When I think of exploitation entertainment, my thoughts immediately go to the ’70s, specifically blaxploitation, sexploitation, and rape&revenge films. I usually lump kung fu movies in there, too, but that wasn’t exploitation entertainment so much as exploitation of how cheap it was to buy and translate kung fu flicks. There are a few exploitative kung fu flicks, but the general thrust of those movies is different. But blaxploitation and sexploitation? Absolutely at the top of my list.
I think of stuff like I Spit on Your Grave, Shaft, Foxy Brown, and The Mack. They’re all varying levels of sleazy or offensive, but it’s interesting how long they’ve survived in our collective consciousness since then. Why did we latch onto them? Part of it is the shocking subject matter, but that can’t be the entire story. Plenty of things are shocking and aren’t half as revered as these exploitation flicks. So there must be some purpose or theme that’s made these movies indelible.
Purpose makes me think of “serving a purpose,” which makes me look at what niche those movies serve. When I think of the stars of exploitation flicks, I think of two groups in particular: black people and women. Sometimes black dudes, sometimes black ladies, sometimes white ladies. I also think of aggressive roles (black dudes knocking the man down a peg, a trio of ladies machinegunning huts full of soldiers in the “jungle”) and sexy situations (sex scenes in soft focus, women in prison taking showers, unbridled masculinity laying waste to everything in sight).
So there’s definitely a sensational interest. People getting their whole head blown off or Pam Grier running around topless is pretty entertaining, I think we all agree. But at the same time, it can’t just be the booze, broads, and bullets. Exploitation flicks served an audience that clearly wasn’t being served by mainstream cinema, which I think is a big reason why the idea of Shaft and Pam Grier are such icons now. They are icons because they blazed trails and opened doors, even if they did it with a lot of violence and sex.
It follows from there that exploitation isn’t just empty, salacious entertainment. It speaks to something inside us that square movies don’t, besides the titillation aspect. For me personally, seeing black men and women fighting back against the man went a long way. It’s sort of a time-shifted revenge thing, I guess, and an example that life isn’t just misery. Learning that there are strong black people who do good and bad things is vital, but the glee you get from seeing a sleazy slumlord get it in the neck is thrilling. It’s catharsis.
Catharsis: My mom sat me down to watch Running Scared, a so-so Paul Walker movie, a few years back. I thought it was wack, but there was one part that was fantastic. This kid gets kidnapped by pedophiles (no, stay with me, the ending is great), and a lady comes to get him. The pedophiles talk her and try to talk her into leaving. She pulls a gun on them. She forces them to talk. They tell her where the kid is. She finds him wrapped in plastic. The lady looks around. She discovers some terrible things. She discovers proof of past sins. She thinks. She looks at the pedophiles. She calls the cops. She reports a shooting at that address. She raises her gun. She ignores their pleas for mercy. She kills both of them. She leaves.
Right after that scene, my mom said, “I wanted to do that every day when I was a social worker.”
Which is a really messed-up thing for a mom to say, I think, yeah? But I’ve seen my mom swing on an old man who pushed my little brother in a store before so it’s not a huge deal. She meant it when she said it, and that’s stuck with me longer than any other detail from that stupid movie has. There’s something deeply true inside that statement. There are rules we have to follow, even when everything inside of us screams for us to break those rules.
We try to be civilized. Don’t drink. Don’t curse. Don’t hit people. Don’t be impolite. But at the same time, there is a significant part of us that is what we’d think of as a baser nature. It’s the part that wants to smash the face of people who disagree with you, the part that wants to light someone on fire because you believe they deserve it. My favorite Richard Pryor bit ties into this feeling:
I wonder how it would be though if niggas was taking over? See, if niggas take over tomorrow, not only would white people be in trouble, a lot of niggas would be in trouble. Be in court for lot different shit, though. A motherfucker’d be in court for…
“What’re you here for?”
“Trying to get someone to murder him.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, he was fucking with me your honor, so I tried to kill the motherfucker.”
“Come here. Why did you make this man angry at you? Twenty years.”
There oughtta be some shit like that, you know? It oughtta be against the law to make a motherfucker want to kill you. I think that would be a good law, ‘cause a lot of people are in jail for killing good people… that needed to die at that particular moment.
That last line is killer, and totally true. I think that exploitation flicks allow us to experience that thrill of seeing someone who deserves it at that particular moment get it, and the thrill is doubled by the taboo nature of what we’re seeing. Nazi and nun fetish movies kinda creep me out, but I get it. There’s this saucy taboo lurking around both of those fetishes that makes it hotter because it’s so forbidden. Sex is great, but sex you aren’t supposed to be having? Fantastic. It’s like — you know how some dudes are really fixated on panties or lingerie or whatever? That’s because panties are hiding something, and the fact that it’s hidden makes it even more valuable. That kind of thing.
The forbidden is really interesting to me, especially in comedy. Lynching is one of those things where the jokes are mostly limited to stupid boasts about how you’d knock the entire Klan flat and wipe your butt with their hoods and escape or whatever. We treat it with a certain reverence, or avoid it altogether, I guess because it’s such a source of pain. But there’s also this, from The Boondocks:
And, yeah, Roscoe Patterson’s lynching was pretty funny up to a point, but the joke is that we don’t joke about lynchings, and it’s one of the best jokes in The Boondocks. It’s forbidden, which made this joke super funny.
I feel like I’m drifting. Statement: Exploitation movies provide a voice to those who may not have one, gives us a chance to indulge our baser natures, and turns the forbidden into entertainment fodder.
Things that are forbidden are usually forbidden for a reason. They make us uncomfortable, they don’t conform with societal norms, and sometimes we just don’t like it. So we remove these things from our sight and promise to never mention them in polite company.
The lynching thing reminds me that everyone’s got different limits. I think The Boondocks is one of the funniest shows on TV. When it’s on, my grandmom makes that noise she makes when she disapproves of things but doesn’t want to be a buzzkill by telling us to turn it off. We have different limits as a result of being different people who grew up and became people at different times, which is natural.
My line for enjoyable exploitation is probably that point where the violence and sex mix a little too much. I’ve never really been one for rape/revenge movies, but when the villain got pulled in half in Super Ninjas, I cheered. My introduction to anime was Akira and Fist of the North Star, and I love Ninja Scroll, but High School of the Dead creeps me out in a pervert loser sorta way.
I emailed a draft of this to my bro Sean Witzke and he pointed out something interesting. Part of the appeal of exploitation flicks is that they would put things to film that had never, or rarely, been put to film before. This is as true of the authentic black leads as it is of ladies taking gratuitous showers in prison. And all of that bleeds back into the culture. Exploitation laid down a foundation for these things to be acceptable, just by virtue of existing, and aspects of exploitation flicks became normalized, which in turn made exploitation even more extreme.
That normalization also led to things like John Singleton’s Four Brothers, which is a great blaxploitation movie but totally unexceptional today. Human Centipede is the new exploitation, and that was almost immediately diluted by the culture and turned into nothing more than a gross joke. (A Serbian Film probably hasn’t, though. Don’t google that.) It’s not a coarsening of culture so much as a… broadening.
Exploitation: provides a voice to those who may not have one, gives us a chance to indulge our baser natures, turns the forbidden into entertainment fodder, and serves as raw material or cheap R&D for the culture at large.