There are so many genres out there with highly questionable ethics, particularly genres of the past (which rather annoyingly have an enduring, appealing aesthetic). Take Blaxploitation– strong statements about the way women are seen, heard and portrayed, and of course, the way people of color are seen, heard, and portrayed.
Then there’s the whole vintage Playboy thing; many of the photographs are fabulous, and their costumes (designed by African American Zelda Wynn Valdes) are often inspired. But when aesthetic brain catches up with ethical brain, we realise that women have been made into bunny rabbits! Oh.
Which brings me to the early 1970’s and the boom in feature films featuring a mostly, or all-black cast. Often, black scriptwriters wrote them (opportunities for these talented writers weren’t exactly raining from the heavens), and many set box office records.
The term ‘Blaxploitation’ was coined by Junius Griffin, head of the Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to reference movies originally designed to attract the large, U.S. black audience. Shaft, Trouble Man, Superfly, and Foxy Brownare just a few of a slew of box-office hits that crossed over.
Digging the Scene with the Gangster lean whoo hoo..
As Curtis Mayfield sung in Diamond in the Back. I have to say, as a child and
young adult my friends and fellow club-goers all loved these film scores. They were our club classics, and we thought they were the coolest tunes ever.
For us late 80’s and 90’s London club kids of all classes and skin tones; it was retro, exotic, and a little counter-culture. It exemplified one nation under a groove gettin’ down, “just for the funk of it” as Funkadelic said. For my generation, these were the soundtracks to many memorable nights out.
We Brits dug that jive-talking, that cartoon pomp, the pre-Tarantino theatrics, the bling, the ridiculous cars (Isaac Hayes had an actual chandelier in his car to embellish his Blaxploitation persona in cult classic Escape From New York) and the strong, sassy women like Pam Grier, with their outrageously ripe bodies.
Yes, people of color had been let into the movie world, but only in roles that perpetuated derogatory stereotypes or to create counter-productive myths.
Forty years on, and is the regurgitation of this theme the most defining narrative in entertainment for anyone of the African Diaspora? To continually be defined by such cliched, negative stereotypes, and not being represented as simply ‘a human’ in a drama.
A person whose skin color is the entire arc of their character’s story is simply not the world I see around me. Why can’t more be journalists like my (late) Dad?
Can we separate this narrative’s aesthetic from the narrative itself?
I find it impossible to deny that the look and sound of the ’70s has utterly permeated my visual and musical taste. Whether they be flower children in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco, or Pam Grier with an Afro in a low cut, tied-up silk shirt, hotpants, and non-matching platforms, I’m there. What to do? Moral dilemma.
I can’t ‘unlike’ the way Pam Grier looked in Blaxploitation flicks anymore than I can ‘unlike’ those amazing grooves by Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, or Marvin Gaye…
Reclaiming by reinterpreting Afro hairdo was huge when I was very young in London, as was the Black is Beautiful movement sparked by the likes of Cecily Tyson. Ironically all of this coincided with Blaxploitation movies, and the aesthetic merged somewhat, crossing right over to mainstream fashion and back again.
I don’t have the answer, just an idea, perhaps a suggestion. Can we turn this negative into a positive by taking what we love, the image, and leave out what we don’t, the narrative?
Perhaps it’s too pick ‘n mix for some, but I can’t help but wonder if we can create a shift. Taking the idea that if you view the same something/someone through a totally different lens than before (which was ultimately just a creation of its time), that the story that previously clung to the image is no longer there and a new narrative emerges.
“When I read Kay’s terrific Post, I noticed that the Playboy picture she’d chosen (of the first woman of color on the cover of US Playboy publication) is an original magazine cover I have framed on my wall here in London. When my friend and mentor Eve Ensler came to visit me a couple of years ago, she noticed the same framed picture and commented that it was degrading.
I completely understood her and promptly took it down. But years before, when I framed the picture I felt proud of that model who broke a stereotype, and proud of her beauty. Since Eve came to visit I’ve put that picture up and down, depending on how empowered I feel! I want to take that image and make it impossible for it to be degrading – I want to make that woman empowered no matter what publication she’s paid to sell.
Of course, the OWNER of the picture determines how the picture is going to be perceived… Taking the old adage of ‘art reflecting life’; can we turn it around? We can wear what we want, have hair as high as we want, we can expose our cleavage and STILL be a Feminist.
When the empowered woman (that I am) chooses to wear the Afro with 4-inch nails; I am dignifying that nail and that ‘fro into a political statement. The things I choose to represent who I am, not the other way around. And I elevate the things I choose by allowing them to represent who I am.
As I evolve, so do the selections I make, and in wearing the trends that were created by these brave men and women of days gone by, I am saluting them – because they did as much as they could in the context that they were in. By taking elements from their struggle, I am honoring their strength and mine; which is timeless, radical, and free.”
Lipstick Queen do a range of lipsticks encased in deluxe, deco-look silver called ‘Silver Screen’. This extraordinary shade of blue-purple that Thandie’s wearing is called ‘Stella’.
Thandie’s earrings by Marni, luxe fake fur by BombeSurprise
Thandie photographed by Jackie Dixon