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From the Vaults of Streaming Hell: Black Shampoo

From the Vaults of Streaming Hell: Black Shampoo

Maybe blaxploitation films just fared better when they were aping gangster movies and vampire flicks rather than underrated, satirical rom-coms.

Plenty of blaxploitation films blatantly ripped off “white” mainstream films and reimagined them with predominantly black casts, but there’s something absurd about the inspiration for Black Shampoo. Recasting a Hal Ashby b-side like Shampoo and turning the Warren Beatty protagonist into a Mandingo caricature feels more like an extended background gag from “The Simpsons” than a real movie. But it’s still a fascinating, if not a particularly nourishing watch.

Released just one year after its shaggy-haired white brethren, Black Shampoo is a genre exercise that leans into the exploitation side pretty heavily. Not to waste any time, this is a film that opens with its hero, Mr. Jonathan (Jonathan Daniels), a formidable black hairdresser, washing and rinsing an indiscriminate white girl’s hair so good she ends up sucking his dick before the preliminary credits complete. All the while, a soulful anthem about how good Mr. Jonathan is at boning blares from the film’s soundtrack. Mr. Jonathan works out of a salon with a pair of offensive gay stereotypes and Brenda St. John, a gorgeous receptionist played by soap actress Tanya Boyd. He seems to spend more of his time fucking than doing any hair, as his clientele are exclusively white housewives looking to get a little fetishistic fix of dark meat.

The film’s plot doesn’t really kick in until we find out more about Brenda, who had a life before she met Mr. Jonathan, one where she was a crime boss’ moll. Her former beau, Mr. Wilson’s, men come sniffing around the shop for her, wreaking havoc and unintentionally providing Mr. Jonathan with a reason to get to know Brenda as a person. This sets in motion a pretty standard love triangle wherein Brenda reluctantly gets back together with her ex in the hopes of exposing his crimes. Sadly, there’s not much else to it, as these basic narrative building blocks are stretched thin between a bevy of gratuitous sex scenes.

Now there isn’t anything inherently wrong with a movie having tons of sex scenes. What’s strange is that, if the sex scenes themselves were even slightly more well put together or shot, this could just be a porno. Honestly, it has roughly the same pace and tone, along with an equal amount of performative effort from the cast. Multiple scenes of dialogue are riddled with line reading flubs and awkward hesitation between exchanges, Where the bursts of sexuality in something like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song have an artistic zeal and recognizable intensity, most of the sex in Black Shampoo is vanilla, uninspired and repetitive.

But is that kind of the point? A majority of the coitus is between Mr. Jonathan and his coterie of hungry clients, each tawdry exploit presented as a perfunctory extrapolation of interracial cuck culture. Unsurprisingly, the only portraits of intimacy that don’t feel like Blacked.com outtakes are the ones between Mr. Jonathan and Brenda. Their moments together are lensed with more fascinating camera angles, stronger musical accompaniment and sumptuous lighting motifs, all more striking and rapturous than the Mandingo flings. Similarly, Brenda’s few scenes back with her white criminal ex highlight how their respective suitors see them as little more than objects to covet. The contrast of passion and sincerity between the two leads and the exploitive drone of their dalliances with white partners who see blackness as a commodity is surprisingly powerful for a movie this dull.

These themes would honestly be more interesting if they actually got explored through the story and didn’t have to be parsed out of intermittently titillating smut. But that’s not the biggest disappointment. The poster for this film shows Mr. Jonathan wielding a revolver and a blow dryer, but there’s nowhere near enough gun violence to fit the blaxploitation quota. The film’s closing 10 minutes are shockingly brutal, featuring some rough fight sequences and an antagonist being run through the abdomen with a pool cue, but otherwise there’s not the requisite action to balance out all the bedroom scenes.

Maybe blaxploitation films just fared better when they were aping gangster movies and vampire flicks rather than underrated, satirical rom-coms.

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