Top 5: Quintessential Blaxploitation Films
List by Aaron Haughton
As we mentioned in our History of Blaxploitation Cinema article, there were hundreds upon thousands of titles that were released before the movement faded from the limelight. Out of all those many films that emerged from the genre, very few managed to make a lasting impression. A few, however, managed to live on in infamy.
Below are our picks for the most quintessential films from the movement, films that we feel are true embodiment of the distilled essence of blaxploitation. Enjoy!
- 5: Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was a monumental achievement in black cinema. Not only would Melvin Van Peebles write, produce, direct, edit and star in the film, but he would also finance the picture, do all the stunts, and compose the score. A true jack of trades, Van Peebles' vision would forever change the way African Americans' view film, as Sweetback would subvert expectations entirely by having the black man get away, something that had never been seen before. His film (which we'll get into later this week) was more experimental and avant-garde than the films that followed it, but nonetheless laid some very important groundwork and presented Hollywood with a formula that they could work with.
- 4: Blacula
We included Blacula on our list because it's the most influential black horror film from the era. In fact, it was first film to fuse blaxploitation and horror. The film's box office success would spark a wave of other black-themed horror films, such as Blackenstein, and even a sequel: Scream Blacula Scream. However, while the idea seemed pretty novel, the poor production quality typical of the blaxploitation movement would be a deterring factor to most.
- 3: Coffy
Coffy was one of the earliest portrayals of strong, independent female African Americans in cinema, and its release in 1973 would crown Pam Grier as the undisputed queen of blaxploitation. The interesting thing about Grier in Coffy is how she uses her sex appeal to seduce her would-be killers, something that feels like a nuance to the Black Widow archetype of Film Noir. In addition to the film being one of the first instances of strong female heroes in the genre, Coffy also had a refreshing anti-drug message, which was extremely uncommon that early on in the 70s. Also, (if it's worth anything) Coffy is one Quentin Tarantino's favorite films, and he ranks it high among his top 20 best films.
- 2: Super Fly
So, if Coffy can be praised for its anti-drug messages, so shall Super Fly be praised for its controversial protagonist. Many African Americans were divided by the film's cocaine dealing hero. Some thought that it was a negative portrayal that would reinforce white stereotypes of African Americans, but the film resonated with others who some saw Youngblood as a new example of how to rise in the American class system. Regardless of controversy, this film would be one of the biggest hitters of the genre, taking in $6.2 million against production costs of just $500,000 (and that's early 70s money). The film would even knock Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather from the top of the American box office charts.
Before we drop our #1 pick, here's a few honorable mentions:
- Black Ceasar
- Three the Hard Way
Now, to bust into our #1 pick...
- 1: Shaft
Of course, Shaft! He's a bad mother— ahhh, you get the bit. Shaft, like Sweetback, was one of the first blaxploitation films to hit the scene. Unlike Sweetback, however, it would come from a Hollywood system. If you asked any random person to name one blaxploitation film, this is the one they'd probably provide you. It was massively successful at the time of its release, and would prove to the rest of Hollywood that there's a huge market they've been ignoring for decades. Shaft was the first time a major studio cast a black actor in the lead role, which marked a long overdue turning point for African Americans in Hollywood. We also have director Gordon Parks, the first African American to produce and direct major motion pictures, to thank for that. The original role of Shaft was white, but Parks decided to cast Richard Roundtree, which opened the floodgates for the waters of the blaxploitation genre to flow. That's why Shaft is our pick for the number 1 quintessential blaxploitation film.
Well, that's our list! Did we leave any of your quintessential picks off our list? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well, sucka!