Blaxploitation: What It Is...What It Was
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The word "Blaxploitation" was originally created not by a white person but by an African-American who was slighted by the producers of Super Fly. It was initially coined to stir up controversy/stereotyping and for many years black filmmakers/actors didn't accept it as a positive term. Yet ironically, over time it has come to represent a specific era of black genre cinema of the 1970s. What was once regarded as a negative description has changed into something that brings to mind exciting and groundbreaking cinema made by and starring African Americans.
The blaxploitation films were centered around black casts and they were usually set in and around urban locations. There were all kinds of subgenre films made as well. From Revenge films to Kung Fu and Horror.
The first films that ushered in the Blaxploitation era were Ossie Davis' Cotton Comes To Harlem (1970) and Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1971). Sweetback was written produced and directed by Van Peebles and it gained a big following after its release. This film also marked the beginning of the main theme in many of the Blaxploitation films which was about "Fighting The Man". "The Man" represented all oppressive white bigots. Sweetback was special because it not only gave Black writer-directors inspiration to create their own form of cinematic expression, but were very good representatives of the new Black Empowerment movement happening in the USA at the time.
Gordon Parks Sr. directed Shaft (1971) starring Richard Roundtree. It told the story of a tough independent private investigator who didn't take any jive from anyone. He was a very strong icon to the Black audiences and he brought an edge not seen previously in film to the big screen. Shaft also featured a hit soundtrack by Isaac Hayes who would later go on to score and star in several Blaxploitation films himself, including Three Tough Guys (1974) and Truck Turner (1974).
Exploitation film auteur Jack Hill (Spider Baby, The Big Doll House), a protege of the legendary B-Movie King Roger Corman, directed his first Blaxploitation film in 1973. It was called Coffy and it starred a young, beautiful woman named Pam Grier. Grier's sexuality and her ability to be a 'one woman hit squad' was a great thing for other women to see at that time. The story revolved around a woman out for revenge after her younger sister succumbs to drug addiction. Coffy blames the pimps and pushers for her sister's state and she vows to get the scum that did her sister wrong. The action sequences are really well done, and although they are over the top, Hill does an excellent job creating atmosphere, providing comedy and adding his own touch of style. Pam Grier shines as the busty vixen who is referred to as "The Godmother of Them All" in the film's exciting trailers and radio spots. Coffy went on to be a big hit at the box office in 1973. Jack Hill followed it in 1974 with his next Pam Grier Revenge actioner entitled Foxy Brown.
In 1972, Gordon Parks Jr directed his own Blaxploitation film called Super Fly. Super Fly told the story of a pimp/drug dealer named Youngblood Priest (Ron O'Neal) who is looking to make one last big score, get out of the business and start over in life. The main problem is Priest's ties within his surroundings are not letting him go so easily. This film is an excellent portrayal of the life of a criminal. The soundtrack was by Curtis Mayfield and it's one of the best movie scores ever made. With great tracks like "Freddy's Dead" and "Pusherman", Mayfield really gives a wonderfully crafted commentary on the film's content and characters' lives. Note: Super Fly was the first film to push the Oscar-winning classic The Godfather from the #1 spot that year.
Director Michael Campus' The Mack (1973) told the story of a ex-con named Goldie (Max Julien) who's released from prison and enters back into the life of being a pimp on the streets. This film was a special document of life at the time in and around the city of Oakland, California. The film even co-starred many real life pimps and players. They can be seen in full flamboyant regalia at the "Players Ball" in the film. Max Julien does a stellar job as Goldie, the smooth talking mack daddy who cons loads of women into hooking for him. The film also has a special treat in the form of Richard Pryor who plays Goldie's best friend Slim and he provides much of the humor. Goldie must dodge the white racist cops, a rival crime boss and even his own brother who is trying to help rid the streets of crime.
There were many comedies at this time that revolved around all black casts as well. Oscar winner Sidney Poitier and comedian Bill Cosby teamed up on a few of these films together such as A Piece of The Action, Let's Do it Again and Uptown Saturday Night. They were a lot of fun and showed the lighter, comedic side of the Blaxploitation film genre.
The Blaxploitation era lasted from approximately 1971 to 1979. Throughout the 70s hundreds of films were directed, written by and starring African Americans. They might've been mostly low budget genre films, but they had an exciting, raw, soulful quality unlike any other type up until that time. These films are now considered cult classics that were a unique part of pop culture history that will always have a special place in movie lovers hearts.
Now go discover
- All Blaxploitation films listed in the GCDB
- The Baadasssss Blaxploitation Top 20
- Baadasssss Blaxploitation on BluRay • DVD
- Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide