I Choose You: Streaming site Brown Sugar celebrates and broadens the "blaxploitation" genre

City Paper

In a feat of narrowcasting seemingly too good to be true, streaming service Brown Sugar gives viewers access to a collection of 100 or so mostly black action movies, mostly from the '70s for $3.99 a month, and makes a case for the multitudes contained in the deeply flawed, catch-all term, "blaxploitation" along the way.

Amid the expected classics such as "Shaft" or "Dolemite" there's room for itchy neorealism ("Charley One-Eye," "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings"), empowered melodrama ("Black Brigade," "Youngblood"), stormy experimental gambols ("Coonskin," "Ganja & Hess"), rough-hewn documentaries ("A.k.a. Cassius Clay," "Fighting Black Kings"), and eccentric trash ("Petey Wheatstraw," "Vigilante").  Meanwhile, rummy reggae western "The Harder They Come," genderflipped kung-fu flick "Sister Street Fighter," and "Uptight," a remake of John Ford's classic, sympathy-for-a-snitch movie "The Informer" dropped into the Black Power movement and directed by Jules Dassin, fit here only because Brown Sugar says so and well, who am I to argue?

Other tricky stragglers include: "The Final Comedown," a revolutionary action movie that cribs its flashback structure from "The Battle Of Algiers" and runs its opening credits over a freeze-frame of a cop shot in the head; the takes-all-kinds humanitarian noir of Chester Himes adaptation and radicalism-as-capitalism send-up "Cotton Comes To Harlem"; and "Monkey Hustle," an appropriately picaresque plow through the world of Chicago hustlers, hucksters, and flim-flammers starring "Homicide: Life On The Streets" hero, Yaphet Kotto.

Brown Sugar deals in nostalgia and doles out escapism no doubt, but it doesn't hold too firmly to its conceit and instead curates based on vibe: The unabashed pimp grit of "Willie Dynamite,” chill revenge tale "Hit!,” steamy chattel slavery soap opera "Mandingo,” and the slick grime of "Superfly"—movies full of atmosphere and unapologetically black detail. And while many of the options employ stereotype and tedious hood shorthand, these movies—like the gangsta rap that they deeply influenced—also give viewers a look into the hyperreal. They embrace the fact that another reality exists beyond pimps and black pain, despite what awards season might tell you.

Another theme on Brown Sugar: black films, occasionally by black filmmakers, but always ostensibly "down" auteurs whose work skews more deceptively grindhouse than overtly arthouse. The best representative of this is the selection of movies available from "L.A. Rebellion" film movement's Jamaa Fanaka: prison fight favorite "Penitentiary" and its more zooted sequel "Penitentiary II"; "Emma Mae," a radical character sketch of a deep South to South L.A. transplant; and "Welcome Home, Brother Charles," an over-the-top piece of pulp about how terrified white Amerikkka is of black masculinity with nods to the U.S.'s  medical apartheid, manifested into a black man's experimented-on, massive, and literally killer dick.

A few canonized filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles ("Sweet Sweetback," "Don't Play Us Cheap") and Sidney Poitier ("Let's Do It Again," "Uptown Saturday Night") are represented on Brown Sugar too and amid its selection, if you dig around enough, the oeuvres of some worker bee directors who did a lot with a little: Paul Bogart ("Halls Of Anger," "Mr. Ricco," "Skin Game"), Arthur Marks ("Across 110th Street," "Bucktown," "Detroit 9000," "Friday Foster," "J.D.'s Revenge," "The Monkey Hustle"), and Oscar Williams ("The Final Comedown," "Five On The Black Hand Side," "Hot Potato").

Plus, a survey of some the '70s’ most appealing, compelling actresses: Pam Grier ("Bucktown,” "Black Brigade," "Black Mama, White Mama," "Coffy," "Greased Lightning," "Scream Blacula Scream," "Sheba Baby"); Gloria Hendry ("Across 110th Street," "Blackbelt Jones," "Hell Up In Harlem," "Savage Sisters"); and Tamara Dobson ("Cleopatra Jones," "Cleopatra Jones and the Casino Of Gold"), who by the way, was from Baltimore—born here, died here. 

All of these movies matter just because they exist. They are remixes, rewrites, readjustments, and middle fingers to Hollywood proper, even when they're at their most transparent, such as say, "Black Shampoo," which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like—a black remake of Hal Ashby's existential profile of a haircutting lothario, "Shampoo"—with the added bonus of a denouement featuring a kidnapped lover and a chainsaw, a more significant sense of black entrepreneurship what with our Warren Beatty analogue Mr. Jonathan owning his salon, and some sly liberalism introduced for good measure (the baddies are often white guys who get the shit kicked out of them; some over-the-top gay hairstylist characters are nonetheless black, queer representation in movies).

A Brown Sugar option that'll be of interest to Baltimoreans is 1974's "Amazing Grace," a touching, idealistic comedy about mayoral corruption starring Moms Mabley and Baltimore-born comedy great, Slappy White.

The plot too should resonate with Baltimoreans: Shady white businessmen and developers take advantage of the city's citizens to line their own pockets, in this case by propping up a black candidate, Welton J. Waters, who will split the black vote and let those in power keep on disenfranchising everybody. In exchange, Waters get a nice chunk of change. In one scene we hear a City Hall honky break down how things roll in Baltimore that should recall say, the affordable housing talk of Port Covington among other neoliberal hustles holding Baltimore back nowadays. "Redevelopment-wise, once the negroes are out, they're out—who ever heard of finding a place to put them back into," he crows. "Look, all you gotta do is tell them you're building houses for them."

"Amazing Grace" was shot on location in Baltimore, so viewers are privy to what lived-in and loved parts of East and West Baltimore looked like in the early '70s and not say, downtown—which never shows up in the movie, an oblique political statement—or other tourist spots. In particular, an opening credits montage doles out images of a woman scrubbing the marble steps of her rowhome and an arabber making a turn onto North Avenue from Pennsylvania Avenue, a look at Penn North a few years out from the 1968 uprising and long before the Baltimore Uprising. Also, Morgan State is prominently featured—one of the first shots of the movie is young black man getting of a train with a MSU Bears sweatshirt on—and student activism wiggles its way into the plot at the start of the third act.

Consider "Amazing Grace" a documentary of sorts: You see Baltimore as it really was—bustling, grimy, friendly. You know all those vacants you see in West Baltimore these days? Well, people used to live in them and here you see them inhabited, doted on, and lived-in. And "Amazing Grace" is directed by Stan Lathan, who helmed episodes of almost every notable black television show from "Sanford & Son" to "Moesha" (also: father of Sanaa Lathan) who also co-created "Roc," a beloved early '90s sitcom starring Baltimore actor Charles Dutton and set in Baltimore, unafraid to acknowledge struggle and urban decay.

There's something far folksier and lighter about "Amazing Grace" than "Roc," but there's a crusading spirit both works share and it's easy to see how the man behind "Amazing Grace" might return to Baltimore decades later, long after deindustrialization set in, to craft another piece of persevering tragicomedy. In a New York Times piece from last year, Cord Jefferson praised "Roc" because "blackness was put at the fore." He goes on: "It made for a gloomier show, but that’s a flaw only if you believe that engaging with the full range of human emotion is a flaw." The same could be said of the wobbly, heartening "Amazing Grace."

You're also very much seeing comedy legend Moms Mabley as she really was—painfully sincere, hamming it up, and often all over the place. She is older here—she would be dead a year after “Amazing Grace” was released—and often times, she’s almost unintelligible or, at least, invested in the movie only in the ways she wants to be invested (echoes of Jerry Lewis in "Hardly Working"). When Grace's scheming has set it up so that Waters will win, rather than divide the vote (a bittersweet victory because Waters is a bit of a dolt), Grace sits at home alone, listening to the stirring upset on the radio, cutting up string beans, and refusing to be there to take credit for what she put in motion. In the triumphant downer of a scene, a portrait of the underrated, deeply influential Mabley, and a nod to the many black women responsible for change and rarely given credit. It's a subtle ending for such a broad piece of political slapstick.

"Amazing Grace" is what Brown Sugar is best used for—a glimpse of an alternate cinema right there in the open, movies that don't yet have cults, though they should.

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