– Jacob O’Gara
In the 70s, a cluster of films that today would have zero chance of being made, invaded movie theaters around America; they were blaxploitation flicks. Ranging from crime and martial arts to horror and musical, they were bold, badass, and black. They were tailor-made for African-American audiences by tapping into the anxieties of the community, like anxieties about the “Big Bad White Wolf” hooking your kids on smack and selling them into latter-day slavery. At the genre’s height, it influenced the James Bond series, but when the curtains of the 1970s drew to a close, they closed around blaxploitation as well, and flushed down the cultural drain along with bellbottoms and cocaine-fueled disco orgies.
Something like blaxploitation exists in the realm of cinema today, but instead of names like Van Peebles and Roundtree, there are Anderson, Baumbach, and Schwartzman. If the 1970s was the Age of Blaxploitation, today is the Age of Whitesploitation, and it’s way less funky.
The latest whitesploitation hero, Ben Stiller in “Greenberg,” is similar to his blaxploitation brethren in the abstract. He is has a fro and acts detached, but characters like John Shaft are detached in a cool and hip way, whereas Greenberg’s just kind of a jackass. He encapsulates perfectly the malaise that goes along with being forty-something, middle-class, and white. His biggest anxiety in life is making sure he doesn’t make the most of it, and yeah, he drops “man” at the end of his sentences when addressing a compatriot like he’s a blaxploitation character, but he does so with an ironic posture.
Noah Baumbach, one of the titans of whitesploitation, wrote and directed “Greenberg.” Along with fellow filmmaker and occasional collaborator Wes Anderson, he has made a career of exploring, in almost a voyeuristic way, the anxieties and tics of being white in America. In blaxploitation’s ghetto world all black people are hard-charging, fast-talking, ultimately oppressed combinations of victim and victimizer, while whitesploitation’s suburb world is populated with self-absorbed, neurotic caricatures who are ready to blame everyone but themselves for their troubles. In the world of Anderson and Baumbach, the WASP is all sting and poison, and no honey.