Saturday, 5 May 2012

“Slavesploitation” – a genre that shocked the world

The USA has one of the most chequered histories when it comes to race relations.

Whereas Britain is a country divided by class, America seems a nation in which race will always be an issue. Perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of American history is the abhorrent reality that slavery was a cornerstone of its nationalistic development.

The 1970s was a strange period in American politics. Tainted by the Vietnam War, ridiculed by the Watergate scandal and destabilised by an oil and energy crisis, the changing cultural landscape in America brought about new ways of thinking when it came to storytelling. Hollywood, which only a decade previously was making cute movies like The Sound of Music and West Side Story, was embracing darker projects. Rattled by diminishing audience figures and wanting to exploit a significant relaxation in the censorship code, Hollywood studios began developing edgier pictures that pushed the boundaries of acceptability. Never before had a major film industry taken the kind of chances that were practiced by Hollywood during this era.

Perhaps some of the most shocking films released in the 1970s were Mandingo and its unofficial sequel Drum. Both films are essentially slavery themed melodramas, but the brutal levels of racism, graphic sexual violence and disturbing distastefulness depicted in Mandingo and Drum convey that Hollywood was desperate to make adult material television could not compete with.

Prior to either Mandingo or Drum , Italian filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi made Goodbye Uncle Tom, a brutal pseudo-documentary in which a production team inexplicably goes back in time to document the atrocities of American slavery. This film was the start of a subgenre labelled "slavesploitation." Goodbye Uncle Tom is rife in extreme images, showcasing, in intense graphic detail, scenes of male castration, paedophilic abuse and the atrocious raping of female slaves by white proprietors. Goodbye Uncle Tom features sequences that are so salacious one cannot help but feel ashamed for having ever viewed them. The film is explicitly designed to arouse audiences through its brutality rather than make them question what they're seeing.

Goodbye Uncle Tom dangerously signalled a new attitude in what audiences were willing to accept if filmmakers dared show them. However, unlike the former, Mandingo and Drum―both produced by the legendary Dino De Laurentiis―were not cheap slapdash efforts. These movies were big studio projects, put together by top line filmmakers and produced with sizable casts and budgets.

Mandingo was released by Paramount Pictures in 1975 and United Artists distributed Drum the following year, both huge Hollywood studios renowned for their financial power and marketing muscle. The films were very successful and still retain cult adoration, but neither studio is particularly proud of having such ostensibly racist titles in its archives. While Paramount will point us to its landmark movies like The Godfather, and United Artists will cite Raging Bull as films it'd like to be known for, the truth is that both studios were keen to tap into the slavesploitation canon to generate money.

Mandingo is arguably the more elevated slavesploitation film to have been made by a Hollywood studio. Like Drum, Mandingo was adapted from a Kyle Onstott novel and scripted by Norman Wexler, a screenwriter whose credits include Serpico and Saturday Night Fever. Mandingo was directed by Academy Award winner Richard Fleischer, an A-list filmmaker whose movies include 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Tora! Tora! Tora!

Mandingo has been hailed a masterpiece by prolific critics like the esteemed Robin Wood who called it "the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood." Even Quentin Tarantino stated that Mandingo is the only two instances in recent history that a "major [Hollywood] studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie." (The other being Showgirls.)

However one looks at it, Mandingo and Drum are both anomalies, freak filmic exercises that Hollywood knew it could not afford to sustain. The savagery and bigotry exhibited in such films veered abjectly in favour of sensationalism. Watching these movies in 2012 is a reminder of just how far we've come in terms of race relations. Although projects like Roots and Amistad have pensively dramatised the topic of slavery, neither exploited the subject matter for entertainment's sake the way Mandingo and Drum did.

This begs the question: Are we now living in a better or less exciting world because so-called slavesploitation films are no longer developed and released by major studios? How does a more prosperous and educated American audience of colour feel about such a horrid and racist subject matter like slavery being exploited by white filmmakers to entertain the masses? It could never happen in the 21st century, right?

But major studios may decide to invest in a slavesploitation movie if the right people bring it to them. As mentioned before, American auteur Quentin Tarantino remains an admirer of slavesploitation, hence why his next movie, Django Unchained, mines the spirit of Kyle Onstott's literary world (though it's not a direct adaptation), presenting the story of a runaway slave exacting revenge on the slave master imprisoning his wife.

Django Unchained has been financed and distributed by Columbia Pictures, meaning it is as much of a Hollywood studio movie as both Mandingo and Drum. The movie stars Jamie Foxx as an escaped slave known as Django who, with the help of a dentist turned bounty hunter called Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), wants to emancipate his still enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, with the assistance of other villainous Deep South racists, groom slaves to battle each other to death for sadistic entertainment. In a nutshell, Django Unchained harkens back to the halcyon days of slavesploitation, an era where exploitation entertainment was an art form, not just a cash cow.

In all honesty, Django Unchained will bill itself as a homage to spaghetti westerns rather than a slavesploitation picture, but we know what it really is. Judging from the poster's inspired '70s exploitation artwork, Django Unchained will evoke the tone of Mandingo more than any generic Sergio Leone (or Sergio Corbucci for that matter) picture.

But shouldn't audiences, including African-American patrons, enjoy Django Unchained as an entertainment product without sensitivities over race and oppression getting in the way of their entertainment? Surely one should celebrate the actuality that a big budget exploitation movie like Django Unchained, with its top-tier credentials, can get made in this sanitised and risk-averse age of corporate filmmaking.

This is hard to tell. Only a decade ago there were members of the African-American community who had difficulty watching scenes depicting violent racist attacks on black people in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. There is every reason to suspect that Tarantino's Django Unchained may provoke even harsher chastisement as it isn't necessarily a historical retelling and exists more as a pulp genre piece. Modern audiences may be perturbed by the racial pejoratives and hardcore white-on-black-on-black violence more than what they may have been back in the mid 1970s when race relations were not as refined as today.

Django Unchained is not the only slavesploitation movie coming out. British film director Steve McQueen is filming Twelve Years a Slave starring Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Chiwetel Ejiofor, telling the story of a black man in New York who is born free but was bound into slavery later in life and forced to work on a plantation in the Deep South. Unlike Tarantino's film, 12 Years a Slave will be a serious dramatisation of the hardships endured because of American slavery. In that sense it seems a more palatable approach, though not necessarily an easy watch.

There has always been arguments related to Hollywood's lack of opportunities for African-American actors but is slavesploitation a good way to enhance their presence in cinema? Should we accept entertainment as exactly that and not blight it with preconceived arguments related to exploitation?

The argument lies less with whether it is apposite to dramatise slavery and more with if it is appropriate to exploit the subject matter in order to thoughtlessly entertain audiences. Slavery in America was unarguably more atrocious than anything that can be depicted in cinema, but one can argue that the role of films should be to force viewers to contemplate the societal failure associated with slavery, not to be nonsensically entertained by the subject. The brutality of slavery should most definitely be explored in cinema but it must always provoke serious discussion and meaningful contemplation.

But Django Unchained is not strictly a slavery movie; it is a slavesploitation picture, a cinematic tradition that is still fondly remembered by some for its politically incorrect and transgressive approach. It is a hyperbolic representation of slavery, not an educational retelling. All will be revealed come Christmas but the very existence of a feature film like Django Unchained is bound to have many people questioning whether the merciless humiliation of an entire civilisation by white oppressors should be spun for entertainment value.