Monday Movies was Rated X by an All-White Jury
Hey, Weblog. I didn’t see any movies this week. I did have the good fortune to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform in Los Angeles. Of all the lively arts, I have the weakest relationship to concert dance — if I fix myself to pay attention, I can revel in the at-times-astonishing beauty of individual moments, but it mostly washes over me, leaving me with the sense that I’m somehow ruined or just a philistine.
Alvin Ailey’s signature piece is called Revelations. It’s a three-part survey of African American music and liberation. It was first performed at a YWHA (that’s Young Women’s Hebrew Association, less beloved of the Village People) in Manhattan in 1960. To have been there!
Watching it, distracted by my native failings and monkey mind, I found myself thinking of that other supreme song of African-American liberation, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. There’s some debate about whether or not it’s properly a blaxploitation movie; I think it can safely be called the ur-blaxploitation movie. It’s definitely got no shortage of titillation. My favorite example is of how Sweetback, played by the director, Mario Van Peebles, triumphs over a white biker gang. They challenge him to a contest, and he gets to choose the contest. He chooses “fucking.” The top-banana woman in the gang lies down, and determines after a little Coke vs Pepsi action that Sweetback is the winner.
There’s an amazing, nearly five-minute-long sequence toward the end of the movie where Sweetback is running through the desert, trying to escape to Mexico, wounded and alone. While the chorus alternates snippets of spirituals (including “Wade in the Water”, which ties us back to Revelations), a voice shouts at Sweetback over the singing to keep going, alternating between helpful encouragement and anger-stoking reminders of racist injustice. The chorus and the voice segue into sound collage as the band comes back in — Earth, Wind and Fire did the funky, noisy soundtrack, though I don’t know how much of this is them — and the whole thing becomes a prophetic cacophony. Sweetback runs, Gabriel’s trumpet the wind at his back.
It’s been fifteen years since I saw it. Now it’s back on the queue; hope it holds up. This, of course, is all by way of wishing you a chag sameach at the arrival of the Passover holiday. Let all those who are hungry, enter and eat; and all who are in distress, come and celebrate the Passover. Did anybody see the documentary Baadassss!? Or anything else?
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