by Mo Mozuch

We're all the same color when the movie lights go out. The color of the people in the movie, though, often belies the color of the audience. Movies are an art form, and, as such, can transcend their racial barriers. There is a magical genre, Blaxploitation, which appears inherently black and about black issues, but reaches out and speaks to a white audience through the use of such cinematic devices as the words "sucka" and "muthafucka." Or through the glorification of brutal, sadistic violence. Why, that's Gatorade for any parched American id, no matter what the color. And let's not downplay the allure of those siren-sisters of milk-chocolate mammaries . Pam Grier's spectacular rack. If Halle Berry 's rack won her an Oscar then Pam Grier's rack should've won the Nobel Peace Prize. TwiceBlaxploitation as a term is most often associated with its 1970s glory days, though it still exists today. The films of today, though, speak to white audiences through much different models. Of course, to understand the state of black cinema as it is today one must know how it got here in the first place.

The first blaxploitation film, by and large, was the blockbuster smash hit "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasss Song." Melvin Van Peebles, father of legendary screen actor Mario Van Peebles, wrote, directed, starred in and composed the music for this celluloid middle-finger to the man. The plot has Van Peebles initially helping the man by pretending to be a suspect in a murder investigation. Things turn sour when the cops Van Peebles is helping arrest and assault a young black man. He, in turn, lays a vicious ass-kicking on the white cops and goes on the run. The rest of the film has him on the lamb, getting assistance from bikers, whores and blacks. In short, the underclass of 1970s America .

It wasn't the plot that skyrocketed this film to the top of the box office (it grossed $15 million) but the attitude of the film. There weren't any tough, black heroes of note in cinema until Sweetback. After all, the primary source for tough guys on screen had been the western, and finding a black cowboy in a western is as tough as finding a real Indian actor in one. Sweetback took the rugged, white individualist and plopped him in the inner city. The guns, girls and grit were still there, but the atmosphere and the effect were markedly different. Black audiences had a hero to watch and white audiences, largely afraid of black people, got an extra kind of thrill.

The success of Sweetback caused some rumblings in the industry. Hollywood saw past the black and into the green. A few months later, a detective film which was slated to have a white lead debuted with one Richard Roundtree as the title character, John Shaft. Imagine: Shaft was almost white. That would mean no Isaac Hayes writing the famous theme song, and, in turn, no voice of Chef on South Park .

Of course, the model of tough black detective, and the quality of every adolescent males' masturbatory fantasies, improved dramatically with the arrival of Pam Grier. With the release of Coffy, and a year later Foxy Brown, Grier brought to the screen the now-stereotypical black woman who doesn't take any shit from anybody, period. As with Shaft and Sweetback, black audiences were able to experience a different kind of cinematic hero and white audiences were enthralled with their first taste of on-screen brown sugar.

Blaxploitation cinema took a back seat to horror films in the 1980s. However, the emergence of the gory, sequeled films like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street gave Hollywood something else to look at. These films received major support in the black community, and market research at the end of the decade revealed that black people, on average, spent more on movies each year than white people. Add to that the explosion of hip-hop and we're on our way to discovering the crux behind the black cinema of today.

In the 70s white audiences were attracted to the sex and violence of blaxploitation films. Now, in the 90s and beyond, white audiences are attracted by something else. Their inherent desire to be black, because being black is much, much cooler than being white. Better dance moves, bigger penis, nicer ass, the list goes on and on. Hip Hop provided a new draw at the box office. Ever notice how many rappers are in movies aimed at black audiences? It's not because they're thespians at heart. (Except Ice-T, whose performance in Lep' in tha Hood was nothing short of awe-inspiring.) The marketing behind it is simple: write a basic comedy, inject a few well-known rappers/Kings of Comedy, some weed humor and the bumbling, uncool white guy who just doesn't get it, and you now have every movie from House Party to Soul Plane. These movies are designed to make money, unlike their 70s grandfathers, which were low-budget and difficult to produce. Melvin Van Peebles had to borrow money from Bill Cosby to make his film, and he got money from the Screen Actors Guild after he contracted gonorrhea from an actress during a love scene. He claimed he was "hurt on the job."

Unfortunately the trend shows no sign of letting up. These formulaic, unchallenging movies do fair enough at the box office to justify their continued existence. They play to a wide enough audience, but they don't deliver anything new. When was the last time Hollywood produced a serious movie about the black experience? Monster's Ball? Just a reintroduction of wonderful ebony ta-tas. And the last time I checked, Spike Lee's latest joint was about white people. It doesn't get much whiter than Edward Norton, people. Hollywood proves once again that green is the only color that matters.

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