Blaxploitation Films: Sticking It to the Man!
Few film movements elicit a sly smile from one’s lips as quickly as that of the blaxploitation films of the 70s. In a reversal of the standard cliché, the whole often proved greater than the sum of its parts. These films were not the typical glossy, seamless, high production value fare of mainstream Hollywood, but usually the flip side: down-and-dirty, in-your-face, doing-the-best-we-can-on-a-limited-budget product designed for a demographic that had been all but ignored to that point. What they lack in technical prowess and acting skill is frequently made up for in ingenuity, freshness and ferocity. Yes, they can be unintentionally funny, given the constraints, but they commonly reached their fundamental goal, which was to entertain!
I think it’s necessary to provide a definition of blaxploitation before proceeding further. As you may have noticed in the paragraph above, I have avoided referring to blaxploitation films as a genre, preferring to call it a movement. The reason for this is that, at best, blaxploitation movies were a subgenre of the so-called exploitation genre, films of which were a hodgepodge of titles whose main connection is that they were efforts by low-budget producers to create sensationalized subject matter in order to turn a quick buck. Like the exploitation genre at large, blaxploitation films derived from a variety of genres. Although blaxploitation films frequently dealt with criminality in urban areas, they didn’t always. Other such genres as horror, martial arts, western, prison, even the musical provided examples of movies that fell under the blaxploitation umbrella. So, what are the most common characteristics of blaxploitation films? Here are the key commonalities:
1) The aforementioned urban setting is nearly universal, as the original intended audience was inner-city African Americans. Primarily, they took place in the northeast or in California;
2) Black protagonists often face off against the white establishment, whether it be corrupt businessmen, dirty cops or standard, run-of-the-mill racists. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier era of race films (approximately 1920-1955), in which blacks didn’t dare antagonize, let alone challenge, whites;
3) The soundtrack music was frequently soul/funk, a genre of music that had had little, if any, presence in movies up to that point. Several of the genre’s biggest names contributed to these pictures (including Isaac Hayes – “Shaft,” Curtis Mayfield – “Super Fly,” James Brown – “Black Caesar” and Barry White – “Together Brothers”);
4) Violence is rampant! Nearly all blaxploitation films feature many acts of violence;
5) The films are feverishly paced! Of course, there are exceptions, but the blaxploitation features – which usually clocked in near 90 minutes – were packed with action and were rarely boring. What they are is a fun, zippy way to pass an hour and a half in what seems like half the time;
6) Although “Shaft” was produced and released by MGM and “Cleopatra Jones” by Warner Bros., most of the films of the movement were made independently, allowing for more creative control (read: violence, coarse language and nudity) than would’ve been allowed in mainstream features. Yes, that meant that production values were often lower as a result, but the usual grittiness of the subject matter made that less of a problem, even providing a certain intangible realism to them.
While cases can be made for possible earlier and later inclusions, the blaxploitation movement was primarily a loosely connected movement running from 1971 through 1977. I would go so far as to suggest that movies that fall outside those chronological parameters can’t credibly be defined as belonging to the movement. Just as restrictive industry practices unwittingly necessitated the birth of the movement – if your name wasn’t Sidney Poitier, you had little chance of headlining a studio film during the 60s – the success of the movement quickly forced the major studios to court black audiences. Studio films of the late 70s and throughout the 80s increasingly featured black actors in big budget films; but, with only a few exceptions (for instance, comedians Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy), they rarely had their names above the title. Thus, some of the gains achieved in the blaxploitation era were only by degree, and it took the 90s for black actors and actresses to begin to gain equal footing.
Blaxploitation films allowed African Americans to see themselves onscreen as fearless protagonists in a white-dominated America for the first time. This was in contrast to the earlier race films, in which black characters rarely interacted with white ones and were deferential when they did. Similarly, the often-sanitized and southern world of pioneer black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux – who was consistently guilty of supporting a racial caste system favoring lighter skin tones over darker ones – was no longer the norm. These new depictions of black America took place in coastal metropolises and were straightforward in showing that many African Americans were stagnating in areas experiencing urban decay. These places were populated by people having little hope of achieving upward mobility through education or a fierce work ethic that might someday reward them.
Certainly, due to civil rights legislation passed during the 60s, there were ever-increasing numbers of success stories in the black community, yet few of those stories were particularly cinematic. Without question, many blaxploitation films depicted noble, heroic figures taking down crooks, drug kingpins, pimps and the like for the common good. And yet, there are also plenty of examples of movies that glorified those same undesirable elements. Clearly, an undeniable respect was accorded those who’d achieved an envious level of success through fruitful criminal activity, despite the many cultural (and moral) obstacles faced in getting it.
Therein lies the crux of the ongoing controversy surrounding the blaxploitation movement. In glorifying that criminal element, those characters became unlikely role models for many impressionable viewers. Almost immediately, several national African American social organizations condemned that influence on black youth, but by bringing additional media attention to the issue, they may have only exacerbated the problem. Even 40-plus years later, clothing styles, jewelry usage, slang and nicknames used by drug dealers and pimps in those movies are still commonly appropriated by hip-hop culture to approximate the level of cool that had been depicted onscreen.
Several of the biggest stars of the blaxploitation canon were athletes first, actors second. It stands to reason that with so few black actors starring in mainstream films of the 60s (and few in action roles) that producers would go outside regular thespian circles to cast black athletes who would not only be believable in action roles but could draw on their preexisting name recognition. Legendary NFL running back Jim Brown broke into Hollywood in the late 60s and found acting so lucrative that he scuttled his hall of fame gridiron career for a profession that wouldn’t require him to take so much physical abuse. Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and Bernie Casey were other NFL stars who also built considerable acting resumes, while Karate champ Jim Kelly and heavyweight boxing champ Ken Norton followed suit. Although the athlete turning actor phenomenon is still a relatively common occurrence, it seldom results in lasting stardom, and definitely not to the degree that occurred in the blaxploitation era.
Although a very macho image was a hallmark of male characters in blaxploitation films – with women often sexually exploited in the process – the movement nevertheless featured a surprising number of strong female roles. At a time when white female action heroes didn’t exist, they surely did in blaxploitation. Among the biggest stars of the movement were Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson and Gloria Hendry, while Carol Speed and Jeannie Bell also had considerable success. “Out” was the straightened hair of black female stars of past decades, such as Nina Mae McKinney, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge; “in” were giant afros that showed racial pride (while conveniently concealing weaponry!). Unfortunately, those sorts of roles mostly dried up for females once the era was over and heroic female action stars, even white ones, didn’t reappear in sizable numbers until the current decade.
During the earlier, three-and-a-half-decade history of race films, few were actually directed by black filmmakers. Most often, they were financed and churned out by white crews working the exploitation market, with all black talent only appearing onscreen. Even though mainstream Hollywood was still very nearly white in the 70s, black talent was beginning to make inroads into previously homogenous craft guilds. Fortunately, the immediate success of several blaxploitation films helmed by black directors opened doors for black technicians and provided a proving ground outside the entrenched studio system.
Nevertheless, many blaxploitation features were helmed by white filmmakers. In the following list of 10 movies, I’ve noted those made by black directors. The list is meant to provide an overview of the movement, a starting point for those new to these films and a refresher for those returning to them. In order to do that, I’ve avoided listing more than one title per top-billed star, tried to cover multiple genres and attempted to provide a mix of contemporary hits and latter-day cult favorites, all with an eye to current availability. Naturally, if you like these titles, you’ll want to pursue more from the several dozen examples not listed here. The titles are in chronological order.
“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971) — Arguably the first blaxploitation feature, Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, produced, edited, composed and starred in the title role of this low-budget thriller, about a black male prostitute who tries to do a couple of white cops a favor only to see it backfire on him. Made for an estimated $500,000, it reportedly earned over thirty times that amount. Van Peebles was a novice filmmaker in most respects, and it shows, but “Sweet Sweetback…” remains a historically important picture.
“Shaft” (1971) — Unlike so many blaxploitation films that were produced independently or by minor studios, “Shaft” was a product of industry heavyweight MGM. Gordon Parks, the first black director to helm a film (“The Learning Tree”) from a major studio, just two years prior, guided Richard Roundtree through his paces as a tough-as-nails private eye. Its success spawned two sequels.
“Super Fly” (1972) — Ron O’Neal stars as a cocaine dealer seeking to pull off one last colossal score before retiring. Gordon Parks, Jr., son of the director of “Shaft,” called the shots behind the camera, while Curtis Mayfield, who would earn induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Impressions (1991) and as a solo artist (1999) wrote and performed the influential score. This is one of the films that caused controversy for making its protagonist a criminal.
“Blacula” (1972) — “Blacula” is one of several examples of horror films that easily fall within the blaxploitation movement. The subject matter is as obvious as it sounds: it features a black vampire (played by William Marshall), who roams Los Angeles looking to quench his thirst for blood. Truthfully, it’s not as good as one might expect it to be, but it was an important genre-bending experiment at its time of release. Directed by then 22-year-old William Crain.
“Coffy” (1973) — Pam Grier plays the title role, a nurse who seeks revenge on everyone — and I mean everyone — who contributed to the drug-related death of her much younger sister. Grier, who was both gorgeous and a very competent actress (even early in her career) shot to stardom in this film. For those not offended by gratuitous nudity, as this movie has it in heavy doses, from the lead actress on down.
“Cleopatra Jones” (1973) — Two months after Pam Grier broke out as a female action star, Tamara Dobson did the same. Sporting what may have been filmdom’s biggest afro, Dobson starred as a U.S. Special Agent who wages a one-woman war on drugs. Standing six feet, two inches, her hapkido kicks prove an effective weapon against the baddies. The film, co-scripted by Max Julian (see next entry) was followed by a sequel, “Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold,” two years later. Bernie Casey, a blaxploitation action star in his own right, plays Cleo’s paramour.
“The Mack” (1973) — Classically trained actor Max Julien plays recently released con Goldie, who decides to pimp his way to the top. Goldie’s charming façade barely covers his ruthless and single-minded quest to succeed, which he does, becoming king of the pimps at the Oakland player’s ball (insert your Dave Chapelle reference here)! Julien – a filmmaker, sculptor, poet, novelist, lyricist, fashion designer – remains a cult figure and enigma, garnering success in various fields, then quietly moving on.
“Three the Hard Way” (1974) — Three of the movement’s greatest action stars – Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly – combine forces to stop a white supremacist plot to taint the country’s water supply with a toxin that’s only lethal to black people. A running gag is that they never, ever reload their weapons. Gordon Parks, Jr. directed the action opus, which featured songs performed by The Impressions. The trio of stars would reunite for two more films in the next few years.
“Truck Turner” (1974) — Musician Isaac Hayes (an earlier Oscar winner for Best Original Song for “Theme from Shaft”) stars as Mac ‘Truck’ Turner, an ex-football player turned bounty hunter in L.A. In just his second screen appearance, Hayes (who also scored this film) shows incredible presence amongst a fine cast of veteran character actors. Yaphet Kotto co-stars as the crime boss that Truck must take down.
“Dolemite” (1975) — In one of the most incompetently made movies of the 70s (or any decade, for that matter), comedian Rudy Ray Moore still triumphs in the title role. Moore plays a sleazy pimp sent to prison, but who claims he was framed. When the warden gives him a shot at redemption, Dolemite – backed by his karate chopping hookers – takes on his rival, played by blaxploitation regular, D’Urville Martin (who also directed). Moore’s routinely profane patter is now regarded as proto-rap, and that distinction has been central to making him an unlikely blaxploitation icon, giving the film cult status.
I hope you’ll enjoy viewing these and other blaxploitation titles. Although sometimes low on technical and thespian expertise, they are often high on energy, coolness and general entertainment value!
— Kevin Kretschmer is a librarian at the Franklin Avenue Library, a branch of the Des Moines Public Library. He has a B.A. in journalism from the University of Iowa, an M.A. in Film Studies, also from the University of Iowa and an M.L.I.S. in Library and Information Studies from Dominican University. Among his writing pursuits, he has worked as a film reviewer for The Daily Iowan, in Iowa City, as an entertainment journalist/film reviewer for the news service All My Features, in Chicago, and, more recently, as writer of the Media Musings: Mad About Movies, Music, and More blog for the Des Moines Public Library.