50 years ago, Pam Grier etched her name in history as an icon, becoming one of the very first female action stars and the inaugural Blaxploitation star with her portrayal of the titular character in Coffy. From the resounding $4 million box office success of Coffy, "Blaxploitation” was born; a genre whose trademark included kung-fu action, memorable quips and songs, highly romanticized melodramatic scripts, and over-stereotyped portrayals of sultry Black stars, both male and female.
Since Coffy’s release, Blaxploitation as a genre has been controversial, drawing criticism from organizations like the NAACP and civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson. For decades they contended that the genre, despite its popularity, demeaned Black people by projecting negative stereotypes and providing poor role models to Black youth. Nonetheless, Coffy’s funky, revenge-fueled, B-movie charm has become an enduring source of inspiration for filmmakers like Bryian Keith Montgomery Jr., founder of ALT-Horror and the writer/director of Cinnamon, a 2023 Tribeca Festival feature selection.
Now streaming on Tubi, Cinnamon follows two lovers who get caught up in a series of catastrophic hijinks in which they both must use their wits to survive. Partially echoing ‘70s Blaxploitation films, Cinnamon is a superfly satirical thriller that evolves the genre into “Black Noir”, and features a menacing performance featuring Pam Grier herself. We spoke with Bryian about collaborating with one of his idols, how Blaxploitation is blossoming into something new, and where Black audiences converge.
“I text Pam all the time. She's hysterical. Just this strong figure who's also hilarious and so down to earth. That's just who she is in real life.”
Montgomery’s admiration for the Blaxploitation genre that Grier pioneered is evident in Cinnamon’s swagger, surrealism, and satirical social commentary on race, sexuality, and survival. Speaking on Grier’s influence in his artistic development, Bryian mentions how Coffy, both in the film and the captivating poster that he owned growing up, became a symbol of “real life mixed with fantastic fantasy, a depiction of Black people with power, but the power wasn't super, they were just cool.”
Coffy showed filmmakers like Bryian a world where Black people were at the precipice of possibility, most notably mirrored in Cinnamon, which portrays a cast of cool, yet eclectic Black characters overcoming a series of surreal yet believable disasters. “Cinnamon is set in some ways in a fantastical realism where everything in the movie could really happen,” Bryian emphasizes, “but it's heightened by these colorful characters and the soundtrack and the color and I think that it all comes from Blaxploitation.”
“You see the crop top, the big Afro, and the sawed-off shotgun. It's like, she is the first Black superhero... “
Reflecting on his early exposure to Blaxploitation, Bryian fondly recalls how the emergence of the genre was a transformative era when the silver screen seldom showcased films with predominantly Black casts, let alone Black protagonists “from the ghetto playing superheroes and kung fu masters”. These vibrant tales gave Black audience members like himself a profound window into an era of their own culture and community, albeit a bygone one.
Admittedly, Bryian says that “a lot of that style is going to come from what they [Black filmmakers] have seen in their past,” especially Blaxploitation. True to his influence, Bryian is (as he calls it) a “popcorn filmmaker,” who seeks to first deliver entertaining stories. What he hopes distinguishes his storytelling approach is how he injects relevant social commentary, likening his films to a Flintstone Gummy, “something tasty, but you're getting something out of it”. Though still inspired by his predecessors, Montgomery is adamant about its evolution, noting that “while we're going to stay in the satire,” the genre as a whole will adapt into something ownable by Black creators and audiences.
Shouting out The Blackening, another 2023 Tribeca Festival feature selection, Bryian refers to this metamorphosis of Blaxploitation as “a sort of like uprising in Black cinema right now, featuring really powerful stories that are rooted in reality and describe the trauma of the past,” with the super and action heroes of yore being replaced with more realistic depictions that “ no longer exploit Black people and reflect the reclamation of Black characters.” Bryian describes this burgeoning genre, already coined as “Black Noir,” as “hinting upon the past genre but creating new sounds and new visuals that represent the modern age.” These stories, “even though they're small, are going to seem big because they're making it for an audience who wants to see themselves up on the big screen.” He elaborates that the emergence of Black Noir will further be bolstered by a surge in platforms that embrace diverse narratives and voices, such as Tubi, where Cinnamon is currently streaming for free.
“There aren't any movie theaters in Black suburbs. So on a Friday night, they're watching Tubi.”
Bryian recognizes that his goal to reach Black audiences and create stories that represent them isn’t an easy one to achieve. He admits “it’s not easy to reach all Black people across America in theaters, so it's really good to have Tubi for a young filmmaker [like himself]”. Given the lack of cinemas in Black communities, in this context, streaming platforms like Tubi assume a pivotal role in creating an audience for emerging filmmakers like Bryian. With a library of content immediately accessible from their own homes, Black audiences are afforded the pleasure of indulging in captivating stories made just for them. As Bryian eloquently puts it; "All they owe you are their eyes."
Bryian also created the production company ALT-Horror in 2016 to infuse current events into his horror films and highlight touchy issues in American culture through a unique lens. Stay updated with ALT-Horror on Instagram, and click below to watch Cinnamon for FREE on Tubi.