Emma Mae (1976)
While writer-director Jamaa Fanaka intentionally frustrates any association with Blaxploitation, he courts the forms of that money-grubbing action subgenre for the purposes of his 1976 film Emma Mae, if only to subvert them. As such, the film occupies a lonely middle ground between such well-remembered grindhouse titles as Black Mama, White Mama (1972) and The Mack (1973) and the scattering of Black family dramas to which the big studios condescended in the early to mid-70s, such as Oscar Williams’ Five on the Black Hand Side (1973) and Michael Schultz’s Cooley High (1975). The latter was a direct influence on Fanaka while he was a student at UCLA’s film program and Emma Mae, his second feature, reflects a similar interest in depicting the texture of African-American community and family life in all its contrasting and contradictory patterns. Overseas, Emma Mae was given the crass alternative title Black Sister’s Revenge but the 1976 production bears only a superficial resemblance to such distaff vengeance films as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), in which Pam Grier’s angry women of color strike back at the powers that be evil.
In telling the tale of a Black girl from rural Mississippi transplanted by a well-meaning aunt to the vibrant but violent South Central LA community of Compton, Emma Mae seems informed by Ossie Davis’ seminal (but sadly obscure) Black Girl (1972), in which the presence of a foster child disrupts the harmony of a middle class Black family. Happily, Fanaka dispenses early on with the country mouse clichs, revealing the eponymous Emma Mae (Jerri Hayes) to be, despite her “bad” hair and lack of urban sophistication, a feisty and resourceful heroine. As in Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975), Fanaka addresses the specter of Afro-American machismo but rejects the earlier film’s fantastic flourishes to ground this drama in a street-level realism he particularizes with relaxed pacing and tastes of local color.
The film’s opening titles play out over scenes of families, friends and lovers luxuriating on verdant park grounds; it’s a poignant portrait of Compton life between the madness of the Watts riots a decade earlier and the gang violence that proliferated in the 1980s with the emergence of crack. Emma Mae depicts Compton as a well-tended middle class community threatened from without by baseless White paranoia and from within by a purposelessness engendered by Welfare and a fear of true commitment masking itself as Black male prerogative.
More technically assured than Welcome Home Brother Charles, Emma Mae remains a bit too ambitious and rambling for its own good. Still, its sins are easy to forgive given Fanaka’s overall generosity and seeming lack of ego. He gives his actors (many of whom never made another film) a lot of leeway and is rewarded with spirited, lifelike performances all around. As unlikely a leading lady as is Jerri Hayes (who seems to lose weight through the film), she reveals herself to be an affecting actress, unafraid to marry righteous indignation (as Emma lashes out at a faithless lover) with an emotional fragility miles ahead of the B-movie bravado of Pam Grier. Standouts among the large cast of supporting players (culled from the ranks of the Paul Robeson Players) are Ernest Williams II (as the laconic rogue who ignites Emma Mae’s passions only to break her heart), Charles D. Brooks III (as a local fool granted a climactic moment of silent grace) and Black Belt Jones’s (1974) Malik Carter, as the community’s mumbling elder statesman, a crazy old man who delivers an incisive speech late in the film, upbraiding the younger men for their foolhardy and harmful bluster and for ignoring and even denigrating the Black women who prove themselves again and again to be the race’s greatest asset in the fight for freedom and respect.
4.36GB | 1h 40m | 1280×688 | mkv