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Beyond the Black Macho: Queer Blaxploitation

From: The Velvet Light Trap
Number 53, Spring 2004
pp. 10-25 | 10.1353/vlt.2004.0012

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The Velvet Light Trap 53 (2004) 10-25



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Beyond the Black Macho:
Queer Blaxploitation

Joe Wlodarz


In American cinema of the early 1970s, there is perhaps no more revealing (if ideologically complex) forum for the analysis of the "crises of masculinity" of the decade than blaxploitation cinema. If cinema and culture of the period were addressing, critiquing, and even assaulting white patriarchal masculinity—due in part to the fallout from Vietnam, the economic crisis, and the social critiques coming from feminism, the counterculture, gay liberation, and the Black Power movement—blaxploitation cinema both shifted and exaggerated the discursive parameters of this debate through its presumed enactment and visualization of black male empowerment. Most overviews of the blaxploitation genre agree that the common ideological structure of the films involves a reversal of the racial hierarchies that have so oppressively anchored the history of American cinema since its inception. 1 Thus, whiteness (particularly white masculinity) is villainized, made deviant, mocked, feminized, and brutally punished as black men are given representational primacy.

And yet, contrary to popular belief (and the general critical history of the genre), the films of the blaxploitation era are actually marked by an equally substantial crisis in black masculinity that works to unsettle the racial, gendered, classed, and sexualized codes that appear to define the genre. As Marlon Riggs has suggested, "By the tenets of black macho, true masculinity admits little or no space for self-interrogation or multiple subjectivities around race" (474). But closer examination of the blaxploitation genre (and the Black Power era) reveals diverse visions of black masculinity that confound the presumed cultural "authenticity" of the black macho in the early 1970s. Although Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien directly contrast the macho-driven ideology of blaxploitation with the more critical and alternative black masculinity presented in 1970s soul and R&B music, I want to suggest that multiple forms of critique are staged throughout blaxploitation that undercut and challenge the presumed invulnerability and "authenticity" of the figure of the black macho (140-41). 2

Blaxploitation films are notable for the ways they frequently situate "normative" black male identity amongst a variety of ideological "others" (women, homosexuals, other ethnicities) whose presence cannot simply be seen to solidify black manhood. Charles Kronengold claims that these films "attempt to transform black culture and black identity as they grapple with community and institutional pressures. Rather than endorse one stable identity, these films enact the conflicts among competing notions of identity" (103). For example, in many blaxploitation films there remains a certain dependence upon and complex intermingling with gender deviant and queer characters that trouble the presumed coherence of the black macho figures in these films.

The poster art for Pam Grier's Friday Foster (Arthur Marks, 1975) effectively conveys the distinctive queer presence in blaxploitation. 3 Although gay and lesbian characters were increasingly visible in seventies American cinema, they were rarely (if ever) part of a film's marketing strategy, especially when the film was not meant for a gay audience. In the poster for Friday Foster, though, Godfrey Cambridge's Ford Malotte is given an equivalent position alongside other supporting players such as Eartha Kitt and Yaphet Kotto. Holding nothing back, the [End Page 10] poster notes: "Ford Malotte—his yen was for men, not for Friday Foster." Given Cambridge's star status in the genre (Cotton Comes to Harlem, Come Back, Charleston Blue) and the fact that the film was Grier's follow-up to Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974), the foregrounding of Friday Foster's gay elements is surprising. And yet, since the film appeared late in the blaxploitation boom (approximately 1970-76), its poster art also suggests a certain normalization of queer elements in the genre. Villainized or not, the gay or lesbian character (black or white) had by this time become as common in the genre as the pimp, pusher, or private eye.


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Figure 1
Three "militant queens" from Sweet Sweetback's Baadassssss Song. Coourtesy Direct Cinema Ltd.


Although the sheer...