By Afonso Almeida.
With the impending release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), it is only fitting to revisit some of the classic Blaxploitation flicks that have had such a clear impact on his filmmaking techniques. One such case, would be Martin Van Peebles’ 1971 picture, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
Sweet Sweetback tells the story of a young orphan who is sexually assaulted by a prostitute at a young age, who gives the title character his moniker. Twenty odd years later, Sweetback is working as a performer in the whorehouse, performing sex shows for an audience. One night, the LAPD comes to the whorehouse looking for a suspect accused of murder. Although fully aware he isn’t there, they ask the manager if they can book Sweetback for the night and then release him, only to keep up appearances. He agrees and Sweetback is taken away by the police. On their way to the police station, the police stops and arrests a young member of the Black Panthers, Mu Mu. The two officers proceed to viciously beat Mu Mu to a pulp, until Sweetback fashions his cuffs into brass knuckles, knocking out both officers. What ensues is a long night of fleeing the law and making a run for the Mexican border.
This movie, as with many in the Blaxploitation genre, openly addresses race relations in the 1970’s America. It portrays the injustices and persecutions African Americans suffered, not only at the hands of a corrupt and heavily white police force, but as well as the institutions of everyday life, this is made evident in a scene portraying a mixed race couple in which the white woman is left unscathed while the man is violently beaten. When the police realise that he is not the man they are looking for, they dismiss the whole affair with a sardonic “So what?”
There are many cinematic elements to enjoy in this film. The soundtrack is notorious for being performed by a then unknown, Earth, Wind and Fire. The film has a distinct funky groove that carries out through the picture, often undercutting moments of extreme violence and tension to great effect. There is a clear sentiment of perseverance in the emphatic music carrying throughout the picture. Much like the title character, it simply can’t be stopped. Additionally the use of innovative fast cuts, crash zooms, frantic editing and stylistic orange title credits over freeze frames can all be traced along movie history to this day, with the aforementioned Tarantino.
Sweetback’s Song is a prime example of its genre, although some do not consider it to be a part of it. Its use of over the top stereotypes and exaggerated scenarios thinly paint over a clear feeling of frustration and desire for justice. It’s definitely worth a view, and if for nothing else, it’s got incredible soundtrack.
It’s now available on VOD in North America through Xenon Pictures.
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