Blaxploitation: Black Dynamite/Black Shampoo

Blaxploitation was a genre that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s intended for (exploitative) consumption by Black audiences—the term is a portmanteau of “Black” and “exploitation.” The films, which ranged across many genres, were, oddly, made for the most by white (often Jewish) men and featured as protagonists pimps, drug dealers and other anti-heroes united in their struggle against The Man. Shaft (and Isaac Hayes’ theme song for it) and Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song kick-started the movement, while movies like Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown—“a whole lotta woman”—propelled Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson into the (underground) spotlight. Movies like 1972’s Blacula pressed Blaxploitation elements into prëexisting genre frameworks—in this case the vampire tale.

The films sidelined any serious discourse, as the acerbic contrarian film critic Armond White points out in Isaac Julien’s 2002 documentary BaadAsssss Cinema: “[Blaxploitation films] degraded the political expectations and needs of (Black) audiences…encouraging viewers to forget plot and indulge in the sex and drugs [on display].” Civil rights groups like the NAACP, along with a young the Rev. Jesse Jackson, vehemently opposed what they saw as the genre’s mindless misappropriation of Black culture, which, while it is an argument that might’ve had some merit back in the day, hasn’t really stood the test of time. Since the end of the ’70s, the genre has been continually parodied, satirised and spoofed, not only in films but elsewhere, too, such as in the 1997 Activision PC game Interstate ’76.

As early as 1984, other films began riffing on Blaxploitation themes and figures, as in the character of “Lite” in Alex Cox’s brilliant cult film Repo Man. In the past decade and a bit, outright spoofs such as Undercover Brother and the Goldmember entry in the Austin Powers franchise sat alongside remakes—such as John Singleton’s weak attempt to re-launch Shaft in 2000—and films which paid loving homage to Blaxploitation, such as Beavis and Butthead Do America, and basically every single film ever made or written by Quentin Tarantino, with Jackie Brown standing as his full-blown tribute to the genre.

Black Shampoo, which came out in 1976 and has recently been issued on DVD, appeared as a quick knockoff remake/interpretation of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, made a year earlier. Like Ashby’s film, the protagonist is a hairdresser; the elements of Blaxploitation that come into play are evident from the very first shot, when, after Jonathan Knight, owner-operator of Mr. Jonathan’s hair salon, has finished washing and cutting a woman’s hair, she unzips his pants and subsequently gets down to business. As the back of the case succinctly puts it, “Everything is cool for Jonathan until he messes with the mob in an effort to protect his young, attractive receptionist from her former boss.” In other words, some crazy-ass shit goes down.

The crude, overtly sexual tone and sloppy construction of Blaxploitation flicks is what makes the genre so much fun to watch—and it’s also what highlights the flaws in Black Dynamite, a 2009 throwback to Blaxploitation’s hey-day that fails to totally capture the sleazy mood and gritty spirit of the original films, despite an admirable attempt. The only thing this ostensible homage gets right is the bombastic opening titles. The film was apparently shot on 16mm, but doesn’t look like it: there was no effort made to scratch up or dirty the negative before transferring it to DVD (or, in the conversion to DVD, perhaps the film was accidentally cleaned up). While the acting is certainly B-grade, most of the costuming, props and other elements of mise-en-scène don’t quite fit the tone the film should be aiming for—like the film stock, they’re too clean, too sleek to fit the grungy atmosphere. Like Grindhouse, Blaxploitation is a genre best enjoyed as a relic of the past—or when it’s being lampooned in cartoons like Family Guy, like that time Peter has a flashback to his cousin Rufus’ role in the Blaxploitation flick Black to the Future—“You outta time, baby!”