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Listen to Their Rap

Maybe a few icons can help African American cinema as it wrestles with issues similar to those faced in the '70s.

June 09, 1996|Todd Boyd | Todd Boyd is a professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television

There is an interesting voice-over that opens the recently released "Original Gangstas." Ron O'Neal, whom we last heard from as the existential hero Priest in one of the 1970s' most significant cultural timepieces, "Superfly," describes the rise and fall of urban America in the period from the '70s to the present.

O'Neal's narration takes place over the dilapidated landscape of Gary, Ind., the setting for the film and a metaphor for the postindustrial experience in late 20th century America. Gary, once a beacon of the industrial revolution, has, according to the film, become a glaring example of the reverse, where deindustrialization has led to our cities being run by gangs who have given the phrase "corporate raiders" a new meaning.

The original gangstas of the film are led by Fred Williamson (complete with his own theme song) and Jim Brown--Black Caesar and Slaughter respectively. As the Sly & the Family Stone track "Power to the People" alerts us to Williamson's glorious entrance and his lofty intentions, it is implied that these black superheroes are the only ones able to take back the streets and, by extension, save black film. Using these images from a previous era provides a useful gauge for the state of African American film from the 1970s to the present.

Blaxploitation's images and icons still thrive in gangsta rap and contemporary film. For instance, Snoop Doggy Dogg's 1994 music video "Doggy Dogg World" was a postmodern showcase of the period, while films such as "Juice," "Boyz N the Hood" and that quintessential commentary on the postindustrial African American experience, "Menace II Society," echoed the era--and created a subgenre of black cinema.

All of these recent events take their cue from the images made so popular by the likes of Williamson, Brown, O'Neal, Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree, the original gangstas of the new film's title. And for those who may be unfamiliar with blaxploitation or gangsta rap, consider a hipper version of the casting in films like "The Towering Inferno" or "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." "Original Gangstas" is like a film version of an all-star game--or maybe the old-timers' game.

It's as though the older figures, relegated to footnotes by the youth-oriented moment, have come back to claim what they consider to be rightfully theirs.

In the same way that John Travolta's dance with Uma Thurman in "Pulp Fiction" referenced his previous life in "Saturday Night Fever," the cast of "Original Gangstas" is interested in staking claim to a similar legacy--a tradition that they had hoped would never go away.

When these icons were originally popular, they carried a great deal of weight in defining African American popular culture. Consider for a moment the answer to the question, "Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about?" Or better yet, "Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?" The answer to both questions is Shaft, of course, but the qualities apply to all of the original gangstas. Their images were always politically conscious, physically invincible and sexually superior. Damn right!

The style, music and larger-than-life images of films such as "Shaft in Africa," "Coffy" and "Hell Up in Harlem" were new symbols for a progressive era. They were not only assertive and defiant, but, unlike in the past, they always came out on top. Curtis Mayfield, in his song "We're a Winner," suggested a time would come when "there'll be no more Uncle Toms," an allusion to the grinning and shuffling that had marked the representation of blacks before the 1970s.

But when the era started to dissipate in the late 1970s, it became increasingly apparent that Hollywood, now devoted to blockbusters such as "Jaws" and "Star Wars," had something else in mind. Unfortunately, the death of the blaxploitation film signaled a momentary death of popular black cinema.

With the exceptions of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, the late 1970s through the mid-1980s saw little in the way of anything approximating African American film. Films such as "Ragtime," "A Soldier's Story" and "The Color Purple" were embraced because they were the only things that came close to satisfying the taste that those blaxploitation films had teased.

During this period, there was a vital, though struggling, African American underground film nexus featuring the likes of Charles Burnett, Warrington Hudlin and Julie Dash. But the underground came above ground with the release of Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" in 1986. Lee's emergence on the scene precipitated what many called a "rebirth" of black cinema, often compared to the French New Wave, with several new films and filmmakers emerging in the wake of Lee's success.

This time though, the terms were a little different.

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