The Philosophical Merits of Blaxploitation

I have a thing for bad movies.

I’m not just talking about marginally bad movies. Like odd numbered Star Trek movies bad. Or even movies that are so bad that they’re good.

I’m talking really bad movies.

Nicolas Cage bad.

This bad.

 

 

Sorry about that.

Everybody’s got their favorite worst genre or era of film. Personally, I have a thing for mid to late seventies schlock horror films. But if you ask a few true cinematic crapophiles, some of them may tell you that the 1970s was the lowest point in American cinematic culture. After all, the seventies was the decade that forced American theatergoers to endure Roller Boogie, Grizzly, Sssssss!, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Incredible Melting Man, The Exorcist II: The  Heretic, Big Bad Mama, Zaat, Myra Breckenridge, The Thing With Two Heads, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, It’s Alive!, Moment By Moment, Zardoz, Hercules In New York, and the Robert Stigwood-produced film adaptation of The Beatles’ 1967 concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (??????)

…. Starring the Bee Gees.

Really. It starred the Bee Gees.

(Warning: watching the following clip may produce a feeling of pity that John Lennon had to witness this cinematic monstrosity before he died and an extreme hatred towards Peter Frampton)

 

I’ll wait while you take a moment to recover.

Although most bad movies will certainly leave you with the feeling of a loss of faith in the human race, even the worst movie sometimes has a hidden lesson to be learned. The method to appreciating bad seventies cinema is mastering how to hold a barf bag while taking note of a film’s hidden philosophical subtext. Now, some people will tell you that a particular subgenre of bad film is where one is guaranteed to find lots of philosophical subtext.And there are certainly quite a few craptastic genres of 1970s cinema to choose from: slasher flicks, hard-core pornography, disaster movies (to name a few). Second to my love for schlock horror, my favorite philosophically instructive genre of seventies cinema is blaxploitation.

For those of you who don’t know, the word blaxploitation is a portmanteau of the words black and exploitation.

Black + exploitation = blaxploitation

Blaxploitation films are known for Bad Ass (i.e. excessively violent) characters, chic 1970s attire, hip soundtracks, not-so-good acting, loose and frequent use of the N-word, and white people (aka THE MAN) getting the hell beaten out of them. Better (and better known) examples of the genre are Shaft, Superfly, Sweet Sweetback’s Baad-Asssss Song, Cooley High, Three the Hard Way, Hammer, Foxy Brown.

That Shaft is a bad mutha --- SHUT YO MOUTH!

That Shaft is a bad mutha — SHUT YO MOUTH!

Just as physics teaches us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, unfortunately for any good film there is also often an equally (very) bad movie. Blaxploitation also birthed some of the worst films in history: Brotherhood of Death, TNT Jackson, Mandingo, Blacula (and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream), Blackenstein, Abby (a nausea-inducing, all-black, knock-off of The Exorcist), Dolemite, Petey Wheatstraw, Disco Godfather,  and The Human Tornado.

Basically any movie starring Rudy Ray Moore.

Rudy Ray Moore is the African-American Nicolas Cage.

 

See what I mean?

 

Although it’s easy (and encouraged) to toss away bad Blaxploitation films to the dung heap of cinematic history, the fact that a movie is a Blaxploitation film (or any exploitation film for that matter) does not necessarily infer that a movie has no philosophical lessons to teach. A handful of Blaxploitation films are actually philosophically useful. One such example of a philosophically valuable bad movie is the 1974 Blaxploitation film Jive Turkey (Aka Baby Needs A New Pair of Shoes).

Ok, let’s ignore the obvious. This movie is terrible. It’s set in the 1950s but it’s filled with more anachronisms than one can count. The acting quality is at best shitty  questionable. And the actor playing “Serene” the cross-dressing hitman is fooling no one.

See for yourself.

 

If you couldn't make it through the clip, this is Serene.

If you couldn’t make it through the clip, this is Serene.

 

Shangela Laquifa Wadley he is not.

This is Shangela.

This is Shangela.

See what I mean?

If you’ve never seen Jive Turkey (Chances are you haven’t) here’s a brief synopsis:

Pasha (Phil Harris) runs the numbers game. Pasha’s former childhood friend and current rival, Italian gangster Big Tony (Frank de Kova) wants in on Pasha’s territory. Not only does Pasha have to deal with a bounty placed on his head by the big guys in Chicago, but internal dissention within Pasha’s ranks threatens to destroy his numbers empire.

If that synopsis hasn’t piqued your philosophical interest, here’s a short list of the philosophical questions and topics in Jive Turkey:

* Gender (In particular, Serene, Pasha’s cross-dressing hitman. Is she a transgendered woman who disguises herself as a man to evade her enemies or is she a man who cross-dresses to do his job? Serene is referred to as “she” but is that because she is accepted as a woman or because most people do not know Serene is a man? Is the notion of a female hitman so unacceptable/unusual that the part had to be played by a man in drag?)

* Aristotle’s idea of the magnanimous man (Is Pasha magnanimous?)

* Act vs. Rule Utilitarianism

* Race (inter and intra-race relations)

* Crime and virtue (Can good people do bad things, or does doing bad things necessarily make a person bad?)

* Is revenge morally justified? (If so, when and under what circumstances?)

* What are victimless crimes? Is there such a thing as a victimless crime (e.g. gambling)?

* Good vs. evil (Are Pasha and his gang good guys and the police bad guys or vice versa?)

* Is there such a thing as a “necessary evil”?

* Was Sweetman a jive turkey? What should be the price of disloyalty?

If you want to check out Jive Turkey for yourself, here is is.

 

ENJOY and HAPPY THINKING!

NOTE:

For further reading on Blaxploitation films see Wikipedia article on Blaxploitation at:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaxploitation

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