Like many blaxploitation films, these are, in some ways, exercises in speculative metafiction. A good number of blaxploitation movies took narrative outlines and antihero trappings from classic crime films and changed the ethnicity. “Black Caesar,” in particular, is a remake of the 1931 gangster picture “The Public Enemy” transposed to Harlem of the 1970s. Despite the sardonic way Mr. Cohen’s films equate gangsterism with all-American capitalism, there’s not much in the way of effective subversion, subtextual or otherwise.
Similarly, the films that the actress Pam Grier made with the director Jack Hill, “Coffy” (1973) and “Foxy Brown” (1974), flip the script on grimy sadistic low-budget revenge films by making the avenger a strong black woman, but that’s pretty much it. And in some respects, that’s sufficient for satisfyingly offbeat, lurid entertainment.
More than a couple of the films don’t quite fit the “badass” honorific the site bestows on its own library. The screen beauty Jacqueline Bisset had an early lead role in “The Grasshopper” (1970), a grim cautionary tale of a dreamer turned call girl (co-produced by Garry Marshall, many years before he directed “Pretty Woman”), in which she has an interracial romance with Jim Brown before a few bad things happen.
“Mr. Ricco,” which you don’t read about in histories of Hollywood’s ’70s cinema renaissance, is a platitudinous drama from 1975 starring Dean Martin as a San Francisco lawyer whose successful defense of a black client backfires on him. Despite the presence of Thalmus Rasulala as the client, the picture is of more interest to Martin completists than any other demographic. (Sample dialogue exchange: Martin: “You really see yourself as a big black hero, don’t you?” Rasulala: “When was the last time you volunteered to have your taxes audited?”)
“Mr. Ricco” was directed by Paul Bogart, who also made “Halls of Anger” (1970), an extra-turgid high school integration drama starring Calvin Lockhart and featuring early turns from Rob Reiner and Jeff Bridges. That movie features a scene in which an attractive white female student is harassed and forcibly stripped by several black teen girls who want to determine if the white student is “blond all over.”
The site does offer two landmarks of African-American cinema, Melvin Van Peebles’s tortured, bluntly confrontational “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971) and Bill Gunn’s “Ganja & Hess” (1973), a vampire story that consistently upends the conventions of all the genres from which it draws. One of the stars, Duane Jones, is the superb actor who starred in the 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead” and whose career never broke out of genre films — with the exception of the 1982 drama “Losing Ground,” directed by Kathleen Collins.
I bring this up for several reasons, a couple of which are not directly related to the Brown Sugar site. Ms. Collins, who died in 1988, is one of the filmmakers represented in a retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music called “One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema 1970-1991.” The work of black female filmmakers is so outside the mainstream that it requires a retrospective from a major institution to bring it to some kind of light. The more mainstream services such as Netflix and Amazon don’t offer a whole lot of black filmmaking outside of the parameters established by Tyler Perry and David E. Talbert — relatively conventional melodramas and comedies with varying amounts of social consciousness. (Netflix has, in a welcome move, recently added the Kino Classics/Library of Congress compilation “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” to its streaming service.)
Brown Sugar, which charges subscribers $3.99 a month, has a library of just over 100 films available. Jim Weiss, a communications executive at Bounce TV, said in an email, “Our goal is for Brown Sugar to have the widest and deepest collection of movies possible; refreshing our library and delighting our consumers with new titles monthly is at the heart of our mission.”
I’m not in the business of telling other businesses their business, but it seems to me that if the service wants to build on its existing formula, expanding its own parameters to include work by maverick African-American filmmakers both past and present wouldn’t be the worst idea. The aesthetic, or at least the ideological, distance between, say, “Ganja & Hess” and Haile Gerima’s searing “Ashes and Embers” (1982) is not as great as one might immediately presume.
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