Blaxploitation

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Black Caesar (1973)

Blaxploitation or blacksploitation is a film genre that emerged in the United States in the 1970s. It is considered an ethnic subgenre of the general category of exploitation films. Blaxploitation films were originally made specifically for an urban black audience, although the genre's audience appeal soon broadened across racial and ethnic lines. The term itself is a portmanteau of the words "black" and "exploitation," following upon the briefly-common use "sexploitation" for porn-inflected films, and was coined in the early 1970s by the Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) head, and ex-film publicist Junius Griffin. Blaxploitation films were the first to regularly feature soundtracks of funk and soul music as well as primarily black casts.[1] Variety credited Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, released in 1971, with the invention of the blaxploitation genre while others argue that the Hollywood-financed film Shaft, also released in 1971, is closer to being a blaxploitation piece and thus is more likely to have begun the trend.[2]

Defining qualities of the genre[edit]

When set in the Northeast or West Coast, blaxploitation films are mainly set in poor neighborhoods. Ethnic slurs against white characters, such as "crackers" and "honky", and other derogatory names are common plot and or character elements. Blaxploitation films set in the South often deal with slavery and miscegenation.[3][4]

Blaxploitation includes several subtypes of films including crime (Foxy Brown), action/martial arts (Three the Hard Way), westerns (Boss Nigger), horror (Abby, Blacula), comedy (Uptown Saturday Night), nostalgia (Five on the Black Hand Side), coming-of-Age/courtroom drama (Cooley High/Cornbread, Earl and Me), and musical (Sparkle).

Following the example set by Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, many blaxploitation films feature funk and soul jazz soundtracks with heavy bass, funky beats, and wah-wah guitars. These soundtracks are notable for a degree of complexity that was not common to the radio-friendly funk tracks of the 1970s, and a rich orchestration which included instruments rarely used in funk or soul such as the flute and the violin.[5]

Following the popularity of blaxploitation films in the 1970s, films within other genres began to feature black characters with stereotypical blaxploitation characteristics, such as the Harlem underworld characters in Live and Let Die (1973), Jim Kelly's character in Enter the Dragon (1973), and Fred Williamson's character in The Inglorious Bastards (1978).

Stereotypes[edit]

The genre's role in exploring and shaping race relations in the US has been controversial. While some held that the Blaxploitation trend was a token of black empowerment,[6] the movies were accused by others of perpetuating common white stereotypes about black people. As a result, many called for the end of the genre. The NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and National Urban League joined together to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Through their influence, during the late 1970s, they contributed to the demise of the genre.

Blaxploitation films such as Mandingo (1975) provided mainstream Hollywood producers, in this case Dino De Laurentiis, a cinematic way to depict plantation slavery, with all of its brutal, historical and ongoing racial contradictions and controversies, including sex, miscegenation, rebellion and so on. In addition, the story world depicts the plantation as one of the main origins of boxing as a sport in the U.S. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new wave of acclaimed black filmmakers focused on black urban life in their movies, particularly Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood, among others. These films made use of elements of Blaxploitation, but also incorporated implicit criticism of the genre's glorification of stereotypical "criminal" behavior.

Later influence and media references[edit]

Blaxploitation films have had an enormous and complicated influence on American cinema. The acclaimed filmmaker and noted fan of exploitation film, Quentin Tarantino, for example, has made countless references to the Blaxploitation genre in his films. An early blaxploitation tribute can be seen in the character of "Lite," played by Sy Richardson, in Repo Man (1984). Richardson would later go on to write Posse (1993), which could be described as a kind of blaxploitation Western.

Later movies such as Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) and Undercover Brother (2002), as well as Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), Death Proof (2007), and Inglourious Basterds (2009) feature pop culture nods to the Blaxploitation genre. The parody Undercover Brother, for example, stars Eddie Griffin as an afro-topped agent for a clandestine organization satirically known as the "B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D.". Likewise, Austin Powers in Goldmember co-stars Beyoncé Knowles as the Tamara Dobson/Pam Grier-inspired heroine, Foxxy Cleopatra. In the 1977 parody film The Kentucky Fried Movie, a mock trailer for Cleopatra Schwartz depicts another Grier-like action star married to a rabbi. In addition to Jackie Brown, in a famous scene in Reservoir Dogs, the main characters engage in a brief discussion regarding Get Christie Love!, a mid-1970s blaxploitation television series. Similarly, in the catalytic scene of True Romance, the characters are seen viewing the movie The Mack.

John Singleton's Shaft (2000), starring Samuel L. Jackson, is a modern-day interpretation of a classic blaxploitation film. The 1997 film Hoodlum starring Laurence Fishburne, portrays a fictional account of black mobster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, recast gangster Blaxploitation with a 1930s twist. In 2004, Mario Van Peebles released Baadasssss!, a movie based on the making of his father's movie in which Mario played his father. 2007's American Gangster, based on the true story of heroin dealer Frank Lucas, takes place in the early 1970s in Harlem and has many elements similar in style to blaxploitation films, specifically when the theme Across 110th Street is played.

Blaxploitation films have made a profound impact on contemporary hip-hop culture. Several prominent hip hop artists including Snoop Dogg, Big Daddy Kane, Ice-T, Slick Rick, and Too Short have adopted the no-nonsense pimp persona popularized first by ex-pimp Iceberg Slim's 1967 book Pimp and subsequently by films such as Super Fly, The Mack, and Willie Dynamite, as inspiration for their own works. In fact, many hip-hop artists have paid tribute to pimping within their lyrics (most notably 50 Cent's hit single "P.I.M.P.") and have openly embraced the pimp image in their music videos, by including entourages of scantily-clad women, flashy jewelry (known as "bling-bling"), and luxury Cadillacs (referred to as "pimpmobiles"). Perhaps the most famous scene of The Mack, featuring the "Annual Players Ball", has become an often-referenced pop culture icon; most recently by Chappelle's Show, where it was parodied as the "Playa Hater's Ball". The genre's overseas influence extends to artists such as Norway's hip-hop duo Madcon.[7]

Blaxploitation's influence is also seen in the medium of webcomics. In 2009, cartoonist Jay Potts introduced World Of Hurt,[8] a serial, adventure webcomic which pays homage to black action movies of the 1970s, such as Shaft and Slaughter's Big Rip-Off. However, unlike most recent works that reference blaxploitation, the genre is treated seriously within the strip, not as a source of parody or humor.

Cultural references and parodies[edit]

The notoriety of the Blaxploitation genre has led to many parodies, both humorous and satirical.[9] The earliest attempts to mock the genre, Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin and Rudy Ray Moore's Dolemite, date back to the genre's heyday in 1975. Coonskin was intended to deconstruct racial stereotypes, ranging from early minstrel show stereotypes to the more recent stereotypes found in blaxploitation film itself. However, the work stimulated great controversy even before its release when it was challenged by the Congress of Racial Equality. Even though distribution was handed to a smaller distributor who advertised it as an exploitation film, it soon developed a cult following with black viewers.[2] Dolemite, less serious in tone and produced as a spoof, centers around a sexually active black pimp played by Rudy Ray Moore, who based the film on his stand-up comedy act. The film was followed by a sequel, The Human Tornado.

Later spoofs parodying the Blaxploitation genre include I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Pootie Tang, Undercover Brother, Black Dynamite and The Hebrew Hammer, which featured a Jewish protagonist, and was jokingly referred to by its director as a "Jewsploitation" film.

Robert Townsend's comedy Hollywood Shuffle features a young black actor who is tempted to take part in a white-produced Blaxploitation film.

The satirical book Our Dumb Century features an article from the 1970s entitled "Congress Passes Anti-Blaxploitation Act: Pimps, Players Subject to Heavy Fines".

FOX's network television comedy, "MADtv", has frequently spoofed the Rudy Ray Moore-created franchise Dolemite, with a series of sketches performed by comic actor Aries Spears, in the role of "The Son of Dolemite". Other sketches include the characters "Funkenstein", "Dr. Funkenstein" and more recently Condoleezza Rice as a blaxploitation superhero. A recurring theme in these sketches is the inexperience of the cast and crew in the blaxploitation era, with emphasis on ridiculous scripting and shoddy acting, sets, costumes and editing. The sketches are testaments to the poor production quality of the films, with obvious boom mike appearances and intentionally poor cuts and continuity.

In the movie Leprechaun in the Hood, a character played by Ice-T pulls a baseball bat from his Afro; this scene is an allusion to a similar scene in Foxy Brown, in which Pam Grier hides a revolver in her Afro.

Adult Swim's Aqua Teen Hunger Force series has a recurring character called "Boxy Brown" - a play on Foxy Brown. An imaginary friend of Meatwad, Boxy Brown is a cardboard box with a crudely drawn face with a French cut that dons an afro. Whenever Boxy speaks, ’70s funk music, typical of blaxploitation films, is played in the background. The cardboard box also has a confrontational attitude and dialect similar to many heroes of this film genre.

Some of the TVs found in the action video game Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne feature a Blaxploitation-themed parody of the original Max Payne game called Dick Justice, after its main character. Dick behaves much like the original Max Payne (down to the "constipated" grimace and metaphorical speech) but wears an afro and mustache, and speaks in Ebonics.

Duck King, a fictional character created for the video game series Fatal Fury, is a prime example of foreign black stereotypes.

The sub-cult movie short Gayniggers from Outer Space is a Blaxploitation-like science fiction oddity directed by Danish filmmaker, DJ, and singer Morten Lindberg.

Jefferson Twilight, a character in The Venture Bros., is a parody of the comic-book character Blade (a half-black, half-vampire vampire hunter), as well as a blaxploitation reference: He has an afro, sideburns, and a mustache. He carries swords, dresses in stylish 1970s clothing, and says that he hunts "Blaculas". He looks and sounds somewhat like Samuel L. Jackson.

The intro credits of Beavis and Butt-Head Do America has a Blaxploitation style, having the theme sung by Isaac Hayes.

Family Guy has parodied blaxploitation numerous times using fake movie titles such as "Black to the Future" (Back to the Future) and "Love Blactually" (Love Actually). These parodies occasionally feature a stereotyped black version of Peter Griffin.

Martha Southgate's 2005 novel Third Girl from the Left is set in Hollywood during the era of blaxploitation films and references many blaxploitation films and stars such as Pam Grier and Coffy.

Notable blaxploitation films[edit]

1970[edit]

1971[edit]

1972[edit]

1973[edit]

  • Black Caesar: Fred Williamson plays Tommy Gibbs, a street smart hoodlum who has worked his way up to being the crime boss of Harlem.
  • Blackenstein: A parody of Frankenstein and features a black Frankenstein's monster.
  • Cleopatra Jones and the sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975): Stars Tamara Dobson as a karate-chopping government agent. The first film marked the beginning of a subgenre of blaxploitation films which focused on strong female leads who took an active role in shootouts and fights. Some of these films include Coffy, Black Belt Jones, Foxy Brown, and T.N.T. Jackson.
  • Coffy: Pam Grier stars as Coffy, a nurse turned vigilante who takes revenge on all those who hooked her 11-year-old sister on heroin. Coffy marked Pam Grier's biggest hit and was re-worked for Foxy Brown, Friday Foster and Sheba Baby.
  • Detroit 9000: Set in Detroit, MI, features street-smart white detective Danny Bassett (Alex Rocco) who teams with educated black detective Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes) to investigate the theft of $400,000 at a fund-raiser for Representative Aubrey Hale Clayton (Rudy Challenger). Championed by Quentin Tarantino it was released on video by Miramax in April 1999.
  • Gordon's War: Stars Paul Winfield as a Vietnam vet who recruits ex-Army buddies to fight the Harlem drug dealers and pimps responsible for the heroin-fueled death of his wife.
  • The Mack: A film starring Max Julien and Richard Pryor.[11] This movie was produced during the era of such Blaxploitation movies as Dolemite. However it is not considered by its makers a true blaxploitation picture. It is more a social commentary according to Mackin' Ain't Easy, a documentary about the making of The Mack, which can be found on the DVD edition of the film. The movie tells the story of the life of John Mickens (AKA Goldie), a former drug dealer recently released from prison who becomes a big-time pimp. Standing in his way is another pimp: Pretty Tony. Two corrupt white cops, a local crime lord, and his own brother (a black nationalist), who all try to force him out of the business. The movie is set in Oakland, California and was the biggest grossing blaxploitation film of its time. Its soundtrack was recorded by Motown artist Willie Hutch.
  • Scream Blacula Scream: Sequel to Blacula; William H. Marshall resumes his role as Blacula/Mamuwalde.
  • Slaughter's Big Rip-Off: Jim Brown continues to battle against the Mob in this sequel to Slaughter (1972).
  • The Spook Who Sat By the Door is adapted from Sam Greenlee's novel and directed by Ivan Dixon with music by Herbie Hancock. A token black CIA employee, who is secretly a black nationalist, leaves his position to train a street gang in CIA tactics in order to become an army of "freedom fighters". The film was reportedly pulled from distribution because of its politically controversial message and depictions of an American race war. Until its 2004 DVD release, it was very difficult to obtain, save for infrequent bootleg VHS copies. In 2012, the film was included in the USA Library of Congress National Film Registry.[12]
  • That Man Bolt: starring Fred Williamson, is the first spy film in this genre, combining elements of James Bond with martial arts action in an international setting.
  • Trick Baby: Based on the book of the same name by ex-pimp Iceberg Slim.

1974[edit]

  • Abby: A blaxploitation version of The Exorcist and stars Carol Speed as a virtuous young woman possessed by a demon. Ms. Speed also sings the title song. William H. Marshall (of Blacula fame) conducts the exorcism of Abby on the floor of a discotheque. A hit in its time, it was later pulled from the theaters after Warner Bros. successfully sued AIP over copyright issues.
  • Black Belt Jones: Better known for his role as "Mister Williams" in the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, Jim Kelly was given a leading role in this martial arts film. He plays Black Belt Jones, a federal agent/martial arts expert, who takes on the mob as he avenges the murder of a karate school owner.
  • Black Eye: An action-mystery starring Fred Williamson as a private detective investigating murders connected with a drug ring.
  • The Black Godfather: a film starring Rod Perry as a man rising to underworld power based on The Godfather.
  • The Black Six: About a black motorcycle gang seeking revenge, is a combination of blaxploitation and outlaw biker film.
  • Foxy Brown: Largely a remake of her hit film Coffy, Pam Grier once again plays a nurse on a vendetta against a drug ring.[13] Originally written as a sequel to Coffy, the film's working title was Burn, Coffy, Burn!
  • Get Christie Love! (TV movie later released to some theaters): A police drama, this time with an attractive young black woman (Teresa Graves) as an undercover cop. Later made into a short-lived TV series.
  • Johnny Tough: starring Dion Gossett and Renny Roker.
  • Space Is the Place: Psychedelically-themed blaxploitation film featuring Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Solar Arkestra.
  • Three the Hard Way. Three black men (Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, and Jim Brown) must stop a white supremacist plot to eliminate all blacks with a serum in the water supply. Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr.
  • T.N.T. Jackson: Starring Jean Bell (one of the first black Playboy playmates), this film is partly set in Hong Kong, and notable for blending blaxploitation with the then-popular "chop-socky" martial arts genre.
  • Truck Turner: Starring Isaac Hayes, Yaphet Kotto, Nichelle Nichols, and directed by Johnathan Kaplan. Former football player turned bounty hunter is pitted against a powerful prostitution crime syndicate in Los Angeles.
  • Sugar Hill: Set in Houston, this film features a female fashion photographer (played by Marki Bey) who wreaks revenge on the local crime Mafia that murdered her fiance with the use of voodoo magic.
  • Together Brothers: Set in Galveston, Texas, a street gang solves the murder of a Galveston, TX police officer (played by Ed Bernard who has been a mentor to the gang leader). This was the first Blaxploitation film to feature a transgender character as the film's villain. Galveston, TX native Barry White composed the film's score. The soundtrack features music by the Love Unlimited Orchestra.
  • Willie Dynamite: Roscoe Orman (Gordon from Sesame Street fame) plays a pimp. As in many Blaxploitation films, the lead character drives a customized Cadillac Eldorado Coupe (the same car was used in Magnum Force).

1975[edit]

  • Sheba, Baby: A female private eye (Pam Grier) tries to help her father save his loan business from a gang of thugs.
  • The Black Gestapo: Rod Perry plays General Ahmed who has started an inner-city People's Army to try to relieve the misery of the citizens of Watts, Los Angeles. When the Mafia moves in, they establish a military style squad.
  • Black Shampoo: A take off of the Warren Beatty hit Shampoo.
  • Boss Nigger: Along with his friend Amos (D’Urville Martin), Boss Nigger (Fred Williamson) takes over the vacated position of Sheriff in a small western town in this Western Blaxploitation film. Because of its controversial title, it was released in some markets as The Boss, The Black Bounty Killer or The Black Bounty Hunter.
  • Coonskin: An animated/live-action, controversial Ralph Bakshi film about Br'er Fox, Br'er Rabbit, and Br'er Bear in a blaxploitation parody of Disney's Song of the South. It features the voice of Barry White as Br'er Bear.
  • Darktown Strutters (1975): A farce produced by Roger Corman's brother, Gene, and directed by William Witney. A Colonel Sanders-type figure with a chain of urban fried chicken restaurants is attempting to wipe out the black race by making them impotent through his drugged fried chicken.
  • Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde: The retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde tale, starring Bernie Casey.
  • Dolemite: Also the name of its principal character, played by Rudy Ray Moore, who co-wrote the film. Moore had developed the alter-ego as a stand-up comedian and released several comedy albums using this persona. The film was directed by D'Urville Martin, who appears as the villain Willie Green. The film has attained something of a cult status, earning it a following and making it more well-known than many of its counterparts. A sequel, The Human Tornado, was released in 1976.
  • Mandingo: Based on a series of lurid Civil War novels, this focuses on the abuses of slavery and the sexual relations between slaves and slave owners. It was followed by a sequel, Drum (1976) starring Pam Grier.
  • The Candy Tangerine Man: The film opens with pageantry pimp Baron (John Daniels) driving his customised two-tone red and yellow Rolls Royce around downtown L.A at night. His ladies have been coming up short lately and he wants to know why. It turns out that two L.A.P.D. cops - Dempsey and Gordon, who have been after Baron for some time now, have resorted to rousting his girls every chance they get. Indeed in the next scene they have set Baron up with a cop in drag to entrap him with procurement of prostitutes.

1976[edit]

  • Ebony, Ivory & Jade: By Cirio Santiago (also known as She Devils in Chains, American Beauty Hostages, Foxfire, Foxforce). Three female athletes are kidnapped during an international track meet in Hong Kong and fight their way to freedom. Another cross-genre blend of blaxploitation and martial arts action films.
  • The Muthers: Another Cirio Santiago combination of Filipino martial arts action and women-in-prison elements. Jeanne Bell and Jayne Kennedy rescue prisoners held at an evil coffee plantation.
  • Passion Plantation (a.k.a. Black Emmanuel, White Emmanuel): A blend of the Mandingo, and Emmanuelle are erotic films with interracial sex and savagery.
  • Velvet Smooth. Johnnie Hill is the titular Velvet Smooth: a female private detective hired to infiltrate the criminal underworld.
  • Human Tornado. Rudy Ray Moore plays in the sequel to the 1975 film Dolemite.

1977[edit]

  • Black Fist: A film featuring a streetfighter who goes to work for a white gangster and a corrupt cop. The film is in the public domain. Cast members include Richard Lawson and Dabney Coleman
  • Black Samurai: Based on a novel of the same name by Marc Olden, is directed by Al Adamson and stars Jim Kelly (martial artist). The script is credited to B. Readick, with additional story ideas from Marco Joachim.
  • Bare Knuckles: Stars Robert Viharo, Sherry Jackson and Gloria Hendry. The film is written and directed by Don Edmonds. Follows L.A. bounty hunter Zachary Kane (Viharo) on the hunt for a masked serial killer on the loose.
  • Petey Wheatstraw (a.k.a. Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-In-Law): A blaxploitation film written by Cliff Roquemore and stars popular blaxploitation genre comedian Rudy Ray Moore along with Jimmy Lynch, Leroy Daniels, Ernest Mayhand, and Ebony Wright. It is typical of Moore's other films of the era, Dolemite and The Human Tornado, in that it features Rudy Ray Moore's rhyming dialogue.

1978[edit]

  • Death Dimension: An action and martial arts film by Al Adamson starring Jim Kelly, Harold Sakata, George Lazenby, Terry Moore, and Aldo Ray. The movie also goes by the names Death Dimensions, Freeze Bomb, Icy Death, The Kill Factor, and Black Eliminator. The plot revolves about a scientist, Professor Mason, who has invented a powerful freezing bomb for a gangster leader nicknamed "The Pig" (Sakata).

1979[edit]

  • Disco Godfather (also known as The Avenging Disco Godfather): An action film starring Rudy Ray Moore and Carol Speed. The plot centers on Moore's character, a retired cop, who owns and operates a disco and who tries to shut down the local angel dust dealer after his nephew becomes hooked on the drug.

Post 1970s Blaxploitation Films[edit]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Blaxploitation Films by Mikel J. Koven, 2010, Kamera Books, ISBN 978-1-903047-58-3
  • "The Rise and Fall of Blaxploitation" by Ed Guerrero, in The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, eds. Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, Art Simon, (New York, 2012): Vol 3, pp. 435-469, ISBN 978-1-4051-7984-3.
  • What It Is...What It Was!; The Black Film Explosion of the ’70s in Words and Pictures by Andres Chavez, Denise Chavez, Gerald Martinez ISBN 0-7868-8377-4
  • "The So Called Fall of Blaxploitation" by Ed Guerrero, The Velvet Light Trap #64 Fall 2009

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ebert, Roger (2004-06-11). "Review of Baadasssss!". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2007-01-04. 
  2. ^ a b James, Darius (1995). That's Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury). ISBN 0-312-13192-5. 
  3. ^ Bright Lights Film Journal | Blaxploitation
  4. ^ Holden, Stephen (2000-06-09). "FILM REVIEW; From Blaxploitation Stereotype to Man on the Street". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-26. 
  5. ^ "Music Genre: Blaxploitation". Allmusic. Retrieved 2007-06-21. 
  6. ^ "Despite its incendiary name, Blaxploitation was viewed by many as being a token of empowerment.". Seattle Times. Retrieved 2011-01-31. 
  7. ^ "Beggin'". Youtube.com. 2007-11-22. Retrieved 2013-08-08. 
  8. ^ World of Hurt
  9. ^ Maynard, Richard (2000-06-16). "The Birth and Demise of the 'Blaxploitation' Genre". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-01-29. 
  10. ^ Ed Guerrero, FRAMING BLACKNESS. Temple U. Press. pp. 95–97.
  11. ^ Dutka, Elaine (1997-06-30). "ReDiggin' the Scene". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-01-30. 
  12. ^ News from the Library of Congress: December 19, 2012 (REVISED December 20, 2012) Retrieved: 29 December 2012
  13. ^ "Pam Grier looks back on blaxploitation: ‘At the time some people were horrified’". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-01-29. 
  14. ^ "Filmfanaddict.com review of the film". Shockingimages.com. Retrieved 2013-08-08. 

External links[edit]