Richard Roundtree as Shaft, copyright MGM
Blaxploitation! What it is?
As room for independent movies opened up and production codes were relaxed, the doors opened to a more diverse class of movie, among them movies that told ‘black’ stories.
During the 60s the declining market for Hollywood studio movies opened the door for alternative and independent films that appealed to alternative audiences. Initially some theatres were showing ‘stag’ movies and others ‘teen’-appeal movies. The themes from the latter, sex and gore, were tapped in to by filmmakers. These became known as ‘exploitation’ and ‘sexploitation’ films. As the doors opened to alternative films made by ‘black’ people, many of these films became known as ‘Blaxploitation’ movies. Blaxploitation categorises a number of films mostly made between 1970 and 1975, but occasionally stretches beyond the 70s. And there have been a number of homages, e.g. Jackie Brown (1997), Undercover Brother (2002), Black Dynamite (2009) and more recently, Dolemite is my Name (2019), this last based on the real life of Blaxploitation film maker Rudy Ray Moore.
The Blaxploitation label was given due to the nature of these films’ use of colourful language, the use of action or violence and the use of sex scenes, some of which, by today’s standards, seem questionable, or unnecessary. But was Blaxploitation the best term to use for all of them?
Given the relative success of the exploitation/sexploitation movie, for example Russ Meyer’s ‘Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill’ (1965) and Vixen (1968), was it any wonder that black movie makers, among others, tapped into the market? The use of sex and violence drew audiences and opened doors. For one, there were ready-made audiences to tap: the rebellious youth audience, for one, and, this case, the black audience. And if you could muster the funds, making one of these movies had the potential to get you noticed as a film maker, which was a grand step toward a potentially illustrious career and/or had the potential to make you some money.
The two most well-known films to kick off the Blaxploitation genre were Sweet Sweetback’s Baddasss Song (1971), a film that’s probably better known by students of film these days and ‘Shaft’ (1971), a globally better known and more mainstream movie.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baddasss Song is definitely the front-runner in respect to its Blaxploitation label. The film was written, produced and edited by Melvin Van Peebles, and starred Melvin Van Peebles in the lead role. The story of a black man on the run from white cops who are framing him, it has a rough script and features supposedly authentic sex scenes. The film was criticised for the stereotyping of the black stud, whose sexual feats fill white people with fear and jealousy, a subject you might expect a black movie maker to avoid. However, that criticism may be a little unfair, given the timing of its release and the context of civil unrest and the oppression of black people. Whether by design or accident, Sweet Sweetback’s Baddasss Song managed to resonate with a wider black audience and still carries weight as one of the first, revolutionary blaxploitation movies. Today it remains a classic as a step towards a wider acceptance of black people in modern cinema.
‘Shaft’, directed by Gordon Parks Snr and starring Richard Roundtree, is the story of a private detective who is asked by a mobster to help him rescue his kidnapped daughter. John Shaft is not a bad-ass on the run; he is a detective, he is an intelligent man who can manipulate people and situations to get results.
Although Sweet Sweetback’s Baddasss Song and Shaft are considered a beginning to Blaxploitation, there was one detective/action/comedy movie released a year earlier that some considered Blaxploitation and others did not. That movie was ‘Cotton Comes to Harlem’ (1970). It tells the story of two detectives in Harlem who chase down a crime that is both a robbery and a fraud. Cotton Comes to Harlem has some lighter moments and perhaps because it leaned less heavily on sex and violence, it didn’t have the impact of Sweet Sweetback’s Baddasss Song and Shaft. But maybe it was just timing.
This begs the question: when is black film Blaxploitation? And is Blaxploitation a ‘label’, a ‘genre’ or both? For example, take another detective movie, let’s say Point Blank (1967), which starred Lee Marvin, and imagine the same movie with an entirely black cast. Would you call it a Blaxploitation movie? It does seem to meet the criteria. Or is it a detective movie? Blaxploitation might be a disingenuous, or incorrect label for modern black cinema. These movies were crime/detective movies, and that was the most popular format of the early seventies. Examples include the James Bond movies, which often featured kung fu and always included sex; The French Connection (1971); The Godfather (1972), and Dillinger (1973). The positive side to labels and genres is that people’s interest and curiosity can be peaked by them.
Some would argue that it is the reliance on sex and violence that denotes Blaxploitation, but if you watch Shaft, you will see that Richard Roundtree plays a detective who is suave, intelligent, and tough. Mostly, he typifies the ‘hard-boiled’ detective found in many of the classic detective movies.
The difference between Blaxploitation and its Hollywood predecessors was that earlier films did not have black heroes who weren’t afraid to hurt their enemies. Not only were the new heroes, or anti-heroes, black, they were black and tough and sexual - both male and female. Things like women’s rights and sexual equality were an important focus at this time and this included black people too. Black films were not that different to white films; they were different to the white interpretation of black people.
But if there was one difference that did set Blaxploitation apart, it was fashion. If the seventies were a period where bright colours were definitely ‘in’, then Blaxploitation took style to another level. Suits became bigger, and hats, walking canes and faux fur became de rigueur. Superfly (1972), was the birthplace of the gangster/pimp look. And, as they say, style never goes out of fashion
Like R&B in American music, black cinema has had a pervasive influence on American film culture, which goes largely unnoticed. Most obviously, the movies of Quentin Tarantino are influenced by Blaxploitation, and not only does he readily acknowledge that, he paid homage to the genre. His film ‘Jackie Brown’ (1997), starred an original from Blaxploitation, Pam Grier, and was modelled on her earlier film character Foxy Brown. The intrinsic culture of Blaxploitation movies that, at first, set them apart, gradually filtered into mainstream American film culture. For example, take The Matrix (1997) and its sequels. Not only do they feature action, kung fu, sex and a fight against ‘the man’, they are also imbued with a fashion sense that goes well beyond the average streetwear of their time.
Nowadays, when you search the internet for 1970’s black films, you invariably receive a list of Blaxploitation movies. But there was more to black cinema than that. After Cotton Comes to Harlem, Sweet Sweetback’s Baddasss Song and Shaft, these movies gave rise to the idea that there was a market for black movies, as a part of the mainstream, rather than as ‘black cinema’. Although fewer in number than the mainstream, many of the black movies of the seventies provided a marvellous contribution to the miscellany of modern American cinema. That is not to say we should avoid Blaxploitation, there are great movies in the genre and wonderful stars, but there were other movies of value that contributed to black cinema at the time, including Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Claudine (1974), Car Wash (1976) and other mainstream crossovers like Silver Streak (1976) and Blue Collar (1978).
In the end, the Blaxploitation movie died out because Hollywood had found the ‘blockbuster’, e.g. Jaws (1975), and no longer needed to support alternative cinema. But Blaxploitation has left its stamp on modern cinema and there is a legacy. Since Blaxploitation, films have been made that aren’t just tokens or representations of black people, they are black stories. The films of John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood), Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City) and Spike Lee, who gives a generous nod to the Blaxploitation movies in his Oscar winning film BlacKkKlansman (2018), to name but a few.
The risk for black filmmakers today is the same as it has always been. Hollywood’s focus is the films potential to make money. Therefore, the stories that least fit the formulas will receive the least attention and funds.
Incidentally, black movies that exploited crime and action weren’t exactly anything new. Take a look at the movies by Oscar Micheaux, some of whose earlier action crime films from the 1920s have been lost, but you can still see this effect in ‘Ten Minutes to Live’ (1932). But overall, black cinema remained a small, largely ignored market, and although there were some attempts during the forties and fifties, Hollywood wasn’t truly successful at co-opting the black cinema until the seventies.