The Golden Age of Blaxploitation: Black Stars for Black Audiences
Not since the race film genre of movies that started around 1915 and continued till the 1950s was there another movement in cinema history where Black filmmakers made films with all-Black casts and crews primarily for Black audiences till the blaxploitation era of the early 1970s.
The similarities in both movements abound. Both were made in reaction to the prevailing white cinema where Blacks were marginalized at best and denigrated at worst. Both movements consisted of films that were independently made on very low budgets. A lot of these films weren’t well produced or acted but found extremely receptive Black audiences that finally saw themselves in the stories, and a lot of them made money.
But the main difference was that the protagonists of race films did not challenge whites onscreen while the anti-heroes of the blaxploitation films proudly stood up to ‘the Man’ – the racist white cop/government agent/citizen – in fact, the system as a whole. And a lot of the blaxploitation films had white producers and distributors.
Blaxploitation films encompassed many film genres, from action to comedy to horror and musical, and dealt with subjects like crime, violence, drugs, sex and race in a raw and aggressive way. They started out primarily exhibited in grindhouse theaters that showed films not seen in mainstream cinemas such as exploitation films or even porn.
The genesis of the movement is attributed to Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, which opens with the dedication: “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man,” and tells the story of a sex worker (Van Peebles) who works in a brothel and is arrested for murder on a pretext. He tries to outrun his corrupt white captors after they beat up a Black Panther who was arrested as well. Van Peebles put up the $150,000 budget (with help from Bill Cosby who loaned him $50,000), directed, edited, played the lead, composed the music and co-produced it.
It features montages, jump-cuts, psychedelic colors and frenetic editing not seen before onscreen. And it received an ‘X’ rating, something Van Peebles was furious about at first but used to his advantage by advertising that it was bestowed by “an all-white jury.” He also released the soundtrack in advance, which was performed by Earth, Wind & Fire, to publicize the film, a novel approach that paid off in spades as the movie grossed $15.2 million at the box office and was heavily supported by the Black Panther party who made every new member watch it.
Shaft starring Richard Roundtree followed hard on its heels two months later. It was directed by Gordon Parks and featured Roundtree as a detective on the trail of the Italian mafia that had kidnapped a Harlem thug’s daughter. The film was shot in New York City; had themes of race, Black Power and sexuality; made $18 million at the box office; and pulled MGM out of near bankruptcy. Roundtree made $13,0000. The “Theme from Shaft” won a Golden Globe as Best Song for Isaac Hayes.
Following the success of these two films, there was an explosion of blaxploitation films that followed, the major studios realizing there was a Black audience to be exploited that they had heretofore ignored.
It was in 1972 that the genre got its name from Junius Griffin, president of the Hollywood NAACP branch – a hybrid of the words ‘black’ and ‘exploitation.’ But Griffin was not being complimentary – he said the genre was “proliferating offenses” against Blacks and complained of stereotypical characters like pimps and gangsters involved in drugs and sex. “We must insist that our children are not exposed to a steady diet of so-called black movies that glorify black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters, and super males,” he said.
But Black audiences did not see things his way. What they saw was one of their own fighting the system that had kept their communities impoverished, and the stories reflected the lives they were struggling with. They saw Black heroes and anti-heroes take on ‘the Man’ and win, something not seen onscreen before.
Another big hit, Superfly, was released in 1972 and told the story of a cocaine dealer played by Ron O’Neal, trying to get out of the business which was actually run by the white Deputy Commissioner of police, aka ‘the Man.’ The actor playing that character, Sig Shore, put up 40% of the budget and enjoyed the lion’s share of the profits.
The film made over $25 million at the box office. Gordon Parks, Jr. directed, and the film was distributed by Warner Bros. Curtis Mayfield wrote and produced the soundtrack which made $5 million and is celebrated to this day. There were protests by the NAACP and the Congress for Racial Equality who tried to block the film’s release because they said it glorified drug dealers and violence.
The first blaxploitation film with a female lead was Coffy, released in 1973 starring Pam Grier, ‘the one-woman hit squad,’ an action heroine out for revenge against the drug dealers who caused her sister’s addiction. It was directed by Jack Hill, protégé of Roger Corman, and was a great success, especially with the female audience.
Grier followed up with Foxy Brown the next year, where she played another vigilante seeking revenge against a drug syndicate that killed her boyfriend by posing as a prostitute to infiltrate their gang. The plot involves heroin use, rape, castration, and Grier was condemned by certain members of the Black community for this portrayal of Black womanhood but hailed by others who saw in her a strong woman who exacted vengeance on her oppressors.
Grier responded to her critics in an interview in Essence magazine in 1979: “Why would people think I would ever demean the Black woman? I was tried and convicted without being asked to testify in my defense. Sure, a lot of those films were junk. But they were what was being offered. They provided work for me and jobs for hundreds of Blacks. We all needed to work. We all needed to eat.”
Cleopatra Jones (1973) starred Tamara Dobson as an undercover government agent, a female James Bond type, with a black and silver Corvette Stingray loaded with weapons. Using the cover of an international supermodel, she proudly sports an Afro and a suitably flamboyant wardrobe, traveling the world vanquishing drug lords with her martial skills like Shelley Winters’ underworld boss Mommy. Dobson was a former model and was promoted as ‘6 feet 2 of dynamite.’ The film has a lot of humor as well. The Black Power movement was in full force at the time, and she was embraced as a role model for Black women. A sequel was made with Dobson reprising her role, but it didn’t make money.
In The Mack,(1973) directed by Michael Campus, ex-con Goldie (Max Julien) goes back to the streets to become the king of all pimps after getting out of prison for a crime pinned on him by racist white cops. He goes up against his brother (Roger Mosely) who’s trying to rid the streets of crime. Many real pimps and prostitutes were cast in the film supplied by real-life pimp and drug dealer Frank Ward (the Goldie character was based on him) who bestowed his protection on the film.
(Ward was shot dead in his Rolls Royce in the middle of production.) Richard Pryor plays Goldie’s best friend Slim who helps set up his hooker ring. The film made more money than The Godfather in the cities it was released. One detractor was the critic of Ebony magazine who wrote that Superfly was: “an insidious film which portrays the Black community at its worst. It glorifies the use of cocaine and casts Blacks in roles which glorify dope-pushers, pimps, and grand theft.”
About 200 films were made in this genre in the 1970s. Horror blaxploitation films like Blacula and Ganja and Hess were released in 1972 and 1975, respectively. Soul Soldier was a blaxploitation Western. And then there were comedies like Dolemite, and the ones that Oscar-winner Sidney Poitier made with Bill Cosby like A Piece of The Action, Let’s Do it Again and Uptown Saturday Night.
The genre continued till the late 70’s when the combined efforts of the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which formed the Coalition Against Blaxploitation, managed to put an end to this kind of filmmaking.
The influence of blaxploitation is found decades later in the films of Quentin Tarantino whose Jackie Brown in 1997 was made as a tribute to Pam Grier whom he cast as the lead. Undercover Brother, Barbershop and Austin Powers are spoofs of the genre. Shaft was remade by John Singleton in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft, featuring Roundtree as his uncle; and so was Superfly by Director X in 2018 with Trevor Jackson in the lead.