They Blew It: Cultural Appropriation in “Sweet Sweetback” and “Easy Rider”

As the counter cultural movement of the nineteen sixties threatened to topple dominant institutions of power, art served to both encourage and reflect the greater scope of the conflict. While the struggle against the establishment turned out to be ultimately too broad for extensive change, the creative expressions from this period still stand out from the entertainment that masses flocked to. At the tail end of the sixties, this inversion of “traditional American values” gave the finger to polished products that looked solely to sell, and in the process, awoke a variety of audiences to a more authentic idea of American expressionism.

Easy Rider (1969) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) speak to this new division growing among the nation. While both of these films have counter cultural aims, their differences in content and reception speak to a greater question of race and evaluations of art that look to highlight it. The muddled and misrepresented legacy of Sweet Sweetback, in contrast to the more singular acceptance of Easy Rider as a cinematic touchstone, proves that racial barriers in Hollywood prevent black films from being judged by their own merits.

Genre plays a large role in these distinctions. Easy Rider, on a superficial level, “was the logical extension of the AIP motor-psychedelic youth flicks” of the nineteen sixties, even though American Independent Pictures did not produce the movie (Hoberman 192). The film plays on many of the tropes of the genre, such as impassioned pleas for freedom, local oppression, and the presence of drugs. However, the film tries to suggest a peaceful utopia rather than an anarchic free-for-all that interested most outlaw biker films. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s characters in Easy Rider (Wyatt and Billy) only want to go to Marti Gras to have a good time. Even though they encounter trouble in several small towns that do not enjoy the sight of long haired, hippie freaks, the duo are not looking to harm anyone on their journey. While on their trip, Wyatt and Billy encounter a hippie commune struggling to find its footing. The two are right at home amongst the benign and tolerant bohemians. Such an environment would be open season for a motorcycle club like the Hells Angels, who would eagerly and without reservation take whatever they want and kill anyone who would stand in their way.

The AIP films of this period (The Wild Angels, The Born Losers, Hells Angels on Wheels, etc.) were B-movies that succeeded financially but lacked legitimate respect in the industry. However, Easy Rider gained an even larger viewership while earning a more pronounced critical appreciation. The film earned “$19.1 million in rentals, a phenomenal return” for such a niche movie (Biskind 74). Furthermore, Easy Rider was nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern) and Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson) at the 42nd Academy Awards (74). Perhaps most impressively, the film won “best movie by a new director” at the Cannes Film Festival (73). The foundation for such an unprecedented success was no doubt laid by the motorcycle films that preceded Easy Rider, allowing the film to be perceived as a countercultural trailblazer. However, the tradition of outlaw biker films that made a film like Easy Rider possible has long been understated. Audiences and critics alike had been primed for a breakthrough film that legitimized otherwise disreputable modes of entertainment.

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Sweet Sweetback, on the other hand, had no precedent, at least in America. The closest antecedent to Melvin Van Peeble’s controversial film was out-and-out pornography. In fact, Van Peebles “disguised his film as a pornographic feature” in order to avoid hiring union members (Wiggins 31). Instead of trained professionals, Van Peebles wanted the crew to be made up of black people who would typically have trouble finding guild membership (31). For films to be more countercultural, Van Peebles understood that the modes of production needed to change as much as the content.  Much of Van Peeble’s animosity towards the major studio system was born out of his experience while making The Watermelon Man (1970), where the studio pressured the director to change the ending (31). Making Sweet Sweetback under the umbrella of “pornography” granted Van Peebles a much greater artistic license.

After seeing Sweet Sweetback, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave the film an X rating (Hoberman 300). Van Peebles was forced to distribute the film through “the exploitation company Cinemation”, as no legitimate distributor wanted the hassle of marketing and releasing such a controversial, niche film (300). Sweet Sweetback only opened at two venues but “broke box office records at both theaters immediately”, prompting a host of other theaters to screen the film as well (Walker 171). The critical response was not as welcoming, as the film itself was “incompatible with the traditional style of film reviews” (Wiggins 33).

W.I. Scobie, writing for the National Review, called the film “sickening, filled with hate” while also singling out the film’s amateurish style (Hartmann 389). “Muhammad Speaks, the large-scale Nation of Islam newspaper” took offense to the film not portraying black people more sympathetically, which would have meant promoting “Strong Positive Points so that the world will know of our Terrible Plight and Just Cause” (389). However, these prevailing evaluations did not stop Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, from proclaiming Sweet Sweetback the “first truly revolutionary Black film made”, prompting the film to becoming a required “Panther text” (Hoberman 303). Associating with a group deemed radical by white society restricted Sweet Sweetback to mostly preaching to the choir rather than gaining new converts.

The disparity between Easy Rider and Sweet Sweetback in regards to star persona also played a role in the films’ success with the public. While the cast of Easy Rider were not yet household names, their prior screen presences played into the movies rhetorical points rather well. Peter Fonda, the lead, had built a career to that point of playing freewheeling biker tough guys who challenged the establishment at every available opportunity. In Easy Rider, he subverts this usual characterization by playing Wyatt with a stoner haze that effectively stabilizes any chance to display outright aggression. While it is easy for most Americans to see his “Captain America” moniker, stars-and-stripes painted gas tank, and flag-embellished jacket as disrespectful expressions of irony, the freedom Wyatt quietly exudes is not one that would contradict the intent of the Founding Fathers. Rather than pissing on the flag, Wyatt is openly embracing it as a symbol for what America could be if its people would only broaden their horizons.

Perhaps the most potently-meta element to Wyatt is Fonda’s familial connection to Hollywood legend and establishment icon Henry Fonda. While dad Henry fought to change the prevailing institutions from the inside looking out (Young Mr. Lincoln, 12 Angry Men), son Peter was content to let his benign lifestyle and sparse philosophy do the talking. Peter’s libertarian ideals did not necessarily contradict Henry’s old school liberalism but it did suggest that even revolutionary principles could be born from a more working class perspective.

Though Dennis Hopper did not have the legacy of his co-star, his connection to the Hollywood establishment was unique in its own way. Hopper, an acolyte of James Dean, was well practiced in the style of method acting that, while in vogue in the nineteen fifties, had fallen out of favor by the early to mid-nineteen sixties (Biskind 63). Before the production of Easy Rider, Hopper was fed up with the conservatism of conventional Hollywood, leading to an infrequent and frustrating resume (Hoberman 190). Billy, Hopper’s character, is always the most wary and cynical of the two bikers. Whereas Wyatt is defusing possibly dangerous situations, Billy is trying to ignite them, seemingly as an effort to prove to both himself and those around him of his radicalism. It is no accident that Billy is the first of the duo to die, as his middle finger to Middle America cannot go unavenged.

Similarly, Jack Nicholson’s role plays on meta-perceptions held by the movie going public. The up-and-comer, known primarily through biker movies and other B-grade flicks, played a lawyer named George Hanson, a square who is not afraid to associate with hoodlums like Wyatt and Billy (Biskind 73). The local drunk is hesitant to try marijuana but indulges in the substance after Wyatt’s urging. Even in this early role, Nicholson’s trademark grin exudes manic energy under the template of normalcy.

Conversely, Sweet Sweetback holds no prior associations. Melvin Van Peebles was a filmmaker first and an actor second, even though he played the lead in his controversial film. The first stars billed in the opening credits are “The Black Community”, signaling to African American audiences that they will finally be seeing a film made up of people that look like them. Following the example of his nonprofessional crew, the actors and actresses are made up of no-names that got little to no opportunity to work within the dominant, white-ran studio system. Black audiences reveled in the screen that for the first time worked as a mirror rather than a removed plane of fantasy.

Meanwhile, white audiences were no doubt confused by the lack of star power: “Where was the virtuous Sidney Portier? Heck, even Jim Brown would be a more welcome face than these people!” Now, black people in white theaters were not exclusively relegated to being ushers with their heads down, waiting to sweep the floors once the screening was over. Sweet Sweetback argued that for black people to take charge of their cultural standing, they would have to rely on an uprising of plebeians rather than an oligarchy of spokesmen.

Additionally, the endings of Easy Rider and Sweet Sweetback speak to the fundamental differences that exist between the white and black counter cultures. After partying hard at Mardi Gras, Wyatt ambiguously confers to Billy “We blew it.” Later on, when Billy flips off two rednecks on an anonymous country road, the hillbillies shoot Billy off his bike. When Wyatt tries to go get help for his dying friend, he is also shot, sending his bike dramatically ablaze. Even though countless situations prior were skirted by, their ultimate fate was inescapable: death. The final shot, ascending to the sky, observes a natural scene of tranquility with a vibrant fire raging from the motorcycle like a beating heart. It grows more distant with each passing moment, eventually panning over to a body of water as Roger McGuinn’s “Ballad of Easy Rider” commands the river to keep flowing.

Like Bonnie and Clyde before it, Easy Rider’s tagline could have easily been “Live Free or Die”. Both films engage in open rebellion but ultimately concede to killing off its duo of trouble makers. While this allows audiences to engage in thrilling revolt alongside the films’ main characters, the final resolution assures them that such removal from social norms leads inevitably to death. Any ambiguity of Wyatt and Billy’s death is absent, enabling the audience to walk away cleanly from the wreckage, even if they find it dissatisfying. This faux bleakness was lock-step with the unstable headlines of the times, as the West’s power seemed to slip. But in actuality, the “silent majority” empowered the unlikely comeback story of Richard Nixon to wrestle control away from the long haired, hippie freaks.

The death of the leads in Easy Rider proves to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Billy proclaims at several points in the movie that their brand of freedom cannot sustain itself. While Easy Rider has been credited as leading the charge for the New Hollywood movement, it oddly feels like the epilogue to an era than a pioneer for changing tastes. In effect, Hopper and Fonda kill off their rebellion just as it is getting started, leading other films scrambling to rekindle the flame Hopper and Fonda so emphatically put out. Easy Rider’s insistence towards romantic idealism is a much easier road, commercially and artistically, to take than one of ambiguity and messiness.

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In stark contrast, Sweet Sweetback is openly militant, both stylistically and politically, in its resolution. After escaping the police on numerous occasions, Sweetback darts across the Tijuana River into Mexico, as a title card reads “A baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues…” For white audiences, such an ending surely came off as unjust, as Sweetback clearly broke a multitude of laws in his quest for freedom. But black audiences no doubt cheered for this sense of emancipation. Even though it seems almost like an idyllic fantasy, Sweetback’s escape from the battleground environments of “Watts and L.A.’s skid row” suggest black people can pursue their freedom if they simply stand up and push back against the oppressive establishment (Hoberman 301).

Furthermore, the ambiguity of Sweet Sweetback’s ending hints at a coming revolution, both societally and cinematically. The proclamation that Sweetback will return to “collect some dues” sets up not for a sequel but for a revolution in black thought and identity. His disappearance into the despondent land of Mexico is akin to Jesus testing himself for forty days in the Judaean Desert. The transformation of Sweetback from unwitting bystander to messianic icon is complete, with the black community finally being offered a role model who will not compromise himself in the face tyranny. Meanwhile, the unknown time of Sweetback’s return makes him a “durable figure of terror” for white audiences (Hoberman 304). This imbalance in perspectives forces Sweet Sweetback to offer an experience to white and black audiences that is not translatable to one another.

Additionally, historical contexts are significant when evaluating Easy Rider and Sweet Sweetback alongside each another. As stated earlier, Easy Rider was a charter member of the New Hollywood film movement. This group of actors, writers, and filmmakers emphasized auteurism and greater independence from the studios while drawing on classical Hollywood and foreign films for inspiration. Also, these cinephiles subverted modes of storytelling and distinctions in genre in efforts that consistently proved financially successful in the nineteen seventies. While films like Chinatown (1974), Shampoo (1975), and Taxi Driver (1976) went against the grain from the star-studded disaster films studios eagerly dumped into theaters, the New Hollywood films were also big hits with audiences. This perfect collision between the artists and the zeitgeist is perhaps the greatest artistic period within the Hollywood studio system.

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However, it would be a mistake to suggest that the New Hollywood movement was a calculated move by the studios to boost their artistic product. Rather, the studio system, on the brink of collapse in the face of television and widespread public malaise, saw this new crop of talent as a means to draw audiences, particularly young people, back into the theaters. When some New Hollywood figures burned out or made financial failures (Hal Ashby, Michael Cimino), they were replaced with a new generation of talent who was more than willing to turn the clock back in order to entertain rather than striving for artistic excellence (Joe Dante, John Landis, etc.) This is not meant to suggest one brand of filmmaking is superior to the other, as both spectrums of cinema have different preoccupations. Instead, it is to observe that the Hollywood studio system is ready to abandon the present in order to chase the future, wherever that may take them.

While Easy Rider was separated by its exploitation roots via association with a larger, white-dominated movement, Sweet Sweetback became chiefly identified by the lurid tradition that followed, known chiefly as Blaxploitation. These films, which similarly to New Hollywood were made throughout the nineteen seventies, were made for what Hollywood dubbed the “urban audience” (code for black people). Typically, these films feature tough anti-heroes who fight against “The Man” and all the forces the establishment corrupts, such as street gangs, police, politicians, etc. Some films in this style (Shaft, Black Caesar, and Blacula) were even popular enough to spawn sequels or franchises. In conjunction with the films, soundtracks featuring soul and funk music provided a reliable form of ancillary revenue.

Even though Sweet Sweetback has been credited for spawning the Blaxploitation films of the nineteen seventies, none ever emulated or challenged the film’s stylistic and political aspirations. A film like Sweet Sweetback transcends traditional labels, making categorization an almost impossible task. Blaxploitation films, on the other hand, are very formulaic, inevitably recycling story and plot elements that make producing and distributing them as expedient as possible. Furthermore, the style of Blaxploitation is entirely that of classical Hollywood with occasional splashes of flash and ostentatious form that make the majority of films style over substance. This complacency in content is equally redundant in the films’ politics, which stress vague ideals like “power to the people” and “stick it to the man”. While Sweet Sweetback does not offer many, if any, clear political answers, its intention to rattle the cages of contentment is forgivable when considering the precedent the rhetoric of the film intended to spark. Simply put, Sweet Sweetback fired the first shots in a revolution that was quickly abandoned.

This problem Sweet Sweetback has in defining its own legacy speaks to the greater problems that African American filmmakers face. Even when making a film that intends to prod rather than please, black filmmakers will inevitably be compared to their white counterparts. Both Easy Rider and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song are important pieces of revolutionary filmmaking that are time capsules of revolt. For white counter-culturists, Easy Rider was a piece of self-congratulatory romance that neatly sowed the seeds for its own defeat. With Sweet Sweetback, Van Peebles challenged his “brothers and sisters” to wage war against an inherently oppressive establishment. It is not hard to see why Easy Rider triumphed while Sweet Sweetback remains in neutral. In the face of collapse, law and order trumps brazen uncertainty.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Print.

Hartmann, Jon. “The Trope of Blaxploitation in Critical Responses to “Sweetback”” Film History 6.3 (1994): 382-404. Print.

Hoberman, James. The Dream Life. New York: New, 2003. Print.

Walker, David, Andrew J. Rausch, and Chris Watson. Reflections on Blaxploitation Actors and Directors Speak. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2009. Print.

Wiggins, Benjamin. “”You Talkin’ Revolution, Sweetback”: On Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Revolutionary Filmmaking.” Black Camera. 4.1 (2012): 28-52. Print.

 

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