BaadAsssss Cinema Review

The UK release of BaadAsssss Cinema, Isaac Julien’s 2002 documentary on the wave of blaxploitation films produced in the early seventies, is a direct port of the Docurama disc previously issued in the States. This means that we get the film in the NTSC format, a handful of extras which perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have featured on a small scale UK disc (it’s issued by Direct Video Distribution, a company best known for their Samuel Z. Arkoff titles), and a whole host of trailers for other Docurama releases currently unavailable on these shores. These latter pieces are especially interesting for the sheer po-faced demeanour of both their subjects and promotion; almost all are inevitably Academy Award nominees and completely, unbearably American. Indeed, newcomers to BaadAsssss Cinema would no doubt be wary of Julien’s efforts if they’d fixed their eyes on these pieces first, yet – opportunity to sneer aside – there are demonstrative of a complete contrast. For BaadAsssss Cinema is just plain different; much like the films it documents, there is no room for maudlin schmaltz and empty patriotism, rather we are offered brisk, enthusiastic entertainment.

It’s a spirit perfectly captured by the first interviewee, one Quentin Tarantino. He gleefully recounts his very first blaxploitation experience (Robert Hartford-Davis’ Black Gunn starring Jim Brown and Martin Landau at a packed theatre in downtown LA) with a childlike sense of discovery which is truly infectious. Indeed, Julien himself seems to have picked some of this up, but it’s also only part of the overall picture. As well as Tarantino’s enthusiasms and extensive knowledge of cinematic trash, we also get academic insight from numerous black thinkers (Ed Guerrero, Armond White and bell hooks amongst them) and plenty of anecdotage – alternately serious, uproarious and bitter – from the likes of Melvin Van Peebles, Larry Cohen and some of the key actors of the period, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier and Gloria Hendry. And though its cinematic language may be more limited (talking heads and film clips only), Julien continues the multi-strand approach of his earlier documentaries Looking for Langston and Frantz Fanon : Black Skin, White Mask, and blends what could be disparate elements into a smooth, coherent whole.

He does so primarily by taking a chronological approach. We start out with the twin breakthroughs of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft, move on to Superfly, Pam Grier and the gradual co-option into more generic hybrids (Blacula, Black Belt Jones) before effectively dying out in around 1975 and 1976. As such BaadAsssss Cinema can be viewed simply as a history lesson, but it’s also more than this. Courtesy of blaxploitation’s many resonances the documentary also takes in politics, fashion, class and music, and yet there are also limitations. Everything is viewed solely from within the confines of the genre (if it can be described as such) which means that the bigger picture is only alluded to. We hear of references to black cinema pre-1970 (“We didn’t make it to the end of the picture”), crime and genre movies as a whole (Tarantino sees blaxploitation as just another cinematic compartment to rank alongside the biker movie or the slasher flick) and the Black Panthers, yet those without prior knowledge of such dimensions may very well be left out in the cold. Moreover, the actual analysis of blaxploitation itself is riddled with gaps. Of course, this is in part dictated by those who could be interviewed (there’s no input from Jim Brown, Tamara Dobson or Richard Roundtree, for example), but it still feels odd to omit the likes of Ossie Davis (director of Cotton Comes to Harlem), The Learning Tree and Hell Up in Harlem, especially when they could provide plenty of fascinating additional insights.

The biggest omissions, however, come when Julien turns his attentions towards blaxploitation’s legacy. Having dealt with the movement’s death in the mid-seventies we are immediately fast forwarded to 1996’s Original Gangstas and 1998’s Jackie Brown, a move which completely ignores – to name but a few - Michael Schultz, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, the influence on hip hop (especially gangsta rap) and the late eighties/early nineties wave of black cinema spearheaded by Spike Lee, John Singleton and New Jack City. Indeed, Original Gangstas was in part a response to these latter works with gangsta rap being explicitly referenced in the titles and it’s hard to ignore that New Jack City was directed by Mario Van Peebles, son of Melvin and child star of Sweet Sweetback’s pre-credit sequence, yet all of this is neatly avoided.

Of course, certain considerations have to be made with regards to BaadAsssss Cinema’s production and it is clear that Julien had to produce a work which would fit within a certain timeframe. Produced for the Independent Film Channel it is likely that the 55-minute duration was non-negotiable and so the material has been subject to certain trimmings here and there. This is especially noticeable when you sit through the additional interviews contained on the disc and realise that many digressions were available to Julien (Hendry touches on her work with Davis, Poitier and others not covered), though clearly he was unable to accommodate them. Indeed, what do get still provides much to be appreciated. The academic aspect is continually enlightening and rigidly argued; Tarantino may strike a somewhat lonely figure – no-one else is present in quite the same capacity – yet much of what he says is thought provoking (he doesn’t accept the racist connotations, for example, in the stereotypical presence of evil white cops and the abundance of pimps and prostitutes, rather he views them a necessary bi-product of blaxploitation movies being predominately crime flicks); and the anecdotage from the likes of Cohen and Van Peebles is continually amusing and peppered with bon mots (remarking on the silence during a screening of Sweet Sweetback its director notes that “you could’ve heard a rat piss on cotton”). More importantly, Julien keeps the conflicts of opinions in the picture. Armond White, for example, sees blaxploitation as a mere “interlude” whilst others deem it a more significant force, plus the inevitable Jackie Brown “nigga” debate comes into play once more. Indeed, such debates work especially well as Julien never lets his own thoughts on such subjects be aired (his directorial voice, if you will, is less overt than on previous projects: Looking for Langston, Young Soul Rebels, et al). Rather the various individual reactions are given equal time, thus allowing him to truly demonstrate the richness of this brief, but important phase in cinematic history.

In this respect BaadAsssss Cinema also offers a welcome alternative to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls - both Peter Biskind’s book and Kenneth Bowser’s subsequent documentary – a work which covered a roughly similar period in American cinema. Admittedly, both are as constricted in their outlook as each other (Easy Riders… pays little heed to a whole host of US-made masterpieces during the seventies – including a handful of blaxploitation titles – in its determination to proclaim the movie brats’ singular greatness), yet Julien’s decision to consider his subject with a seriousness befitting of its complexities makes BaadAsssss Cinema a worthwhile endeavour nonetheless.

The Disc

As said at the start of this review, this UK R0 release is identical to the Docurama disc from the States. As such we get the film in the NTSC format and presented non-anamorphically at a ratio of 1.66:1. Whilst this ratio is fine for the talking heads footage, it is also used to present all of the film clips which means that most appear slightly cropped (the majority of blaxploitation efforts favoured a 1.85:1 ratio, though there were a few exceptions – the Cleopatra Jones movies, for example – which went for a wider ’scope frame). Moreover, the quality of the film clips is variable meaning that whilst the Julien-shot footage look as good as could be expected, the likes of Sweet Sweetback leave room for improvement. The same is also true of the soundtrack. We are offered a DD2.0 mix which copes perfectly well with the talking heads and the original mono soundtracks (in most cases) of the numerous film clips, but again the quality does vary from excerpt to excerpt. Of course, it must also be said that much of this is out of Julien’s and the disc’s producers’ hands and as such it would be churlish to complain about the DVD itself.

The various extras have mostly been commented on already, though it worth restating that the additional interviews are deserving of your attention. The four snippets included (from Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry and Quentin Tarantino) allow for more in-depth answers and some welcome digressions. Moreover, they don’t just feel like outtakes as they often deal with different areas not discussed in the main feature, plus we get concrete confirmation that Williamson is indeed very bitter about his subsequent treatment by the film industry. Of those pieces not discussed, we also get self-explanatory promos for the Docurama label and BaadAsssss Cinema’s soundtrack album. (All special features, as with the film itself, come without optional subtitles.)

As a final note, it should also be mentioned that BaadAsssss Cinema comes with an E certificate. Had the film been submitted to the BBFC then no doubt it would have earned an 18 courtesy of the excessive bad language, nudity and violence which features in the various clips included throughout the film.

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