Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Brothers Gonna Work It Out: An Interview With Black Cinema Expert David Walker Part 1

Being charged with cataloging the history of a given art form is no easy task, especially when information regarding that art form isn’t readily available.  Such endeavors are usually labors of love, partaken by individuals with a real enthusiasm for their field of study.  Though thankless, the task does place one in an invaluable position.  He will be seen by his peers as an authority.  It will be his job to debunk myths, and to bestow credit on deserving parties.  Having access to such a vast catalog of knowledge can also be key to unlocking one’s own wellspring of talent.  Even historians have abilities beyond cataloging the history of what others have done.

David Walker is one such authority.  Having long been known as possibly the foremost expert on Black Exploitation films, he is now ready to contribute his own works to the worlds of cinema and literature.  As the creator of BadAzz Mofo magazine, he provided a pop culture voice that longed to be heard.  He has now branched out into film making with “My Dinner With A.J.”, a personal work that has begun making the rounds on the festival circuit.  He also has “Why’s The Brother Gotta Die,”  an in-depth examination of a well worn cliche.  Aside from the aforementioned achievements, David Walker is also a rather vocal proponent for the advancement of blacks in film.  Anyone with an interest in that will find a lot to like in his insights.

Scott Tre: Okay, David Walker.  Why don’t you tell my readers a little bit about yourself.  Give them a little bit of background on you.

David Walker: I’m a writer.  I’ve been a professional writer for about 15 or 16 years.  I'm a filmmaker, working in film even longer than that.  I started out doing low end production assistant work, working on movies that most people never heard of, car commercials and things like that.   And then I decided to make my own movies, made a bunch of movies that no one’s ever heard of.  So I’m kind of one of those underground guys that I think ten people have heard of.  That’s probably the best description (laughs). 
Scott Tre: Well I know you from your magazine, BadAzz Mofo.

Cover of the most recent issue of BadAzz Mofo

David Walker: That’s what most people know me from.

Scott Tre:  How and why did you start BadAzz Mofo and how has the publication evolved over the years?

David Walker: BadAzz Mofo started in the 90’s.  I’ve always been pretty obsessed with Blaxploitation movies, the movies from the 70’s: Shaft, The Mack, Superfly, Foxy Brown...things like that.  I decided that I wanted to do a documentary about those movies, because there just wasn’t a lot of information about them.  I’ve been obsessed with them since I was a kid, and couldn’t find really any books about them.  There were old articles in Ebony and Jet, etc.  But I was kind of interested in what had happened to all these people.  I decided to do this documentary and I started out at the early phase of the research.  I was watching a ton of these movies.  I was getting old issues of Ebony and Jet from thrift stores and the library and those places.  I started compiling all these pretty comprehensive notes just so I could keep things straight, like which Pam Grier movies had the best nudity.  Is it Foxy Brown or is it Sheba Baby?  These notes were pretty silly, but at some point I just kind of got it in my head like maybe I could turn these notes into something more.

The Mack was the highest grossing blaxploitation and one of the most influential of all time.  It was one of the films that inspired David Walker to create BadAzz Mofo.

The film wasn’t taking off as fast as I hoped it would.  So that was kind of how the magazine got started, it was kind of these original research notes that I had for this documentary I was doing.  This was back in the 90’s.  There were all sorts of people doing these independently published magazines.  Steve Puchalski was doing Shock Cinema, which I was a big fan of.  Mike Weldon was doing Psychotronic.  That was another magazine that I read all the time.  Giant Robot was just getting started.  So I was like “I can do this.”  I thought, anyway.

So that’s how it kind of all started out, and this was in the days before the internet explosion.  So if you had a magazine like that, there was a certain process that you went through.  You would hook up with one of several distributors.  Tower Records was still around back then, and they had a pretty big magazine section.  So maybe you could get your stuff into Tower Records, which is what I did.  I got it into Borders, Barnes & Noble.  Tower had retail outlets worldwide.  

So all of that sort of grew into this grass roots thing, and over time it just stopped being cost effective.  I started doing stuff online and my interests sort of expanded.  I still do the website.  I just put out a book not even two months ago that’s sort of an offshoot of what the magazine used to be, which looks at why the black guys always get killed off in the movies.  It seemed like every movie I watched when I was kid, if there was a black character in it he got killed.  So I had written an article about that years ago, but then that article turned into this book that I just put out.  So that’s kind of a good overview, I think, of what BadAzz Mofo was and is.

Scott Tre: What brought the Blaxploitation era to an end?

David Walker: That’s one of the most complicated questions, I think, that anyone can ask about Blaxploitation.  But it also kind of gets into what was going on in film in general in the 70’s.  I think that what ended Blaxploitation was a series of factors.  One was the fact that there wasn’t a lot of variety in those movies.  The first films started coming out in '71, '72.  By '75 we were seeing practically remakes of remakes.  It was the same sort of cycle of movies over and over again, the same formula.  There wasn’t a lot of growth in terms of genre.  Most of them were action films.  You got a few movies like Claudine or Cooley High that would come along that were quality films.  But by and large, you look at what was coming out in '75, '76, '77 and its garbage like The Guy From Harlem, Speedy Nut Pine, Super Soul Brother, just a lot of crap.  So that was part of it.

Also what had happened, Hollywood had been struggling for a long time to sort of get its groove back from like the early 60’s all the way up to the mid '70’s.  Big budget movies were failing and low budget films were sort of what was in.  Then in the mid '70’s Jaws came out and that’s what reinvented the big studio picture.  A few years before Jaws there had been a couple of other big hits.  There had been The Godfather, there had been The Exorcist.  And then Jaws came along, and then not just Jaws but Star Wars.

Not only did those movies make a ton of money for the studios that made and distributed them, they set a new standard for the sort of money that could be made.  They also set a new standard for how films were distributed, because before that, a movie might only open on 50 or 60 screens.  Even a big picture might only open on a handful of screens.  But Jaws was one of those first movies that came along that opened on every screen in America on the same day.  That changed the way the game of Hollywood worked, and it changed the way that studios made money off of their movies.  In the process it changed how movies were made and distributed, low budget movies even.  

The massive success of Steven Spielberg's Jaws simultaneously ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster and contributed to the decline of Blaxploitation by providing Hollywood with a new formula for making money.

One of the key reasons that Blaxploitation existed was because there were still movie theaters in the inner city.  It doesn’t matter what city you were in in America.  Even when there was a lot of urban decay going on in like downtown L.A., or parts of New York City, Chicago, it didn’t matter.  There were still these movie theaters.  And those movies like Shaft and The Mack, those drew a core audience into the theater.  But by the late 70’s and early 80’s all these movie theaters, they’re now in malls and these multiplex theaters, those started popping up replacing the inner city theaters and the drive-in.  So suddenly there was all these movie theaters in the neighborhoods where white people were living.  That was another factor too.  People just don’t think about that.  The movie theaters that Blaxploitation movies played in started to fade away by the mid 70’s and they were replaced by these other theaters. 
Everyone went and saw Friday The 13thFriday The 13th came out in like '79 or '80.  It was a type of exploitation movie, that and Halloween and some of those other ones, everybody went to see them.  It didn’t matter what color you were.  So in Hollywood, all that really matters is when people go see the movies.  They kind of hit a formula with Blaxploitation that got black people into the theaters, but then they hit another formula with movies like Jaws and Star Wars where, like, every kid in America went to see Star Wars.

The original Star Wars was hugely popular with kids of all ages even though it had an all white cast.  Today's summer blockbusters also appeal to millions of people around the world although their casts usually have little racial or ethnic diversity. 

What’s interesting and what I point out to people is that Star Wars proved that you didn’t have to have a single black person in a movie and everybody in the country would still go see the movie.  Then by The Empire Strikes Back they threw the token black guy in, but everybody still went to see the movie anyway.  You still see it now.  The biggest blockbusters that are out there these days, some of them don’t have a single black person in them and they still will make a ton of loot.  The Dark Knight’s got like Tiny Lister in it.  I think like he’s…oh, Morgan Freeman’s in it to (laughs). 
Scott Tre: It also has Michael Jai White in a very small role.  He’s playing the Nino Brown of Gotham City I guess it was (laughs).

David Walker: Yeah.  It was just kind of interesting.  I don’t think that those movies died off the way a lot of people think they did, but there’s all these different factors.  A lot of people think “Oh, it’s cause the NAACP boycotted against them.  They were too negative.   They were too stereotypical."  That factored into it a little bit, but it was really just about money.  Everything in Hollywood revolves around money and if a movie's making money or if a movie's not making money.

Again, the best Blaxploitation movies that were made were released between 1971 and 1974 or '75.  A couple of exceptions, like Cooley High came out in 1975, and that’s obviously one of the best.  But like '76, '77, again, I point to a movie like The Guy From Harlem which is one of the worst movies you’re ever going to see in your life, and that’s what was coming out in '77.  That was shot in Miami by guys…I’m sure they got some money from like their next door neighbor who was a coke dealer and they were sitting around thinking “Oh, we can get some chicks if we make this movie.”  So that’s kind of what happened.

Scott Tre: If the Blaxploitation era would have been allowed to live on and evolve, would black filmmakers have more power in Hollywood today?

David Walker: Now that’s a really good question.  I don’t know if they’d have more power in Hollywood per se, that’s a difficult question because they had so little power to begin with.  But I think what we could have seen was a development of a separate Hollywood.   We’d call it like a black Hollywood.  So you look at a guy like Tyler Perry.  I’ve made no bones about it, I’m not a fan of Tyler Perry or his films.  He’s just coming along now.  His career is like maybe five, ten years old.  I think that if Blaxploitation had been allowed to grow, like in the 80’s and 90’s, we would have seen more guys like Tyler Perry.  More of these sort of separate little industries, these little moguls.  Spike Lee came along, obviously, and Singleton came along.  These guys came along in the 80’s and 90’s, and they managed to do what they managed to do, but they weren’t able to do what Tyler Perry’s been able to do.  I think that had Blaxploitation just been allowed to grow, and explore different genres and all that sort of stuff, I think that we more than likely would have seen what we’re seeing now, almost 30, 40 years later. 

The unprecedented success of filmmakers like Tyler Perry might have occurred decades sooner if not for the decline of Blaxploitation.

Now what we see, when Master P started doing his movies, and there’s a guy named Jean Claude Lamar who actually is a worse filmmaker than Tyler Perry, there’s  all these little guys out there who have these little mini kingdoms.  Some of them haven’t lasted very long.  But there’s like a ton of stuff that comes out on video that unless you’re paying attention you’d never know.  How many movies has E-40 actually been in, or Busta Rhymes, that the average person hasn’t heard of.  But then you go over your boys house and then it’s like “Aw man, you got this one” and you watch it.  Some of them aren’t that bad, but most of them are.  I don’t wanna diss anybody too bad, because I don’t want anybody to come looking for me.  You see a movie and you’re like “Ok, Big Daddy Kane’s in this and E-40’s in this.  Oh, and they’re fighting vampires?  Ok, wait a minute!” But I think that’s what we would have seen.  I think that would have happened sooner. 

What happened was Blaxploitation sort of fell by the wayside, and then black folk’s representation in pop culture shifted to music, again, almost exclusively.  It was a level of pop music that Michael Jackson represented, but then it was also the emergence of hip-hop.  That’s where we sort of had some semblance of voice I guess, and then that voice led into this mini-film industry that exists now.  You look at a movie like Tougher Than Leather with Run D.M.C that Rick Rubin did, and that was like was one of the first examples of hip-hop guys parlaying their street credibility, whatever street credibility Run-D.M.C had at the time, into these movies.  Then Master P did it, and Jay-Z did it, and everybody wound up doing it.  So all I think that happened was that there was just like this time gap that it took longer for some of this stuff to pick up.  But we’re actually there.  We’re actually to where we would have been had Blaxploitation had been allowed to evolve at a natural pace.  Where we are now, we probably would have been twenty years ago.  That’s kind of my feeling.

Tougher Than Leather was an early example of the kind of the kind of Neo-Black Exploitation films that became a cottage industry for rappers in the late 1990's.

Scott Tre: So we are picking up where we left off, but nothing has really changed. 

David Walker: No, nothing has changed at all, man.  In fact, I got in so much trouble for this, I wrote this article for MSN on Tyler Perry a few years back.  If anything, we’re back to where we were in the 40’s.  Blaxploitation represented the culmination of desegregation.  Black Exploitation was black cultures inclusion in mainstream entertainment.  Before that, there were like the race films of the '30’s and '40’s. You watch these movies like Juke Joint with guys like Spencer Williams and Mantan Moreland and all these guys made these movies that primarily only played in the theaters…this was back when theaters down south, there were colored only theaters.  There was an entire social economic system in America that catered specifically to black America because black America was not allowed in huge parts of this country to participate on an equal level.  So it was the era of “separate but equal” even though we all know that that was bullshit, right?  Well Tyler Perry’s movies are that. Tyler Perry’s movies are the “Chitlin' circuit” of the 21st century.  It’s interesting to me because his movies will open at 20 million dollars, and they talk about that like that’s some great number.  That’s the equivalent of one percent of every black person in America going to see a movie.  That’s not good numbers.  Now if you open at 150 million like a Harry Potter movie does, that’s great!
Tyler Perry, and the way hip-hop has sort of become fragmented.  When I say fragmented I mean sort of regionalized.  Some people like the stuff that’s coming from down south, other people are strictly west coast, others are east coast.  All of that sort of plays back into…that’s more of an evolution that happens in the '30’s and '40’s.  Every time we talk about how black folks have made all these advancements and these moves forward, it’s like, yeah but it’s taken us how many decades to make some of these things.  I don’t necessarily think things are better.  They could be way better.  As far as I know I don’t think there’s a single black executive at a single studio, whether it’s at Paramount or at Sony pictures or something like that, that can green-light a project anywhere.  That’s progress in film.    

Scott Tre: You’ve mentioned your upcoming book  Why’s the Brotha Gotta Die?!? – Examining Why Black Characters Get Killed in Movies. .  I’ve heard it said that that cliche has faded over the years and it’s really not true anymore, but I wonder if it’s still present in modern films.  What’s your take on that?

David Walker's Why's The Brother Gotta Die?!?

David Walker: It’s definitely not as present as it used to be and I talk about that in the book.  There’s a couple of key actors who were really integral in changing that cliche in a couple of key movies that changed it.  Honestly, people laugh, the most important movie that helped turn that cliche around was Ghostbusters.  When Ghostbusters came out in '84 and Ernie Hudson comes on the screen like…I’m old enough and I saw that movie in theaters like opening weekend.  Me and my cousins were like “Oh, that’s guys gonna die.”  Even though it was a comedy we were convinced that Ernie Hudson was gonna die.  When he didn’t it was pretty amazing to us.

But now you look at a guy like…Will Smith is the best example, hands down.  When he was in Men in Black or Independence Day, he was playing the character that should have died but he didn’t.  Now Will smith is playing the lead guy in the movie, his side kick is like a dog (laughs) in I am Legend.  I guess it depends on which cut of I Am Legend you see if he lives or dies or not.  That cliché, I was trying to think if it still exists.  I just watched The Expendables on DVD not too long ago and Terry Crews didn’t get killed.  Somewhere around the '80’s or '90’s it started to die off.  You still look at some of Schwarzenegger's movies and like, they killed off every black guy in Predator, they killed off every black guy in The Running Man

Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore from the Ghostbusters films.

Scott Tre: There were two black guys in Predator and they killed off both of them.  I never thought of that until you just said it (laughs). 
David Walker: More black actors have been killed off in movies with Schwarzenegger, I think, than any other white actor.  Yeah, that cliche has faded.  I think a lot of it was because it was such a ridiculous cliche.  I mean we still see it from time to time.  This is the thing that I talk about in the book.  I’ll watch a movie like…It’s one of the Halloween ones.  The one that Busta Rhymes was in, Sean Patrick Thomas and Tyra Banks…

Scott Tre: I know the one you’re talking about but I can’t remember the name of it.  

David Walker: It was like the last Halloween before Rob Zombie took over.  Sean Patrick Thomas, he gets killed off.  He was kind of cool, but Busta Rhymes lives and your just like “Really?”  Like, wouldn’t it be better if they just killed us off (laughs)?  Like L.L. Cool J, and I’m sure that when L.L. Cool J was getting offered parts in movies Deep Blue Sea and some of these other ones.  He was in a Halloween movie as well.  He probably had it in his contract that “I’m not gonna let my character get killed off.”  Same with Ice Cube.

I think that what happened was a lot of these rappers started getting in these movies and they had enough juice and enough clout to say “Look, I wanna live.  You’re are not gonna kill my character off because I’m not gonna be like that cliche I saw when I was a kid growing up.”  But I gotta tell you man, every time I see L.L. Cool J in a movie and he doesn’t get killed, I’m kind of pissed off because the character he plays is such an okie doke.  Like in Deep Blue Sea, he’s practically doing the Stepin Fetchit thing.  It’s almost like the shark doesn’t want to eat him.  Like the shark almost has no taste for his stupid ass.  I can say it’s faded a bit.  Hip-Hop definitely had a lot to do with it.  Cube comes along in a movie and it’s like “Your just not gonna kill me off.”  

Scott Tre: Yeah, you can’t really picture Ice Cube getting killed off.  Even in Boyz n the Hood, his character dies off screen and you learn about it in the epilogue (Authors Note: Ice Cubes character in Trespass was killed onscreen, though at the very end of the film).     

Ice Cube successfully parlayed his gangsta rap persona into an acting career.  He (along with a host of other rappers) helped to buck the trend of black characters getting killed off in movies.

David Walker: I liked Barbershop, don’t get me wrong, and Friday.  But then he turns around and makes Are We There Yet ?  I wanna see the next Are We There Yet? And have the air conditioner fall out of a window and hits him on the head and it kills him off. 

What’s interesting, and I talk about this in the book, we traded in the stereotype and the cliche of the black guy getting killed for the new stereotype and cliche of the black guy who lives.  Because most of the time when the black guy lives, and I talk about this in the book.  There was this giant spider movie with Doug E Doug and he lives.  Then there’s he was one of the five heartbeats or something, and he was in this movie Bats with Lou Diamond Philips.  I remember seeing both of the movies in the theaters with my friends, and we’re watching them going “Oh the black guys gonna get killed.”  And then he didn’t, but in order to live he had to act like a total buffoon.  That’s what living is all about?  You gotta be a buffoon?  

I would like to see an evolution of a black character.  Will Smith has played him to a certain extent in some movies.  Like with The Expendables, Terry Crews was hardly in it.  It was really about Stallone and Jason Statham.  If I’m gonna see a movie like that and the black guy is gonna live I’d like to see more of, If Ghostbusters 3 actually gets made I’d like to see more of Ernie Hudson and not necessarily always be the comedic relief and maybe get some good moments in the movie, some bad ass moments.  I thought Tiny Lister in The Dark Knight, that was a cool part for Tiny Lister.  

I’m old and cynical these days (laughs), so I look at everything and I think: "Well, if they’re not gonna kill him, he’s gonna do something to embarrass the entire black culture."  And then we’ll want him to die anyway (laughs). 


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