Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Blaxploitation cinema
/>Why it’s daunting: The vastly influential blaxploitation boom gave a voice to the blaxploited masses and introduced a dazzling array of African-American talent to American cinema. It also unleashed an avalanche of amateurish dreck that relied on sex, sleaze, and violence to compensate for terrible acting, wooden scripts, and bargain-basement production values. The blaxploitation movement produced a whole lot of crap but only a few masterpieces, chief among them…
Possible gateway: The Mack
Why: 1973’s The Mack certainly isn’t the first film most people associate with blaxploitation. Gordon Parks’ Shaft cleaned up the grit and perversity of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and made the subgenre palatable for the masses, while Gordon Parks Jr.’s Superfly has one of greatest scores of all time, courtesy of Curtis Mayfield. But The Mack captures the strange, funky, beautiful soul and plucky DIY aesthetic of blaxploitation more purely than either of those classics. Its old-school swagger is still being jacked on a daily basis.
The Mack embodies blaxploitation’s quirky moral code of pimps up and squares down. It takes place in a shadowy nighttime realm where cops are the bad guys, Whitey is not to be trusted, and the heroes are hustlers with honor and flair to spare. Max Julien plays one such outlaw, a charismatic, strangely vulnerable former drug dealer who sets out to conquer Oakland’s pimp game and defeat rival Pretty Toney (a scene-stealing Dick Anthony Williams) alongside rascally sidekick Richard Pryor. Hip-hop fans will experience déjà vu watching The Mack, since so many of its lines and conceits have been endlessly recycled, co-opted, borrowed, or just plain ripped off by rappers and producers. It’s full of iconic sequences, from the Player’s Ball to a campy setpiece where Julien uses a planetarium to spit game in the ears of his various working girls.
Next steps: Shaft and Superfly are a natural next step in the journey into blaxploitation, as is the filmography of comedian-actor-singer Rudy Ray Moore, especially the first (Dolemite) and last (Avenging Disco Godfather) films of Moore’s golden age.
Where not to start: 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song was a cultural revolution in film form. It marked a seminal moment in the evolution of blaxploitation, American independent film, the career of writer-director-producer-star Melvin Van Peebles, hip-hop, Madlib’s complicated cosmology, and the use of arthouse techniques to non-arthouse ends. But it’s far too strange, personal, and intense to serve as a good entry point for neophytes.