Blaxploitation and Derivative Works: A Letter Series on Funk of Titans

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Blaxploitation and Derivative Works: A Letter Series on <i>Funk of Titans</i>

When we saw the Funk of Titans trailer, Ian Williams and I immediately knew we had thoughts about this thing. But we didn’t quite know how to vocalize them. So we decided to talk it out so we could get to the bottom of why this (and other modern examples of “blaxploitation” content) bugged us so much.—Austin Walker

Austin Walker:

Hey Ian,

I know you’ve spent a lot of time watching and thinking about 1970s Blaxploitation films. Have you seen this Funk of Titans thing? It’s… woof. As Shawn Alexander tweeted, “I said I wanted more black folks in games, but… not like this, not like this.”

There’s a lot happening here that I think is worth unpacking, but after watching this thing three or four times it’s hard not to just explode and make wild claims about the dev team, Microsoft, etc. and I don’t want to do that, so give me a second.

Deep breaths. Okay, phew. 

So, Funk of Titans is a rhythm-based platformer that looks something like the Bit Trip Runner series. You play as the brother Perseus (“Boomshakalaka,” adds the announcer, as if it’s a surname), in your mission to run past, jump over and “do funk-fu” on obstacles that stand between you and the end of the level.  Yeah. Funk-fu.

I have two takes on this game: The first is to point out the lack of cohesion here. Yeah, Perseus has a fro and the music is some strange great grandchild to actual 70s funk. But other elements are suspect: When attacked, enemies release an Adam West Batman-style “WHAM!” coupled with a glowy green goo that looks like it’d be more at home in Nintendo’s upcoming Splatoon. The levels are a mish-mash of ancient Greek ruins (sure), occasionally painterly landscapes (weird), and the utterly absurd, like when Perseus flies his way through a level made of fast food.  In this read of Funk of Titans, I just sort of shrug dismissively and walk away.

But there’s a second read, which leaves me feeling a little less confident that this is “just” a strange theming to a new game. Funk of Titans wants us to believe that there is something comical about subbing in a black man and black culture into a “classical” setting. “Ancient Greece,” says the announcer, “A land of myths, ancient heroes.” We’re treated to a silhouette of Perseus in the Discobolus pose. Then, of course, record scratch. The silhouette falls into the light, revealing a high melanin count. “And the first funky dance floor!” the announcer wails. It might be “dance flow” actually; maybe the fact that I can’t decide is telling. The announcer explains that Perseus is “strong like a god, and smart… uhhh… strong like a god.” Perseus dances for the viewer and agrees with this insult, “Uh huh, that’s right!” Gone: Noble Greek Hero. Here: Funny Stupid Black Guy Who Dances Irreverently. Hell of a trade.

But I’m not the expert in blaxploitation that you are, Ian. So maybe this has some connection to the form. My understanding of blaxploitation is something a lot more varied than this image of it. But maybe I’m wrong. Can blaxploitation really be boiled down to Dancing, Kung-Fu, and the comedic introduction of black where once there was white? And who’s supposed to be laughing, if that’s the case?

-Austin

Ian Williams:

This is so devoid of any of blaxploitation’s context that I don’t even know how to frame it properly. The game on display could be about anything, judging from those gameplay snippets. An earthworm astronaut with a gun named Jim, maybe. I almost feel bad focusing on  it, since it’s a game which is almost assuredly going to disappear with almost no mark (1800 views at the time of this writing) up until us evil leftists start picking it apart. So I know how this goes. But I think it does serve as a jumping off point for a discussion about how we interact with games when they bring in other forms of entertainment.

First off, this really just plugs into one of my pet peeves in the broader culture, which is completely misunderstanding what makes low-budget, “bad” and grindhouse movies worth watching. I’m just going to use the term bad movies as shorthand here, even though they’re not all bad.

What makes these movies fun, regardless of their quality, is their earnestness. The folks who made Samurai Cop and Birdemic didn’t know they were making bad movies. They were making real outsider art, taking weird ways of looking at the world and translating them to the screen without a hint of guile. And those creators’ outlooks might be ugly or warped, depending on what you’re watching, but they’re certainly authentic. So I see something like Sharknado and it just annoys the hell out of me, because it completely misses the point. It has no charm. And then everyone is gushing about it and, yeah, I’m annoyed with them, too. There’s this wealth of wonderful, weird media out there and y’all are freaking out over Sharknado?

So that’s my metathesis when it comes to bad movies, but blaxploitation is a special case even in there. Because a) blaxploitation films often weren’t bad at all and b) they had an objective cultural worth, which a lot of the other types of bad movies don’t have. Blaxploitation movies were a glimpse into a world which white folks hadn’t seen since the days of hot jazz, so fifty years or so, and probably not then. Even more, they were essentially black-controlled enterprises, even if the money men were usually white. So you had African Americans for the first time in full artistic control of films, using that to focus on things like racial power imbalances, how tough the streets are, and sexual politics in black culture.

That was powerful stuff, but it was clumsily made in most cases, which made them funny. And they are funny because of that, but at the same time, what can you expect? This was a culture shut out of Hollywood beyond playing waiters for most of a century. Of course they weren’t going to be technically great! So it leaned on its rawness to transmit its realness.

Let me loop this back to videogames, since this is Paste Games. We shear things of their context constantly in our culture in order to recycle the bits we want. That’s what’s happened here. Once you remove the context from the creation of blaxploitation films (and the creation of them was more important than their individual artistic worth), you’re left with the tropes. And those tropes are incredibly enticing if you want a shortcut to something edgy to sell a game. Because, speaking as a white guy who grew up in North Carolina, some of the forbidden stuff in blaxploitation is downright exotic if you’ve never encountered it. Think of how many times, even now, you see black people in love on normal prime time television. Or a black romantic lead. So then you’ve got movies where they’re fighting cops and casually hooking up with white women? As a white teenager, this was a window into a world I’d never seen before. And we could go for 10k words on why that is, but I didn’t see it, even though I grew up in a town that was 28% African American. The context didn’t matter: it was titillating and funny and kind of strange.

Now, someone is going to comment that this is just a game. For once, they’re absolutely right. It’s just a game. That’s actually the problem.

-Ian

Austin:

First of all, here’s another trailer . This one ditches the unsubtle contrast of classical whiteness and “funky” blackness, exchanging it for more of a focus on Black Male Virility. Cool. Cool.

Anyway, you said a lot of great stuff, but there’s one thing I want to zoom in on.  You write that “we shear things of their context constantly in our culture in order to recycle the bits we want.” This is on point, but I think it needs to go even further.

First, we need to analyze who the “we” is that does the shearing. You know, you and I wouldn’t be talking about this if Funk of Titans was a game on itch.io made by some (black) folks who’d seen Black Dynamite and thought “Oh, that’s blaxploitation? Hell yeah we want to make a blaxploitation game.” Everyone has the right to be influenced and to create derivative works. Hell, I do it too! But this is a product on one of the major current generation consoles, and which has an ad with a Microsoft tag at the end of it.  As a platform holder, Microsoft has more curatorial power than most of us, and like any other curator, we should be critical of what they choose to highlight.

And let me be clear, no one’s calling for boycotts or censorship here. Really, I feel for the team that put this game together because their game is symptomatic of the second part of what you said: “we … recycle the bits we want.” Which elements of blaxploitation make it into the parodies and derivatives of 2015? It’s the hair and the loud fashion. It’s an approximation of the music. It’s taboo (but safe, at a distance) sexual energy.

There’s a temptation to say that popular interpretations of blaxploitation has even lost their racialized content, but there’s often a toothless trace. In Funk of Titans, after players beat a set of levels they face off in a rhythm-game dance off against white musicians. First, an “ancient pop” star who’s a cross between Lady Gaga and Medusa, then a leisure suited-Disco Cyclops (whose music genre is “rap” for some unknowable reason?), and finally “What if Eddie Van Halen was a Centaur.” In the climactic showdown, there’s a brief gesture toward the appropriative history of rock: “Please,” Perseus says, “Rock is just jazz without style!” The coding is clear: Jazz, like Funk, is black. Rock is white. But rock isn’t just white, right? It emerges from Jazz and other historically black music. And there are plenty of black rock artists. Like so many modern takes on blaxploitation, Funk of Titans wants to leverage the sexiness of racial conflict without getting its hands dirty, so to speak. There’s room for the righteous brother, but no place for him to explain that “the genre you think is ‘yours’ was built on the back of un- and underpaid black musicians.”

And, it feels, there’s little place for the rest of the deep variety of blaxploitation, either. Those films were about black folks being on screen together, doing any number of things besides Funk-Fu. Black protagonists sleeping with black lovers and laughing with black best friends. Sometimes they were action films and sometimes they were comedies. Sometimes they were period pieces, even! Like you said: the films are inextricably tied to the context of its time, and they certainly have problematic tropes of their own right. But if we must have blaxploitation games (and “New Blaxploitation” works at all), it should reflect the wide array of possibilities in the genre AND our contemporary contexts. Lord knows we still got the need for black folks on our screens.

So along with whatever other response you have bouncing away in your head, I’d like to know what you think a Good Blaxploitation Game might even look like?

-Austin

Black-Dynamite-Poster-556.jpg

Ian:

Well, that’s what’s so frustrating. I think you really can do a good blaxploitation game, even a highly irreverent one (maybe even especially the latter). That game has to at least try to rebuild the contextual apparatus around blaxploitation, though. And by that I don’t necessarily mean that you have to create a virtual 1970s America; like you said, we can incorporate it into contemporary contexts. But what we have to do is create some broader context for the blaxploitation hero to exist in. And we don’t. Even Black Dynamite was mostly just an excuse to play with the archetype.

It seems like that archetype of the virile, violent, anarchic black hero is both the genre’s blessing and curse. Obviously it’s lasted forever. And in a brief discussion we were talking about how it’s become so universally beloved that it’s almost non-racial, even as it’s obviously very much rooted in African American culture. Nobody’s scared of Shaft or Dolemite anymore. In one of the YouTube play-throughs you IMed me earlier, the host says that he’s “superfly” in a completely off-handed manner and I really have my doubts that he’s seen Superfly or listened to much Curtis Mayfield. In a broad, top down sense, I don’t know that this is a bad thing. If you’ve created a composite character which people still find compelling after 40 years, even if the subconscious reasons are maybe an offshoot of continued white fascination with black virility, I think that’s probably both good and beyond the wildest dreams of the people who made those movies.

But on the other hand, the character and his trappings are so compelling that it becomes both the beginning and the end of blaxploitation. It’s simply enough for most people that the character exists. No context is needed because he’s entered modern mythology. And once you get to the level of myth, it’s hard to put a character back into a new (or in this case old) context. You can’t really proceed to the next step, which would be to make a movie or game featuring this old archetype within a rich, fully realized world. Why would you if people are there to see the character, not the world? So most designers in the videogame space don’t even try. We were tweeting briefly about Bushido Blade 2 last week, and there’s a blaxploitation hero in there, Tony Umeda, who’s just a guy with a sword in a leisure suit and an Afro. Obviously there are differences between Japanese and American views on race, but Tony seems to be the best example of the blaxploitation hero in videogames because he’s just there as part comic relief, part beloved cultural calling card. He exists to justify his own pop cultural existence.

So to answer your question about what a Good Blaxploitation Game might look like, I’m not sure we can get there right now. What it would require is an awful lot of world-building, a big budget, and a very respectful touch. Because to make the blaxploitation hero fully realized, you have to get at the things which gave rise to him in the first place. Maybe we can get to a place where we’re having frank discussions in videogames about racial wealth disparities, police corruption, drug use, segregation in Northern cities, and any number of other subjects that a lot of folks aren’t interested in having. 

None of which means that it can’t happen, but it feels like an awfully heavy lift in the current climate. In the meantime, I’d honestly be content with baby steps in placing the blaxploitation hero back into his context as anti-establishment counter-cultural force. He’s certainly not going anywhere and there equally isn’t going to be a rash of new blaxploitation movies. So I’d love to at least see a move away from comedy and into some of the things like love and friendship which he trucked in during his golden age.

Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.

Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.

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