Monday, January 15, 2024

Book Review: Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras

In 1971, two films grabbed the movie business, shook it up, and launched a genre that would help define the decade. Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, an independently produced film about a male sex worker who beats up cops and gets away, and Gordon Parks’s Shaft, a studio-financed film with a killer soundtrack, were huge hits, making millions of dollars. Sweetback upended cultural expectations by having its Black rebel win in the end, and Shaft saved MGM from bankruptcy. Not for the last time did Hollywood discover that Black people went to movies too. The Blaxploitation era was born.

Written by film critic Odie Henderson, Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras is a spirited history of a genre and the movies that he grew up watching, which he loves without irony (but with plenty of self-awareness and humor). Blaxploitation was a major trend, but it was never simple. The films mixed self-empowerment with exploitation, base stereotypes with essential representation that spoke to the lives and fantasies of Black viewers. The time is right for a reappraisal, understanding these films in the context of the time, and exploring their lasting influence.

Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras will be published on February 6, 2024. Abrams Press provided an early galley for review.

In the early 1970's, the era that Henderson focuses on for his book, I was just a kid (way too young to see any of these in the theater). As I grew up, I had a passing awareness of blaxploitation films but that's about as far as my knowledge on the subject went. Henderson's book changed all of that. This was very much a crash-course on the subject.

He does a fantastic job talking about these films, from the plots to the production to the cultural impacts. His year by year approach puts each of them in the context with other events occurring at the time as well.

For readers who enjoy detailed looks at films, this one is a definite read.

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