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V/A - Can You Dig It?: The Music and Politics of Black Action Films

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Artist: V/A

Album: Can You Dig It?: The Music and Politics of Black Action Films

Label: Soul Jazz

Review date: Nov. 30, 2009

In the early-to-mid 1970s, when the aftermath of the ‘60s civil rights movement adjusted to the frustration and gloom of the Nixon years, a wave of black American filmmakers mixed the gritty fatalism of inner-city society, the over-the-top mythology of toasting, and the symphonic uplift of studio soul to fashion a new sort of action movie. With the success of Shaft, Super Fly and Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, "blaxploitation" (thus christened by a Vogue hack) became a viable alternative to the cloistered Hollywood system, with its own stars, self-starting auteurs, poetic argot and in-joke conventions. The films were often as morally and dramatically complex as the best of film noir, putting hard-ass heroes in the midst of a culture riddled with drugs, violence and desperation. (The black militants, street-corner philosophers and indestructible superheroes coexist explosively with pimps, pushers, prostitutes and corrupt cops.) And the best were as invigorating and ridiculous as any Bond film, right down to their unmistakable soundtracks.

The films ranged from the sociopolitical rage of Melvin Van Peebles to the farcical punchouts of Rudy Ray Moore. If anything tied them together aesthetically, it may have been the cars, but it was probably the music.

It’s hardly coincidental that the ‘70s were an incomparably rich time for soul music. The glossy social commentary of Curits Mayfield proved the ideal soundtrack for the coke-hustling fable Super Fly. Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Roy Ayers and Willie Hutch lent some of their most enduring work to these films. As the budgets grew, composers such as Quincy Jones and J.J. Johnson contributed full orchestral arrangements, enhancing the movies’ stylish overstatement.

As a musical archive, Can You Dig It? is expansive, if not exhaustive. With 31 tracks from more than 20 separate flicks, it’s a solid overview of the genre’s artistic values and gritty, adventurous spirit. Yes, most selections are at least somewhat familiar - classics such as "Shaft," "Down and Out in New York City," "T Plays it Cool" and "Across 110th Street" are hardly lost, and even the slightly deeper cuts (Edwin Starr’s sinister "Easin’ In," the psychedelic syrup of Gordon Staples’s "All Strung Out") may be vaguely familiar from, say, a Paris DJs podcast or a Prodigy mixtape. (You could probably create a dangerous drinking game from spotting everything here that popped up on Return of the Mac.) But it’s nice to have them all in one place, and, with the monsterous 100+-page booklet (a deeply informative read, even by Soul Jazz standards), Can You Dig It?, alongside Darius James’s frewwheeling study That’s Blaxploitation! Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude (Rated X By an All-Whyte Jury), is a fine blaxploitation on-ramp.

By Emerson Dameron

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