Blaxploitation films. They mean many things to many different people, whether positive or negative. Regardless, you cannot deny the fact that the so-called Blaxploitation film genre was very much the first form of entertainment to gleefully celebrate the culture of African-Americans in what was, up to that point, a landscape dominated by squeaky clean Caucasian depictions of life and society in America.
The term Blaxploitation itself, as you may have gathered, was created by combining the words Black and Exploitation, being that the genre was supposedly the Black spin on the already existing Exploitation film genre.
Interestingly, a vast majority of the filmmakers and actors who were a part of the Blaxploitation movement resented the term, which was created by Hollywood bigwigs; which is understandable, considering that the Exploitation genre was quite seedy and almost the black sheep of the film industry, including such down ‘n’ dirty sub-genres as ‘women in prison’ films (The Big Doll House, Caged Heat) and ‘Nazi exploitation/Nazisploitation’ films (Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS).
In the minds of the Blaxploitation purveyors, exploitation was an incorrect term to use, as the films were made by Black people (who were paid for their work) for Black people (who enjoyed watching the films); sadly though the White-owned film studios/distribution companies still profited more than any of the Black actors or filmmakers.
The genre was for the most part born out of necessity, the necessity to voice/display the thoughts and feelings of Afro-Americans. Melvin Van Peebles’ definitive classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) is widely regarded as the opening shot from the Blaxploitation cannon; although 1969’s Putney Swope, directed by cutting edge filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., which follows the journey of a Black man (played by Arnold Johnson) on the executive board of an advertising firm and his rise to power, can also claim status as a pioneer.
Following on from Sweetback’s searing portrait of African-Americans life, the monumental Shaft, from the revered Gordon Parks, continued to push the envelope both artistically and creatively. It also, for the first time ever, established strong African-American leads (in this case Richard Roundtree) who were bold and articulate at the same time.
Both Shaft and Sweetback put race issues under a never before utilised microscope, thus changing the dichotomy of the American film industry and then society. Political and social statements were not the only subjects on the agenda though, as films such as Superfly (1972) and The Mack (1973) introduced the slick-talking pimp persona to mainstream American culture. Releases such as these, in addition to the groundbreaking Hustler’s Conventions album by former Last Poets member Jalal Nuriddin (Lightnin’ Rod) and the literary works of rehabilitated pimp Iceberg Slim, are responsible for creating Hip Hop music’s eventual obsession with pimp/mack culture.
As Quentin Tarantino exclaimed of his movie going experiences in 1970s Southern California, Blaxploitation ushered in a new era, described by some as ‘Black Hollywood’. Despite the abundant (and unexpected) success of Blaxploitation projects, the films came under attack by the likes of Jesse Jackson and the NAACP, who took to task the films’ portrayals of Black America, claiming that they perpetuated negative stereotypes and built negative images of African-Americans; the same line of fire Hip Hop culture would fall under years later.
Once the Blaxploitation formula proved successful it didn’t take long for the major studios, who usually then delegated it to their low budget/indie division, to begin churning out every film and scenario they could think of, such as interracial female fugitives on the run chained together (Black Mama, White Mama). Even Shaft found his way to the motherland for Shaft In Africa (the Shaft franchise was clearly running out of steam by this point).
The pre-existing ‘women in prison’ motif was somewhat given the Blaxploitation treatment as well in pictures like Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown, starring Tamara Dobson and Pam Grier (a veteran of ‘women in prison’ flicks) respectively, which centered around a female lead who could stand up against her oppressive male counterparts in her quest for justice and equality.
Certain films were not only insulting to the senses but also managed to make ‘worst film of all time’ lists by countless critics. The lowest is arguably The Thing with Two Heads (1972), where the head of a dying White bigot is grafted onto the body of an able bodied African-American (with hilarity not ensuing!)
Also at the bottom of the barrel is the hilariously bad kung-fu/Blaxploitation hybrid Blackbelt Jones, starring Enter The Dragon’s Jim Kelly, which features not only some of the most ridiculous dialogue in film history (“That son-of-a-bitch just threw his panties at me”) but also some of the most unconvincing and weak martial-arts sequences in film history.
Whether people wanted to see a full length feature about a Black version of Dracula or not, that’s exactly what moviegoers got in 1972 with the release of Blacula, who was “Dracula’s soul brother”.
Despite the varying quality of Blaxploitation films there was always one constant, an accompanying killer soundtrack, that in many instances overshadowed and outdid the images on display. Ironically enough two of the worst films (Black Belt Jones and Blacula) possess two of the best soundtracks. Other monumental soundtracks include Willie Hutch’s The Mack (with the track I Choose You most recently sampled by UGK for International Player’s Anthem), Isaac Hayes’ Shaft, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Barry White’s Together Brothers.
Much like the ‘women in prison’ and ‘spaghetti western’ genres, both also Tarantino favorites, Blaxploitation had a short shelf-life. Although if you examine many of the genres greatest creations you will see a parallel between the extravagance and fast living of the films with the demise of the genre itself, it couldn’t last forever at the rate it was growing and expanding, which was not anticipated by many, if any, at all.
Along with jazz, blues and the poetry of performers like Gil-Scott Herron and the Last Poets, Blaxploitation very much was the genesis and lay the groundwork for Hip Hop music and culture; not only in its tales of getting over and out of the ghetto and the enjoyment of material items, but also in its tales of Black pride and messages of both a social and political nature. Now can you dig that?!