Sexuality was also a source of shame because of the importance whites gave it: the slightest hint of sexual impropriety could get one killed. The reality of black men’s lives is often the antithesis of emotional equality, reciprocal vulnerability, and communicative intimacy. When the thug mentality is about street survival, the fundamentals of a loving human relationship are outside of the parameters of survival, leaving one open to cracks in the armor of invincibility of the street. To care too much for anyone, even one’s self, makes one vulnerable.
Drug dealing, pimping and unbridled individualism, as portrayed in the Blaxploitation classic Superfly also came to define the black male dominated film boom of the 1990’s. The visual representations of black manhood in Superfly encapsulate the general mood of most of the Blaxploitation films. The story of Youngblood Priest, a drug dealer and pimp, who wants to get out of the game, contains one of the sexiest love scenes between blacks on film. Priest and Georgia, strategically covered in bubbles in the bath set to Curtis Mayfield’s sensual and revolutionary soundtrack is a beautiful scene amidst a misogynistic, unloving, counterrevolutionary film. Donald Bogle in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Film observes in that Superfly’s sex scene “like the sex scenes in other black films…frequently was more graphic and lingering than any such scene in white movies of the time and looked as if it had been inserted simply to play on the legend of blacks’ high-powered sexuality. While the movies assiduously sought to avoid the stereotype of the asexual tom, they fell, interestingly enough, into the trap of presenting the wildly sexual man” (240). It was gratuitous in that it did nothing to drive the plot or give any insight into the characters. Sex was a transaction to Priest because he was after all, a pimp. Despite his tenderness with his “main lady,” it did not stand in the way of his plan to flood his community with enough drugs to finance his freedom or cheating on Georgia.
The stereotype of the nihilistic drug dealing thug in films such as Menace II Society and Baby Boy that dominated the visual landscape of the early 1990’s continues through today, now mostly in music videos. With Blaxploitation’s renaissance in the early 1990’s, the hip-hop generation was reintroduced to these images when their reality closely paralleled those represented in those films. “The Hughes brothers gave us horrific displays of Black-on-Black youth violence at a time when young violent criminals were being labeled ‘super-predators’ and experts lamented the rise of youth crime, predicting a 20-25 percent increase in the youth population by 2006” (Kitwana 127). It was when America’s essential underground drug economy was being glorified and demonized simultaneously. The drug boom of the 1980’s created a new brand of drug dealer that was young and black, with nothing to lose. This model of behavior is the dominant thematic model for many of today’s music videos. Young men, who were then the problem of the day on the nightly news, are now marketing fodder in popular entertainment.
I argue that black loving relationships are not present in most films with black male protagonists. Portrayals of black men in the context of black loving relations are dysfunctional. Black manhood is represented in its various sexually compulsive forms with an underlying sexist nihilistic thug mentality regarding women.
Sweet Sweetback Baadassss Song contextualizes the moment black male sexuality becomes overtly visible. The film opens with a child having sex with a whore in a brothel. We learn that this child is Sweetback and that the brothel is his home. Sweetback grows up to be a sexual performance artist. He is the epitome of the sexual buck; all show and no substance. His overt sexuality is the physical manifestation of the sexualized racist mythology that got black men lynched in the early 20th century. In the restricted environment of his home (a brothel) his sexuality is controllable; but director Melvin Van Peebles allows Sweetback’s sexual identity to explode onto the street to become a revolutionary stance against oppression.
Sweetback uses his sexuality as an expression of his control over himself and his situation. Instead of just saying “Fuck You!” he actually does it by performing in sexual shows. Sweetback as an erotic figure, is the “ paradoxical, distinctively masculine potential of the phallus…threatening to penetrate others…” so that he can thusly “absorb the whole world into himself” (Katz 113). The only control Sweetback has over his life is through sex, like the men in the other films discussed in this chapter. They are all playing out the sexualized roles prescribed to them from the dominant cultural milieu.
Sweetback was programmed, in his abusively sexualized childhood environment, that his survival and self worth were defined by his sexual performance. Even when not in that environment, he continues to use sexual performance as a method of survival. Facing capture by the police, he feigned sexual intercourse with a black woman who concealed Sweetback’s face. He projected his sexual pathology onto her, and it became intertwined with her protection. It was not just the community’s refusal to “rat him out”, but black women protecting a black man who they believe is working to make them free.
When cut while running, he makes a salve of urine and semen that helps harden his wound, thus saving his life. His sexuality, again, saved him. The primitivism of his survival techniques is similar to that discussed by bell hooks, “….black male bodies were not coming to the new world obsessed with sexuality; they were coming from worlds where collective survival was more important than the acting out of sexual desire, and they were coming into a world where survival was more important than sexual desire” (Cool 69). The marriage of sexual “desire” and survival all but eliminates the physical and emotional connections between desire and sexuality. It reduces sex to the performance of an individualistic physical act.
The performance aspect of Sweetback’s sexuality signals an emptiness that mirrors that of the world. Sweetback, like many of his black male counterparts who do have a voice, has no interiority. He wields his sexuality like a badge of honor because he has created his identity based singularly on his sexuality. The choice to make him the type of silent hero unlike his filmic antithesis the intellectualized integrated characters Sidney Poitier played made him a new figure in black visual life. Yet this silence provides no insight into the character of a man whose sexually abusive childhood has debased him into a sexual puppet. Sweetback is all show. There is no emotion behind his actions, and he personifies the stoic silences of abused men who continue the cycle of abuse. This sexist dismissal of black women as props for black men was the legacy of the Black Nationalist and Civil Rights movements. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song was required viewing for the Black Panthers, reaffirming the idea that racial political goals could not incorporate the discussion of the objectification black female body.
Sweetback’s character provided the prototype for the black male stud of Blaxploitation era films as well as most of the hero/ antiheros for the black male driven film vehicles of the 1990’s. Films such as Superfly, The Mack, Shaft, and numerous others depict black men as superstud with no regard for their sexual partners outside of any relation to themselves. Relationships with women were there to prove their own masculinity. While fulfilling racial revenge fantasies, black male film heroes also imitated their white male counterparts enacting their own version of phallocentric manhood.
These were the films older hip-hop generationers were exposed to during the 1970’s and then rediscovered during the early 1990’s. Blaxploitation employed pseudo-politically driven themes, initially, in that they were generally about racial revenge and pretended to demolish the servile stereotypical roles blacks had previously been relegated to in the dominant cultural and social arenas. Yet many of the films politics served more commercial vehicles supporting the white supremacist status quo than as anything that had black liberation or love in mind.
Black intraracial sexuality took a key revolutionary role in these films because of it had been historically ignored. In white America the justification for the separation of the races was to eliminate the risk of black men having sex with white women. In black community institutions, the upper and middle classes that are traditionally in leadership positions are also sexually conservative to the point of silence. West states:
But these grand yet flawed black institutions refused to engage one fundamental issue: black sexuality. Instead they ran from it like the plague…..In short, struggling black institutions made a Faustian pact with white America: avoid any substantive engagement wit black sexuality and your survival on the margins of American society is, at least, possible (124).