Reclaiming Blaxploitation As Black Film: ‘The Thing With Two Heads’ As Racial Metaphor And Prediction

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February 16th 2018

All too often when we hear the term, “Blaxploitation,” we concern ourselves solely with the latter part of this compound term that signifies exploitation.  For too long black films made between the years of 1971 and 1978, beginning with Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet, Sweetback’s  Badass Song in 1971 and perhaps ending with Noel Nosseck’s 1978 film, Youngblood, these black films have been saddled with this pejorative term, blaxploitation, as a means of devaluing a large and diverse catalog of films that featured black actors, black themes, and the deliberate removal of “white Savior” characters. Without regard to the fact that many of these films kept certain Hollywood studios and distribution companies from going bankrupt during an intense period of economic decline, the term “blaxploitation” carries with it a latent connotation of inferiority in both the production values of these films vis-à-vis white Hollywood productions and the power relationships between the mostly white producers and the mostly black performers within these films.  “Blaxploitation” suggests that these black actors who played their roles on screen were unwittingly participating in a kind of physical exploitation of their labor that aided in creating more revolting stereotypes of black people as criminals and drug addicts.  But it has never been clear who was exploiting whom in the production and exhibition of these films.  Whether or not the many white and white ethnic filmmakers who directed these films were exploiting the black performers or whether or not the white controlled distribution companies were exploiting the black audience’s need to see themselves on screen wielding the kind of full and unadulterated dramatic agency that had previously been reserved for whites since the beginnings of narrative cinema, these are questions that can perhaps never fully be answered because the degree of authorship concerning these black films was never exclusively white.  That is to say, many of the white producers and directors relied heavily on the input of the black actors and often un-credited black writers to bring a certain authenticity to the characterizations, dialogue, actions, and settings we see in these films.  From dialogue improvisations, costuming, musical scores, gestures, to spectacular side-eye glances and physical showdowns, these films while often directed by whites cannot be placed without contention under the notion of total white authorial control.  These films that we have called,” Blaxploitation,” are co-authored by blacks for a black audience and therefore the films have within their stories, within their representations of character and circumstance a unique cultural perspective that is resistant to dominant white cinema and dominant white culture.

I’d like to highlight two distinct features of these black films made and released during this 7-year period.  One distinction is the broad scope of the genres found within them; from horror, sci-fi, romantic comedy, action, historical dramas, family film, musicals, contemporary drama, and mystery. Instead of the roles of black servitude to white characters that were obligatory in dominant white cinema, these films placed blacks in genres and roles that while true in real life were deliberately kept off the screen by whites in control of the Hollywood industry so as not to offend the limitations of the white racial imaginary that could only tolerate blacks as emotional or physical servants to a white character’s needs.  The second distinct feature of these black films is the decidedly bold critiques and exposures of systemic and structural racism against blacks that is controlled and exerted by white supremacist societies worldwide that we see in different and multifaceted iterations in film after film.  The films themselves are evidence that systemic and structural racism are not monolithic constructs, but they are dynamic, fluid, and oppress black people from multiple strategic points with different degrees of punishment and pressure to maintain a black underclass.  white liberal critics and academic scholars of the time period, like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, were unwilling or unable to withstand these strident criticisms and exposures of white supremacist systems and structures from which they benefited, but perhaps to which they did not subscribe. These white critics, with the blessings of the black bourgeoisie who loathed the attention the films gave to the black underclass, all began to devalue these films by lumping them together as one singular genre and attaching the pejorative label, “Blaxploitation,” to them.  But to black audiences the films gave black characters the full dramatic agency to influence, to modify, and most importantly to SURVIVE the circumstances of a story without the servitude to whites and dominant white culture that launched Sidney Poitier’s career.  In other words, Foxy Brown was not going to be another one of James Bond’s sexy lays and Shaft was not going to have to answer to Dirty Harry as his police chief.  

To the chagrin of white spectators who saw their ideal white characters in these films either played for fools or removed altogether and to the shame of black bourgeois spectators who wanted to see “credit to your race” portrayals of the black middle class- these films gave a cinematic voice to the black underclass fighting against race and class with a style and a coolness that can only be called, “Bad ass.”  As film historian, Gerald R. Butters, Jr. points out in his book, From Sweetback to Super Fly: Race and Film Audiences in Chicago’s Loop, even black directors like Gordon Parks Sr. didn’t go to the movies much during this era because we were poor and we were becoming weary of the shame of Hollywood’s depiction of African-Americans.” (pg. 96)

In many ways the black bourgeoisie and even black radicals put forth strong criticisms against films like Superfly (1972) and The Mack (1973) with their honest portrayals of lower class street life in black urban ghettos which were condemned as a glorification and exposure to black criminality rather than a criticism and exposure of white supremacist systems and structures that oppress blacks in America, then and now.  It is my contention that what is needed is an alternate reading of these black films released during this era to reclaim them as symbols of black co-authorship and as critiques and exposures of white supremacist systems and structures that were hidden in plain sight.  

One film that demands an alternate reading is The Thing With Two Heads (1972), directed by Lee Frost and starring ex-football star Rosey Greer and aging Hollywood actor, Ray Milland. The entire film itself is available for viewing on Youtube. While The Thing With Two Heads is certainly a fun film, a campy film, a film made in the tradition of those quickie Saturday matinee films by Roger Corman (Easy Rider, 1969) or William Castle (The Tingler, 1959) I would ask that in-between your laughter that you consider this film as a metaphor about race relations in America then and now –a precursor to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, if you will- and as an exposure to the appropriation of black bodies for their ability to serve the advancement of whites as a continuation of slavery by other means.

Ostensibly, The Thing With Two Heads is a science-fiction film about Dr. Maxwell Kirshner (Ray Milland) the owner of Kirshner’s Transplant Foundation, a world-renowned organ transplant facility.  Kirshner is a white scientist who has devised a simplistic procedure to transplant a human head to another person’s body in the effort to prolong the life of the transplantee while ending the life of the donor.  Of course, the catch is that Dr. Kirshner himself is dying and needs a donor body to facilitate the prolonging of his life for the sake of preserving his medical genius.  In a stunning scene, we also discover that Dr. Kirshner is an unapologetic racist when he rescinds a lucrative job offer from a young doctor named, Fred Williams (Don Marshall) once he sees that the doctor is black. Before going any further with a description of the plot of this film it is necessary to discuss this most powerful scene that happens early in the first act of the film.       

While Kirshner is in a meeting with two other white doctors, the new doctor, Dr. Fred Williams, who has come from out of town to join the team, is introduced.  The moment Dr. Kirshner lays eyes upon this black doctor his attitude and demeanor changes and he takes back his contract offer with a flimsy excuse of financial restraints.  Dr. Williams is livid and immediately sees through the ruse.  He calls out Dr. Kirshner for his obvious racial prejudice and threatens to sue.  Kirshner reluctantly gives in to a six month trial period for the doctor in a non-medical position well below his professional stature.  Williams leaves the room in quiet indignation.  One of the white doctors who observed the situation admonishes Kirshner for his bigotry, but Kirshner remains unmoved in his racial hatred against blacks.  

Although this scene might seem like an obligatory representation of racial prejudice that defines the master theme of many films mischaracterized as “blaxploitation”, it is an important and unique scene in how it demonstrates the ineffectual capacity of even the most honest white liberal to speak out against racial prejudice and/or injustice at the moment when it would count the most; that is as it is happening right in front of them as they form a part of a majority white group exerting oppressive power against a black individual or small group of black individuals.  Even more revealing in this scene is how one of the white Doctors makes a hasty exit from this tense racial standoff by making a weak excuse without saying anything about the virulent racial prejudice he has just witnessed.  We see in this single, but brilliantly written and executed scene, how a white voice of anti-racism is silenced when it is most needed to be heard and how another white person, who may or may not agree with the racist ideology being espoused within a majority white group exists the scene without denouncing the utterances is really a tacit form of agreement. The psychopathology of whiteness is often most powerfully demonstrated for us in the dramaturgy of black films made between 1971 and 1978.  It is this naked and unobstructed view of the socio-psychological machinations of white racism that white critics, academics, and even casual viewers object to when they devalue these films as blaxploitation. By contrast, in a film like The Thing With Two Heads, the fact that the main black character, Jack Moss (Rosey Greer) is a wrongfully convicted incarcerated member of the black underclass who is ultimately the hero of the tale is one of the very reasons the black Bourgeoisie hated and dismissed these films as blaxploitation.  Any representation of the black underclass as undeserving of its fate and a fate that is no less caused and maintained by white supremacist systems and structures is an unwanted representation for the black bourgeoisie because it suggests that the existence of a black underclass is deliberately created to be rather than caused by individual irresponsibility or fate.

It must also be said that black radical and artistic groups like the Kuumba workshop for black artists as documented in Butters’ book were also against these black films because of the lack of class and political consciousness many of the characters within the films seemed to display.  But whereas a film like The Thing With Two Heads does not give us black characters who have the intellectual or educational privilege to analyze the circumstances of their oppression, this film and others like it show us ordinary black people living in and fighting against the manifestations of racial oppression- by any means necessary.  And this “grassroots” resistance was enough for the black audience made up of an oppressed underclass of the time period to see and at least have their frame of reference with regard to the everyday lived experience of white supremacist oppression validated in cinematic representation.   

The actual plot of the film concerns the solicitation of death row inmates to participate in the head transplant procedure in exchange for a 30-day reprieve of their execution. If an inmate agrees to the procedure Dr. Kirshner’s head will be transplanted onto their body for 30 days and after 30 days the donor’s head will be removed and Kirshner will use their body until he might need another one.  The great irony is that the black death row inmate, Jack Moss, agrees to the procedure in the effort to use the 30 days to prove his innocence and his wrongful conviction on a trumped-up murder charge.  The grotesque imagery of the massive black masculine body of Rosey Greer as Jack Moss with the white head of the racist Dr. Kirshner attached off center on his left shoulder is a literalization of W.E.B. Dubois famous concept of “the two souls of black folk,” that is at turns hilarious and compelling as it is disturbing. Enlisting the help of the black bourgeois Dr. Williams who was put down by Kirshner earlier in the film, Jack Moss and Kirshner each vie for Dr. Williams allegiance to either help Moss prove his innocence or help Kirshner get back to his facility and wait for Moss to die so that Kirshner’s genius can live on.  So the film provides us with a fascinating dynamic where a member of the black underclass has to ask for help from a member of the black bourgeoisie at the same time that a privileged white man is trying to promise the black bourgeoisie character a chance at success if he turns traitor on a member of his own race.  There can be no more fitting demonstration of the class and race dynamics that have defined America since the emancipation of the 19th century.        

Another reason it is important that we take this film seriously is that the notion of black body parts being sold to whites who can afford them is no longer a far-fetched science-fiction idea.  As recent as 2016, in Detroit Michigan, the grisly details of how black market body parts are taken from the dead bodies of the black underclass, stored in a rundown warehouse and sold to those who have the insurance coverage to pay for these organ transplants reveals to us that what was considered far-fetched in this film in 1972 is now an emerging market of real Blaxploitation: the buying and selling of black body parts for whites and those classes who have the health insurance coverage to afford these organ transplants.

So it is with these real-life concerns and a new critical perspective that I hope that you find The Thing With Two Heads a fun film, a metaphor for race relations in American then and now and a warning about the real physical “blaxploitation” that is going on in America today in the form of black body parts illegally being sold to those who have the means to afford the transplants.  While it may be true that The Thing With Two Heads and many of the black films made within this period cannot be considered masterpieces- perhaps we should not attempt to canonize these films as masterpieces by white Hollywood production standards or by the standards of academia, but instead celebrate these films as undiluted expressions of black culture and cinematic representations of black resistance to the systems and structures of white supremacy which makes them masterpieces of a higher moral standard.  

You can watch the film below:

by Andre Seewood on February 16th 2018
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