Though it aired on the Independent Film Channel in 2002, Isaac Julien's documentary Baadassss Cinema seems prescient. As the picture was getting exposure, Jesse Jackson began complaining about Tim Story's Barbershop, asking the filmmakers to censor a scene in which Jackson and other prominent black leaders are mocked. The call for voluntary censorship may have made Jackson seem a bit out of touch, but in watching Julien's documentary one learns that the reverend was one of the most vocal quibblers against the new black cinema back in the mid-'70s. Or, as it became dubbed by its (pointedly black) critics, "Blaxploitation." As Julien's documentary notes, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But that's only one interesting piece of information that can be gleaned from this thoroughly engaging film about the still-controversial genre of Blaxploitation. The documentary begins by illustrating where America and the civil-rights movement were at the end of the '60s, but more importantly it also examines the state of Hollywood's film industry. Fundamentally, the studios were sinking money into bum projects, and it took a shoddy little independent film to reveal that an entire niche market had been ignored. That film was 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, and with its success came movies like Shaft, Superfly and Foxy Brown. These pictures were intensely profitable for the studios and helped lift their sagging box-office receipts, but they also made stars out of people like Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Gloria Hendry, and Richard Roundtree. However, while some of the scripts addressed genuine social problems, most Blaxploitation flicks were violent, cartoonish, and notable for their flamboyant costumes, funky soundtracks, and far-out hairstyles. And the more that got produced, the further the quality fell. The genre was criticized for "exploiting" black audiences, while the studios found other projects that caught the public's interest. By 1975, Blaxploitation started to disappear, leaving many of these previously hot actors in a lurch. And though the heydays are gone, there have been some sporadic attempts at re-igniting that heat, most noticeably Larry Cohen's Original Gangsters, which brought Williamson, Grier, Roundtree, Jim Brown, and Ron O'Neal back to the big screen, as well as Quentin Tarantino's 1997 Jackie Brown, starring Pam Grier.
* * *
Filled with movie clips and current interviews with actors and film historians, the undercurrent of Baadassss Cinema is also the mark of the genre itself controversy. Regarding the seminal Sweet Sweetback, many of the interviewees agree it was a great and important movie (including director Melvin Van Peebles), but then director Julien presents Bell Hooks, who argues that the film is exploitative. However, it is Hooks who defends Jackie Brown, while critics Elvis Mitchell and Armond White take issue with Tarantino's use of the word "nigger." Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson then defend those choices. Throughout, the documentary explores how the mainstream film industry regarded Blaxploitation titles as illegitimate children, while the black community suffered from the many depictions of pimps, pushers, and thieves as (anti)heroes. Most impressive is how Julien covers so much material in his 56-minute running-time, although there are a few prominent omissions and no-shows; The Mack is only mentioned for the wardrobe, while Rudy Ray Moore (Dolemite) is completely ignored, as are films like the more tranquil Cooley High or the retro-themed I'm Gonna Git you Sucka!. Perhaps one could forgive the oversights then again, one of the main interviewees is Afreni Shakur (the mother of Tupac), whose principal reason for being there, it appears, is that her son was a Blaxploitation fan. That noted, the director does a good job of balancing the genre's value to Hollywood and to the community that embraced it, while acknowledging its inherent limitations as well.
IFC and Docudrama present Baadassss Cinema in a good letterboxed transfer (1.85:1, not anamorphic) with audio in Dolby 2.0 stereo. And if the hour-long running time seems a bit slender, it easily supplemented by four extended interviews featuring Gloria Hendry, Quentin Tarantino, Pam Grier, and Fred Williamson. Though some of what is said in these extended interviews made the final cut, it's nice to see these four talk at length (and sometimes lose their train of thought). Most interesting is the interview with Fred Williamson, wherein he says that Jackie Brown is just a poor imitation of a '70s movie. Also included: filmmaker's bio, eight bonus trailers for other documentaries released by IFC and Docudrama. Keep-case.