Connecting the pop culture dots

Are we in the midst of a blackploitation revival (L.A. Times) or a funk revival (N.Y. Times)?

Humor me: You’re sitting at work somewhere in the features department of your newspaper and your editor walks over. Your editor is about to speak the worst four words on earth: “I have an idea.” (Be optimistic. This is better than the worst five words on earth: “I have a good idea.”)

It seems your editor has been seeing a lot of black people wearing Afros recently and wonders if there is a trend. “Maybe we can connect the dots,” she says. It’s fashionable to connect the dots these days, especially in the field of national security, and more power to those who would connect them culturally, too.

Connecting the pop culture dots

Connecting the pop culture dots

In this case, the idea was to connect an intriguing Nike commercial that had already been on TV for a few weeks with a new film, “Undercover Brother,” which was about to open. Here’s how two newspapers, the L.A. Times and the N.Y. Times, approached that make-believe editor’s idea on the same day, Sunday, May 26.

The L.A. Times, which we’ll read first, decided what America was witnessing was a “blackploitation” revival, while the N.Y. Times decided we were living through a “funk” revival. There was obvious overlap but there were also significant differences: The L.A. Times, which ran its story in its Sunday Calendar (entertainment) section, focused primarily on cinema; the N.Y. Times, which ran its story in its Sunday Styles section, focused primarily on the cultural implications of the Nike commercial. Both stories touched the same dots, although the N.Y. Times used half as many words.

Test both stories for content, pace, voice and cultural perspective: How would you have done it if you’d been confronted by the same assignment? It’s not an either/or test; you’ll find elements in each story that might have improved the other. One key: You’ll rarely get as much space as the L.A. Times story; take out your red pen and decide what you would have trimmed if you’d been held to the same space (1,111 words) as the NYT piece. One reporting-and-organizing principle: This is the kind of story where, for once, you actually have to answer that familiar rhetorical question: Whassup?

CINEMA SOUL MATES
By Anne Valdespino

Bring in da noise! Bring in da funk! Bring in Bootsy and Superfly too. Blaxploitation characters, themes and fashions are alive again in American pop culture.

Images and sounds of the ’70s urban scene are now flashing across big and small screens: velour caps shaped like toadstools; long-forgotten fashion colors such as burnt orange and neon green; sexy female characters named Foxy in clingy, hip-hugging bell-bottoms; and kung fu street-fighting guys who karate kick in platform shoes.

These low-budget films sold sex, violence, and a “black power by any means necessary” attitude, and starred characters that prominent members of the black community derided at that time as the lowest of the low: pimps, hookers, drug dealers, even vampires (“Blacula,” 1972).

But a new generation of filmmakers finds inspiration in these stylized flicks. “Undercover Brother,” which opens Friday, is John Ridley’s action comedy featuring a hero who’s a spoof of blaxploitation characters. “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” which opens in July, pays homage to blaxploitation with a character called Foxxy Cleopatra, played by Beyonce Knowles of Destiny’s Child.

Ridley admires the original blaxploitation films because “even in the B- or C-level campy movies like ‘Three the Hard Way’ and ‘Black Belt Jones,’ you get to see virile black heroes and regular guys,” he said.

Kevin Burns, executive producer of the upcoming documentary “Hell Up in Hollywood: Soul Cinema and the 1970s,” treasures them. “These movies were the forbidden fruit of my childhood,” Burns said. “If you were a black kid or a white kid in the ’70s and wanted to be hip, these were the movies you wanted to see.”

“Austin Powers” star and co-writer Mike Myers saw the films in the many revival houses in Toronto. The Foxxy Cleopatra character is meant as a loving tribute to the genre, he says. “It’s such a yummy flavor–the language, the music, the cinematography–and the clothes are so cool,” Myers said.

The admiration society also includes Keenen Ivory Wayans (“I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” 1988), Quentin Tarantino (“Jackie Brown,” 1997) and John Singleton, (“Shaft,” 2000). And the trend extends beyond movies.

Besides “Undercover Brother,” which stars Eddie Griffin, and Foxxy Cleopatra, who wears a big puffy Afro in “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” dig the most recent flashbacks to the era of Soul Cinema:

* A Nike ad showcasing Bootsy Collins mixes vintage footage of ABA players and new clips of NBA players such as Vince Carter (Dr. Funk).

* A Burger King commercial starring Shaquille O’Neal, features Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From ‘Shaft’” in the background, with the chorus shouting “Shaq!” in all the right places.

* Two documentaries slated for cable include “BaadAsssss Cinema,” scheduled for August on the Independent Film Channel. No date is set yet for “Hell Up in Hollywood: Soul Cinema and the 1970s,” which will be broadcast on American Movie Classics.

* A remake of “Foxy Brown” will star its executive producer, Halle Berry, in the title role.

Not even fans agree on the definition of blaxploitation. But for most, the term refers to films marketed to black audiences and released between 1970 and 1979. Most were shot on budgets of less than $1 million–usually about $200,000 to $750,000. About 200 to 250 were made then, depending on who is doing the counting.

The core of the genre consists of fast-paced movies packed with action, comedy and sex, and bearing shout-’em-out titles: “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970), “Superfly” (1972), “Black Mama White Mama” (1972), “The Mack” (1973). The films made B-movie stars of Pam Grier (“Coffy,” 1973), Fred Williamson (“Black Caesar,” 1973), Jim Brown (“Slaughter,” 1972) and even Antonio “Huggy Bear” Fargas (“Foxy Brown,” 1974).

Blaxploitation characters ranged wildly from Richard Roundtree as the slick private eye in the original “Shaft” (1971), to Rudy Ray Moore in the “Dolemite” series. Moore’s character was described by one fan as a “spy/cop/private eye with the slowest kung fu ever.”

Ridley turns the term “blaxploitation” on its head. The days of segregated Hollywood, in which blacks played subservient roles unless they were starring in so-called race movies, definitely ended with ’70s black cinema. “It’s called exploitation because all these white execs were making money off of it, but the fact of the matter is a lot of black actors and writers were getting a lot of work,” Ridley said.

For Ridley and others, these edgy films hark back to an era when blacks were beginning to find a foothold in mainstream media; they gave black talent a voice in Hollywood. Black power and “black is beautiful” themes provide a backbeat to many of them.

“The one word that nails it is ‘empowerment,’” Ridley said. “My parents had been through the civil rights movement, and they felt we are a tough strong people and we do have a voice. Some of these films started out with revenge themes but they evolved into themes of inclusiveness.”

At first, blaxploitation movies were meant exclusively for black urban audiences, but breakout films such as “Shaft” began to cross over.

“Hell Up” producer Burns believes these films have captured the imagination of young filmmakers because “they were liberating. They were so surrealistic, so violent and so ‘out there.’”

They were also made at a time when smaller films had a bigger chance to grab box office bucks, before the advent of multiplexes and franchise films such as “Star Wars.”

At the turn of the decade, Hollywood reeled from a one-two punch: the studio system’s collapse and the Vietnam War. Big films such as “Hello, Dolly!” (1969) were flopping and little movies like “Five Easy Pieces” (1970) were doing well, Burns said.

Filmmakers today love the blaxploitation movies, Burns said, because “they were empowering in a strange way. There was something about them that was bold.”

Consider the bold fashion statements.

In “Foxy Brown,” Pam Grier whips off a Caltrans-orange, filmy, feather-trimmed negligee, revealing knock-out bosoms–in the days before silicon. Ron O’Neal as “Superfly” slinks and slouches through the role, bare-chested or in form-fitting leisure suits, fur coats and yards of leather.

The look is eternally hip, and reverberates today in hip-hop videos and the world of professional sports stars. Watch Shaq in a postgame interview in green plaid cap and pants. He seems to echo Roundtree’s “Shaft” look: a tan plaid suit, its preppiness negated by a full-length coat of buttery, “touch me, ladies” leather.

Nike is onto the trend. In its latest series of commercials, cheerleaders in afros dance to funk music by ’70s throwback Bootsy Collins, and basketball players wear fur coats and fedoras.

The idea was to appeal to two generations of basketball fans, and it has, Nike spokesman Scott Reames said. Nike has been inundated with calls about the uniforms that the fictional team, the Roswell Rayguns, wears.

How did blaxploitation take hold of viewers who weren’t even born in the ’70s? Through video and the culture of hip-hop, says Marcus Morton, a producer of the upcoming remake of “Foxy Brown.”

“The original ‘Foxy’ has been woven into the fabric of hip-hop. There’s Foxy Brown, the solo music artist, whose persona, if it wasn’t taken from the movie, has its similarities,” Morton said. “The young kids have all seen the videos of the original films.”

Morton sees the blaxploitation films as part of a larger genre. He widens the net chronologically to include art-house movies such as “Soul Food” (1997) and hip-hop films such as “How High” (2001). He foresees a day when the biggest movie studios will start their own “urban” divisions.

“There’s a massive desire by the consumer–white and black–to get this music and these films,” Morton said.

The new blaxploitation wave presents some interesting challenges to writers and direcors: Should the setting and characters be updated or should they remain in the ’70s?

Rather than remaking “Foxy Brown” or “Cleopatra Jones” (1973), Tarantino brought to life a contemporary character from Elmore Leonard’s novel “Jackie Brown.” In the film, a tip of the hat to roles played by Pam Grier, the title character plots an intricate scam to outwit bad guys and cops, and a few men develop crushes on her along the way. In the end she remains independent, making off with the money but not a man.

John Singleton updated “Shaft,” with Roundtree reprising the original character in a cameo while Samuel L. Jackson played the new hero as Shaft’s nephew. The remake was less successful, said David Walker, the Portland, Ore.-based editor-publisher of the blaxploitation magazine BadAzz MoFo who will appear in the documentary “Hell Up in Hollywood.”

“When Singleton made ‘Shaft,’ he never got the character right. Maybe it was the producer or somebody else–but in ‘Jackie Brown,’ it wasn’t a question of ‘what was the character?’ She was beautiful, she had brains, she was tough and it came through,” Walker said.

Ridley said there is no need to update the character of “Undercover Brother,” a retro guy living in contemporary times. Tricked out in a purple vinyl jacket and snakeskin bell-bottoms, and wearing his hair in a sky-high afro with pork-chop sideburns, he is fed black power ideals as a child. He grows up and joins a do-gooder organization called “the Brotherhood” to fight a network of evil-doers known as “the Man.”

“He’s stuck in the ’70s,” Ridley said. “It’s like Lenny Kravitz. He’s got this funky kind of style and it’s infectious to everyone around him.”

Ridley’s film has a silly set-up. But it’s still a commentary on race relations. Keeping the tone light is key to dealing with issues that the original blaxploitation films faced head-on, he said. “When you make people laugh, they listen better. White people don’t want to have a finger pointed at them, and that’s why you have to find new ways to tell a story.”

In “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” directory Jay Roach says the British spy travels back in time to 1975 and gets reacquainted with Foxxy. “She’s performing in a roller disco club in the ’70s.”

She sees Austin, and the fun begins. “In 1967 they dated, he was frozen and he never called her,” Myers explained. “From her point of view, we haven’t seen each other in eight years. You don’t do that to Foxxy Cleopatra. She decks him right outta the gate. She says, ‘Mama only got a taste of honey but she wanted the whole beehive!’ and I say ‘Behave!’”

As for the new version of “Foxy Brown,” producer Morton calls it a “serious” remake. The original Foxy was caught between her drug-dealer brother and her undercover cop lover, who is murdered. She infiltrates the drug-dealing network by posing as a prostitute. But her cover is blown. She’s beaten, raped, forced to take heroin. She gets revenge by castrating one of the leaders of the crime ring.

In the ’70s, Jack Hill, director of the original “Foxy Brown,” said he fought the racist attitudes of some studio types, “so I had to do trade-offs. ‘I’ll do this, if you let me do that.’ Halle Berry won’t have to fight for those things. She’ll just demand them.”

Walker predicts the film won’t have much of a political backdrop. “They’ll want to make a movie that’s PG-13 and go the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ route,” he said.

But Hill, who lives in West Hollywood and still shops screenplays, defends Foxy as an everywoman: “She triumphs by her wits and wiles…. She’s not a superheroine. She’s believable, and black women can watch her and say ‘I could do that if I had to.’”

Blaxploitation has been one of the most influential cultural movements in America over the last 30 years, says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television. “Quentin Tarantino has made a career based on that he was a white man embracing films from the blaxploitation era. It hasn’t come and disappeared, it has come over and over and over again,” Boyd said.

Walker believes the films could have an even bigger reach if racial politics are set aside. “‘The Legend of Nigger Charley’ [1972] was one of the highest-grossing movies that Paramount put out that year,” Walker said. “But who wants to talk about it?”

Now the N.Y. Times version:

GIMME A HEAD WITH HAIR, AGAIN
By John Leland

From his home in Cincinnati, Bootsy Collins was trying to explain about the funk the other day. The taxonomy of the funk, he said, was life-sustaining, almost like natural law. But these days, alas, the young do not know. “It’s like when I say, “Glory be, da funk’s on me,’ ” he said. “A lot of people don’t know what the heck I’m talking about.” Mr. Collins was happy for the opportunity to translate. What it means, he said, is, well: “Glory . . . be . . . da funk’s . . . on . . . me. It kind of says exactly what I’m feeling.”

Mr. Collins, who as a teenager played bass in James Brown’s band, turned 50 last year and has not had a hit record since before Britney Spears was born. But if you find yourself watching the N.B.A. playoff games this weekend, you are likely to see him in a sequined suit and star-shaped sunglasses, dropping taxonomy and funky bass on two Nike commercials. And if you look around, you might notice that you have entered a Bootsy moment.

The funk, and all its accessories, has returned to earth. “Undercover Brother,” a spoof of 70′s blaxploitation movies that opens May 31, bounces with greasy grooves and Afros the size of small dirigibles. “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” due July 26, features Beyoncé Knowles of the pop group Destiny’s Child as Foxxy Cleopatra, whose Afro literally fills the screen. Halle Berry is remaking the 1974 Pam Grier classic “Foxy Brown.” (Original poster copy: “She’s brown sugar and spice, but if you don’t treat her nice she’ll put you on ice.”)

Rudy Ray Moore, whose 1975 no-budget film “Dolemite” remains the “Citizen Kane” of kung fu pimping movies, has finished “The Return of Dolemite,” and is now carrying a print from city to city, screening it independently, as he did the original. The movie is pure 70′s throwback, Mr. Moore said, give or take a little Viagra, the mature action hero’s best friend. “I’m an older man that’s still in a heavy bag with the girls,” Mr. Moore, 65, said of his character’s romantic proclivities. “As I say in the movie, I may be old, but I sure ain’t cold.”

The rappers Snoop Dogg, OutKast, Ludacris and Cee-Lo, not content to sample the music of 70′s funk, are dipping into the outrageous wardrobes and hair products as well. “That was the last period in music that humility was prevalent,” said Cee-Lo, who flaunts his humility in a cloak of black and white feathers. The cross-promotion alone has been dizzying. Snoop, who makes a cameo in the Nike ads, performs the theme song from “Undercover Brother.” The accompanying video features a cameo by Mr. Collins. These days, Snoop refers to the older musician as Uncle Boot.

And between Nike ads, a new Burger King commercial shows Shaquille O’Neal dressed as Shaft. The latest campaign for Zima is knee-deep in funk and ‘fro.

“It’s crazy how this collective thing happens,” said Michael Nash, fashion director of Vibe magazine. “Two months ago I was in Brazil, and everybody was dressed like Madonna in the 80′s. Here, I’m seeing some great Afros.”

The Nike commercials are directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, whose films include “Menace II Society” and the 70′s-retro “Dead Presidents.” The spots incorporate 70′s film clips of the American Basketball Association, complete with blacktop moves and giant hair. And of course, the funk.

“We wanted to go back to the funkiest root of hip-hop, which was Bootsy,” said Jimmy Smith, a writer at Wieden & Kennedy who conceived the ads. “And go back to the funkiest part of basketball, which was the A.B.A. After our hip-hop ads, this was a way of lightening up.” For Mr. Smith, 40, showing globes of hair was a natural move. A year ago, he combed his dreadlocks out into an Afro. On a good day, he said, he gets eight inches of loft.

Allen Hughes saw an act of cultural reclamation in the funk. These days, the prototypical hip-hop gangsta looks roughly like Eminem. The Bootsy look is harder to copy. “White people can flip their hair behind them when they get out of the swimming pool, but they can’t have an Afro,” Mr. Hughes said. “Only we can do that.”

Mr. Hughes drew a distinction between the do then and now. The Afro in the 70′s, he said, was part of a cultural and political moment. “The Afro now is retro,” he said. “But I have to admit I’ve seen some real-deal Afros lately, so I can’t hate on that. It’s making a big comeback.”

The funk revival also reflects a generational ripple in black America, said Malcolm Lee, 32, who directed “Undercover Brother.” (He is Spike Lee’s cousin.) The core audience for hip-hop is now too young to remember a time when people sang and played real instruments. “It’s great to remind kids that there was music before Ice Cube,” Mr. Lee said.

From her perch at Invashea Hair Studios in Harlem, Gena Mable was not surprised to see the ads. Ms. Mable, a stylist, said her customers started asking for Afros a few months ago. The trend was unusual, she said, because instead of percolating up from the streets, it came from the top down.

“Everyone’s trying to look like what they see on television,” she said, “like in an Angie Stone video or `That 70′s Show.’ ”

The customers most likely to ‘fro, she added, were those who did not remember the look. “It’s the younger kids that’s going back into the 70′s look,” Ms. Mable said. “The parents are more modern, they’re getting wash-and-sets. I don’t see too many older women wearing it.”

For Mr. Collins, the return comes at an opportune time. His voice recently graced the Fatboy Slim song “Weapon of Choice,” which won a Grammy Award for best video last year. He is now working on a new album, with Snoop Dogg, Macy Gray and others. It will be his first album of new music in the United States since 1995.

When the time came to shoot the commercials, Mr. Collins never discussed wardrobe with the agency. He simply showed up with his purple suit, matching top hat and star-shaped glasses. “The good thing about funk,” he said, “is that it always shows up. If it’s a party, a real party, it always shows up. Next year you might not hear about it, but you can never get rid of that mug. It’s like the bugs that won’t die. You spray Raid on the mugs, but the mug always survives. The funk will always survive.”

OOOPS: From Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post:

The Cybercast News Service last month ran a satire–helpfully labeled “satire”–that began as follows:

“A top researcher says a new study strongly suggests the music of country singer Patsy Cline contributes to depression, suicide and violent behavior by women.” This was according to “Dr. Lenore Morose, head of the Womyn’s Studies Department at Radcliffe College.”

On May 17, Newark Star-Ledger columnist Larry Hall wrote a dead-serious piece complaining about the work of Dr. Morose. “That’s a stretch,” he wrote. “You could make the same argument about scads of other singers.” The paper has run a retraction for lifting–and misreading–the story.