“How you gonna keep um’ down on the farm after they seen all this?”
The destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Projects in East St. Louis on July 15, 1972 provided one of the most stunning visual moments of the twentieth century as engineers set off a series of small explosions that triggered larger explosions that caused the five-block structure to implode live on national television. Designed by celebrated modernist architect Minoru Yamasaki, Pruitt-Igoe was constructed in 1955 and meant to stand as a monument to modernist ideas of functionality, rationalism and the ultimate triumph of humankind over environment. For its lower-class urban and mostly African American dwellers, the modernist social experiment was from the beginning a dismal failure — its towering buildings more prisonlike than liberating, its wide-open public spaces more combat zones than community meeting places. Pruitt-Igoe never managed to achieve more than a one-third occupancy rate even though an adjacent but smaller housing project consistently maintained a hundred percent occupancy rate during the same time period. This figure suggestively implies that lower-class urban populations were enacting, through refusal, their own critique of modernism’s vision of the city.
The destruction of Pruitt-Igoe exists in American culture as an early moment of crisis for modernist fantasies of the city. However, popular and low culture had been pointing the direction to this crisis for years through their representation of the abject spaces of the country and the ghetto. In this paper, I draw on two seemingly unrelated, under-celebrated moments of cinema production history — hillbilly sexploitation and blaxploitation — in which those spaces not only figure significantly but are also significantly refigured. I do so not only to consider urbanity’s disjunctions but disjunctions in the national imagination that governs representational notions of race, class, and power.
Produced in the late sixties and seventies, hillbilly sexploitation and blaxploitation signify contemporaneous moments of hybridized and degraded cinema production that challenged the norms of sexual presentation on screen utilizing widely held cultural notions of race, space, and subjectivity. Created cheaply and quickly by B-level studios, hillbilly sexploitation represented an amalgamation of the sexploitation genre (itself a blend of sex and exploitation categories) and the film and television hillbilly genres. Blaxploitation film represented both a category of exploitation film and a subgenre of action film. While hillbilly sexploitation represented a popular imagining of the country for urbanized populations, blaxploitation’s country people presented a way of distancing Black people from rural locales and naturalizing the city as the primary location for African American culture. I argue that both subgenres of popular film, now relegated to the classification of “trash cinema,” contradict the idea that the faults of the city can be blamed on the economically disadvantaged people that dwell there. Rather, these films challenge and parody mainstream ideas of the country and the city and their inhabitants.
Film scholar Carol Clover notes that for the horror film genre, “going from the city to the country” is “very much like going from village to deep, dark forest in traditional fairy tales” (124). The country is a representational terrain “beyond the reaches of social law” and the people who occupy this space are typically “surly, dirty . . . and slow” (125). The country as a symbolic terrain creates for the horror film genre what Clover terms “urbanoia” (124). According to Clover, for popular film urbanoia means that the country — rife with notions of primitive danger — acts not only as the symbolic unconscious of the city but as both a corrective and a panacea to urbanity’s guilt for the excesses of the city, economic, moral, and otherwise.
However, Midnight Plowboy, produced with the audience-pleasing imperative of exploitation cinema by sexploitation pioneer Harry Novak,1 is clearly more populist in its intentions, refiguring the city not as the site of a modernist triumph of skyscrapers and cultural progress but as the site of an unholy alliance between countercultural ideology and commerce. The film’s trailer tellingly highlights the populist geography of the city as the Midnight Plowboy travels through Los Angeles having various sexual encounters intercut with encounters with the city’s urban population that seems to consist almost entirely of homosexuals, hippies, a rabbi, prostitutes, and policemen whom the voice-over derisively terms the city’s “fruits, nuts, and berries.” As the voiceover asks, “How ya’ gonna keep ‘um down on the farm after they seen this kind of stuff?”, the trailer poses a satirical challenge to the representational space in which rural subjects are forced to reside in the cinematic space of enormously successful contemporaneous films such as Midnight Cowboy and Deliverance (1972), or its small-screen poorer cousin, the highly influential Beverly Hillbillies. Films like Deliverance and Midnight Cowboy imagine the sexual terrain of the country and the sexual mindset of country people to be a not so subtle fluctuation between humiliation, lust, and terror typified by rape and inarticulate advances. Hillbilly sexploitation reimagines the country as a premodern utopian sexual space free of the constraints of modernity that created social taboo out of sexual behavior. Sexploitation humor comes from both the insider knowledge of society’s ills that the figure of the hillbilly highlights as well as the viewer’s knowledge that society must remain that way.
Midnight Plowboy replicates the structure of the dirty joke complete with a rabbi and “a sepia charmer” and makes it funny to laugh at the hayseed in the city. However, it also significantly refigures the city not as a space of progressive modernity but rather as the figurative terrain of hippies, whores, homosexuals, and Jews. It is these people, rather than the poor, who come to stand in for the city’s ills as the site of illegitimate commerce and immorality. For the joke of Midnight Plowboy to be properly understood, the city must become the site of modernity’s discontents rather than a utopia of progress.
Blaxploitation cinema similarly sites the city as a dystopia that stands in for modernity’s failures by challenging the parameters of sexual representation and violence on screen. Melvin Van Peebles, the director of one of the first Black independent films that would later be labeled blaxploitation, famously skirted trade union laws in creating Sweet Sweet Back’s Badass Song! He used a non-union crew under the pretense that he was making a pornographic film, since this was the only type of film that could be made using a non-union crew at the time. When Sweet Sweet Back, a celebration of virility that included scenes of a ten-year-old boy having sex with an adult prostitute, was later given an X rating by the MPAA, Van Peebles threatened to sue the ratings board because he “maintained white folks had no right to judge films for Black folks” (99). When the film was screened and Van Peebles’ maverick production techniques and sexual aesthetic proved financially successful, it not only helped to create the conventions for nudity in Black action film but also pushed the boundaries for the representation of sexuality and violence on Hollywood screens in general. Like the boy whose initiation into sexuality with a prostitute is naturalized as an unproblematic coming-of-age ritual by Sweet Sweet Back’s Baddass Song!, the rites and rituals that mark urbanity in blaxploitation film naturalize the city as a site of vice and violence that is at once primal and perverse.
Blaxploitation cinema also, however, significantly naturalizes the urban ghetto as the specific domain of African Americans. In fact, it is so successful at this that post-blaxploitation popular culture often reduces Black culture to a stylish urban poverty as personified by the hip hop generation. In the “commonsense” racial logics of U.S. cultural politics, Blacks are urban and urbanity is Black and thus the failures of the modern city are intimately tied to racial failures. When the genres collide in blaxploitation’s recurring figure of the hillbilly, the racial logics of blaxploitation are exposed and, as in hillbilly sexploitation, blame is reassigned for the city’s ills from its poor population to the elite who create and govern the country.
Portrayals of the country and the ghetto in both sexploitation and blaxploitation genres play off a politics of refusal of narratives of modernity and the city as well as a desire to reoccupy problematic spaces and identity categories. These shared politics of refusal and occupation create a similar challenge in blaxploitation to be the “baddest nigger” or the “dirtiest hillbilly” and “trashiest trash” in hillbilly or sexploitation genres. However, as Jacques Boyreau writes in Trash: The Graphic Genius of Xploitation Movie Posters: “Blaxploitation is a fantasy of gaining control [while] Whitesploitation is a fantasy of losing control.” (97). Part of the humor of hillbilly sexploitation lies in the ease with which its subjects are duped into sexual encounters, whether it is by the traveling salesman or the farmer’s daughter. For blaxploitation, the figures of Jethro, the redneck sheriff, and Sassy Sue, haplessly lost in the city, become the necessary contrast by which blaxploitation’s “cool” is linked with urbanity, power, and urban styling. The failure of the cinematic hillbilly to master the city enables blaxploitation’s expression of urbanity as Black, powerful, capable, and in control in the early post-civil rights moment in which measurably few other gains were being made.
The inability of rural whites, often coded as “white trash,” to fit into or master the cinematic cityscape of blaxploitation allowed African American popular culture to disavow both its rural roots and the linkage between Blackness and the experience of rural and urban poverty. Most importantly, it effectively displaced the reality that Black culture had only recently transitioned from poor and rural locations to urban locations. The majority of Blacks in the city had migrated there in what has come to be called “the Great Migration,” the bulk of which happened in the two waves between 1916 and 1919 and again between 1940 and 1970. In 1900, 90 percent of all African Americans were living in the south and 80 per cent were rural (Hartigan 3). Denied the right to vote and receive equitable salaries, and terrorized by anti-Black violence as epitomized by the wave of lynchings that swept the south, southern rural Black populations, notes Florette Henri, decided to “vote with their feet” and migrate to northern urban locales with established Black populations (60).2) By 1970, after the migration to urban areas had ended, less than 25 percent of the Black population continued to live in rural areas (Hartigan 4). This migratory act of refusal of southern cultural and political life significantly changed the cultural formation of Black life. The presence of rural white figures in blaxploitation films helped erase this history, the transitional nature of Black culture, and the absence of Blacks in the urban landscape, visually or otherwise. Blaxploitation film pointed to the awkwardness of poor rural whites in the city as a way to assert Blacks’ differences from them.
Between 1975 and 1979, legendary underground African American comedian Rudy Ray Moore, already a successful comedian in clubs and on records, created and starred in a series of films based on the classic toasts (“the signifying monkey”), folklore narratives (“Peetey Wheatstraw, the devil’s son-in-law”), jokes, and traditions of the African American community, which had been formulated in the South and carried north to urban areas during the Great Migration. Moore’s films successfully mixed this down-home humor and “gut bucket” stylistic tradition with a post-civil rights northern urban sensibility. Because Moore consistently invokes a southern cultural past within the formulaic blaxploitation desire to stake a claim for control of urban spaces, hillbillies figure more prominently in his films than in similar works of this era.
The Human Tornado (1975), which starred Rudy Ray Moore, begins with a commentary not only on the powerful visual nature of race as a social marker but also on the power of the look and the gaze to do and undo social positioning. In the film’s opening sequence, two exaggeratedly stereotypical hillbillies engage in a dialogue as they stop on the drive past a house where a party is taking place.
Momma: Lookee yonder somethings a going on at that big house!
Jethro: Of course somethin’s going on up there. Them people’s havin’ a party.
Momma: Goddamn Jethro! Them ain’t people them’s niggers.
Jethro: By God yer right! They gotta be niggers cause this ain’t Halloween.
The characters of Jethro and Momma are framed throughout the dialogue by the window of the car, creating a visual emphasis on their act of watching as the camera cuts between them and the members of the party who are unaware of being watched and do not return their gaze. Playing off a folk understanding of race relations (i.e., that if whites see Blacks having a good time, they will do everything in their power to break it up), the film declares and explores the aggression implicit in the look as a site of American racial challenge. It is only because Jethro is finally able to see the Blackness of the partygoers (which he actually has to be told, i.e., “them aint people thems niggers”) that he decides anything is amiss at the party at all. Jethro’s exaggerated stupidity is a common Black folk representation of whiteness as a cognitive failure, made possible through privilege. This sort of whiteness results in an inability to see and to recognize, among other things, the basic humanity of others. Jethro’s exaggerated stupidity, his privilege, does not allow him even to see what is “wrong” with the party in relation to his own position as white male racist, even as his look is directed at it. The act of looking is then encoded by the opening sequences of The Human Tornado as knowledge and power, but true to the logic of Black folk culture, it is those with the power who ultimately cannot see.
The film cuts immediately from the opening sequence to a sequence in the local sheriff’s office, suggesting a direct relation between Jethro and Momma’s gaze and the social and political power of a racist police force. Visual reading and misreading continue to motivate and direct almost all the action that follows. In the scene in the sheriff’s office, a deputy sheriff is almost shot while walking in on the sheriff during a nap. The first thing the sheriff does upon waking is fire his gun, and it is only because he cannot see the deputy, who quickly ducks behind a filing cabinet, that he misses shooting him. The film cuts back to the party where the guests see the sheriff’s posse on the road below. The sheriff, after intimidating the party guests, discovers his naked wife in bed with Dolemite, known as “The Human Tornado,” in a shot/reverse shot formulation that contrasts the sheriff and the deputy’s dumb shock with Dolemite’s “cool.”
The action of the film really begins here, as the camera cuts frantically between the sheriff’s look; the startled, disgusted look of the deputy; the satisfied wife, and the unruffled gaze of Dolemite. In this sequence, it is clearly Dolemite who retains the power of the gaze as well as the ultimate claim to all masculine power that arises from a phallocentric masculinity. This is not only because of Dolemite’s position in bed with the wife of “The Man,” but also through his pivotal positioning in a shot/reverse shot formulation, which continually privileges him as the mediator of all the others’ reactions by continuously returning the camera’s shot to him.
The arrival at the sheriff’s department collapses the figure of the hillbilly into that of the racist redneck in an oft-repeated trope of blaxploitation. Riffing on Hillbillyland’s cataloging of hillbillys in Hollywood film, Annalee Newitz suggests that “the hillbilly figure designates a white who is racially visible not just because he is poor, but also because he is sometimes monstrously so” (134). Within hillbilly genres of trash cinema, rural whites are relentlessly dirty, drunk, and poor, but for blaxploitation, the figure of the rural white gets collapsed into the figure of law and authority against which Black males must reclaim their masculine dignity. In other words, the monstrously poor become the monstrously white.
Bailey, James. “The Case of a Failure,” Architectural Forum (December 1965): 22-25.
Birmingham, Elizabeth. “Reframing the Ruins: Pruitt-Igoe, Structural Racism, and African American Rhetoric as a Space for Cultural Critique,” Positions 2 (June 1998): 1-13.
Boyreau, Jacques. Trash: The Graphic Genius of Xploitation Movie Posters. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002.
Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe. “Going Urban: American Folk Art and the Great Migration,” http://nmaa-ryder.si.edu/journal/v14n2/Hartigan.html.
Henri, Florette. Black Migration: Movement North 1900-1920. New York: Anchor Press, 1975.
Jencks, Charles A. The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. New York: Rizzoli, 1977.
Meehan, Eugene J. Public Housing Policy: Convention Versus Reality. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Center for Urban Policy Research, 1975.
Muller, Eddie and Daniel Faris. Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of “Adults Only” Cinema. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996.
Newitz, Annalee. “White Savagery and Humiliation, or a New Racial Consciousness in the Media,”White Trash: Race and Class in America. Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, eds. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Van Peebles, Melvin. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: The Screenplay, The Diaries, The Soundtrack. Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1996.
Williamson, J. W. Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains, What the Mountains Did to the Movies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Yamasaki, Minoru. A Life in Architecture. New York: Weatherhill, 1979.
Note: This essay is part of a larger project on the intersections of modernism and trash cinema. An earlier version of it was presented at the Modern Language Association Conference in San Diego in 2003.
- In Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of “Adults Only” Cinema, Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris call Novak “the Louis B. Mayer of sexploitation film” (130). Between 1969 and 1975, Novak produced approximately fifteen films in the hillbilly sexploitation genre. [↩]
- Henri notes: “In 1900 22.7 per cent of Negroes lived in cities, North or the South; in 1910 this had increased to24.4 per cent, and in 1920 to 34 per cent in numbers totaling more than 3,500,000. By 1920, almost 40 per cent of the black population in the North was concentrated in the eight cities of Chicago, Detroit, New York, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, although these cities contained only 20 per cent of the total northern population.” (69 [↩]