Bright Lights Film Journal

Between <em>The Butler</em> and <em>Black Dynamite</em>: Servility, Militancy, and the Meaning of Blaxploitation

Screenshot from Lee Frost's The Black Gestapo (1975)

The existence of films such as Black Samson and The Spook Who Sat by the Door reminds us that there was an era, however fleeting, in which commercial films discarded centrist masks and bravely wore insurrection on their sleeves. Moreover, these images of collectivism were not the products of elite auteurs like Pontecorvo or Godard, but were part of a generic film movement that entertained Marxist ideas. With the exception of Depression-era social conscience films such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Our Daily Bread (1934), and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), these “lesser” blaxploitation efforts might mark the only trend in commercial Hollywood that explicitly advanced a socialist agenda.

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Not a sign of insurgency or even progressiveness, the Black Lives Matter movement has only proved, in the meekest terms imaginable, the retrenchment of American conservatism that arose during the Obama era. Begun in 2013, BLM reflects the exigencies of the Obama era – don’t risk going too far in your protests and be content with humble incrementalism. Members of BLM aren’t urban guerillas hijacking armored cars or rebels demanding a reconstitution of racialized state plutocracies. Nor do they demand reparations from extant companies that benefitted economically from slavery and Jim Crow (Wells Fargo comes to mind). These are simply marchers and sign-wavers imploring white people not to murder them. Their messages are basically innocuous: “We’re people too,”1 “Please don’t suffocate us for committing finable misdemeanors,” and “You shouldn’t repeatedly shoot us in the back in a cowardly fashion.” The group’s strongest – and still meager – message surfaces whenever a uniformed official is acquitted of murdering a black person: “The wearing of a state costume – an official set of fabrics – is not a license to slaughter us indiscriminately.” To archconservative ears, BLM’s messaging sounds radical only because it’s articulated through homemade placards and unison street chanting, not the deferential pleading of a Shylock. That the chants coincided with Obama’s presidency only magnified the gross insecurities of the racist brain.

Black Lives Matter protest, Ferguson, Missouri, August 20, 2014. Photo by Jamelle Bouie. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It was hardly surprising that the election of America’s first nonwhite president resulted in reactionary animus and polarization; the only variable, perhaps, was the veiled or semi-veiled forms that animus would assume. Certainly, Bill Clinton’s moderately liberal agenda elicited its own reactionary hysteria, from cliques of gun-hoarding, white supremacist militias, to the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building at the hands of antigovernment “patriots,” to the so-called Arkansas Project, a relentless disinformation campaign coordinated by The American Spectator and affiliated members of the derriere garde. Notably, after Clinton’s failure to integrate gays and lesbians into the U.S. military – his first major policy failure – the right increasingly used homophobic rhetoric to portray, in McCarthyist fashion, Clinton’s un-American otherness.2 Obviously, the animus mobilized against Obama, courtesy of Tea Party tribalists, required no pretext or covert conspiracy. While fringe elements hoisted signs portraying the healthcare-reforming president as either a voodoo witch doctor or the African reincarnation of Hitler, more mainstream arbiters of conservatism marshalled the deracialized euphemisms of “Marxist” and “socialist,” even if most of them likely never opened The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. No matter that the vilified Affordable Care Act, used by rightists to “prove” Obama’s socialistic interventions, in fact coerces consumers into complicity with private corporations. No matter, too, that those whom the ACA would help are, by sheer numbers, predominantly poor, rural white populations hoodwinked into voting for family-values Republicans.

Anarcho-syndicalists, neo-Marxists, and even some authentic libertarians3 have long understood that corporatist structures fabricate the liberal-conservative polarity to prevent the left and right from realizing their shared economic interests. Though obviously inflamed by Obama’s otherness, the Tea Party movement began during the Bush administration, following the 2008 government bailouts of American International Group, General Motors, and Chrysler. With the reality of corporate welfare brazenly exposed, there existed in 2009 and 2010 fleeting, potentially utopian intersections between the anti-corporatism of the Occupy Movement and the populist elements of the Tea Party, even if the mainstream media took every opportunity to stress the movements’ racial and generational differences. Unfortunately, the divisive discourse of Obama’s racial otherness became a convenient strategy to sabotage any populist alliances between rightist and leftist dissenters. (In the Trump era, this strategy has been elevated to a quasi-ideological level, yet one so naked and threadbare that Trump’s every political blunder tears the strategy asunder). Ideally, members of the white underclass and black underclass should unite against the media-industrial complex, but conservative media too easily exploit race as a wedge issue, dividing and conquering liberals and non-racist conservatives who should collaborate in the class struggle. For that matter, even racist Tea Party members would better serve their own economic interests through ad hoc alliances than by seeking succor in reactionary and delusional aesthetics of white victimhood.

Photo by Rufino Uribe. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, we couldn’t have expected Obama to foster ties among disparate grassroots movements – no president has ever done that, and Obama was especially a prisoner of facticity and historical exigency, of the objectified fantasies of his electorate and enemies. As president, he had little choice but to embrace electable centrism, downplaying his history of Chicagoan activism and sympathy for liberation theology.4 Nevertheless, Obama would have found greater support among his own base if he openly embraced the activist spirit he once harbored. After his tone-deaf vilification of Obama the Community Organizer at the 2008 Republican National Convention, ex-New York mayor and professional Trump apologist Rudy Giuliani found himself the target of even centrist pundits. Not only did Giuliani’s harangue sound like a parody of conservative elitism, it turned out that many Americans actually liked community organizing, especially under Giuliani’s own regime. In fairness to Obama, in individual speeches his true sympathies occasionally did surface. When eliciting “boos” after reminding a crowd at the University of Michigan that Republicans want to scrap the minimum wage, Obama responded, “Don’t boo, organize!”5 Such moments of leftist revelation were rare, however, and Obama generally spoke safely, knowing conservatives would seize upon and demonize any hint of communitarianism.

As a result, Obama cautiously relegated his rhetoric to the economic problems of the middle class. Frank interrogations of race are both taboo and political suicide; any mention of poverty or the lower class, meanwhile, ignites the right’s un-ironic cries of “class warfare,” as if class discrepancies exist only when liberals discuss them, as if a deliberately depressed minimum wage were not itself empirical proof of a merciless economic crusade. Denying the realities of race and class in America is at this point the incongruous stuff of comedy, for every denial only reveals alienation or, at best, anachronism. In the ubiquitous arena of media parodies and burlesques, perhaps no one had better satirized Obama’s existential predicament than skit comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, whose impersonation of a temperate, diplomatic Obama requires an expressly “black” alter ego to translate his bureaucratic lingo into the angry street talk he surely harbors in his heart. The skit’s popularity only proved (quite literally) the endurance of the DuBoisian “double consciousness,” as Obama self-consciously walked a tightrope between cautious acquiescence and fugitive authenticity, between the dueling expectations of a centrist president and an activist community organizer. But Obama was not an empty vessel like Ellison’s Invisible Man, even if he negotiated a surplus of imposed and projected identities. As the object of excessive visibility, Obama became more like Hamlet, under constant political surveillance and searching for an authenticity denied by his role as leader and inheritor of a military complex. In fact, Obama was possibly more helpless than Hamlet. Not merely indecisive, Obama was without a master Mousetrap, and his rightist enemies – most of them ideologically blind – apparently had no guilty consciences to capture.

The fabricated nature of the double-consciousness is surely exacerbated by the rigidity of America’s two-party system, which poses as the necessary evil of a centrist republic trying to keep extremists from advancing beyond local governance. (The election of Trump, of course, proves that lie.) At the national level of perpetual stalemate (i.e., Congress), an intransigent two-party ideology inhibits resolving the static double-consciousness with any kind of political syntheses, Marxist or otherwise. Key and Peele’s skit is thus ultimately frustrating, as it only reminds audiences that performances of black and white identity remain static and entrenched, as irreconcilable – and hierarchical – as a superego (here painted white) and an id (painted black). From a postmodernist perspective that sees all identities as performative, we must abandon DuBois’ constricted and self-fulfilling dualism, which only feeds the exclusionary ideology of the nation state, that of insiders and outsiders. But American political life has hardly arrived at the moment when we can discard the notion of authenticity, especially when nearly every politician – regardless of race – gives a performance in bad faith, rehearsing nationalistic platitudes for the cameras.

In imagining the “proper” role of African Americans still torn between cultural resistance and acquiescence, Hollywood has unsurprisingly put forth allegories more prudent than liberatory. It is probably no coincidence that Hollywood’s most conspicuous black-centered films of the Obama years – The Help (2011), The Butler (2013), and 12 Years a Slave (2013) – confronted historical narratives of institutional servility without condoning or proposing any revolutionary solutions. Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is something of an outlier in this group, as it celebrates a revolutionary black outlaw and casts the “house nigger” – as embodied by Samuel L. Jackson’s cruel, opportunistic villain – not as a subaltern survivor but as an active collaborator in the system of domination, a traitor who must be kneecapped and detonated. However, Django is so mired in Tarantino’s trademark genre pastiche that any revolutionary import is impeded – or at least circumscribed – by the film’s spaghetti western trappings and winking narcissism. As a result, the film’s racialized discourse is trumped by Tarantino’s own auteurist discourse, and the film’s final images of revenge are drawn not from a nuanced understanding of class dynamics but from the sentimental fabric of macho genre fantasies.

Whereas Django Unchained offers sadistically gratifying, cartoonish images of retribution, films such as Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave offers masochistic spectacles grounded in historical realism. Perhaps it is inevitable that any “realistic” depiction of racial injustice, like many films about the Holocaust,6 would become a masochistic experience for audiences – arguably, such films should not only drain and frustrate audiences but strategically deny them the easy, action-movie pseudo-catharses of Tarantino-ism. Yet these films’ directors – now privileged auteurs spearheading multimillion-dollar projects – have also intentionally chosen historicized subject matters that excuse them from addressing ongoing injustices. Both The Butler and 12 Years offer vivid images of history without advancing any usable theses or attempting to agitate or transform the audience. Though 12 Years offers a vital illustration of the statist terrorism that is slavery, mere illustrations of injustice, accomplished with a decadent Hollywood budget, are inadequate replacements for real, explicit activism. Such illustrations are rationalized as centrist or “reasonable” liberalisms, as uncontroversial engagements with history that will not divide audiences along racial or class identities. As a result, these films stop far short of responsibly naming solutions for present-day inequalities, and viewers are left with the kind of ressentiment that Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil, ascribes to the spiteful, envious servant, who is roused to anger but powerless to transform his future.

On a superficial level, The Butler and 12 Years are themselves enslaved to the non-confrontational humanism typical of post-Reaganite (or post-Spielberg) Hollywood aesthetics. This is an obvious point, but it’s important to stress the gap between the present generation of filmmakers and their countercultural forebears. In the Hollywood of 1970, six of the top sixteen highest-grossing films could be characterized as overtly countercultural: MASH, Woodstock, Little Big Man, Catch 22, Joe, and Five Easy Pieces were popular precisely because they critiqued authoritarianism, militarism, and patriarchy, to varying degrees.7 Likewise, Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Queimada (1969) – and even Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) – not only echoed the era’s agitationist spirit but turned a profit worldwide. By contrast, in today’s transnationalized Hollywood, where homogeneity informs the desired aesthetic, acclaimed films such as Jarhead (2005) and The Hurt Locker (2010) try to critique the ineptitude of American foreign policy but nevertheless glorify soldiery and machismo. As Hollywood budgets have escalated into the hundreds of millions, contentious themes – global warming, wealth inequality, the Wall Street bailout, American imperialism – have been relegated to television and lower-budgeted documentaries as an economic necessity. This trend only reinforces the binary distinction between “masculine,” mythic fictions (which deserve budgets of hundreds of millions) and traitorous, “un-American” progressivism (which must be shuffled off to preachy documentaries or the internet). Of course, some recent big-budget Hollywood films have mildly progressive subtexts,8 but that only proves the point – contentious themes are shamefully buried in subtext because opportunities for open, textual confrontation decrease as a film’s bloated budget accrues greater commercial risk.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Unsurprisingly, the top twenty-five highest-grossing Hollywood films of 2013 – led by Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – were predominantly fantasies aimed at children and adolescents.9 Of these twenty-five, only The Butler (at #22) features expressly political subject matter, and even then, the film goes to considerable lengths to excuse its docility and centrism. The semi-factual story of the White House’s longest-serving African American butler, the film commences with the image of a moonlit American flag waving over a lynched body, as an epigraph from Martin Luther King appears onscreen: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness … only light can do that.” With its pacifistic bent clarified, the film begins in the Georgia cotton fields of 1926, when Forest Whitaker’s hero, then a young child, witnesses a white overseer fatally shoot his father after his mother is raped. The elderly plantation owner then tells the traumatized boy, “I’m going to teach you how to be a house nigger” – a metaphorically resonant phrase for liberal audiences who believed Obama too often acquiesced before John Boehner’s belligerent House of Representatives. Framing the hero’s lifelong subjection as a lingering symptom of childhood trauma, the film rationalizes his social position as a kind of arrested development, a submissive self-concept indelibly internalized at gunpoint. Inevitably, the film’s “traumatic” framework both explains and excuses the orphaned protagonist’s subsequent lack of political consciousness or agency.

Attempting to historicize its theme of subjection, the film centers on the butler’s relationship with his activist son, whose progression from civil disobedience to post-King militancy contrasts with the father’s Johnson-era subservience. Because he has learned too well his acquiescent role as modern-day “house nigger,” Whitaker’s timorous butler is surely meant to frustrate contemporary audiences, especially when a White House bureaucrat belittles his demand for a raise, telling him he shouldn’t let that “Martin Luther King shit” go to his head. Yet the film also discourages audience identification with his community-organizing, beret-wearing activist son and militant girlfriend (replete with Foxy Brown afro). In the film’s central moral climax – repeated and strategically re-edited in nearly every advertisement, trailer, and promo for the film – the son dismisses not only Martin Luther King’s pacific satyagraha but mocks the butler’s favorite actor, Sidney Poitier, who was often seen by 1960s radicals as an unthreatening image of blackness advanced by Hollywood (recall the lambasting of Poitier in Robert Downey’s Putney Swope [1969]). “I’m sorry, Mr. Butler,” the son says, “I didn’t mean to make fun of your hero.” The butler’s wife, played by Oprah Winfrey (always an arbiter of middlebrow morality), then slaps him and reprimands him for his ungratefulness: “Everything you are, everything you have, is because of that butler!” This melodramatic moment became the crux of the film’s entire television advertising campaign – but in a re-edited version that removes any mention of Poitier or In the Heat of the Night (1967), the movie at issue in this scene. If one had only seen The Butler’s trailer or TV spots, one couldn’t possibly know to which “hero” the son refers. Given that the son is signified in the trailer only by his Che Guevara beret, the objectionable hero could well be Dr. King, President Johnson, or anyone who signifies some kind of moderation.

In effect, the contextual identity of the “hero” becomes irrelevant: viewers of the TV spots only learn that prodigal sons who wear militant hats should be shamed as ingrates in an allegedly “postracial” age that sees black militancy not only as anachronistic but also as less productive than working within the system, as do the butler and, in a grander sense, Obama. The film proper is marginally better than the reductionist discourse of its advertising, which gives no hint of the father and son’s final reconciliation at an early 1990s anti-apartheid rally. Even this, however, is a convenient solution, as belated anti-apartheid protests hardly constitute a bold stance, even for a timid butler. The protagonist’s lack of agency is ultimately a symptom of his pseudo-historicized emplotment, which, following the dubious example of Forrest Gump (1994), reduces American history to a highlight reel of textbook events, filtered through the standpoint of a spectating everyman, a cypher to whom history merely “happens.” In fairness to the film and its advertising, it should be mentioned that one of its mass-produced lobby posters did suggest that Whitaker’s character was not merely a submissive bystander. The two most widely used posters emphasized submission before the nation-state, featuring the butler either holding his hands behind his back, passively watching Washington political life from his cloistered window, or (even worse) holding forth a cup of tea while literally clothed in the American flag. One rarer poster, however, openly acknowledged the butler’s political double-bind, as his one hand proffers a tea service and the other is thrust upright, fist clenched in defiant protest. This image, however, tends to protest too much, for audiences hoping that Whitaker’s character might rebel discover that only the decentered son embodies a revolutionary consciousness.

While making history palatable for the masses is standard Hollywood procedure, director Daniels himself has discouraged any revolutionary messages or interpretations. Promoting the film in an MSNBC interview, Daniels insisted that Whitaker’s butler symbolizes “everyone who serves in America” and that audiences should be thankful for those who “died for our country.”10 The baffling claim that Whitaker’s character symbolizes every national servant disingenuously elides the injustices of race and class that ostensibly undergird the film, and Daniels’ second, nationalistic assertion is totally irrelevant. Furthermore, the notion that service is inherently honorable and neatly separable from servility is at best naïve, as the American caste system represented in the film renders service within a hierarchy anything but voluntary. Though we might assume MSNBC’s left-leaning audience would welcome trenchant class analysis, Daniels instead responds in bad faith, preempting any accusations of “class warfare” and subsuming race under the accommodating umbrella of nationalism. The obvious implication is that, in an allegedly postracial America, injustices both past and present must be addressed within a “unified,” nationalistic discourse that buries old wrongs for the sake of a greater, deracialized good. Such is the usual limitation of centrism – the film critiques a particular historical evolution but leaves the nation-state blameless in the abstract, much as moderates may reject particular capitalist excesses but not the overall ideology that produces excess, or as enlightened religious folk may reject dogma but still cling to the religious hierarchies that generate it.

Though a finer film than The Butler, 12 Years a Slave also fell victim to a “doubly-conscious” advertising campaign, which at once broadcast the injustices of slavery and exhorted audiences to repudiate activist or militant choices. In a strategy startling only for its banality, the cable TV and pay-per-view ad campaign11 for 12 Years replaced the film’s synchronized audio track with bromidic excerpts from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, recasting the gruesome history of slavery in the comfortably optimistic terms of mid-20th-century morality. A more trenchant – and relevant – ad would have foregone “I Have a Dream” and instead overdubbed excerpts from the Economic Bill of Rights that was part of King’s ill-fated Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. Admittedly, such an ad would unsubtly propagandize and provoke, but that is much the point – because allegedly “liberal” mass-media in fact only propagate spineless centrism, American audiences need reminding of what real provocation looks and sounds like.

Demonstrators participating in the Poor People’s March at Lafayette Park and on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, D.C. June 18, 1968. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

12 Years director McQueen likely had little say in the ad campaign, but the exploitative, manipulative nature of the culture industry has extended the discourse of a film well beyond the film proper. The totalized experience of a film now includes all its extra-diegetic appendages and appendices, from TV ads and posters, to star and director interviews, to newspaper reviews and fawning blurbs, to internet pop-ups and blogged rants. As such, the “film” acquires a twofold presence within the machinery of the culture industry, existing first as an “authentic,” auteurist text and secondly as the sum total of the text and its rampant publicity and media discourse. Though this commercialistic cleaving of a film’s identity isn’t directly analogous to a DuBoisian doubleness – the latter is an existentialistic problem – each case does engender something of a Cartesian split, as an authentic form (a soul, artwork, or integral mentality) must adopt multiple, embodying masks to perform within the material world.

If these ad campaigns are any yardstick, successful black-themed films like The Butler and 12 Years have yet to reject politically correct masks, especially as Obama’s presidency only intensified the taboo of addressing racism without apology or hedging. Limiting themselves to descriptive – rather than prescriptive – frameworks, Hollywood filmmakers have thus become illustrators, not provocateurs. Gone are the incisive satires of Putney Swope or Melvin van Peebles’ Watermelon Man (1970), the story of a white bigot magically turned African American. A broad parable worthy of Mark Twain, buoyed by an absurdist performance by Godfrey Cambridge, Watermelon refuses to reduce a painful history to middlebrow psychological portraiture, in the manner of The Butler. The political problem of insufficiently rebellious Obama-era films is thus also an aesthetic problem, for Hollywood’s dominant mode of realist humanism always imagines individual subjectivities, not a collective consciousness. In an interview that included 12 Years director McQueen, Columbia historian Eric Foner critiqued Hollywood’s tendency to reduce the complex threads of history to oversimplified, individual subjectivities:

“The daddy [of this cinematic trend] … I suppose, of all this was Glory, which came out in the late ’80s. Roots, of course, comes before that. All of them suffer from what I see as the problem of Hollywood history. Even in [12 Years a Slave], there’s a tendency toward: You’ve got to have one hero or one figure. That’s why historians tend to be a little skeptical about Hollywood history, because you lose the sense of group or mass.”12

Foner’s critique also applies to the bland history lesson that is Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), another prestige picture about elite personalities, not collective action. Extending beyond particular characters and plots, the myth of individualism lurks in Hollywood’s economics and very style, from the rise of the star system in the 1910s and ’20s to directors’ relentless close-ups, a technique that has sabotaged countless films aspiring to leftism (Spike Lee’s Malcolm X [1991], for instance). If a director such as Ousmane Sembene rightly refuses the ideology of the close-up in favor of collectivistic long shots, mainstream Hollywood still insists on facial invasiveness as a primary means of psychological signification. Beyond the confines of Hollywood, history is reduced to the cult of personality in every primary and secondary school. As James Loewan has argued,13 standardized textbooks strategically marginalize accounts of collective action, expunge the radical socialism of minority activists (such as Helen Keller or Paul Robeson), and reduce history to a grim fetish of executive-branch personalities.

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

The politics and aesthetics of reluctant centrism are ubiquitous, even when they extend to images of the liberal 1970s. Indeed, many Hollywood films of recent years, from Boogie Nights (1997) to American Hustle (2013) to facile exercises in the Anchorman (2004) vein, have returned to the 1970s not for the inspirations of feminism or black power but as a font of indulgent nostalgia. No doubt this wistfulness stems from a narcissistic generation of directors longing for their childhoods; the blaxploitation pastiches popularized by Tarantino and his epigones have only compounded the problem of sentimentality. The result is that 1970s blaxploitation in particular has been misremembered and mischaracterized as a mere “style” or affectation rather than as a movement that, for all its crudity, self-parody, and generic violence, did advance socialist-Marxist themes within the paradoxical framework of commercial cinema. Though African American cultural studies have revived interest in what were previously considered disposable films, some analyses are hampered by both sentiment and conservative, individualistic notions of heroism. For instance, in his personalized account of moviegoing, Nelson George waxes nostalgic over the “mesmerizing” and “glamorous” qualities of Ron O’Neil’s “Cadillac El Dorado, big-brimmed hats, and lethal sideburns” in Superfly (1972).14 The emphasis on finding “empowerment” in individualist black heroes also informs Adilifu Nama’s short monograph Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (2011) and Yvonne D. Sims’ Women of Blaxploitation (2006), which makes simplistic claims for violent black heroines’ agency within white patriarchy, as if Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson’s action-movie gymnastics were adequate representations of cultural power.15 In fact, Grier tried to transcend violent stereotypes and once pitched biopics of Josephine Baker and Dorothy Dandridge only to find that white and black producers were uninterested in nonviolent, non-generic heroines.16 The male blaxploitation hero is even more a caricature than his female counterpart. Though some audiences may see his exaggerated potency as empowering, and though in Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Hitman (1972) his eroticized body is unexpectedly subjected to a female gaze, his individualistic super-heroism ultimately mimics and confirms the militaristic, imperialistic model of the gun-slinging cowboy or (white) pioneer.

Lobby card for Slaughter’s Big Ripoff

Blaxploitation remains a campy embarrassment, much as black power rhetoric is now little more than a stale joke, especially as Obama’s presidency demonstrated that power comes from rising within the system, not from subverting it. Given the hegemonic masculinity embodied by Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Fred Williamson (Black Caesar), or Jim Brown (Slaughter), one cannot entirely blame the NAACP and the Coalition against Blaxploitation (formed by the NAACP, the Urban League, and allied religious groups) for opposing the genre’s caricatures. Attempting to exorcise the stereotype of the black stud and redraw more nuanced images of African American masculinity, contemporary filmmakers have advanced storylines about bourgeois professionals, in the manner of Forest Whitaker’s Waiting to Exhale (1995) or Chris Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife (2005). In stressing upwardly mobile individuals, however, filmmakers have generally forgotten that blaxploitation did emphasize something that is not a joke and that shouldn’t be rejected: community organization, Obama’s greatest political sin.

The import of community organization underlies director Scott Sanders’ and writer-star Michael Jai White’s canny Obama-era blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite (2009), which foregrounds the problem of a black superhero who chooses violent individualism (i.e., Americanism) over community identity (i.e., socialism). Indeed, the blaxploitation film usually negotiated the commercial need for an individual superhero and the political need to acknowledge the work of community organizers, whether violent or pacifist. In Foxy Brown (1974), for example, Pam Grier reluctantly accepts the aid of Black Panther-esque guerillas, but it is she alone who faces the white villainess in the film’s finale. If doubly-conscious films such as The Butler and 12 Years solve (or fail to solve) their dilemma by putting on nonthreatening faces of centrism, so do most blaxploitation films conservatively privilege individualistic heroes and subordinate the role of community organizers, who are always too idealistic and dogmatic to act as “authentic,” unbridled American heroes. There are, however, some notable exceptions, to which we’ll return.

Like the titular heroes of Shaft and Slaughter, Black Dynamite’s crime-fighting, kung fu superstud straddles law and lawlessness, the system and vigilantism; because the poles of white and black power are equally doctrinaire and rule-bound, it is preferable to remain in the ill-defined interstices. The white hero of 19th-century frontier mythology traditionally had to choose between savagery and civilization (as if the two were mutually exclusive!). The commercial blaxploitation hero,17 a descendant of slaves, confronts an analogous but more complex choice, for he neither abandons individualistic claims to heroism nor capitulates to an alleged “civilization” built upon imperialism, slavery, and genocide. As he skeptically works within a historically oppressive white system to improve and diversify it (as in Shaft or Slaughter), he remains equally skeptical of organized black power, realizing that any hierarchy is prone to corruption.18 His individualism, though ostensibly rugged and manly, nevertheless harbors ressentiment at its core, for he knows his unique freedom ostracizes him from every community, much as his rampant heterosexuality precludes stable romantic partnerships. Whereas The Butler – or Obama himself – negotiates this bitter, “in-between” position with a veneer of centrism, the blaxploitation hero merely appropriates the modus operandi of the rugged individualist, becoming the arbiter of a stock revenge fantasy. Indeed, he easily appeals to white audiences because they can enjoy his rebellions superficially, as bloody retributions directed against any generic injustice, without the contentious baggage of a defined political allegiance.

Far more knowing than Damon Wayans’ scattershot spoof I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), Black Dynamite relishes every blaxploitation stereotype: the indulgent white police chief, Italian mobsters peddling drugs in the ghetto, neighborhood antidrug crusaders, and, not least, the light-skinned black politician who rallies against the White Power Structure but secretly conspires with white gangsters to exploit his own people. Like many blaxploitation films, Black Dynamite casts a skeptical eye at revolutionary movements, which (according to the rules of blaxploitation) are ever-prone to corruption and too often become oppressive and hierarchical in themselves. Indeed, films such as Coffy (1973), Friday Foster (1975), and Bucktown USA (1975) make a common point of demonstrating (however crudely) a Marxian critique of power reproduction at the structural level. In Bucktown USA, for example, Fred Williamson’s hero must oppose despotic black militants who abuse newfound political power after eliminating the racist white police of a small Southern town. Most importantly, Black Dynamite seizes upon the individual-versus-collective dynamic, deftly satirizing how the cult of individualism always trumps grass-roots collectivism. Early in the film, Black Dynamite returns to the den of an old militant friend, who is now organizing beret-wearing black guerillas. Knowing that Black Dynamite partly works within the system and is occasionally enabled by a crusty white police chief, one of the younger guerillas asks the old friend, “You know this Uncle Tom?” Black Dynamite then responds with a harangue that more or less sums up the underlying theory of blaxploitation:

“Listen, sucker, I’m blacker than the Ace of Spades and more militant than your whole damn army put together! While you’re out there chanting at rallies and browbeating politicians, I’m taking out any money-grubbing sucker and hummer that gets in my way. When your so-called revolution starts, you call me, and I’ll be right down in front showing you how it’s done. But until then, you need to shut the fuck up when grown folks is talkin’!”

On the surface, the harangue seems like ordinary genre parody, but it perfectly encapsulates the paradoxical double-binds that would-be activists must navigate – and rationalize. Black Dynamite insists he is more “militant” than the entire militant collective, yet his actions are those of a martial arts superhero, not a collectivistic agent. In other words, he mischaracterizes militancy as individualistic acts of violence, not as a political consciousness. He can rationalize his stoic individualism because the “so-called revolution” has yet to begin – but in fact, the revolution will always be a dream deferred, an underground movement that has no credibly charismatic spokesman because, paradoxically, Black Dynamite refuses to speak for it. Furthermore, Black Dynamite sees the movement as infantile, as a group of childish play-actors who “need to shut the fuck up when grown folks is talkin’!” and who are impotent without a leader like himself – even though he’s an individualist who would never lead any group. The infantilizing language recalls the rhetoric of Rudy Giuliani and other Republicans who relished mocking – or simply demonizing – Obama the Community Organizer, who was surely too naïve to understand how the “real” world of politics works. This corrupted notion of pragmatism is the ideological problem which Black Dynamite, in his confident individualism, internalizes and parodies. Collective movements and sociological understandings of reality are branded by conservatives as “childish,” while individual subjectivities and psychological (or simply religious) understandings of reality are lauded as “mature.” Of course, it is the sociological and not the individualistic explanation that is truly worldly. By framing individualism as the defining mark of adulthood, however, the rightist imagination could deem the Obama coalition immature and effeminate, as adolescents who suffer from sinful defects of character, not from too-cautious diplomacy.

In accordance with the film’s satire, Black Dynamite’s manliness and decisiveness are made ludicrous, yet his masculinity is the same yardstick by which Obama was ludicrously measured. It is thus no accident that Black Dynamite’s plot turns explicitly on virility, as its hero must foil a scheme (by Richard Nixon, no less) to emasculate the black population by spiking a popular brand of malt liquor with a penis-shrinking serum. In the film’s climax, Black Dynamite also contends with a gun-wielding Pat Nixon; after violently subduing her, he curiously apologizes to her for his unchivalrous violence, at which point she becomes his kneeling love slave. Interestingly, Black Dynamite wins Pat Nixon’s allegiance not through a superstud’s jive but through a self-conscious, fourth-wall-breaking gesture of chivalry in which he concedes to audiences that his hegemonic masculinity is merely a generic performance. This self-consciousness clearly opposes the puerile “manliness” buffoonishly embodied by Trump, who once claimed – without irony and probably without working definitions – that he was the “most militaristic” person among his 2016 rivals for the Republican nomination.

Though Black Dynamite understands that its conventional black hero is caught between a cartoonish individuality and an untested, under-defined revolution, its comedy overlooks less mainstream blaxploitations that did embrace the organized collective. Consider Lee Frost’s blunt, ultra-low-budget The Black Gestapo (1975). Juxtaposing a pragmatic, heroic community organizer with a narcissistic black revolutionary, Gestapo argues that the hubristic individual is more prone to corruption than the prudent (if imperfect) collective. The film begins as the hero, leader of the “People’s Army,” delivers a speech that rebuffs the timidity of slick Hollywood films like The Butler: “Martin Luther King had a dream, and it was blasted into eternity with him. I offer you reality. You’ve got to stand tall and demand your rights.” Nevertheless, he is a pragmatist, working partly within the system but never selling out. “The People’s Army was established with a grant given from the white community,” he explains, so “blacks [can] help blacks with white money.” Though torn by the prospect of receiving white subsidies, he insists they are necessary to establish a self-defense force that will protect the black community from moustache-twirling Italian mobsters. But the People’s Army consists of poorly trained amateurs, and the leader’s hubristic lieutenant grows impatient with bromides, inefficacy, and white handouts.

After the bloodthirsty lieutenant threatens a coup, the leader agrees to deputize six additional soldiers, but only for defensive purposes. Of course, the leader’s strategy of appeasement backfires, and soon the lieutenant uses the defense force as a vigilante force: in one scene, the “Black Gestapo” breaks into the bathroom of a white rapist, castrates him, and flushes his testicles down the commode. Such crowd-pleasing revenge fantasies become corrupted, however, when the Black Gestapo begins to extort money from black merchants and erects an armed compound, replete with humiliated white servants.19 Critiquing demagoguery run amok, the film actually fulfills the ideal (i.e., non-caricatured) thesis of blaxploitation – that revolutionaries should not become pseudo-colonialist exploiters themselves – without putting forth an individualistic, superstud hero. Indeed, the film’s hero, the ethical leader of the original People’s Army, is not a cartoonish Black Dynamite but the type of conscientious community organizer Obama presumably was before he conceded to the corruptions of the White House. When the treacherous lieutenant offers the (former) leader funds to feed the poor, he refuses the dirty money and calls the traitor a “jive-ass nigger.” Predictably, the climax witnesses the hero, now alone, take up arms and eliminate the Black Gestapo, though he does so reluctantly, and in the final showdown he sincerely regrets resorting to violence. In this extremely low-budget, marginal film, we discover a hero slicker films refuse to imagine: a community organizer who advocates nonaggression and yet does not sacrifice his masculinity or sell out to the Man. Although The Black Gestapo’s first half exposes the inefficacy of the leader’s self-defense force, the film ostensibly argues that temporary inefficacy (i.e., democracy) is preferable to cults of personality and the reproduction of oppression under a different name. Whereas The Butler identifies all signs of bereted militancy as unacceptable deviance, Gestapo identifies only the corruption of militant activism as a political sin. Because the political assumptions of The Black Gestapo are far to the left of those of The Butler, furthermore, the hero of Gestapo can retain his revolutionary consciousness while rejecting militant options destined to go astray. In the centrist world of The Butler, the “radical” choice is merely the son’s ordinary, reasonable militancy, and anyone to the son’s political right has (according to the film, at least) few valid activist options.

Poster art for The Black Gestapo

We’ve already seen how ads and trailers for The Butler and 12 Years a Slave adopted socially acceptable masks of patriotism or centrism to preempt accusations of race-baiting or so-called class warfare. Notably, the theatrical trailer for The Black Gestapo engaged in the opposite strategy, exaggerating rather than diluting the film’s insurrectionary appeal. In its two-and-a-half minutes, the trailer gives no indication that the conscientious leader, not the egomaniacal lieutenant, is the film’s centered hero. Rather, after the trailer shows the People’s Army thrashed by white gangsters, a voice-over declares (without irony) that “they had to become the Black Gestapo – the New Master Race!” At this point, the trailer cuts to scenes in which the lieutenant, adopting a Nazi posture and uniform, stands before his soldiers while the soundtrack overdubs chants of “Sieg Heil!” Of course, the lieutenant’s pseudo-Nazism is supposed to be a sign of decadence in the film proper (even if the power fantasies might appeal to downtrodden audiences), and the Sieg Heil shouts are no more original to this film than “I Have a Dream” was to 12 Years a Slave. Certainly, Gestapo’s meretricious trailer is no more honest than the gutless, non-confrontational trailers of contemporary Hollywood. Nevertheless, the trailer adopts a mask – for every film trailer constitutes a public face – designed only to provoke and agitate, even to the point of ludicrousness.

 

The Black Gestapo is not the only blaxploitation to seriously entertain the value of community organizing, and I’d like to conclude by briefly considering two other films (and their trailers) that explicitly imagine communitarian rebellions unthinkable in today’s Hollywood. Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), after the 1969 novel of the same name, was indeed controversial in its own time, and United Artists thought twice about releasing the film after realizing it had licensed the filmmakers to stage a revolutionary polemic. The film begins with patronizing white politicians devising a scheme to capture the “negro” vote: use affirmative action policies to integrate black agents into the CIA, in the hopes of propagating nationalistic sentiment among black constituencies. In an early scene, the film satirizes affirmative action policies when one black applicant jokingly suggests the best way to pass the entrance exams: “The word today is ‘integration’ … you just have to understand the theory of tokenism. They grade on a curve – if none of us gets too eager, it’s a gentleman’s C for everybody.” One of the recruits, however, is a black nationalist and veteran of Korea who, disheartened by the tokenism, leaves the CIA to teach his new guerilla skills to inner-city revolutionaries and even some white dissidents. Not a Jim Brown-esque superhero, he is an intellectual committed to organized, not individualized, violence.

After spreading propaganda and inciting riots and public discord, the revolutionary hero is confronted by his old friend, a black police officer appalled by the wanton violence in the streets. The hero stands his moral ground, arguing that his militancy has invested black youths – otherwise destined for the prison-industrial complex – with revolutionary purpose and historical consciousness. In a struggle, the hero kills the old friend and then delivers a speech to his supporters about the necessity of killing black cops and soldiers and other Uncle Toms. The film ends audaciously with a montage of guerilla warfare in the Chicago streets, as revolutionaries pick off government soldiers from rooftops and a news report announces that spreading insurrections have forced the president to declare a state of national emergency. Given this plot synopsis, the contrast between The Spook Who Sat by the Door and a film like The Butler could not be starker or more enlightening. One wonders – if only in jest – how Forest Whitaker’s butler might have abandoned his servility, joined his bereted son in the militant cause, and taken up arms against the system. But the jest is bittersweet: not only are revolutionary approaches to race now taboo, but contemporary Hollywood has put forth precious few images of black intellectuals of any stripe, revolutionary or otherwise.

The trailer for The Spook Who Sat by the Door doesn’t mince words, emphasizing street-level chaos meant to strike fear into the heart of the white establishment. A similar strategy informs the trailer for Black Samson (1974), whose communitarian hero not only ejects white encroachers but subdues various reprobates with a Mosaic staff. While Black Samson’s action-movie stereotypes are risible, the film’s trailer is quite remarkable, showcasing as its climax a race riot. As the voice-over claims, “When the scene gets really heavy, Black Samson and his people come down – with all their weight!” Yet Black Samson is not actually shown in the scene; we only see, in long shots, a rooftop filled with members of the black underclass, righteously raining down washing machines, television sets, and every sort of commercial refuse onto white oppressors below. Whereas contemporary Hollywood trailers typically end with a crowd-pleasing or reassuring image – dancing, laughing, kissing, epic explosions, athletic victories, and so on – Black Samson’s trailer climaxes with a mass insurrection that privileges neither a single hero nor individualistic psychology. In fact, the trailer suggests that the race riot scene is actually the upbeat selling point of the film, something more or less unthinkable in any corner of today’s Hollywood.

The existence of films such as Black Samson and The Spook Who Sat by the Door reminds us that there was an era, however fleeting, in which commercial films discarded centrist masks and bravely wore insurrection on their sleeves. Moreover, these images of collectivism were not the products of elite auteurs like Pontecorvo or Godard, but were part of a generic film movement that entertained Marxist ideas. With the exception of Depression-era social conscience films such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Our Daily Bread (1934), and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), these “lesser” blaxploitation efforts might mark the only trend in commercial Hollywood that explicitly advanced a socialist agenda.

Screenshot from Potemkin

Although today’s plutocratic power structure may have convinced many Americans – including Democrats – that “community” and “organizing” are dirty words, blaxploitation, in its less commercial moments, reveals that cinema can propose collective heroisms. The point is not to make elaborate biopics about individual leftist leaders – like Soderbergh’s Che (2008) – and then have a stale debate about the accuracy or inaccuracy of their historical representations. Instead, we should reject the cult of biography altogether, and put forth films, whether realistic or fantastic, pacifist or militant, that reimagine heroism as something other than the exclusive domain of extraordinary individuals. Unfortunately, younger generations don’t merely see collective heroism as naïve or unrealistic – they don’t even recognize it as a possibility. At the risk of being reductive, allow me to relate a revealing anecdote. Some time ago, I was teaching an introductory film class to a small group of eighteen-year-olds. After watching Eisenstein’s Potemkin (1925), I asked a seemingly innocuous question: “Who is the film’s hero?” After a minute of deliberation, they realized the question had stumped them. Of course, Potemkin, which emphasizes mass scenes and baroquely composed long shots, has no individually named hero. But the students had been so indoctrinated by the Hollywood ideology of singular heroes, fallaciously rationalized as “empowering” figures, that they couldn’t recognize Potemkin’s revolutionaries as a plurality of heroes. Honestly, I myself can hardly think of a commercial American film that totally dispenses with individual heroes, apart from social movement documentaries like Woodstock (1970) or Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976) and American Dream (1989).

Because mythic fictions hold the greatest propagandistic power, we cannot rely on progressive documentaries that preach to the converted and that young people will never see. Likewise, we cannot make apologies for middlebrow productions like The Butler, whose aesthetics of servility, of supposedly noble service to state masters, directly contradicts Desmond Tutu’s famous admonition: “We don’t want our chains made more comfortable.” Just as we could not simplistically look to individual leaders like Obama for liberation, progress, or any other idealized goal, so should we resist identifying with Hollywood’s cult of “empowering” heroes, who only reproduce neoliberal images of masculinized dominance and authority, regardless of their race or multiculturalist pretense. Instead, Hollywood directors, who until now have only posed as progressives, must become real progressives, foregoing individualistic subjectivities – and, indeed, the fetishized star system itself – for the kind of collective subjectivity blaxploitation (and indeed Eisenstein) all too briefly entertained.

Screenshot from Black Dynamite. The ghost of Abraham Lincoln appears to defend Black Dynamite from Richard Nixon.

While a rise in collectivism may seem improbable, the time is in fact ripe, if we believe that conditions must get worse before they get better, or that the victims of ressentiment will eventually and violently outgrow their enervations. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United and 2014 McCutcheon decisions may have temporarily privatized the electoral system, but they are also a call to arms that can unite right and left in new coalitions. Likewise, America’s calamitous war on drugs, imperialist misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unofficial policy of corporate welfare should, in time, unite racially disparate members of the underclass. As the richest 400 Americans now hold as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the population combined, and as Trump and his conservative allies repackage trickle-down economics under the sanctimonious, euphemistic umbrella of “job creation,” widespread economic discontent will override the Republican Party’s racialized divide-and-conquer strategy. By 2050, white Americans will be a minority population, but we needn’t wait for demographic shifts to effect change. Early in The Communist Manifesto, Marx reminds us of a historical reality we too easily forget – that the middle class itself was once a revolutionary movement, for in the 17th century the ascendant bourgeoisie had to displace and supplant the dregs of feudalism. If early modern merchant classes could displace manorialism, today’s movie audiences could certainly refuse the culture industry’s hero cults and insist on collectivistic images that rightly reflect the people’s economic interests. We only have to heed the advice of Erich Fromm and realize that power itself has a double meaning: the manipulative, dominating power over a thing, and the emancipatory power to do what hasn’t yet been done.

* * *

An earlier version of this essay (under the same title) appeared in the anthology Movies in the Age of Obama: The Era of Post-Racial and Neo-Racist Cinema, ed. David Izzo (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014).

  1. Had the movement been called “Black Lives Also Matter,” conservatives would probably see its innocuousness more clearly. []
  2. The most notorious instance of homophobia occurred in 1994, when Sen. Jesse Helms warned Clinton to bring bodyguards when visiting military bases, as American soldiers presumably might want to kill the president for proposing LGBT integration. Helms’ homophobia is roughly the equivalent of the perceived racism of South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson, now famous for yelling “You lie!” during Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address. []
  3. Given the Republican Party’s current libertarian poseurs, who believe in small government only when it suits their purposes, the qualifier “authentic” seems necessary. []
  4. Bowing to public pressure in 2008, Obama had to distance himself from the leftism of his former pastor, the liberation theologian Jeremiah Wright. However, most of the arguments in Wright’s sermons – which lambasted U.S. policy in Iraq, exposed massacres of Native Americans, and so on – were already commonplaces in college classrooms and on center-left PBS or NPR documentaries. Obama’s backpedaling on the Wright “controversy” is arguably the best illustration of his betrayal of activist causes. []
  5. From a speech given at the University of Michigan, April 2, 2014. []
  6. Hollywood’s black “servility” narratives might be compared to what Norman Finkelstein had derisively called “the Holocaust industry,” as each genre exploits histories of suffering for nationalistic (and financial) gain. []
  7. Admittedly, 1970’s highest-grossing film was Patton, though its success rested mainly on George C. Scott’s larger-than-life performance. []
  8. Examples are probably unnecessary, but consider X Men: The Last Stand (2006), an obvious allegory about nefarious attempts to “cure” queers and other outsiders. []
  9. To take more recent figures, the top ten Hollywood grossers of 2017 were (in order) Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, It, Thor: Ragnarok, Despicable Me 3, Justice League, and Logan. To the degree that box office hits are increasingly superhero movies aimed at children, we slip only further into fascist aesthetics. We should remember, however, that popular films of the early ’70s refute our present assumption that box office potential and antiauthoritarian/pacifist themes are inversely proportional. []
  10. From an MSNBC interview with Martin Bashir, aired on August 13, 2013. []
  11. These short promos were run continuously in early 2014 by Verizon and other cable providers for the films. []
  12. George, Nelson. “An Essentially American Narrative: A Discussion of Steve McQueen’s Film 12 Years a Slave.” The New York Times, October 11, 2013. []
  13. The argument against personality-centered history is central to Loewan’s popular historiography Lies My Teachers Told Me (1994). []
  14. George, Nelson. Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies. New York: Harper Collins, 1994, 30. []
  15. Though blaxploitation did provide work for many underemployed African Americans, many male and female actors have expressed frustration about the limitations of their roles. For instance, William Marshall insisted that “Blacula” be a former African prince to add dignity to the character written in the original script. Yaphet Kotto, a powerful actor too often consigned to genre roles, had frankly criticized his James Bond villain “Kananga” in Live and Let Die (1973): “There were so many problems with that script … I was too afraid of coming off like Mantan Moreland … I had to dig deep in my soul and brain and come up with a level of reality that would offset the sea of stereotype crap that [screenwriter] Tom Mankiewicz wrote that had nothing to do with the Black experience or culture.” See “The One and Only: An Interview with Yaphet Kotto.Cult Film Freak, http://www.cultfilmfreak.com/yaphetkotto. Accessed January 28, 2018. []
  16. Ryfle, Steve. “The Accidental Action Heroine.” Bright Lights Film Journal, #69. Accessed January 28, 2018. []
  17. I stress “commercial,” as more marginal examples, such as Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), clearly take the side of outlawry. []
  18. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Hollywood screenwriters resorted to a cheap ploy to extricate the white action hero from full complicity with the corrupt white establishment. In the coda of many genre films, the hero punches out his arrogant, browbeating white superior, demonstrating his (slight) deviation from authoritarian norms. See Cobra (1986), Leviathan (1989), Another 48 Hours (1990), etc. []
  19. The theme of black entrepreneurs and power-holders humiliating their white servants and conquests is common in blaxploitation – see, for instance, Boss Nigger (1975) and Black Caesar (1973), both with Fred Williamson. []