What It Is...What It Was! By Mike White. I bought What It Is...What It Was (ISBN: 0786883774) for two main reasons—the wonderful reproductions of a multitude of classic posters including Black Shampoo, Candy Tangerine Man, and Bare Knuckles and, as

I bought What It Is...What It Was (ISBN: 0786883774) for two main reasons—the wonderful reproductions of a multitude of classic posters including Black Shampoo, Candy Tangerine Man, and Bare Knuckles and, as Rolling Thunder Books published it, it afforded me an opportunity to rip on Quentin Tarantino! I wish I was only joking but longtime readers know that I can never let a chance like that pass me by!

I felt certain that What It Is...What It Was would have a constant undercurrent of praise to the director of the dismal Jackie Brown, thanking him for single-handedly causing any sort of resurgence of interest in the cinema of African Americans from the 19’70s. However, this collection of interviews by Gerald Martinez (the creator of the Jackie Brown poster—possibly the best part of the film), Diana Martinez, and Andres Chavez does well to keep proper focus on the history and cultural significance of the films.

The layout of the book is nice. Occasionally the artwork overshadows the text, making it difficult to read. It’s beautiful to look at and would have worked just as well if it had just been a collection of poster art. Yet, there are also some great, informative interviews included herein. The book contains a good cross-section of artists from luminaries like Isaac Hayes, Jack Hill, Carol Speed, and Roscoe Orman to self-important dudes like Melvin Van Peebles, Rudy Ray Moore, and Fred Williamson (who provide laughs with their utter lack of humility). What It Is...What It Was also crosses generational lines by talking to people like Reginald Hudlin, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Robert Townsend (who were directly influenced by the stars and filmmakers of the past) and folks on the periphery of the movie business like rapper Ice-T, hair dresser Robert Louis Stevenson, performance artist Cheryl Dunne and zinester/filmmaker David Walker (check out his review of Truck Turner this ish).

The book is quite insightful in the discussion of an often overlooked and discounted cinematic movement. It gets repetitive at times with the frequent discussion of the term "blaxploitation" and its negative implications (it must have been one of the standard interview questions).

There is definitely no consensus among the artists interviewed:

"My personal view of ’blaxploitation‚ is that it’s a racist term. There’s no such thing as a genre being Black," says Keenan Ivory Wayans.

"The term blaxploitation means absolutely nothing. I can’t imagine who was being exploited. My checks cleared," quips Fred Williamson.

The debate rages on. . .

Ironically, it’s Quentin Tarantino’s definition of "blaxploitation" to which I best relate. He looks at it more in terms of other so-called "exploitation" cinema—biker movies, women in prison films, drug culture pictures—and says that’s it’s not necessarily the actors or filmmakers who are being exploited or even the audience. Instead, it’s that there’s an element within the film that can be exploited. When it comes to "blaxploitation" it’s a kitschy term that naturally follows "sexploitation". Some pictures with soft-core elements to the story often meant that no matter how diverse the films were, they could be categorized as "sexploitation." The same off-beat logic applies to the wide range of films with Afro-centric storylines/casts. At least that’s how it appears in retrospect as a cinephile coming from a W.A.S.P.-y background. There’s no offense intended and it’s just a lot easier to say "blaxploitation" than to give a thousand qualifiers. To paraphrase Keenan Ivory Wayans, there is no Black genre and "blaxploitation" takes the multitude of genres starring African Americans into account. In my mind, films as diverse as The Legend of Nigger Charlie and The Human Tornado qualify as blaxploitation while something like SOUNDER, which had higher production values, would not. There’s a lot of B-movies out there, folks, and after a while one needs some terms to talk about subsections instead of using such an all-encompassing term.

Despite the repetition of some material and the inflated egos of some of the folks interviewed, What It Is...What It Was is an aesthetically wonderful exploration of a fascinating era in American cinema.

What It Is...What It Was is also a terrific bargain when compared to another collection of posters from the same era. Film Posters of the ’70s (ISBN: 0879519045) is a selection of about 150 posters from London’s Reel Poster Gallery collection. Handsomely bound in a nice hardcover edition, the book retails for $15 more than What It Is...What It Was and lacks the focus, information, and quality of reproduction. Quite a few films’ posters are repeated in Film Posters of the 70s in order to show poster campaigns (like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) or how posters looked in other countries. Yet, some of the posters in the book are less than two inches wide and don’t allow readers to truly appreciate their detail. I’d rather have had fewer posters if they would have been reproduced as big and bright as those in What It Is...What It Was.

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