A while back, I wrote an article for this site called “The Joy of Scarcity for Cinephiles” in response to an article written by Jon Brooks that he wrote about his frustrating attempts to track down a copy of the 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (Amazon). Inspired, I assume, by that article, this site’s very own editor hooked me up with a DVD of director/ writer/ producer/composer/star Melvin Van Peebles’ blaxploitation classic. I’d never seen Sweet Sweetback, but its one of those movies whose reputation proceeds it – stories of the making of the movie have long ago become legend, with 2003’s Badassss! (directed by and starring Van Peebles’ son Mario) chronicling its production. After directing Watermelon Man for Columbia Pictures, the elder Van Peebles decided to self-finance a low-budget action movie about a gigolo on the run from the man after he rescues a Black Panther from a couple cops. The movie was a surprise hit and became a landmark in both American independent and African-American cinema.
Viewed four decades later, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song is an entertaining mixture of radical politics and plenty of crowd-pleasing sex and violence. The latter elements were bracingly scuzzy to this modern viewer: the movie begins with a scene of young Sweetback (played by Mario, who was a preteen at the time) being deflowered by one of the ladies at the brothel where he lives, and features shots of real dead dogs near its end (procured, if the internet is to be believed, from a local animal shelter). In between, the adult Sweetback repeatedly uses his sexual prowess and, we’re often reminded, his huge wang to get himself out of trouble in scenes of unsimulated sex. Even when compared with the grittiest blaxploitation movies that it helped spawned, it’s a rough, often discomfiting watch.
This roughness often extends to the filmmaking itself, which is both a drawback and, in some ways, a virtue. Without the budget afforded him by a studio film, Van Peebles went in the opposite direction, building his movie around the resources he had. So if some of the amateurs performances are flat and the lighting is often murky, the movie also has a very authentic sense of place that couldn’t be replicated by a bigger budget movie. And what Van Peebles lacks in production value, he makes up for in his borderline-experimental approach to cinematography and editing; he uses jump cuts, freeze frames, step printing and extreme close-ups with reckless abandon, and if the results aren’t always coherent, they’re often exhilarating.
But the best and most important thing about Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song is its hero. At the time of its release, the only breakthrough African-American male movie stars were strong, charismatic but inoffensive types like Sidney Poitier and, er, Bill Cosby (who actually loaned Van Peebles $50000 to help him finish his movie), guys who were palatable enough to white audiences’ sensibilities to cross over at the box office. Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song helped usher in a brief heyday of movies with black heroes who were tough, aggressive and, to paraphrase Van Peebles, knew how to get the white man’s foot out of their asses.
Included with Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, in a fitting double feature, was 1975’s Coonskin (Amazon), a reimagining of Song of the South by animator/ countercultural provocateur Ralph Bakshi. It begins with a couple of guys waiting to bust their friend out of jail. While their friend waits, his cellmate tells him the story of Brother Bear, Brother Rabbit and Brother Fox’s adventures in Harlem, which involve racist cops, LSD, revolutionaries, the mafia and a buxom femme fatale known only as “Miss America.” With its liberal (in both senses of the word) use of racial stereotypes, Coonskin became the target of controversy and protests organized by Al Sharpton (who, incidentally, recently convened an “emergency meeting” after this year’s Academy Award nominations failed to include any non-white actors, suggesting that, at heart, Sharpton is a frustrated film critic).
The protests and negative press Coonskin received resulted in its barely receiving a theatrical release, and it’s been almost completely unavailable on any home video format since. As is usually the case with these things, the protestors hadn’t actually seen the movie; it’s a shame, because whether one likes Coonskin or not, it’s quickly obvious that the movie’s provocative use of racist imagery is as far from an endorsement as you can get. It’s true that the movie’s animated minstrels can be wince-inducing; however, as with his other films, Bakshi paints all of his characters as broad stereotypes, whether it’s dumbheaded Southern crackers, mincing gays or mush-mouthed goombas that would be right at home in a Mad magazine parody of The Godfather (if there’s any group in the movie that Bakshi is “against,” it’s the Mafia).
While Bakshi is an equal-opportunity offender, he has more on his mind than using shock value for a cheap laugh (that average episode of Family Guy, which regularly makes “ironic” racist jokes that wouldn’t threaten the sensibilities of actual racists, is way more offensive than anything in Coonskin). He’s using then-recent racist iconography that, as the story structure reminds us, was the subject of a Disney movie just a few decades before to confront white audiences with our ugly history. Bakshi’s shotgun blast approach to satire is admittedly uneven, with as many scenes inspiring groans as genuine laughs. But its blunt political righteousness is rare in American cinema then or now, and virtually nonexistent in animation. While South Park offers sharp cultural satire and Adult Swim often plays like Buñuel for stoners, nobody uses animation to speak truth to power the way Bakshi did in his heyday. Bakshi currently has a Kickstarter-funded movie, Last Days of Coney Island, in production, and there will be hopefully be more to come; lord knows that, if he decided to tackle contemporary race relations, he’d have no shortage of material.