tell you that all these films added up to was the illusion of progress, merely the transfer of black America from the old prison of stereotypes to a new one — but since this new prison had velvet-lined bars, Thunderbird on ice and some Jet pinup girls on the walls, black folks made themselves right at home. What the blaxploitation culture locked up at the outset of the '70s, they'll tell you, was a Bobby Seale, an Eldridge Cleaver — forty years in the can, and yesterday's Black Panther has mutated into today's Snoop D-O-Double-G's and 50 Cents, all proud lifers on the plantation of the mind.

Here's the irony, though: blaxploitation films were quite well-attended by black audiences in their heyday. I'd hazard a guess that your average leisure-suited Afro-American of the Nixon-to-Ford era was well aware of the genre's spotlight on only the most sensationalistic members of the community (however authentically rendered), well aware that the success of the genre threatened to weld an iron jigaboo mask to the collective face of Black America. But that's how great the need for onscreen black heroes was — after decades of blackface and bug-eyed coonin' and shuffle-footed Uncle Tommin' and yassuh-nossuh, lawdy boss I's-a sho' 'nuff gittin' yo' dinna ready from a Hollywood cotton field stacked to its peachtrees with fat mammies and buffoonish servants or — later — safe, inoffensive Negroes reduced to scenic wallpaper in the great never-ending commercial for White American normalcy. (A question, when one considers the generally Semitic lineage of the old-school studio moguls who greenlit all this stuff: are Stepin Fetchit or Sleep 'N Eat or the Mantan Moreland manservant roles somehow better than, say, the hook-nosed caricatures in Nazi propaganda films?)

So blaxploitation came along and decided to combat all those nefarious, emasculating stereotypes with... well, stereotypes. Except, in this case, the stereotypes employed were the "good kind," i.e. the kind that make little white penises shrivel in spasms of envy, the kind that no black man would ever challenge. Thus, Shaft and Super Fly played up the black man's street cunning and lion-of-the-jungle sexual prowess that no woman could resist. Sundry Jim Brown and Fred Williamson action vehicles played up the black man's peerless masculinity — and lion-of-the-jungle sexual prowess that no woman could resist.

Symbolism much?

A kid in the Man's candy store...

Later, Coffy and Foxy Brown would tailor the formula to accommodate Pam Grier's tits and charisma but — obviously — black women aren't the perceived threat to the sanctity of white society (and white vaginas) that black men are. Grier's films fulfilled a comparatively safer, much less anarchic brand of fantasy. For white males seeking atonement by flogging themselves with the anaconda-like man-meat of the day's black action studs, the difference between Foxy Brown and watching John Shaft bed every color of the rainbow is like the difference between jerking to "ebony maids" clips on Porntube and gritting one's teeth in muted awe as Lexington Steele drills tunnels in fresh-faced Iowa runaways who resemble your sister.

And then, there's the blaxploitation subgenre known as the Pimp Film. "Look at Tyrone, unparalleled in his ability to bust a smooth rap on the ladies," crowed these chronicles of the World's Oldest Profession. "Watch how the sheer power of his total mental seduction can instantly bring out the natural whore in any woman — especially a white one — and have her doing the ever-lovin' hell out of thangs Daddy never thought possible." And a sea of Afros nodded a collective "right onnnn," bathed in the flickering images of woman-hate wrapped in threads loud enough to suggest a Liberace Appreciation Society in the heart of America's ghettos.

The Mack (1973, dir. Michael Campus) — saluted with an impromptu Leonard Maltin blurb in the middle of True Romance, as prayed to in the church of hip-hop as De Palma's Scarface — stands as the quintessential pimp film, perhaps the jewel of the funky, nap-encrusted blaxploitation crown. Max Julien's Goldie floats like a saturnine king through the streets of post-riots Oakland — his turf, his territory, the place where his corral of hussies on the make seduces its way into the pockets of one dumb cluck after the next. His fellow hustlers flaunt their existence to a world that's shut off all ports to traditional means of recognition, and they do it in everything from craps games to shoeshines, barking loud enough to keep up the neighborhood. Goldie, though, is a sleepy-eyed wolf — easing his way into a room, taking the full measure of a scene before he's uttered a word. You never see him coming. He's as affectless when vowing, fresh out of prison, to become the baddest pussy peddler the ghetto's ever seen as he is when setting out on a bus for parts unknown, with his empire in tatters and the stench of a few corpses nipping at his heels. In between, we get a sort of greatest-hits skimming-over of just what it takes to earn a Player of the Year trophy.

And what it takes is purring with sugar on your tongue as you gaze at a naïve rich girl like an only girlfriend on Valentine's Day and ask her if she's ready to go straight to the top. It takes becoming a psychiatrist and a hypnotist all in one — digging into a woman's subconscious to pull out her childhood dream of opulence and security, then holding it out to her as if it were a glass slipper you'd been carrying in your back pocket all this time. It takes tapping into every women's masochistic daddy complex with a very clear, very firm sense of direction: you're under my protection, my tutelageyou're mine. And in return, you'll do as I ask or I'll leave you where I found you. It means testing a woman to see how much of what she's telling you is lies — is she willing to steal for you, work herself to a nub for you, do anything for you? Can she be taught, trained, molded? Is her love for real? It means peering into their starry little eyes and telling them every lie they've wanted to hear most.

So far, he's no different — in spirit — from any man who takes that roll of the dice and sets his heart and his sanity down on the blackjack table of male-female relations. Only Goldie, like all dedicated pimps, has no heart — at least, none he's willing to gamble with. When his women make the mistake of thinking that they're friends and they come blubbering up to his car with a sucker's tale about how some crazed john made off with all their money, Goldie's jaw sets, his eyes go hard and black like a shark's and he gives them the only sympathy they're going to get from him: "Get back out there and get me my money." When one of his stable flouts the established rules of ho' conduct, he resigns himself to what he has to do — "put a foot to that ass" — even if there is the whisper of reluctance in his voice. (The closest we see him come to "checkin' a bitch" adds up to little more than him grabbing one by the arms and telling her to cool out: glimmer of Goldie's humanity or crafty narrative elision?)

It's in spite of Goldie's reluctance that he's the pimp he is: learning to put one's soul on ice, to see the world in dollar signs, to put that Almighty Dollar Bill above life itself — that's a constant vow one makes, and it's renewed with every glance at oneself in the mirror, every decision, every day spent in "the game." That's a potential future you've shut a coffin lid on, a relinquishing of the better, undoubtedly poorer person you could have been — a hell of a cost to pay for a taste of the good life. And those who pay the highest costs make damn sure they get the merchandise. That code of the street takes precedence over all emotions, all moral concerns, whatever vestiges of your smothered-but-still-breathing humanity you've got moaning muffled pleas from the trunk of your tricked-out El Dorado. It's the semblance of jungle law that keeps the animals in their places, keeps the hounds of impending chaos from snapping forward at any moment. Allow it to be chipped away — just the tiniest bit — and everyone gets devoured. And you're back to those cold cuts and that filth.

Little wonder, then, that the pimp morphed into such a ghetto folk hero, the patron saint of men at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder where the only thing that trickles down is shit. Especially at the time of blaxploitation's flowering, black men in toto lacked both the education and the employment opportunities of their white counterparts — two things that absolutely determine one's financial standing. What better fantasy for a man emasculated by his inability to satiate women's materialism than Goldie or Willie D — niggas so cool, they got bitches bringing them money? What better fantasy for a man unable to ply women with the cars and furs and baubles that other guys use to score the kind of pussy he can only dream about? What better psychic revenge for someone unable to assert his manhood in a culture that idolizes prosperity — a culture where real men aren't measured in inches, they're measured in net worth?

Willie Dynamite (1974, dir. Gilbert Moses) takes the expected crime-is-just-the-dark-side-of-American-business logic — a justification used by everyone from mafiosi to Lil' Pee Wee slangin' rocks down on the "ave" — and proceeds to bitch-slap us with it until we're seeing stars and stripes. We get a sequence of Willie's seasoned thoroughbreds reeling in horny old goats at a Shriners' convention: "The price of meat has gone up," his tallest pinch of brown sugar announces, while a financial analyst on the TV chirps about boom years for the business sector. We get Martha Reeves and her theme song — "Some say his business is cold and a crime" — with its churchy ebullience over percolating horns leaving little doubt as to where our former Vandella stands on the matter. We watch Willie's newest girl Pashen (that's "Passion" to you L7's) as Willie (Roscoe Orman, the future Gordon on Sesame Street, no less) convinces her that she's little more than an affordable, mass-produced hunk of metal and rubber — an easy ride, right? — because, just like the assembly lines of GM, Ford or Chrysler, "Willie's comin' through."

Willie attends a counsel of his fellow hustlers at the behest of Bell (Roger Robinson), an eccentric near-diva of a mack given to intense pronunciations of words like "tight" and "vision," a guy for whom the term "flamboyance" is like an old pair of swim trunks you've outgrown: it barely covers the basics. Naturally, the counsel exists as a sort of board meeting for black-market executives, with primo blow and fur-lined velvet in lieu of coffee and Brooks Brothers suits. (The scene itself is a veritable Sistine Chapel of B-movie outrageousness.) Bell wants all the pimps in "the Organization" to agree to a slicing of the pie: each hustler gets his own designated area to work, as opposed to squabbling over territory and the resultant saturation of some markets while others go underserved. Willie bristles at the idea that lesser talents might be allotted a piece of the swanky hotel turf that he's cultivated for his girls; he bristles at the thought of limiting his potential, of padding his pockets on a curve so that the marginally gifted might catch up to the top one percent. He likes the competition, the Darwinian order of things. "I thought we were all capitalists," our pimp Republican admonishes.

Like The Mack, Willie Dynamite concerns its hero's struggle to keep his Cadillac empire from caving in despite the weight of the various forces bearing down on top of it: Bell, peeved that Willie won't play ball and share the wealth, the obligatory pair of cops who hound Willie from first breath in the morning to last breath at night. Add to that this film's version of the "conscience of the community": Cora (Diana Sands in her final role), a former hooker turned social worker who visits Pashen in the slammer to try to turn her toward the light, and vows to have Willie and his King Tut hats standing on the bread line, with the help of her D.A. boyfriend (blaxploitation and black sitcom fixture Thalmus Rasulala).

Willie Dynamite takes the pimp mythology and strips it of whatever scant political context The Mack tried to drape around it — there's nothing here as shot through with the rage of the hungry as Goldie cutting short a reminiscence of childhood poverty to jump up and confront his own gaunt image in the mirror; nothing as forthright about its own contradictory impulses as the tête-à-tête staged between Goldie and his brother, a Huey Newton-style activist dedicated to cleaning up the neighborhood. ("Nobody's closing me out of my business," Goldie assures him.) For that matter, there's nothing of Willie's square-offs with the po-po that carries the raw frisson of Goldie and his pal Slim (a livewire Richard Pryor) as they face down the barrel of a shotgun and a "run, nigger, run" from the pair of corrupt detectives that's been a tick on Goldie's nuts since before he went to prison. Pryor, in particular, virtually breaks down on camera. The comedian was at the apex of his drug years here — there's a scene with Slim talking to Goldie in a bar early on, where Pryor the actor is so clearly mumbling and fidgeting on a mile-a-minute coke jag, it's like cutting into your neat little genre steak and getting a squirt of blood in your face. The suddenness of it — the reminder of the turmoil behind the finished product — is disquieting.

Willie Dynamite calls a spade a spade, though. "Being rich and black means something" is Goldie's credo to pimp by; the sweet soul tune he hums loud enough to drown out any objections while remaining all coolly exhaled chronic smoke, the proto-Snoop Dogg too laid back in the cut, too pimped-out, too West Coast to seemingly raise much of a fuss about anything. And yet, when it's down to the wire, he's a street fightin' man through and through, hurling middle-finger Molotovs at the rotted-out godhead of entrenched white authority, ultimately aligning himself with his brother's personal up-with-the-people anarchy. Willie, though, represents nothing so noble as the fattening of his own pockets — the film might as well have pulled a Patton and backdropped his "assembly line" speech with a giant fur-rimmed American flag. (And talk about a forward-thinking businessman: Willie's even got an Asian in his stable. Say what you want, but any guy who can anticipate trends at least twenty years ahead of the curve is a guy who's definitely on top of his shit.)

Where Goldie has to take that hint from an underling as to how to deal with ho' transgressions, Willie displays zero compunction about threatening Cora or giving Pashen a taste of the hand for inconveniencing him with her arrest. The cops hounding him aren't corrupt racists — or no more than was the norm for the '70s NYPD — they're a salt-and-pepper duo of Dudley Do-Rights: "good Catholic" Celli and upright Black Muslim Pointer. Pointer, in particular, makes it his mission to take Willie down — by any means necessary, natch — and, forget the law, he's got the force of the whole post-civil rights black-consciousness juggernaut behind him. ("Yeah, she's my sister," he tells Willie about a former Dynamite girl who wound up with a ticket on the O.D. Express. "She's your sister, too.")

Willie Dynamite's got a dimple in its grin, as well; a sly way with an over-the-shoulder wink where The Mack can only go all po-faced and post-high comedown on us whenever it's not lauding Goldie's scaling of the shitheap with Willie Hutch's funk symphony or typifying blaxploitation's carrying of the chitlin-circuit torch with coarse, easy comedy. (Bourgeois respectability versus "keepin' it real.") There's a running gag about Willie's pimpmobile constantly being towed away; what keeps you smiling is — naturally — the thought of a guy dressed like Willie having to share cabs or take public transportation with us regular schlubs. It's the dressing-down of a character for whom appearance is a declaration of identity; the same impulse that made Jules and Vincent going from black suits to volleyball wear so amusing in Pulp Fiction. Willie gets hauled in on a bullshit suspicion-of-armed-robbery charge and — his priorities being what they are — he launches into a flight of pique over a roomful of doughy precinct cops having the audacity not to recognize his coat as thousand-dollar lambskin. (He's like the old lady harrumphing "Well, I never!" in a Don Rickles bit.)

Cora accosts Willie's harem while he's away; she punctures their pathetic illusions about the true worth of the cheapjack wigs and dresses he keeps them in before broaching the idea of them starting their own union. It's a bitch-please reality check sandwiched with sisters-are-doin'-it-for-themslves fist-pumping that kicks out the high horse from underneath the girls only to catch them as they fall; the same earth-mama, food-for-the-soul psychology trip Sands laid on privileged white boy Beau Bridges in Hal Ashby's excellent (and criminally underseen) The Landlord. I always get a kick out of Willie threatening to report his corrupt attorney to the Bar Association or his deadpanning to a cop who wonders how a pimp knows so much about the ins and outs of the law: "I just watch Ironside."

Interestingly, Willie's pimp counsel scene, or the much-parodied Player's Ball sequence in The Mack, lay bare the extent to which the bad-ass black-buck flesh merchants of the American gutter prided themselves on their adoption of female vanity and behavioral tics. (Of course, we're talking about a culture of men raised by mothers, aunts and grandmothers; men who've had to cobble together an idol of manhood in the absence of actual fathers and viable male role models.) With their penchant for furs and jewelry and meticulously maintained perms, indeed, with their inability to go more than five steps into a cock-of-the-walk without checking to make sure their hair isn't out of place — to say nothing of the insta-violence sparked by hairline affronts to the wrong man's ego — it's high comedy that the pimp has left such a chokehold on the black male imagination.

We get scenes of our heroes dismissing challenges to their domain — Willie by waving the little palm cannon he keeps strapped next to his balls, Goldie by city dumpster, sack filled with live rats, hot dose of battery acid or a good old stick of dynamite where the barbecue ought to go. But these pimps aren't hardened killers first and foremost (that's what their henchmen are for, after all), they're preening dandies fresh from gossiping down at the corner hair salon — as reliant upon a distaff gift of gab to ward off those who might encroach upon their territory as they are to sweet-talk women into a life of sexual commodification. And while their ladies venture forth into a ruthless urban night to break their backs and bring home that bacon, our Goldies and Willie D's sit back, cleaning their nails and finding new things to complain about. (Rapper Kurupt: "Bitch nigga/You more of a bitch than a bitch")

Between the two of them, I'd give the nod to The Mack. Like the rest of its colored-section ilk, The Mack took shit — utter lack of polish, a shoot-on-the-fly aesthetic dictated by non-existent budget and only a few weeks to capture it all — and turned it into salade de merde. All of ghetto Oakland’s a stage in the film, and all the real-life pimps, card sharks, drug lords and assorted hangers-on who populate the edges of it a rather fascinating bunch of players. Oakland at the time of The Mack was a war zone fraying fast in the tug-of-war between the Black Panthers and lords of the underworld like drug-runner Frank Ward, Jr. and his brothers. Ward's protection made it possible for Campus and his crew to go where they needed for the sake of The Mack's authenticity and the production repaid him in kind: not only does Ward pop up during a scene in a barbershop and later, during the Players' Ball, but his is the first face we see — via posthumous tribute card — before the film proper even begins. (Ward was gunned down not long after filming was completed.)

Courtesy of director Michael Campus' documentary background, what we get is a roach's-eye view of the pool halls and scuzzbag bars and motel-rooms-by-the-hour where card games and the "what's happ'nin'" of everyday jive constantly flinch under the threat of impending violence (as sudden and casual as in a Scorsese film), where portly white men meet with black flesh merchants to sign tacit social covenants at the nexus of a black hooker’s secretion-slicked thighs, where "the underworld" winds up a fairly nebulous term for pimps and drug runners and hustlers who exist so openly, so semi-officially, as to be the mayors by default of whatever block they happen to claim.

Of course, that last point has been latched onto as an example of the film’s supposed critique of the civil rights movement: i.e. y'all bougie niggas done got a few lil' crumbs thrown y'all way and you done made some token-minority inroads into the suburbs and into higher-paying jobs, but you left us in the ghetto behind with cops who look the other way and politicians who don't give a damn and our kids with so few choices, such little hope, it's inevitable they'll end up turning for direction to Ray-Ray the hustler — a success in the only kind of business enterprise that's truly open to them. Campus, though, being the kind of white director who wouldn't dare impose something as gauche as a privileged white morality onto the proceedings, refuses to editorialize or contextualize what his cameras pick up. There's not much why behind the what in The Mack — predictably, like the culture it documents, the film figures it can spout a few bromides about institutional racism and growing up poor, point its fingers at a few corrupt cops, and we'll fill in the rest: "Yes, black men, due to systemic injustice and lack of opportunity, you moved in to take over the one field in American society where you had legendary primacy over all others: the sex game. Had we been in your shoes, we'd have exploited our sisters and ignored the murderous irony of it, as well."

It's a deal with the Hollywood devil: you watch these films and you ignore the implicit endorsement of their protagonists' exploit-others-because-you've-been-exploited-yourself ethos. You gloss over — as these films do — that psychological divide between the reverence that Goldie and Willie show their sainted mothers and the ice-veined capitalism they reserve for the rest of the female gender. You overlook the fact that two of Willie's girls get sliced up by rival strumpets and the emphasis isn't on them, it's on the pangs of long-buried (or newly discovered?) conscience in Willie. You forgive the way that The Mack spends all of its narrative capital on Goldie's attempts to Get Out The Game and leaves not a penny for the toll taken on the women actually going out and selling — nay, renting — their bodies. (Or, to paraphrase Jon Stewart after Three Six Mafia performed "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" at the Oscars: if it's hard out here for a pimp, shit, imagine how his hoes feel.)

The look of The Mack suits the story, suits the genre — during some sequences, it looks as if the film were decaying as it passed through the camera. It lends the film instant relic status, and that's absolutely as it should be. I don't want The Mack all spruced up and de-artifacted and brought into the present day, slapped down on a nice scratch-proof Blu-Ray for people to watch on their flat screens and impress their Aunt Martha with. I want to see the age of it, that funky dashiki-pattern '70s datedness. I want the proof of that particular print having rotted and molded away in some poorly ventilated attic over an auto garage or a rib shack in the middle of the Bronx (or wherever else the studio keeps the "second-rate" titles like this one).

Give me specks of dirt, give me faded color with that yellowish tinge, give me mono sound with no life or fidelity, take the film print out somewhere and run it between the thighs of the first spazzed-out crack-whore teen runaway you can hire for ten minutes' worth of alley work. Let me see matted coils of greasy pubic hair lapping at the edges of the frame as the film clatters and pops and threatens to come apart right there in the projector. Let today's would-be macks with no sense of historical irony see: this is a Dead Sea Scroll, a fossil from an ancient civilization.

©2012 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mandingo (1975)

21st Century Schizoid Man

directed by Richard Fleischer
starring James Mason, Susan George, Perry King,
Richard Ward, Brenda Sykes, Ken Norton

When it comes to defending the "indefensible," I'm like the crazy old cat lady at the dark end of Culture Street, taking stray bits of musical and cinematic refuse under my wing and nursing them into full-blown obsessions. Just ask anyone I've exposed to the "racist" country songs of David Allan Coe or the tragically uncool dork-rock of Rush or Yes — things invariably shat upon by hipsters nipping at the prune juice of assumed irrelevance, too safe inside their bubbles to actually expose themselves to what they're ridiculing. The biker-bar vernacular of those notorious Coe numbers is — like the slang of the projects or the Guido-ese spoken in Brooklyn or Jersey — a tradition-forged American tongue sanctioned neither by social propriety nor Strunk & White; a tribal self-portrait whose warts-and-all honesty one needn't embrace but which only a philistine would want silenced. Censorship via "political correctness" — say, the campaign to de-"nigger"-ize Huckleberry Finn — is one way to Windex the bum's fingerprints of a now-embarrassing past from our collective American windshield. Smugly relegating viable works of art to the trash heap of Bad B-Movie Night is another.

Such has been the fate of Richard Fleischer's ballsy 1975 slave epic Mandingo, a film that merits a place at the table with the Nashvilles and Barry Lyndons of its year, not shunted off to a crappy seat next to Dolemite over in the colored section. Set on Falconhurst, a slave-breeding plantation in 1840's Looziana, it ostensibly tells the story of rheumatic old slaver Warren Maxwell (James Mason) struggling to keep his business afloat when son Hammond (Perry King) buys Mede (boxer Ken Norton), a strapping Mandingo buck prized as the biggest and strongest around. Mede turns out to be a walking ATM for his new owners — whether ripping the Maxwells' stable of wenches in half with his Nubian man-snake and siring top-dollar babies in the process or decimating his fellow slaves in high-stakes death-matches. It’s odd — for a movie that’s been trying to scrape critical consensus off the bottom of its shoe for almost forty years — how restrained Fleischer’s direction actually is. He’s interested neither in preaching nor in soppy liberal hand-wringing — the moral rot of the characters’ milieu is already coded into the visual design, the tone, the pacing. Richard Kline's appropriately moody cinematography makes decrepit old Falconhurst the haunted house from a national nightmare, the stand-in for a barren way of life that's withering on the vine — its rooms and hallways cloaked in suffocating shadows, scarcely inhabited by people or with only the barest semblance of furnishings. This is no place to call home. Not even the midday Louisiana sun gives off any warmth here.

Look at the film through twenty-first century goggles, though, and the axis of tragedy becomes clearer. Forget about black folk in chains — Mandingo is the tragedy of a white man with a yen for dark meat, born in the wrong era. Hammond is introduced to us as a man utterly unmoved by sexy blonde prostitutes pawing at his crotch, a slaveowner for whom the right of Massa to deflower and impregnate his wenches is personal gospel. Papa Warren wants grandbabies more than three-fifths human, though, so he presses Hammond to take a white wife (Susan George) when Hammond's perfectly happy spilling the remainder of his fertile years inside Ellen (Brenda Sykes), the brown sugar he saves his sweetest nothings for — his real wife.

Of course, the antebellum South was a bit early for a white man with the predilections of Robert De Niro. Hammond calls up every excuse in the Good Book — white wimmens ain't s'posed to like sex, wifey Blanche lacked cherry on their wedding night — to explain away his lack of interest in his blushing bride, to justify the spot his beacon of Southern womanhood holds on the totem pole beneath Mede and Ellen. Compare each couple's consummation: the tenderness he shows Ellen (at least, she's a virgin) versus the way he cruelly rebuffs Blanche — clearly smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that Blanche's severe melanin deficiency has left him limper than a wet newspaper. Poor Blanche — even Daddy Maxwell (of all indignities) shows more excitement at the sight of Mede than he does at meeting his new daughter-in-law. Not even relieving Ellen of the burden of bearing Hammond's mulatto spawn can sew up that quivering gash in her pride. Booted from her perch of privilege and landing in the mud next to slave quarters, a seething Blanche finally demands a little sugar from new neighbor Mede — forcing Hubby to take up arms in defense of affronted white male supremacy and hastening, in one fell swoop, the very end to the Falconhurst empire that her presence was supposed to prevent. Hell hath no fury like a white woman scorned.

It's a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare — however overripe its Lady Macbeth — and what's obvious, once you hose off the shit-stew of derision and nervous titters that tastemakers have sprayed Mandingo with for over three decades, is what a powerful film it is. The American history book shows race relations as a bunch of disparate, and possibly incompatible, ingredients tossed willy-nilly into a pressure cooker, sealed tight, and cranked up to 165 degrees — thusly, so is Mandingo. Our enlightened, college-educated, post-Martin Luther King minds can't conceive of a society where the ability of li'l nigger boys to drain the rheumatism out of the feet of old white men was casual dinner-table conversation. Our enlightened, college-educated minds can't conceive of a world where the impossibility of blacks having souls was common knowledge.

And yet, there it is — the hairy brown maw of unsanitized history that Mandingo spreads wide and shoves in our faces, complete with its own set of rules: 1) never kiss a nigger wench on the mouth; 2) niggers never look a white person in the eye, or address one, unless given permission first; 3) blinding a nigger in one eye is the perfect punishment for said nigger having learned to read since it learns 'em real good and, with one eye left, they can still perform their duties; 4) breeding a nigger with his own relatives isn't incest any more than it is with farm animals; 5) it's not like niggers'd know their own family, anyway, since they were most likely sold off as babies; 6) if the progeny of a nigger fornicatin' with his own kin turns out some kinda retard, well, you just kill it.

We howl with our friends at Susan George's overwrought Southern-belle jive because we're dancing on strings held by thirty years of "it's a trashy B-movie!" orthodoxy. Certainly, it's easier than breaking from the pack of hipster hyenas. Certainly, it's easier than pausing to consider George's bug-eyed hyperventilating as a performance that Blanche herself would undoubtedly give in order to maintain the chaste-maiden-of-the-South image that antebellum society expected of its white women. When your rich new plantation-heir husband figures out that you've had cock before his and calls your purity into question, you pound your fist into the bed and take your umbrage in declamatory shrieks — it's the only way to convince.

We tell ourselves to laugh at the mondo bizarro world that Mandingo presents because if it ain't funny, then it's true — and if it's true that human beings actually lived and prospered and slept soundly in a world like this, then it's too fucking horrible to contemplate. It's horrible enough to make you forget that your own ancestors didn't arrive at these shores from Europe until the 1930's; horrible enough to make you offer up your own fat middle-aged wife as sexual reparations for boneheaded, irony-free Negroes who blissfully trumpet their own status as prized bucks for the gratification of flabby white suburbanites, and then slap high-fives with their homies and crow about how the times, they are a-changin'.

All the so-called "tawdry" elements of the film? Trashy interracial sex? Whites using blacks as disposable sexual objects? White women who feel unappreciated by white men and spitefully use black cock as a two-by-four with which to bludgeon the "straight" society that rejected them? Blacks basing their self-worth on Massa's approval? Blacks maiming and killing one another for white America's entertainment? Blacks happily assuming control of the whip that keeps their own people in line? Well, that, my friends, is nothing less than the whole sorry-ass Southern-fried Gothic melodrama that's written the script for our American theater right up to the present day — a text from which we have yet to deviate. It's a history of elbows chafed from rubbing — of attempted coexistence futile enough to make the Hatfields and McCoys look like Frisco bathhouse-buddies and volatile enough to make a veritable rainbow of weary Americans toast both pre-hajj Malcolm X and George Lincoln Rockwell. It's a nation of black men nodding out on the opiates of white club pussy and juvenile braggadocio, conjuring up images like the ones in Mandingo to justify sagging pants and grills and thug badges worn proudly to the Church of Blame Whitey, while the poise and dignity of the Civil Rights Era shrinks in our rear-view mirror like Wile E. Coyote gone off the cliff. It's the big black dick that put a drop of piss in David Allan Coe's glass of Jack Daniels. It's a white male ruling order that was destined, from day one, to push black males and white women together, rendering them strange bedfellows in the boudoir of mutual disenchantment. 

Mandingo doesn't call the collision of black and white on the minefield of capitalism "combustible," it sketches race in America as a fucking wad of nitroglycerin packed up the ass of a Parkinson's-afflicted mule that's trapped inside a rickety old truck speeding over a very bumpy road in the mountains — a bomb so potent, it's exploded again and again and again. 1863 New York, the summer of 1919, 1923 Rosewood, 1943 Detroit, Watts '65, Newark in '67, Memphis '68, L.A. '92, Cincinnati in '01, Emmett Till, O.J., hell, the election of Obama — Ken Norton's dong lit the fuse deep inside Susan George's disarranged guts, gracing each successive chapter of the American saga, both black and white, with ashes and rubble.

If you live on the South Side of Chicago, open your window — you can still smell smoke. If you're living near the burned-out shell of what used to be Detroit, or anywhere in L.A. where homeboys and cholos compete for demographic superiority and their every dialogue is a fatally serious version of the old Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial (one where Latino peanut butter and African-American chocolate don't seem to go so well together), then open your window — smell the smoke. If you're living in Oakland — smell the smoke. Baltimore — smell the smoke. St. Louis? Jackson, Mississippi? Birmingham, Alabama? Cleveland? N'awlins? The Bronx? Flint, Michigan? Camden, New Jersey? Gary, Indiana — or anywhere else in America where the few remaining whites endure tentatively in a growing sea of black like weather-beaten old statues commemorating the Dutch settlers who founded Harlem; where the "burn, baby, burn" of past riots can still be heard, carried on the wind like the klaxons sounded at the dawn of desegregation? Smell the smoke.

And a question lingers. As the voices of Medgar Evers and James Byrd, Jr., of Reginald Denny and the victims of the D.C. Sniper, of Nicole Brown Simpson plus whatever old lady just got her purse snatched this week, all rise from the smoke to offer a hearty "thanks, guys" to the Hammond Maxwells that struck the first match under America's racial cauldron way back when — a question lingers. That question: is all this smoke the remnant of the last dying fire or the beginnings of a new one?

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
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