Jul 16, 2020


If Sugar Hill proves anything at all, it's that the blaxsploitation movement of the 1970s focused much of its attention on angry and sobering concepts, but didn't nearly enough embrace the full-on absurdity that the general exploitation movement had already been doing. When people hear the word "blaxspoitation," certain names immediately come to mind: Shaft, Foxy Brown, and perhaps Gravedigger Jones. Apply that to the horror genre and that's where it starts getting interesting: here comes Blacula, Blackenstein, and the lazily named Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. Good job on your noticing that they're all "updated" versions of classic myths and literature, but beyond their gimmicky names, none of them felt too comfortable shedding their horrific surroundings and just trying to have a bit of silly fun. (Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde might be the worst offender in this camp, taking a ripe concept for race-relations exploration in which a black scientist inadvertently turns himself into a vampire during a freak experiment - a vampire that just happens to be white - and creating a film that's an utter chore to sit through.) It's easy to laugh at titles like Blacula and Blackenstein, as one might assume that they're hoots and a half, but each film presented a surprising amount of seriousness that one wouldn't expect from their respective posters alone. Despite their not-so-subtle titles, they just weren't stupid enough.

That's where Sugar Hill comes in. 

This 1974 oddball blaxsploitation offering starring the gorgeous Marki Bey as the eponymous heroine just wants to have tons of silly fun, utilizing the "evil white man" component for much more entertaining aspects. The social commentary involved is still just as important, but the film is also totally fine with resurrecting a bunch of cobweb-ridden corpses for the purposes of revenge. (It should be noted that the zombies presented in Sugar Hill adhere more closely to the "myth" of the zombies of New Guinea, in which living people were drugged and brainwashed into following their master; here, the zombies remain resurrected corpses, but are still very much following the orders of their master, not eating a bunch of people indiscriminately, as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead introduced in 1968.)

What may sound like idle praise for Sugar Hill is actually a fair point of commendation, which is the film's refreshing inclusion of something indicative of genuine black culture - more specifically, the inclusion of a New Orleans-esque flavor and the use of spirituality in the form of voodoo as a plot device. Though there are many titles in blaxsploitation canon that are more well-known, and some might argue still heavily referenced in even today's modern pop culture, not many of them relied on a very real and established facet of black culture, relegating many of the more recognizable characters to walk around, listen to funk, and look cool. And that's all well and good as far as entertainment goes, but blaxsploitation was birthed out of the desire to tell stories about strong and suave and sexy black characters, and to have seen such a lack of emphasis on a significant part of black culture is disappointing.

Sugar Hill maintains a fair balance of horror and thrilling action, but if it all comes across sillier than had been intended by American International Pictures (who also released Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream), we'll likely never know. Its own director, Paul Maslansky, would agree that it's not a perfect film, and his commentary track contains a handful of very willing self-critiques, including the nugget, "Look how poorly I framed that shot. He's barely in it. This was a terrible set-up." That right there, kids, is a lesson in humility.

Sugar Hill ain't exactly a film dedicated to charting the black struggle, but it's also clearly not trying to be. What it wants to do is shed minor light on the state of race relations during 1974, though it's wrapped within the very silly undead hands of zombie slaves. It does, depending on your outlook, either fall victim to or maintain certain expectations: the white people are evil, they use the n-word way too liberally, and they pay - oh lord, do they pay - for their transgressions. Everything aside, Sugar Hill is bananas-crazy, and entertaining in the most ridiculous of ways. So long as it gets that right, that's good enough to start with.

No comments:

Post a Comment