In the 1970s a new genre of film featuring all black casts raged through urban American movie theaters. It was named “Blaxploitation,” combining “exploitation,” which were films that presented overtly violent and sexual narratives, and “black” to denote not only the racial make-up of the cast, but the centrality of “blackness” to the story lines. Melvyn Van Peebles’s 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song is often considered the first of this genre, but later crowd-pleasers such as Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972) and Cleopatra Jones (1973) more overtly capture the essence of Blaxploitation. They tell the story of African American men and women living in urban settings celebrating their blackness in defiance of a white supremacist America. While fighting crime or running drug enterprises, the main protagonists use the language most recognized in black urban environments and dress in the soul/funk style popularized in the 1970s. Filling a need for films that celebrate the black experience, as well as filling the seats in the urban movie theaters that were rapidly beginning to pale in the boom of suburban multiplexes, Blaxploitation quickly became lucrative for several major studios and iconographic for young black men and women. While they may appear frivolous to viewers in the 21st century, they astutely combined fun narrative with the growing Black Power politics of the 1970s. To their target audience, they were anything but frivolous.
But like all popular culture, Blaxploitation had its detractors. Many in the African American community felt that celebrating pimps and “badass” dudes diminished the message of Black Power politics, as well as acting as further fuel for the American consumer machine. Rather than ignore the popularity of these films though, some African American directors set out to make films that they felt were more politically active and engaged while maintaining the aesthetic of Blaxploitation.
Five on the Black Hand Side (1973) is an attempt to combine the soul aesthetic and youthful exuberance of Blaxploitation with a more overtly politicized message. The narrative centers on the Brooks family who live in a walk-up apartment in Harlem. The main tension in the story comes from a patriarch (played with almost cartoonish seriousness by Leonard Jackson) who believes that Black Power is ludicrous, Afros are ridiculous, African diasporic politics are worthless, and feminism is the biggest crime of all. Unfortunately for him his oldest son supports a Maoist approach to American race relations (representing the Black Panther ideology), his daughter is marrying a man who wears dashikis and wants to have a traditional African wedding ceremony, and his youngest son (played by Glynn Turman who went on to star in A Different World and The Wire) practices martial arts and talks about taking the power back from the “white devil.” His wife (who maybe like me you would recognize as the grandmother from The Cosby Show) begins the movie as quiet and subservient-she even calls her husband Mr. Brooks- but is eventually pushed to the limits of her tolerance and decides to demand equality and respect. The patriarch is obviously meant to represent the generation of African Americans who hadn’t got the 1960s message that “the times they are a changin’.”
As a movie, Five on the Black Hand Side isn’t great. Although the acting is pretty good, and the dialogue is sometimes funny, the political message of the film is too heavy handed to make the narrative interesting or organic. In some ways it reminds me of a Socialist Realism or AgitProp film where every shot, every line of dialogue, every costume, every movement is contrived to serve a not too subtle agenda. Even more than traditional Blaxploitation it often feels corny.
But as an example of how film can fuel and promote activism, as well as an example of the importance for historians of social movements to seriously consider popular culture, Five on the Black Hand Side is ideal. What makes it feel cheesy as a movie-the in your face agenda- helps viewers parse out the various strands of a complicated generational conflict in the 1970s, as well as a complicated matrix of black liberation ideologies. Yes it simplifies them, but that only demonstrates why it could have been politically effective in its time. It also offers those interested in black film an alternative to the story of mainstream Blaxploitation. Basically go for the message, not the medium.
Oh, and like most 1970s African American film, the soundtrack is awesome. That alone may be worth 96 minutes of your time.