In Reward of Badass Tremendous Mamas (Summer time 2008)

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From the Summer time 2008 challenge of Ms. journal:

Shades of the summer season of 1973!

That was the season of the supermama: kickass Black girls similar to Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson, who starred in big-screen “Blaxploitation” motion movies. Grier performed Coffy, a working-class, gun-wielding nurse who takes vigilante justice in opposition to drug sellers, pimps and mobsters. Dobson performed Cleopatra Jones, a U.S. particular agent combating drug lords with martial-arts strikes and her gun.

I’ve nonetheless received a poster in my bed room of 6-foot-2-inch Dobson in her Cleopatra Jones garb, rocking her ‘fro, carrying a brief rabbit-fur jacket and red-striped bell-bottoms, with an Uzi slung over one shoulder. For a Black lady like me, Cleopatra and Coffy had been fantasies come true: lovely, powerful Black girls tackling real-life issues similar to racism, financial oppression and abusive males with out counting on anybody however themselves.

Grier herself has usually recognized her characters in Coffy and the next 12 months’s sexy-but-revenge-minded Cunning Brown (“the meanest chick on the town”) as indicators of the burgeoning feminist motion. They had been girls who didn’t settle for victimization, and would somewhat combat than give up. And Dobson’s Cleopatra even took on a higher mission past private empowerment: She wished to rid the world of medication, which had been inflicting destruction within the kind of neighborhoods the place she grew up.

When Ms. contributor Margaret Sloan wrote about these movies in 1974, she reported how a younger sister sitting behind her responded to a screening of Cleopatra Jones with, “Rattling. That film felt good.”

In reality, it was a uncommon deal with to see a Black lady carrying an motion film somewhat than serving as intercourse object to a male motion hero. The Nineteen Seventies’ Blaxploitation style—low-budget, ghetto-set, shoot-’em-up flicks like Shaft—normally afforded Black girls secondary components solely as “hos” and attractive girlfriends. These roles hearkened again to a racist-and-sexist Jezebel picture of Black femininity: oversexed, phallus-loving sizzling mamas.

Even earlier, Hollywood had clung to the devoted-to-her-white-family, sexless picture of Black womanhood, famously exemplified by Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

Within the Nineteen Sixties, Hollywood added Mammy’s alter ego—the emasculating matriarchal picture of a “bitchy” Black lady, alongside the traces of the nosy, domineering mother-in-law, Sapphire, in radio and TV’s Amos ‘n’ Andy—which lately has been appropriated with large monetary success by cross-dressing Black comedic actors Eddie Murphy (Norbit), Tyler Perry (Madea) and Martin Lawrence (Huge Momma’s Home).

It was a uncommon deal with to see a Black lady carrying an motion film somewhat than serving as intercourse object to a male motion hero.

Whereas Cleopatra Jones, Coffy and Cunning Brown performed up the feminist-era persona of a daring fashionable lady who refused to remain in her place, the characters’ Afro hairdos and funky outfits additionally referenced the Afrocentrism of the concurrent Black Energy motion. Certainly, the villains had been usually ego-tripping white girls.      

The revolutionary potential of the supermama flicks had been compromised, nonetheless, by the low-budget caliber of manufacturing, the insistent drugs-and-crime system, and the oversexualization of ladies characters that outlined blaxploitation.

Cunning Brown and Coffy typically needed to disguise themselves as prostitutes, wielding their female energy via sexual escapades with the dangerous guys.

Grier and Dobson—together with Gloria Hendry, who appeared within the summer-of-73’s Reside and Let Die as the primary African American lady to be romantically concerned with James Bond—desired deeper roles, however nonetheless made the very best out of the representations they had been allowed inside the style.

Grier actually wasn’t naive concerning the materials: In a 1975 Ms. cowl interview with Jamaica Kincaid, she unabashedly criticized American Worldwide Image’s “tits and ass” and “give the niggers shit” film system.          

Regardless of issues with the representations of Black girls, the supermama movies made cash on the field workplace. But, what Hendry as soon as referred to as “the [B]lack renaissance,” with its uncommon girls heroes, would disappear inside only a few years amid the controversy over the Black stereotypes (pimps, drug customers) celebrated by blaxploitation.

However the cultural nostalgia for Blaxploitation has by no means actually died. The hype surged once more within the ‘90s as hip-hop music movies recycled ‘70s popular culture. One among hip-hop’s high girls rappers took on the identify Cunning Brown. And within the 1996 movie Set It Off, 4 Black girls who want money got down to rob banks, led by super-baadasssss Queen Latifah within the position of Cleopatra (!) Sims.

Then got here the supermama’s fullest resurrection, in director Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 Blaxploitation-esque Jackie Brown—starring none aside from Pam Grier herself. Grier performs an growing old, still-lovely Black lady who takes on the FBI and a ‘70s-styled hustler (performed by Samuel L. Jackson), who’re each making an attempt to make use of her for their very own ends. The movie doesn’t copy Blaxploitation’s oversexualization and misogyny, however does mood the Black lady’s triumph by forcing Jackie to control her heterosexual attraction with a view to save herself.                                                     

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, 1997. (Miramax Movies / Everett Assortment)

Robust girls have additionally been turning up on TV on this new century—in exhibits similar to Alias, Heroes and Misplaced—however whereas they borrow from the ‘70s motion vibe, Black girls have been virtually completely ignored of the style. The worldwide intrigue-oriented missions of those white heroes additionally lack the real-world neighborhood ties that characterised Coffy’s and Cleopatra’s antidrug crusades. They maintain, nonetheless, a few of Blaxploitation’s seedier tropes, as when protagonists similar to Sydney (Jennifer Garner) in Alias turn out to be masters of female disguises, utilizing their intercourse attraction to infiltrate the dangerous guys’ lairs.

One can’t assist however really feel nostalgia for the short-lived effort to carry supermama Blaxploitation to TV in 1974, Get Christie Love, during which Black actor Teresa Graves performed a tricky cop who slapped on {the handcuffs} together with her catchphrase, “You’re beneath arrest, Sugah!”

On the motion pictures in recent times, Black girls proceed to be underrepresented among the many newest kick-butt heroes. When Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz introduced Charlie’s Angels into the twenty first century, early plans for a Black Angel died. Black girls have attained secondary roles in occasional thrillers, leather-suited and kicking a little ass, as Jada Pinkett Smith did in The Matrix Revolutions. However male-dominated motion movies similar to Unhealthy Boys II and Mission Unimaginable II featured Black girls solely as peripheral fairly sidekicks and girlfriends. 

Jada Pinkett Smith as Niobe in The Matrix. (Warner Bros.)

The roster of motion movies for the summer season of 2008 isn’t providing a lot in the best way of a supermama rebirth.

But my hope for brand spanking new supermamas survives, particularly after I have a look at that poster of Dobson, who handed away in fall 2006. Cleopatra Jones stays alive and in colour, reminding Hollywood and me that the display and motion cinema not solely have room for Black girls, however want them. Motion movie’s nonetheless a masculine area, but it surely’s the last word fantasy house: Extraordinary people and super-beings alike can save the world and stall corruption. Cleopatra and Coffy and Cunning fought in opposition to programs that beat up on on a regular basis folks. Think about what they might do within the twenty first century.

As we speak’s supermama wouldn’t essentially sling Uzis or put on prostitute disguises, however she may nonetheless kick ass together with her road smarts or company savvy. She wouldn’t wait for permission to cease political corruption or environmental genocide or police brutality. She wouldn’t be a neat duplicate of Cunning or Cleopatra as a result of, like her Blaxploitation sister-kin, she could be one thing we’ve not fairly seen earlier than. She could possibly be a mother, a daughter, a working-class lady or a big-shot profession lady. She would hardly ever see violence as the answer to issues—in any case, Grier’s character Package on The L Phrase did not pull the set off.

It doesn’t matter what, in the present day’s supermama could be a few mission larger than simply her baadasssss self. 

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