"From The Mouth of Reality?" Truth, Illusion and Inescapable Symbolism in Blaxploitation Film. Ann Tyler Moses, 2013.
September 12, 2015
My latest article, "The 'N' Word: Forever Alive in Hollywood Film Titles," has just been published by:The Museum of Uncut Funk.
“So we respectfully agree to disagree… ” That was Oprah Winfrey’s response to Jay Z when he appeared on her talk show in 2011. She had asked him about the validity of using the “N” word in his songs. “[Speaking] for our generation,” Jay Z assured, “we took the power out of that word… we took a word that was very ugly and hurtful and turned it into a term of endearment.”
The debate over the usefulness and/or validity of the “N” word in art remains a stickler. White people, for the most part, let the debate go on without much say: at least not publicly. People of color are divided. On the one side are the forty and older group who believe the “N” word is both disrespectful and dangerous. On the other, are those twenty five and younger, a demographic that hears the word constantly in their favorite music and films, sees it on their social network apps, and uses it casually as a “cool” affectionate acknowledgement.
During the nineteen seventies, at the height of Hollywood’s one and only African American motion picture boom, the “N” word appeared in popular media and danced unapologetically across movie theater marquees. Blaxploitation films (black cast action-oriented films released between 1970 and 1980) provided the ubiquitous forum. Paramount Pictures’ “The Legend of Nigger Charley” (1972) was the first film to use the “N” word in an actual movie title. In conjunction with the release of the film Paramount rented a three story high billboard in New York City’s Times Square. The poster art showed a defiant African American male (athlete- turned actor Fred Williamson) staring threateningly down at onlookers. The tagline: “Somebody warn the West. Nigger Charley ain’t running no more!”
But if Nigger Charley wasn’t running, African Americans were: to the movies. Enchanted with a slew of films featuring young, militant-minded, gun-toting performers, presented, as they were, in revenge-centered blacks-against-whites fantasy scenarios, black patronage of Blaxploitation films helped Hollywood out of a fiscal crisis (in the early seventies the studios were famously on the verge of financial ruin) and sanctioned the Stateside and international use of a controversial word.
“The Soul of Nigger Charley” (1973), was Paramount’s sequel to the “The Legend of Nigger Charley.” A follow-up box office success, the film paved the way for further similarly titled entries. Box-Office International’s “Run, Nigger, Run”(re-titled “The Black Connection” for “sensitive markets”) played in theaters the same year as “The Soul of Nigger Charley.” Where Paramount’s “Nigger Charley” films enjoyed a first run in America’s A-List movie houses and was reviewed by The New York Times, “Run, Nigger, Run” dazzled audiences in the exceedingly lucrative (but underreported on) Grindhouse and Drive-In movie markets: venues in which sensational film titles were elements of a long standing business model.
“Nigger Rich” (1974; AKA “Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes” and “Jive Turkey” was another contentiously titled “N” word film entry. Produced by Alert Film Releasing, Inc, the film title incorporated both the “N” word and black slang: (The Urban Dictionary: “Nigger Rich”; “spending your money unwisely on things you don’t need and won’t last that long.”) 1975’s Dimension Pictures continued the trend with “Boss Nigger” a film that also exploited the vernacular of the day. Slang for a black man who plays by his own rules—even in a white environment, “Boss Nigger” kept the door open for 1978’s “The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger” (AKA “Super Soul Brother”), International Cinema’s errant take on the popular “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV series.
So, what are we to make of Hollywood complicity in using the “N” word in movie titles? To be sure, when the pictures played in theaters, the word was omnipresent: on TV; Good Times, The Jeffersonsand What’s Happening!, on vinyl; comedian Richard Pryor used it extensively in his act and titled his best-selling album “That Nigger’s Crazy,” on Pop radio; Rickie Lee Jones (a Caucasian artist) uttered the word in her free-association hit “Chuck E’s in Love,” and, of course, in Blaxploitation and crime-centered movies.
Was Hollywood insensitive or merely shrewd—peppering movie titles with a word that pushed the parameters of acceptability but stopped just short of being wholly offensive? Or was the film capital doing what most people still do today: turn a blind eye to a potent, divisive and forever controversial word?
Paramount Pictures has never released their “Nigger Charley” films on Home Video (they’re available on bootleg label Blax Films). Dimension Pictures’ “Boss Nigger” is available, albeit under a new streamlined title: “Boss.” And “Run, Nigger, Run,” “Nigger Rich,” and “The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger,” masquerade behind their original “sensitive market” titles: “The Black Connection,”“Jive Turkey” and “Super Soul Brother,” respectively.
“Those pictures had the word ‘Nigger’ in the titles because it got people’s attention… ” surmised Fred Williamson in a 2004 television interview. Forty years after the fact they still do.
Aug. 30, 2014
Cher fans, I'm happy to announce that "Cher: Strong Enough" is now available on KINDLE.
Download your copy today!!!
Black Women and Popular Culture: The Conversation Continues. Adria Y. Goldman and Vanatta S. Ford; 2014.
Magical Musical Tour: Rock and Pop in Film Soundtracks. K.J. Donnelly; 2015.
The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography. Jennifer C. Nash, 2014.
Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Culture.
T. Brown and B.Copano; 2014.
Aug. 30, 2014
Is Cher promoting Josiah Howard's "Cher: Strong Enough" in Brazil? (The book is now available in Portuguese for the Brazilian market.) No, that's Paulette Pink, Brazil's premiere female impersonator!
Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective. Phillipa Gates; 2011.
August 23, 2017
I'm very excited to announce that I've been included in the family of motion picture industry reviewers known as IMDB Pro (the subscription service) industry standard. The film review that did it: Halle Berry's KIDNAP!
July 15, 2015
My latest review for Furious Cinema: "The Cell"(2000)
Fifteen years after it first dazzled, thrilled, disgusted and challenged audiences, The Cell, the story of a woman’s descent into the warped, violent, fantasy-filled mind of a serial killer, still fascinates.
Utilizing a performer known for her striking visual presentation—brought to vivid life in her still-going-strong career as a pop singer—Jennifer Lopez expands on the opportunities afforded her in the stellar Selena—and brings her signature, highly marketable, earthiness—used to great advantage in million dollar concoctions like Maid in Manhattan and Monster in Law, to an unabashed, unapologetic, genuinely unsettling film.
As exhausted “exceptionally talented” case worker Catherine Deans—at times a willing inhabitant of the minds of her patients, Jennifer Lopez is many things; all at once: a sword wielding leather-clad dominatrix, a serene, caped and ethereal Virgin Mary, a couture swathed winged and be-feathered bird-woman and, of course, “Jenny from the Block”: a stunningly beautiful, exquisite bodied movie star in possession of an uncommon naturalness.
It’s heady stuff this treatise on the disenfranchised, misunderstood and, as it turns out, un-diagnosed. Illicit desires and hidden depravity are a part of The Cell’s sordid mix. So is an omnipresent essential truth: none of us is in control of anything and if proof be needed, some of us will be captured like animals, put on display and tortured—while a camera obscenely documents and broadcasts our demise for the demented enjoyment of others.
In the role of Peter Novak, a police detective who seems to know a lot about suffering and being an outsider, Vince Vaughan equals Lopez in his commitment to character. Confused but determined, lazy but unrelenting, he is a real person struggling with unreal situations: what exactly is the protocol when entering a person’s mind—especially when that person is a comatose sadistic murderer who holds the key to his last, barely still alive, victim’s whereabouts?
Vincent D’Onofrio is Carl Stargher the serial killer whose “cell” (a glass enclosed chamber that he holds people in—and then slowly fills with water) is the centerpiece of the film. A jittery, plain-faced, misanthrope who collects dolls, hallucinates and self mutilates—a hook bound, hanging-from-the rafters masturbation scene is repulsively personal, D’Onofrio creates a character that we both despise and through our privileged visits into his twisted, abuse filled mind, are not wholly surprised by.
Directed with sleek, studied precision by Tarsem Singh—whose credits at the time were popular music videos: REM’s “Losing My Religion”; En Vogue’s “Hold On”—at every turn Singh, through the use of quick cuts, fractured and disembodied images and shaky, documentary style camera work, delivers more than Mark (Thor, I Am Legend) Protosevich’s stellar script calls for. He provides an over the top, state of the art auxiliary: a haunting collection of artful ideas and base images. Glossy depravity.
August 21, 2016
I was excited to learn that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michal Chabon cited Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide in his 2012 book Telegraph Avenue! (One of the main characters is a Blaxploitation film actor.)
Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters. Michael Doyle, 2015.
July 18, 2017
One of my all time favorite exploitation films is FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE (1977). What an absolute thrill it was for me to conduct the 40th Anniversary interview with the director; Mr. Robert A. Endelson! Check the link out on the "Writing" page...
"Cher: Strong: Enough" reviewed in the Sunday edition of Brazil's most circulated newspaper. ...
Boys, Boyz, Bois: An Ethics of Black Masculinity in Film and Popular Culture.
Keith M. Harris, 2008.
April 18, 2016
I'm interviewed in the current edition of Closer magazine. The article is entitled: "Cher: Looking for Love at 70!" By Deborah Skolnic.
Josiah Howard's Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide is required university level reading. Below is a sampling of books and other significant works that reference Blaxploitation Cinema extensively.
Baadassss Gangstas: The Parallel Influences, Characteristics and Criticisms of the Blaxploitation Cinema and Gangsta Rap Movements. By Dusitn Engels; Journal of Hip Hop Studies, 2014.
Hollywood Film 1963 - 1976: Years of Revolution and Reaction. Drew Casper; 2012.
January 10, 2015
During Cher's final performances at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas the ($45.00) program I wrote for her was offered free to select seat fans at the theater!
Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films. Stephane Dunn; 2008.
Big Black Book of Blaxploitation. Soulemite, 2015.
April 1, 2016
I have an article in the Entertainment Section of the current edition of The Las Vegas Tribune (March, 30--Apr. 5).
It's a tribute to "The Queen of Las Vegas" entitled:
"Lola Falana: Breaking Down The Walls."
Oct. 10, 2014
An article I wrote two years ago for The New York Times is being re-published a THIRD time in Canada!
The current (Canadian) edition of Readers Digest (October 2014) contains a newly titled version of my original New York Times piece. Now called "Passing Notes" (the original title was "A Final Message From My Mother,") the story is the main article in the "Family" section of the magazine.
(Thank you, so much, to all of you who took the time to put pen to paper and write me personally!)
Historical Dictionary of African American Cinema.
S. Torriano Berry and Venise T. Berry, 2015.
“Bad, Black and Bountiful: The Museum Of Uncut Funk Looks Back at the Blaxploitation Film Genre”.
At one time the images were omnipresent: on TV, in movies, on billboards and in magazines. Young African-American men and women in anti establishment starring film roles, wearing bell-bottoms, platforms and Afro hairstyles, and determined to get even—or “get over.”
The time was the early 1970s, and the film genre was Blaxploitation—action oriented pictures that, for the most part, told stories culled from America’s crime-ridden inner-cities.
On the eve of the release of Eureka Video’s “Blacula: The Complete Collection” (a Blu-ray DVD combo pack) author and film historian Josiah Howard (Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide) talks to the Museum Of UnCut Funk about one of Hollywood’s most bombastic, visual and memorable motion picture movements.
MOUF: How did the Blaxploitation film genre begin?
JH: The genre was kicked off in 1970 with the all-black multi-cast comedy Cotton Comes To Harlem. When that became an out-of-left-field blockbuster hit, many, many other black-cast films followed. The idea—or at least Hollywood’s new understanding, was that there was a ripe, willing and ready-to-pay African-American ticket buying audience that needed to be mined.
MOUF: How did you become interested in the films?
JH: I came of age in the 1970’s and, to me, the films represented an escape. I used to stand outside of my local movie theater and stare at the colorful posters. I wanted to be in those pictures, in those movies, in that exciting fantasy world.
MOUF: What discoveries did you make in writing the book?
JH: Many. Being a fan, I thought I knew a lot about the genre: I was wrong. I thought there were maybe 50 films:. there are more than 200—and the larger part of them were released within a five year period! The research and the interviews I conducted with directors and actors brought home to me just how expansive, financially advantage (to Hollywood) and influential these films were. More than passing entertainments, these pictures were a captured-on-film documentation of the changing representation of African Americans in cinema.
MOUF: Eureka’s new combo pack includes both Blacula and the sequel Scream Blacula Scream. Which of the two is your favorite?
JH: Blacula is the better film: for two reasons. It’s the first time American audiences—and the world really, was introduced to a black vampire character. Consequently it has the feeling of something new, uncharted and formerly unconsidered. It’s a case of audiences thinking “oh, of course. All these classic horror films never included African-Americans.”
The second is that, even though William Marshall takes his vampire role very seriously, the film, itself, isn’t really very serious—how could it be with a title like Blacula! It’s fun. Costume heavy, filled with jive talk and silly situations, and supported by both a catchy Gene Paige soundtrack album and an on-screen nightclub performance by the popular soul group The Hues Corporation.
MOUF: Speaking of African Americans in horror films; are there many other horror films that star African American actors?
JH: Absolutely. Once the idea was out there, the horror films came in a flood. Some of them have fun and obvious titles like Blackenstein and Dr. Black. Mr. Hyde, but there are many others including the genuinely unsettling Cannes Film Festival favorite Ganja and Hess, and the absurd Exorcist rip-off Abby—the tagline for that one was “Abby doesn’t need a man anymore… the devil is her lover now!”
MOUF: Why did the cycle of Blaxploitation films come to an end?
JH: Frankly speaking, like everything else, there were sharks in the water: filmmakers, both black and white, whose only interest was making a dollar. The pictures started to all look and sound (more than 40 of the films have the word “black” in the title) the same. They were interchangeable. Audiences stopped believing that when they went to a theater and spent their hard earned money, they would see something different.
MOUF: For the uninitiated, what are five “must see” Blaxploitation films?
JH: Coffy is first on the list: it’s the whole Blaxploitation experience; fast cars, sex, profanity, nudity, crazy clothes, great music—but told from an engaging female perspective. The film made Pam Grier a star.
Super Fly is also required viewing both for its stellar Curtis Mayfield soundtrack and for the Oscar grade performances. Star Ron O’Neal’s also set trends. His (relaxed) hairstyle and maxi coat were copied by everyone—even Denzel Washington has admitted that, in the seventies, after he saw the film, he ran out and bought a maxi coat!
The comedy Amazing Grace is special. It stars Moms Mabley as an elderly political activist. Mabley was a raunchy-mouthed vaudeville star and she brings her humor—much watered down for this pointedly PG Rated family-friendly picture, to the big screen. She’s wonderful; distinctly ethnic, bawdy and brash, bittersweet. (She died three months after she completed filming.)
Blacula is essential because it’s the first time horror film fans senses are challenged: black faces interpreting classic white horror tales. Actor William Marshall is superior as Blacula, and even though he came to the film with a long list of performance credits, this is the role that he is most remembered for.
Rounding out my top five would be a little-known favorite called The Guy From Harlem. It’s simply awful—and it doesn’t mean to be. It’s the story of a New York City cop who moves to Miami and encounters “intrigue” and “suspense.” Worth a look for its all-encompassing, unabashed incompetence—fumbled lines, boom mikes in the camera frame, atrocious line readings.It’s Blaxploitation’s Plan Nine From Outer Space!
The Cult Film Reader. Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik; 2007.
Oct. 24, 2014
I did an interview with BUZZFEED whose focus was "paint downs" (the motion picture industry term for darkening the color of a stunt person's skin to match ethnic actors).
October 28, 2014
Here's a second interview I did with the great website THE MUSEUM OF UNCUT FUNK! The focus is Blaxploitation and the new DVD/Blu Ray release: "Blacula: The Complete Collection." I wrote the 32 page booklet for the package.
The World of Shaft: A Complete Guide to the Novels, Comic Strip, Films and Television Series. Steve Aldous, 2015.
February 22, 2017
Sweden in The House! Blaxploitation Cinema REMAINS the primary source on the genre. Here's a 2017 review of Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide by Anders Landby!
Oct. 30, 2014
Check out the online reviews (there are more than 50) of Eureka Video's "Blacula: The Complete Collection." (I wrote the 32 page booklet!)
October 2, 2017
I'm interviewed in the current Closer magazine cover story: "Cher: The Men I've Loved & Lost" by Ron Kelly.
Super Black: American Popular Culture
and Black Superheroes.Adilifu Nama; 2013.
Black Hollywood: From Butlers to Superheroes, the Changing Role of African American Men in the Movies. Kimberly Fain; 2015.
June 26, 2017
I'm interviewed in the current edition of Closer magazine for the cover story: "Cher's New Revelations... The Truth About Life With Sonny." By Lisa Chambers.
May 15, 2017
Writer Emil Sher's new children's book Away is a touching, funny and beautifully illustrated work inspired by my New York Times article "A Final Message From My Mother." Qin Leng's gorgeous watercolor illustrations capture Skip (my mother's nickname for me) and his Mom's special relationship. There's even a crazy cat in the story! Bravo!
Illustration: Jim Rugg.
Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity. Allyson Nadia Field, 2015.
PAM GRIER: February 26, 2014
FLIP WILSON: March 26, 2014
COOLEY HIGH (film): April 2, 2014
BILL DUKE: April 9, 2014
RICHARD ROUNDTREE: March 25, 2015