This Saturday afternoon as a companion event with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music's ongoing exhibit of blaxploitation film posters, the Brooks Museum of Art offers Funky Film Fest, an introductory course of sorts on the short-lived, controversial film genre, which put black faces on the screen (and behind the scenes) in record numbers in the early 1970s.
The selection showing at the Brooks -- Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, and Foxy Brown --is like the blaxploitation equivalent of Oscar bait, the borderline-respectable face of a genre that couldn't get sillier and more flamboyant (The Mack, Blacula), more artistically substantial (Across 110th Street, The Harder They Come), and seedier. (Just check out some of the sketchy obscurities in the Stax exhibit!)
Released in 1971, the same year as Melvin Van Peebles' avant-garde, proto-blaxploitation Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Shaft served to the mainstream the then-outré energy of Sweetback. Richard Roundtree's debonair Harlem detective John Shaft is a sexually confident black man who takes no guff from white authority, much like Van Peebles' Sweetback. But by sprinkling in at least one sympathetic white character and using the familiar narrative structure of the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe detective story, director Gordon Parks fashioned a film that tapped into the post-civil-rights-movement without alienating audiences who just wanted to have a good time at the movies.
Of perhaps more interest now, for both similar and divergent reasons, are Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown. Both Jones' Tamara Dobson and Brown's Pam Grier are miracles of nature who own the screen: Jones with her sleek, Amazonian luxuriousness and Grier with a Marilyn Monroe-like voluptuousness.
Cleopatra Jones, which opens in a Turkish poppy field before jetting over to the streets of Watts, is more James Bond than Sam Spade. Dobson's Jones is a government agent who has come home to take on drug kingpin "Mommy," played by a (literally) hysterical Shelley Winters. With its abundant kung-fu action and with blaxploitation regular Antonio Fargis on hand as dealer-on-the-rise Doodlebug, Cleopatra Jones is the campiest of the three films but still nails the overall point of the genre with one character's exasperated reaction to the LAPD: "To protect and to serve? Shit."
With Foxy Brown, released three years after Shaft and on the outer edge of a short-lived explosion, you can feel the self-awareness creeping in, especially with the movie's far-out opening credits. But the film also cuts deeper than Shaft or Cleopatra Jones, trafficking in more volatile, more historically painful imagery. And, message-wise, this revenge tale spouts dialogue that often feels like a remix of counter-culture's greatest hits, putting a twist on notions from Allen Ginsberg ("Jail is where some of the finest people I know are these days") to Stokely Carmichael ("Vigilante justice is as American as apple pie").
But if blaxploitation survives today as a mix of cultural history and camp, you can experience black cinema as living art this weekend as well. The Memphis Film Forum screens four Spike Lee films -- She's Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, and Malcolm X -- over three days at Malco's Ridgeway Four.
The pairing of these two film series is pure coincidence. But if it weren't, you could have a healthy debate about whether the Lee films serve as complementary or counter programming.
The selection of films looks random at first, and may be. Lee's 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing is a given. After that, his filmography is so scattered and contentious that it defies consensus. But, taken together, the four films screening this weekend neatly convey the diverse scope of Lee's own work and of the potential for black cinema generally.
Malcolm X is Lee's biggest production by far, yet might be his most impersonal film. The autobiographical family film Crooklyn is a conscious attempt to shrink his scope and probably his most personal film. Do the Right Thing is, so far at least, his apotheosis, while the romantic comedy She's Gotta Have It is his debut (and a key film in the growth of the American indie scene).
These screenings are a continuation of a series the Film Forum started last fall with David Lynch and promises to continue into the spring with Krzysztof Kieslowski and Jim Jarmusch. But even with that to consider, it's hard to imagine a more accomplished and more vital film than Do the Right Thing getting a big-screen showing in Memphis this year. n
The Funky Film Fest schedule is at brooksmuseum.org; Spike Lee Director's Series schedule is at memphisfilmforum.org.