I wanted to analyze a bit of the controversy surrounding Quentin Tarantino's 'Django Unchained.' But instead of just focusing on the one movie, I thought it might be interesting to analyze the grindhouse/exploitation genre as a whole, since many of them are fondly remembered, and not exactly politically correct by today's standards.
What exactly qualifies as an exploitation or grindhouse movie is very broad & open to interpretation. The term covers a lot of genres of B-movies, cult films, and direct-to-DVD/late-night cable flicks. And even though the themes of the films might be lurid or sensationalistic, with copious amounts of sex & violence, there was also room for social commentary & satire. However, there were also the "WTF?" movies too.
So in addition to looking at 'Django Unchained,' I thought I might pose a late-night question for the movie lovers. What are some of the best & worst exploitation films?
There was also a fair amount of controversy when 'Inglourious Basterds' was released. In all of Tarantino's films, there are references to classic exploitation films of the past. With 'Inglourious Basterds,' Tarantino said his intent was to do a Spaghetti Western, except based in Nazi-occupied Europe. With 'Django Unchained,' it's a mixture of Spaghetti Western & Blaxploitation film, and basically seems to be what you would get if you crossed "Roots" with 'Shaft' and sprinkled some 'Once Upon a Time in the West' on top. The controversy surrounding the film seemed to start building around its release date, when there was a right-wing freakout over the use of the word "nigger" in the film.
The brouhaha surrounding the film got kicked up another notch when director Spike Lee decided to criticize the film (which he hasn't actually seen), and other directors came to Tarantino's defense.
From the A.V. Club:
While most of us awoke to a 2013 in which we are all post-human creatures of pure light and lovely, ashen gray skin, indistinguishable within our silver jumpsuits, some people have had trouble letting go of old feuds. For instance, Spike Lee, whose tendency to see other directors as John Turturro in 'Do The Right Thing' has reared its head yet again over Quentin Tarantino.Although, Tarantino has already sorta preemptively responded to Lee during an interview with Harvard Professor and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., in which he calls the sort of criticism "ridiculous."
"American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them," Lee tweeted in his typically haughty, halting manner, calling out Tarantino's 'Django Unchained' for what he perceives as the film's flippant treatment of the subject. Of course, "perceives" is the key word, as Lee previously told Vibe that he "can't speak on it 'cause I'm not gonna see it. I'm not seeing it. All I'm going to say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film," therefore safely ensconcing himself behind the privilege of assumption, which is much easier than actually experiencing and evaluating something. Fun, too.
But apparently not everyone is against digging up the skulls of Spike Lee's ancestors and putting cowboy hats on them and using them for a puppet show, while their tormented spirits moan in agony (metaphorically speaking). Director Antoine Fuqua came to Tarantino's defense during an interview at the Capri Film Festival, first and foremost criticizing Lee for making his objections public. "If you disagree with the way a colleague did something, call him up, invite him out for a coffee, talk about it. But don’t do it publicly," Fuqua said to a journalist from The Hollywood Reporter who was holding a tape recorder, and who then printed his comments in a widely read international news story. Adding another layer of irony, Fuqua admitted he hadn't seen Django Unchained either, but said, "I don’t think Quentin Tarantino has a racist bone in his body. Besides, I’m good friends with Jamie Foxx and he wouldn’t have anything to do with a film that had anything racist to it." (Ah, the old "It can't be racist; I have lots of Jamie Foxx friends" defense.)
Anyway, unlike the previous brouhaha over Jackie Brown—in which Spike Lee fired the immortal "What does [Tarantino] want to be made—an honorary black man?" shot, and Samuel L. Jackson responded with an awesome barb about how Spike Lee hadn't made any good films in a while—no one involved with 'Django' has yet to legitimize Spike Lee's complaint with a response.
On use of the N-Word:In Samuel L. Jackson's retort to Spike Lee's similar criticism of 'Jackie Brown,' he argues that Lee's beef with Tarantino is that he's a white director & "black artists think they are the only ones allowed to throw around the [n-word]." Similar arguments were made against Steven Spielberg, when he directed Alice Walker's "The Color Purple."
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Spike Lee‘s on your ass all the time about using the word “nigger.” What would you say to black filmmakers who are offended by the use of the word “nigger” and/or offended by the depictions of the horrors of slavery in the film?
Quentin Tarantino: Well, you know, if you’re going to make a movie about slavery and are taking a 21st-century viewer and putting them in that time period, you’re going to hear some things that are going to be ugly, and you’re going see some things that are going be ugly. That’s just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land.
Personally, I find [the criticism] ridiculous. Because it would be one thing if people are out there saying, “You use it much more excessively in this movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi.” Well, nobody’s saying that. And if you’re not saying that, you’re simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it more easy to digest.
No, I don’t want it to be easy to digest. I want it to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.
Whether or not that's true, I'll leave for others to ponder. But in my humble opinion, Lee's criticism fails in three respects.
- If you haven't watched the movie, don't expect me to take your opinion seriously. This is something that's bothered me about some of the reviews & criticisms I've read about 'Zero Dark Thirty' as well. I have no patience for the sort of person that bitches & moans about something they perceive to offend them, when they haven't even watched the damn thing. And that holds true whether it's religious fundamentalist crying about 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' or some of the critics going after 'Django Unchained.' Watching the trailer or reading a description of what takes place in the film is not an acceptable threshold by which it gives one leeway to criticize something they haven't seen. For one thing, trying to review something based on descriptions & snippets loses the context & tone of how things happen over the totality of the work, and how it may play into a larger subtext.
- Slavery is a tragic part of American history. It was a cancer at the heart of the American Dream that we as a country have been trying to deal with for the past 150 years. However, like every other tragedy, it is not precluded from being used as a backdrop to tell a fictional story (even a Spaghetti Western), no more than the holocaust during World War II, Native American genocide, Rwandan genocide, the September 11th Attacks, or any other terrible event in human history in which large numbers of people were systematically wronged, killed, or tortured. And this is not a docudrama that's supposed to be taken as gospel, anymore than believing that we're supposed to walk away from 'Inglourious Basterds' believing that Hitler was gunned down in a movie theater, or that Victor Hugo got every detail of the French Revolution pitch perfect in 'Les Misérables.'
American SlaveryThe French Revolution was not a Spaghetti Westernmusical. It was a holocaustbloodbath. My ancestors were Slavesstarved, beaten, and murdered... I will honor them"
- Finally, even though the film is part exploitation film, it's a movie that approaches slavery & the antebellum society that accepted slavery as horrifying. I've had many non-African-American people that have seen 'Django Unchained' tell me that the film made them think about slavery & its repercussions more than any textbook ever did. That's something Lee (or any of the other critics with problems) may have ascertained if they had actually watched the film. This is also a movie where the African-American characters are by & large more noble, honorable, and smarter than the white characters. And like a lot of old-school exploitation films, there is more than a bit of commentary & subtext to the film.
The most soul-mangling scene took place at Candieland, the plantation from Hell, where Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) throws used-up "mandingo fighters" to the dogs. No, it was not the dog scene that unhinged me. It was when Candie delivered a wrathful speech about Phrenology, a popular pseudoscience of the era.If Tarantino's films are odes to exploitation films, what exactly is an exploitation film? A lot of them were staples of theaters & Drive-Ins, low-budget, have a good amount of gratuitous sex & violence, and usually had a kick-ass trailer that's probably better than the actual movie. Here's a general definition from TV Tropes:
Candie sets a skull on the dinner table where Django (Jamie Foxx) and Schultz (Christoph Waltz) have just been discovered and disarmed. It's the skull of the slave who raised three generations of Candies, the skull of a man Candie loves. So he saws off the back of the skull, and picks it up to reveal three dimples on the inside of it. Phrenologists believed you could read personality from the skull's shape, and Candie announces that every person from Africa has those three dimples, right in the part of the head devoted to servility. A European genius like Newton would have those dimples in the part of the head devoted to creativity, he yells, but every single black person — even the exceptional Django — is fundamentally built for slavery.
We think of science as a form of enlightenment, but 'Django Unchained' reminds us that it has been used just as often to justify racist totalitarianism of the kind we see at Candieland.
What makes this all-too-historically-accurate speech so powerful is that it closely resembles arguments still used today to justify the high rates of black imprisonment, unemployment, and general disenfranchisement in America. In the 1990s, sociologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, a book that suggested that blacks had lower IQs on average than other groups. Hence, their achievements were naturally less spectacular than whites. This book was not treated with sarcastic disbelief the way slavery is in 'Django Unchained.' It was widely accepted as fact, and indeed Charles Murray had been and continues to be regarded as an expert on social welfare policies for low income people, especially people of color. Candie may be a fantasy, but his idea of scientific truth is not.
"A film which focuses on morbid elements a lot, the type of morbid elements that fascinate or excite people. For example, a crime movie which focuses more on the details of committing the crime or its effects on the victim, rather than the efforts to solve it. Or a movie that's excessively violent for no real reason. In fact, that - excessive violence or sexuality - seems to be the main definition of an exploitation film... Because one person's "gritty realistic drama" is another's form of entertainment in the "grit" itself, the line can sometimes be pretty thin."
► "Educational" Films
These are the movies that were attempting to "teach" children & young adults about the dangers of the world. They're sorta the dimwitted grandparent of the old CBS After-School Specials & today's "The More You Know" and "Knowing Is Half The Battle" PSAs. The '30s & '40s cautionary films have the quality of an Ed Wood film, making them good fodder for "Mystery Science Theater 3000," and have some downright whacked-out messages.
For example, 1938's 'Sex Madness' warns us about the dangers of burlesque shows helping to spread syphilis. According to this film, watching some showgirls prance around on stage & show off their legs will turn women into lesbians, and make men engage in dirty pre-marital sex. The film also exposes the dangers to aspiring burlesque dancers, who will be exposed to "The Syph" by way of the casting couch.
Apparently people in the 1950s had forgotten what to do with someone they had feelings for, since someone felt the need to make 'What To Do On A Date.' And if that's not enough, it seems that people in 1950 needed an instructional film to help them figure out when it was time to get married too, hence the need of 'Are You Ready for Marriage?' On the more sinister & shameful side of things, there's 1961's 'Boys Beware,' a ridiculous anti-gay propaganda film created with the help of the Inglewood, California Police Department and the Inglewood Unified School District, in which homosexuals are portrayed as pedophiles.
And then there's 1936's 'Reefer Madness.'
Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children) is a 1936 American exploitation film revolving around the tragic events that ensue when high school students are lured by pushers to try "marihuana": a hit and run accident, manslaughter, suicide, rape, and descent into madness all ensue.There's also 1982's 'Desperate Lives' where Helen Hunt learned never to trust a dude that says snorting Angel Dust is OK, otherwise you might jump through plate glass windows.
► Martial Arts
If you look back at some of the films of the '70s, there seemed to be a fascination with Kung-Fu & Karate that elevated martial arts to the level of comic-book superpowers. You can still see a hint of it in the 80s with movies like 'The Karate Kid.' According to that film, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) can fix ligament damage by just rubbing his hands together & giving Daniel's leg a massage. It's also similar to the Hollywood version of Native American mysticism that appeared in a lot of '70s films. There are a lot of white actors playing Native Americans in exploitation films, where their "Indian-ness" consisted of brown makeup, some turquoise jewelry, and a feather added to their wardrobe.
However, with all of that said, it shouldn't negate that there were a lot of great martial arts exploitation flicks. I still remember, as a very little kid, the 7-hour block of "Kung-Fu Theater" that used to come on USA Network on Saturdays. My first exposure to horribly dubbed martial arts films began there.
Of course there are the Bruce Lee films like 'Fist of Fury' & 'Enter The Dragon,' or the Shaw Brothers' 'The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,' which is one of the greatest martial arts films ever made. Or one of my favorites, Sonny Chiba's 'The Street Fighter.'
What are the elements of a "Blaxploitation" film? Usually a predominantly African-American cast, with the lead character having to deal with some endemic problem affecting the community, while also having to fight "The Man" (who is represented in the form of corrupt white cops, corrupt city officials, corrupt business officials, etc.).
Among some of the better known examples:
- 'Sugar Hill'
- 'The Mack'
- 'Mandingo' (Tarantino has cited 'Mandingo' as one of only two instances where "a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie", comparing it to 'Showgirls')
Blaxploitation includes several types of films, including crime (Coffy), action (Three The Hard Way), horror (Abby), comedy (Uptown Saturday Night), nostalgia (Five on the Black Hand Side), coming-of-age/courtroom drama (Cooley High/Cornbread, Earl and Me), and musical (Sparkle). The primary quality of the Blaxploitation film is the targeted marketing to black audiences with the use of exploitable elements such as a black cast and subject matter of interest to African-Americans.You get into an interesting argument with Blaxploitation films. Did they perpetuate stereotypes about African-Americans, or were they some of the first films to show strong, intelligent African-American characters who weren't the sidekick, or in need of "assistance" from white people? Or maybe they were both things at the same time? 'Shaft' and Melvin Van Peebles' 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song' are considered some of the earliest examples of the genre. According to Van Peebles, he wanted to "show all the faces that Norman Rockwell never painted."
A common theme of exploitation films is a wronged person or group turning the tables and giving an oppressor a taste of their own medicine. The "Basterds" in 'Inglourious Basterds' sort of fit this archetype. "The Bride" in 'Kill Bill' is also based around this story genre. Wes Craven's 'The Last House on the Left,' which is based on Ingmar Bergman's 'The Virgin Spring,' has a father & mother avenging an attack on their daughter.
Other prime examples this are 'Dirty Harry' and Charles Bronson's character in 'Death Wish,' who goes on a vigilante killing spree after the rape & murder of his wife. Both were big budget responses that played on public fears towards rising crime rates in the 1970s. Another film from that era is 'Rolling Thunder,' which was written by Paul Schrader after 'Taxi Driver.' It's a "back from 'Nam" revenge film.
► Biker & Car-Fu Movies
Outlaws on two-wheels.....
1953's 'The Wild One', starring Marlon Brando, was one of the first films about a motorcycle gang. A string of low-budget juvenile delinquent films centered around hot-rods and motorcycles followed in the 1950s. The success of American International Pictures' 'The Wild Angels' in 1966 ignited a trend that continued into the early 1970s. Other biker films include 'Motorpsycho' (1965), 'Hells Angels on Wheels' (1967), 'The Born Losers' (1967), 'Satan's Sadists' (1969), 'Nam's Angels' (1970), and 'C.C. and Company' (1970)Outlaws on four-wheels.....
Carsploitation films are films featuring many scenes of car racing and crashing with sports and muscle cars that were popular around the era. The quintessential film of this genre is 'Vanishing Point.' Others include 'The Blues Brothers', 'Cannonball', 'Death Race 2000', 'Dirty Mary Crazy Larry', 'Gone in 60 Seconds', 'Mad Max', 'Race with the Devil', 'Eat My Dust', and 'Two-Lane Blacktop'.
► Sexploitation & Women In Chains
Speaking of outlaws in cars, Russ Meyer is one of the first people to figure out that if you had fast cars and then add women with tight clothes & big breasts, that works even better. In 'Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,' Meyer presents a dangerous trio of Go-Go dancers.
"Even in the mid-'70s, the kind of proto-feminist element was being written about," said Kathleen McHugh, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. "Feminist film scholars were writing about Roger Corman and Stephanie Rothman, locating a feminist impulse in the standard plot, where you have these powerful, self-assertive, one might even use the term 'extremely aggressive' women who are wreaking vengeance against forces, people, men who are trying to keep them down."
There are so many sub-genres for this, it's almost impossible to list them. There are Slasher Films ('Friday the 13th', 'A Nightmare on Elm Street'), Zombie movies (The Living Dead Series, 'Zombi', 'Re-Animator'), Cannibal films ('Cannibal Holocaust'), Eco-terror films ('Godzilla', 'Night of the Lepus', 'Jaws', 'Them!'), Nazi-ploitation ('Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS'), Torture porn ('Saw', 'Hostel'), and the list goes on and on and on.....