The History Of Blaxploitation Cinema
Article by Aaron Haughton
This month, we pay tribute to the blaxploitation film genre by examining the movement and all its cinematic glory. We'll discuss everything from the quintessential films and figures in the genre, as well as its resurface within contemporary cinema. To lay a solid foundation, we begin the month by taking a brief look at the history of the genre from its formation to present day.
What does blaxploitation mean, and where does the term come from?
The blaxploitation genre is a subset of exploitation cinema, which is fundamentally comprised of independently produced, low-budget B-movies or grindhouse films. These films typically revolve around lewd, violent or taboo subject matter, and are engineered specifically to attract an audience through sensation and controversy.
Blaxploitation films featured black actors in lead roles, and typically centered around African Americans overcoming oppressive, antagonistic and generally white authority figures, referred to as none other than "The Man." More often than not, protagonists in blaxploitation films were outlined as stereotypical characterizations, such as pimps, pushers, prostitutes, or bounty hunters, but at their core, promoted a message of black empowerment.
The term "blaxploitation" was coined by Junius Griffin, the then-head of the Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in the early 70s as a criticism for the less-than-positive images of African Americans depicted in the genre, and his influence would later contribute its demise. However, not everyone in the black community agreed with the NAACP's assessment.
Despite the genre's potential to reinforce negative stereotypes, a large majority of the black community considered blaxploitation cinema to be a sign of progress. Before the genre's birth in 1971, the typical depiction of African Americans in television and film was as sidekick or victim; however, the dawn of this new cinematic movement would seek to put an end to that.
The creation and formation of the genre:
The 1960s were not only a turbulent time for race relations in America, but also for Hollywood as well. With the insurgence of television and the rapid decline in popularity for musicals, the film industry was bleeding out and facing the possibility of bankruptcy. With the proud proclamations of "Black Power" becoming progressively more audible throughout America, it became impossible for Hollywood to ignore African American society, making it easier for black filmmakers and actors to begin to penetrate the system. Amongst the first of these filmmakers was Melvin Van Peebles, and he lit the match that would ignite the blaxploitation sub-genre with his independently financed feature Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which he wrote, directed, produced, edited, and starred in, in addition to composing the film's score.
Upon the film's release in April of 1971, it astounded black audiences with its provocative depiction of a black man fighting the system and winning. Prior to Sweetback, there had never been a film where a black man running from the police got away, and so the film made a justifiable splash within the African American community. It managed to gross 15 million dollars despite its X-rating for sexual nature from the MPAA, which Van Peebles' turned into a positive with the film's "rated X by an all-white jury" tagline. With Sweetback, Van Peebles laid the framework for the blaxploitation genre and gave Hollywood the formula that would be prove to be their deliverance from ruin.
If Van Peebles' was the match that sparked the ignition of the blaxploitation movement, then Gordon Parks' Shaft was the fuse that lit the dynamite. The film was released by MGM only a few short months after Sweetback's surprise success, and it was a hail Mail toss for the once reputable studio that gave us The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. The original script included a white version of Shaft; however, Gordon Parks, decided to cast Richard Roundtree as the titular character, which forever altered the fate of the film.
Shaft could've been the last nail in the coffin for MGM, but the film singlehandedly liberated the studio from the looming threat of total liquidation. The iconic theme to the film even earned Isaac Hayes an Oscar, and the name Shaft become commonplace. Shaft gave audiences a more commercially accessible brand of blaxploitation, one that touted a catchy, energetic score, a hip hero, and a depiction of urban life that was previously unseen in Hollywood films. It also proved to Hollywood that black directors can be just as successful within the Hollywood system.
Both Shaft and Sweetback marked a turning point for these types of films, and gave rise to a demand Hollywood hadn't realized existed. While the vibrantly badass, larger-than-life characters that emerged were specifically targeted at black audiences, they didn't stay that way for long. The genre's appeal broadened across ethnic lines, seeping further into the Hollywood frame of mind and out into the mainstream.
The golden era and decline of the movement:
1972 gave way to the proliferation of the genre, which would prosper throughout the mid to late 70s before the genre slowly fizzled out as the 80s crept in. Following the release of Sweeetback and Shaft, another blaxploitation feature would surface and rise to same iconic status as its predecessors, the independently financed Super Fly. Backed by Curtis Mayfield's soulful soundtrack, Super Fly took the depiction of urban life to an all time extreme with its cocaine-dealing protagonist trying to score one last big deal before retiring from his life of crime. The film further troubled the NAACP as it depicted its hero as the richest, most respected, and envied man in his neighborhood.
By 1976, nearly 200 blaxploitation features had been produced spanning the gamut from independently produced to Hollywood backed. Regardless of a film's financiers, however, action, gratuitous sex and violence, and the dichotomy of white versus black always permeated through the core of the genre and remained its defining elements. The secret to the blaxploitation sauce was also its musical counterparts, which added depth and sophisticated pizazz to the films.
Throughout the years, the blaxploitation genre succeeded in creating its own stars, such as Tamara Dobson, Pam Grier, Rudy Ray Moore and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson; however, as the years wore on, the genre began to flounder for new ideas and plundered any available genre to keep afloat. This gave rise to horror variations to blaxploitation, like Blacula or Blackenstein, gangster variations, like Black Cesar, black westerns and kung-fu films, amongst others.
All the while, the genre continued to receive backlash, which really boomed in the mid to late 70s. The NAACP continued to criticize the studios for the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the genre and its tendency to reinforce white stereotypes about black culture. At the same time, audiences were growing tired of the cheap production and re-hashed ghetto crime-thriller formula. By the time the 1980s arrived, productions within the blaxploitation wheelhouse had pretty much come to a grinding halt. This ironically put many of the actors, directors, artists and technicians that had fought so hard to break into the film industry back out into unemployment. However, as things tend to rise and fall in cycles, the genre didn't stay dead forever.
The movement's revitalization and prevalent influence:
The blaxploitation genre may have dried up by the 1980s, but lasting impression the genre left on young filmmakers would spurn a revival that can still be seen today. Film's like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Jon Singleton's Boyz n the Hood also focused on the urban life of young black Americans; however, this was a new wave of black filmmaking and not a mere regurgitation of the typical blaxploitation plots. These films that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s would incorporate elements common to the blaxploitation genre, while simultaneously blending in implicit criticism of the genre's glorification of the stereotypical "criminal" behavior.
The biggest contributing factor, however, to the revival of the genre would come from the film's of Quentin Tarantino, specifically Jackie Brown; however, you can see traces on blaxploitation in nearly all of Tarantino's films (just look at Jules in Pulp Fiction). Jackie Brown not only provoked audiences to revisit the then-forgotten genre, but the film also sparked a second wind to Pam Grier's career. A few more blaxploitation films appeared in the early 2000s in the form of parody, like Pootie Tang, Undercover Brother, and Black Dynamite, or a reboot, like Shaft.
Blaxploitation was also a major musical influence for America, both during its heyday and beyond. The attitude of the genre would make a lasting impression on the hip-hop movement. Tupac, in particular, cited the blaxploitation films of the 70s as a major influence to his life and music.
The genre continues to kick ass today, and will likely continue on strong considering the popularity of Luke Cage and Marvel's Black Panther. Michael Jai White also dropped a trailer for a follow up to Black Dynamite, which will release this year. Given the current political state of America, it's a perfect time for the genre to make a comeback.
What do you think? Do you enjoy blaxploitation cinema? What films are your favorite from the genre? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well, sucka!