Thursday, August 22, 2013

Welcome to the 1970s

This post was meant to be a well-reasoned, thought-provoking analysis of Live and Let Die.  Alas, as it has been more than a month since I screened the film, this quick run-through of my thoughts on what I remember will have to do.  I’ve also managed to view four more Roger Moore Bond films in the intervening time, and I wanted to blog about Live and Let Die before blogging my thoughts on the Roger Moore era as a whole.   

From what I have gathered over the years, Moore competes with Connery as people’s definitive James Bond.  I have decided to withhold judgment on Moore for the time being, but I could not let Live and Let Die be seen without at least some sort of commentary. 

With Live and Let Die we jumped head-first into the 1970s.  If you are at all curious about the fabulous fashions, tired clich├ęs, and general feel of 1970s pop culture, watch this film.  Not only does it feature this amazing rainbow sequined dress (a precursor to the glamorous disco dresses that would become de rigueur in dance clubs and on music stages just a few years hence), a collection of flamboyant (some might say “pimpin’”) male suits and accessories such as this polka dot scarf, and a number (see 5 links here) of outstanding outfits on a young Jane Seymour; even the conservative and classic James Bond gets in on the ‘70s fashion foppery with outfits like this powder blue leisure suit

In many ways, the 1970s fashions and feel are rivaled in film only by the Blaxploitation genre on which this Bond appears to be based.  Yet, one major aspect (and many smaller ones) of Live and Let Die makes it fundamentally different from a 1970s Blaxploitation film.  Yes, the writers changed Ian Fleming’s story about the smuggling of gold coins to one about an international Heroin ring so as to fit with the common Blaxploitation tropes of drugs and crime in black communities.  Yes, there are a number of scenes set in urban black communities, most notably New Orleans and Harlem.  And yes, the film features a cast of larger-than-life black characters who are empowered and violent.  But key to the grand majority of 1970s Blaxploitation films is the black vigilante hero--be it man or woman--who is empowered to save/enact revenge/conform his or her community/family/race from some form of evil--white supremacy, drugs, prostitution, etc.  It is the black character who saves the day, be it from the criminals in his own community or from the white suppression of his race.  A black character is the hero.  It was, and remains today, an important anomaly in film that the black character saves the day or enacts violent revenge, actions that are overwhelmingly relegated to white men. 

The fact that all black characters in Live and Let Die are villains (save one black agent who gets killed) and James Bond is the hero, criminalizing Mr. Big and his black minions, makes the film an exploitation of the success of Blaxploitation rather than a true homage to it.  (Honestly, it makes me wonder if they chose to imitate the genre only to make it somehow a more acceptable setting for Bond to bed his first black woman.)

Yet, it seems the producers of the film were well aware of this problem when they were making it.  As the director (writer? producer? I can’t recall) said plainly in the special features documentary, “Inside Live and Let Die,” with all the black actors being villains, you know they’re going to lose, so who else can we make fun of? (paraphrasing here).  So they brought in the character of the bumbling redneck southern Louisiana sheriff, so poor southern whites could also take some of the racist brunt--equal opportunity racism, as my friends and I called it. 

And being aware of the racism, stereotyping, and absurdity of it all, actually makes the film rather enjoyable and humorous in its ability to appall and enthrall.  A syndicate of black drug smugglers so powerful that it seems every black person from Harlem to New Orleans to the Caribbean is involved?  A black cabbie who quips, “for $20 I’ll take you to a KKK cookout”?  Mr. Big’s lackey, the voodoo leader, portrayed as a constantly smiling Sambo?  The exoticism, spiritualism, and voodoo of the residents of the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique on display throughout the film (although it was unclear to me how much of it was supposed to be understood as genuine vs. how much was meant for the purpose of tourism)?  And, of course, that overly long and outrageous boat chase in the Louisiana swamps with the completely inept southern white cops trying in vain to catch the drivers?  All so absurd as to be humorous. 

There were some genuinely humorous moments in the film as well, even if Bond’s quips and sexual innuendo were a bit out of control in this outing.  There was also plenty of action on land, sea, and air and a variety of nifty gadgets that made the movie enjoyable to watch.  Certainly not the best Bond film in terms of realism, structure, and general cinematic quality, but Live and Let Die was good enough to keep my attention and enthusiasm for almost the entire 2+ hours, which is a major accomplishment for a Bond film so far.