Thursday, December 31, 2009


It's always exciting to see what emerges when a group of people are set free from an oppressive environment or allowed to flourish in a fresh setting. It's hard to be unaffected by the amount of accomplished art that the Harlem Renaissance produced. A historical antecedent exists in the de-ghettoization of European Jews and the attendant flowering of Jewish innovation in the arts and sciences. Building under pressure in slumlands, genius explodes upon release.

That is probably the worst-ever introduction to a blog post about an exploitation film, but stick with me for one more paragraph. The Harlem Renaissance was done by the thirties. Later on, The Sixties happened and some people shook off some chains and did some innovative (and some very annoying) things. But blacks didn't get a pass into cinema until the seventies and the advent of blaxploitation. Because "African-Americansploitation" wouldn't fit on the posters. Films like SWEET SWEETBACK'S BADASSSSS SONG (1971) and GORDON'S WAR (1973) put chiefly black casts and black communities on screen for the first time, not as a diversion, but as the main attraction. Most of these films were riled and acidulous, too, finally exploring racism and economic disparity, the prevalence of drugs in black communities, etc., from the sufferers' side.

DARKTOWN STRUTTERS showed up in 1975, after the initial cascade of blaxploitation had begun to abate a bit. Like its predecessors, this film was concerned with social issues and stuff or whatever, but (unlike its predecessors) it traded serious critique for dada insanity.

Syreena (Trina Parks of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER fame) and her gang of psychedelic lady bikeys investigate the disappearance of Syreena's abortion-loving mom Cinderella, eventually linking said disappearance to the machinations of Commander Cross, a Colonel Sanders knock-off intent on cloning black leaders and capturing the black bloc vote for his political future. Along the way, the cycle queens must evade fat white cops, learn to coexist with a rival male gang, and avoid capture by the bike-riding, net-wielding Klan.

Whereas SUPERFLY was a probing examination of why urban blacks get sucked into dope slinging and THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR catalyzed black paranoia about the CIA and black militancy...

Ah, hell, let me just copy from my notes:

"Syreena's brother is into kung-fu. No. 'Way beyond kung-fu! Ancient African art practiced by the imperial guards in the Zambezi River basin!' He learned from a guy who was selling Life magazine."

"Maid's opinion: 'You're some kind of motorcycle tramp!'"

"Mrs. PARASOL! Grandpa says, 'She's my welfare case worker.' !!!"

"Arrest anybody who ain't Irish."

"Baby Crips! Speedcicles! Acid/peyote 50/50 bars! This movie was not created in our universe. Growing pot in an igloo. Jesus Christ. I was born too late."

And, hey, guess who owns this now?

That means that you'll probably never see an official DVD release of this in the States. It also means that, given Disney's holding of this and SONG OF THE SOUTH, they're especially susceptible to public pressure to dump these works. Whereupon some less reputable DVD company could release them in the special editions that they deserve. Alternately, Disney could erect a DARKTOWN STRUTTERS ride next to the Teacups and inure multiple small children for a bright, multicult. future.

Back to the blast-off paragraphs. DARKTOWN STRUTTERS is blaxploitation after the pure resentment had simmered off. It is, in the best way, a product of its time. It would be impossible to make this film now. Racism and such are IMPORTANT TOPICS in the 2000s and not to treated lightly with absurd touches and comical business. No fun, my baby. You have to hire screenwriters to screenwrite a screenplay like CRASH (the race one, not the car crash fetish one) and hire a string quartet for the soundtrack. And the Oscars. And yet DS captures something of its producers and audience and community that's lacking and missed in nowadays cinema...a sense of outrageousness, a will to shake things up and take laugh off the worst things...

But it's a new year and new decade and time will tell what will unfold. Maybe some bored god will answer prayers and Iran will be free, free to film the MEDINA STRUTTERS screenplay that's been languishing in some file folder since Windows 95. Time will tell.

Capsule review: like a black John Waters, so entertainingly damaged. Highest recommendation.

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