Get Up and Boogie
Review by David Carter
Posted on 14 April 2008
Race is a divisive issue in America. Historically this has been always the case, yet during the Civil Rights Movement it would have been difficult to make an argument that it was not the most critical issue for American society. Cinema, a medium known for its synchronicity with societal trends, was noticeably lagging in addressing the issues of the movement. The second wave of a distinctly African-American cinema (the first being Micheaux’s “Midnight Rambles” and other filmmakers’ work prior to 1950) did not arrive in earnest until the early Seventies with Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the former presenting a modern take on racial issues and the latter being an overtly “black-centric” story made with no concern for crossover appeal to white audiences. Though Sweet Sweetback’s influence would take primacy, an amalgamation of racial issues and cultural uniqueness would form the template for what is referred to as blaxploitation cinema.
Modern audiences most often treat the genre with ironic nostalgia. Critical reassessments frequently point to a range of negative and demeaning stereotypes on display, however there is a growing trend to recognize the vitality of blaxploitation. The fact that the majority of blaxploitation films were made by African-American filmmakers for a specifically African-American audience means that the genre displays a wide array of cultural artifacts and opinions on life and race; a cinematic time capsule of a particular period in American history. The egalitarianism of this cinema makes it an invaluable artistic and cultural resource, providing a voice to those typically excluded from mainstream art of the period.
What, then, do we make of blaxploitation films made by white filmmakers? Can these be viewed through the same lens or must they be seen as categorically handicapped works? It would be impossible to discuss the genre and not make mention of Foxy Brown despite the fact that it was made by white director Jack Hill. Does the participation of black filmmakers somehow make the stereotypes more palatable? A film that falls squarely in the middle of this debate is the almost forgotten 1975 blaxploitation fantasy film Darktown Strutters. It was directed by western serial veteran William Witney and written by future Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank director George Armitage; both are white, yet the film they made surpasses most blaxploitation cinema in the harshness of its critique and indictment of racism in America. Darktown Strutters brings up an important issue for blaxploitation and cinema in general: can filmmakers adequately depict a culture they are not a part of and should their voice be considered as valid as those coming from within?
The film follows Syreena, the leader of a colorfully clad female motorcycle gang, as she searches the Watts area of Los Angeles to find her mother, Cinderella. Cinderella worked as a maid for the Cross Foundation helmed by Commander Louisville Cross, owner of the popular Sky Hog chain of rib restaurants. The Cross Foundation is a think-tank dedicated to improving the lives of blacks and, after navigating a labyrinth of false leads, Syreena learns it is also the likely culprit behind the disappearances of several prominent black men. Syreena confronts Cross and learns his master plan: resentful of the derision he has received from the black community, he is replacing their prominent figures with clones loyal to him in order to rise to political power. Cinderella was kidnapped because she was helping the clones’ surrogate mothers find abortions, thus thwarting his plans. Despite her mother’s pleas that violence is only a temporary solution, Syreena leads the local black community in a siege of the Cross Foundation estate, where they are met by Cross’ pig-men and his allies the Ku Klux Klan.
Darktown Strutters is foremost a comic fantasy; reality has no place within the context of the film. Its most defining feature is the pervasive and exaggerated symbolism used. Police cars have gigantic sirens that cover the entire hood, banks have large dollar bills for signs, and a litany of other oversized items give the film an intentionally cartoonish feel. In a nod to his serial roots, Witney accompanies most action scenes with speed-up footage and western-style saloon piano; directly evoking images of Warner Brothers cartoons in the process. Humor is used extensively throughout the blaxploitation canon, but Darktown Strutters is one of the only films to make such a clear separation from the real. Even Syreena and company’s battles against the film’s symbolic authority figures (the Marines, the police, and the KKK, chronologically speaking) are more reminiscent of Bugs Bunny than Shaft.
Beneath this superficial layer of gaudy colors and slapstick is a razor-sharp critique of race relations in America. The over-the-top humor and garish set pieces are used subversively to lull the audience into a false sense of security in the harmless fantasy before jarring them back to the stark reality of the film’s true motivations. The most telling example of the film’s attacks occurs during Syreena’s trip to the police station. Once inside the building, her presence triggers the police’s “Nigger Alarm.” As the Keystone-esque cops run through the building searching for the source, Syreena converses with a detective in blackface and drag; a ruse to catch a female rapist preying on black homosexual men. Frustrated with his lack of concern over her missing mother, Syreena allows him to leave the building but, believing him to be the source of the alarm, his fellow officers gun him down.
The scene, like all in the film, is played for comic effect but it highlights two principle themes: the superiority of the black “soul” culture as embodied by Syreena, and the hostility towards that culture from whites. Syreena is nonplussed by the “Nigger Alarm” and the danger it places her in, exhibiting a calm in the face of their threats and treating the events as if they were unwanted but expected reactions. When verbally sparring with the detective she never loses the upper hand; Syreena is clearly the intellectual superior to all she encounters within the station. The white detective’s readiness to lose his identity through blackface suggests his own acceptance of his inferiority while at the same time the way in which he relishes his drag costume identifies him as a deviant within the context of the film—white deviance being a recurring theme as well. His death while wearing blackface clearly shows the position of race as depicted in the film: it is not behavior but the very appearance of blackness that fuels the police’s – and by extension, society’s – intolerance.
Darktown Strutters’ view of the world is one of constant struggle between whites and blacks. The cowardly, reactionary racism of the police is contrasted by the proactive but subtler racism of Louisville Cross. The Cross Foundation building is an antebellum plantation in the middle of downtown Watts, complete with slaves working a cotton field in the front yard. To add to this metaphor, Cross is modeled after a stereotypical plantation owner, however most viewers will interpret his appearance and character traits as an obvious allusion to Colonel Sanders. When the film discusses Cross’ exploitation of the black community, it is a blatant reference to Kentucky Fried Chicken’s ubiquitous presence in black communities. Cross/Sanders’ inclusion in the film and subsequent discovery as the villain is a none-to-subtle jab at white capitalism as represented by KFC, with the film labeling them as an exploiter of black culture and economy. Cinderella even tells Syreena that she knew Cross was “up to no good” because he was being so kind to the black community; a possible allusion to the government, the one group spared from Darktown Strutters’ attacks.
Such strong indictments of whites were absent from most blaxploitation cinema. The police, representing white society, and Cross, representing white institutions, are shown as violent and dishonest, respectively. This makes the white authorship of the film even more confusing. Can the critiques in the film be interpreted as truly representative of the opinions of the black community, or are they merely a synthesis of those feelings by whites? There is little to no information available on the film, so the ultimate decision about Witney and Armitage’s motives is left up to the viewer.
The pessimistic view is that Darktown Strutters is blaxploitation in the purest sense; exploitation of ideas that would resonate with a black audience, made to cash on a then lucrative demographic. An argument could be made that even with noble motives Witney and Armitage would have been unable to truly understand the attitudes they were presenting and therefore the film is merely an appropriation of ideas synthesized from other films and popular culture. Such a view marginalizes the film’s arguments, however. A more optimistic view is that race had become such a dominant issue in American life that those outside the black community would have been able to speak about it with a degree of certainty. Each extreme viewpoint has its drawbacks and the truth most likely lies somewhere in the gray area between.
There are no right or wrong answers to the questions posed by the narrative of the film or the metatextual questions of the implications of its authorship. Depending on your opinion, the film offers either a less gentrified look into African-American attitudes on race in the Seventies or crass attempt to capitalize on the still-open wounds of the Civil Rights Movement. A third, more enjoyable reading of the film is one of simple fantasy; a modern-day fairytale of good triumphing over evil in whatever form it appears, simply adapted to the mood of the day. Darktown Strutters provides us with a fertile and entertaining ground on which to have those discussions and deserves modern audiences regardless of which reading they choose.