He's a baad mutha...

Strong, suave, larger-than-life, Shaft makes a spectacular comeback during the Detroit Film Theatre’s presentation of the films of Gordon Parks this weekend. Vice president of Rolling Thunder Pictures, Gerald Martinez – coming to town for a panel preceding the Saturday showings of a new print of Parks’ now world-famous flick – talks about the black film explosion of the ’70s and its impact on American culture, nostalgically documented in his book What It Is … What It Was (Hyperion-Miramax Books-Rolling Thunder Books):

"When we released our films, people had trouble understanding what our mission was, because we came out with exploitation films of the ’70s, but also with New Wave Hong Kong cinema. What Rolling Thunder Pictures does is to showcase the work of directors and performers who need exposure or, simply, deserve a second look. But because we’re dealing with pretty broad patches of cinema that have been overlooked, we decided to start a book division that would help people place films in larger contexts.

"As we were releasing Detroit 9000, I started looking around to see what was available on the black films of the ’70s and found virtually nothing. What It Is came out of our desire to bring into focus a hugely significant period in American cinema that, historically, has gotten no serious attention. We were fortunate to get the right people together, like Melvin Van Peebles, Sam Jackson, Pam Grier who made those movies, or people like John Singleton or Quentin Tarantino whose work was influenced by them. It wasn’t our place to comment on what those films were about, but to see how it all happened 20 years ago, what happened to the people who went down that path, how being part of the ‘blaxploitation’ films might have helped or hurt them.

"Before working on this book, ‘blaxploitation’ was nothing but a cinema word for me. I don’t bear a grudge against the word, but I also don’t believe that the films of Gordon Parks or Melvin Van Peebles, who wrote the book on independent filmmaking, are ‘about’ black culture. They’re about American culture, about a transition that had to happen when Hollywood understood that there was an audience for African-American actors and directors. It’s no surprise that these films continue to influence a whole new generation of filmmakers. These films delivered a bigger-than-life character, master of his own destiny, and their strength lies in that individuality. The statements made by the music, the clothes, the ‘nobody’s gonna fuck with me ’cause I’m my own person’ attitude are still great to experience because they go beyond race lines and talk about empowerment. These films have been absorbed by our culture. You could watch the most whitebread sitcom and all of a sudden hear the musical theme from Shaft, and that’s still going to mean something.

"These films are not restricted to a certain audience. They’ve always had mass appeal and they’ve crossed over: Teenage white kids, African-American students, art lovers, and people who grew up with these films will always be happy to rediscover what was right with them. Sure, there’s a lot that’s wrong with them; they’re far from perfect. But, remember, they were part of a time of growth. After spending this time working on the book, ‘blaxploitation’ seems like such a small word to describe this huge movement. I mean, we’re not talking about ‘the white films of the ’70s’ are we, so why should we consider ‘the black movies of the ’70s’ a genre? Every conceivable genre of film was made in that period. The more I talk about this, the more aware I become of how insufficient a word like ‘blaxploitation’ is. Our book – and here I should mention the extraordinary contribution of my ruthless co-authors, Diana Martinez and Andres Chavez – is not a competitive piece, but an invitation, an open door to a yet unexplored territory."


Leadbelly (1976)

Painfully embodying the distance between "Hollywood" conventions and Parks’ hard-won outsider wisdom, Leadbelly the film finds itself in the same dilemma as its bluesman namesake: how to just be without kissing ass. Powerful Roger E. Mosley as Huddie Ledbetter endures Papillon-like agonies at the hands of Texas prison guards and redneck sharecroppers, and his wild, free spirit makes life under segregation a mighty hard road. Excellent performances from Paul Benjamin as Huddie’s dad, Madge Sinclair as a cathouse madam and Art Evans as the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson counterbalance musical numbers that pile on the hokum.

SHAFT (1971)

A giant step in an alternative direction – the film that inspired a whole generation of African-American talent, and beyond – with shitloads of moxie and take-no-crap attitude from Richard Roundtree and Moses Gunn, and the Academy Award-winning song by Isaac Hayes. John Shaft is a bad mutha, a dapper stud and a one-man Black Panther Party rolled into one. Although it’s dated in many ways, what endures about Shaft is the mind-shift away from the pale mainstream, Parks’ electric, cinematographic vision and an idea of contemporary noir that permeates filmmaking to this day.


A minor masterpiece, Parks’ autobiographical tale of a rural Kansas adolescent navigating the perils of the color line is full of bittersweet wonder. Demonstrating a sure hand with a large, vibrant cast, a poetic use of the wide screen and an amazingly rich conception of film narrative, Parks truly shines in his film debut. This portrait of interlocking black-white relationships under segregation is a must-see for those unfamiliar with his work outside the Shaft series.

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