Photo Essay - Blaxploitation Cinema

Super FlyCourtesy of Warner Bros/Photofest.

What do you get when you combine Hollywood, African American actors, gritty urban settings, sex, and a whole lot of action? Some would call it a recipe for box office success, but since the early 1970s, most people have known this filmmaking formula by the name "Blaxploitation." Blaxploitation cinema, as we will discover, occupies a fascinating place in the landscape of American pop culture. At once vilified and glorified by different facets of the African American community, the films of this genre provide an extended meditation on the impact of racial divisions that persist even now.

Many scholars of film have identified Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) as one of the first Blaxploitation movies, and the action film surely has all of the hallmarks of the genre: an African American cast, a realistic urban setting, and protagonists acting outside of the law. These elements combined to make Cotton something of a novelty at the time of its release and contributed to its success with audiences. Scores of similar films followed, including 1972's genre masterpiece Super Fly. The film's plot is perhaps less important than the attitude and the image that star Ron O'Neal projected in the principal role of Youngblood Priest. Here was an African American man with power, undeniable swagger, a cool car, even a desire to put his drug-dealing ways behind him and do something greater with his life. Financed and produced entirely by African Americans, accompanied by a now-classic soul soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, and the source of much controversy regarding the role of film in the African American community, Super Fly may have been Blaxploitation cinema's high-water mark.

Junius GriffinJunius Griffin, NAACP chapter leader. Courtesy of Calvin Sneed/The Sons and Daughters of Douglass.

Combining the words "black" and "exploitation," "Blaxploitation" was originally intended to draw attention to what some saw as the corrupting nature of the emerging genre. Coined in 1972 by Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP chapter leader Junius Griffin, the term designates certain films that were believed to be taking advantage of African American cinemagoers' desire to see recognizably African American stories and characters represented in cinema. In this conception, instead of providing positive depictions of African Americans, Blaxploitation films offered a window into a world of crime, sex, and violence that appealed to an audience's most prurient interests.

While many joined Griffin in decrying the nascent trend in African American film, there were others who denied the notion that these films were engaging in any sort of exploitation. For some, the genre's frequent use of strong male and female leads who lived by their own code was empowering. African American characters who thrived outside the law exemplified a necessary rejection of an oppressive system designed and controlled by "the Man." And films set in urban ghettoes reflected the experiences of millions of African Americans whose lives were otherwise absent from representation in mainstream American culture.

Richard RoundtreeRichard Roundtree in 'Shaft's Big Score!', directed by Gordon Parks, 1972. Courtesy of MGM/Photofest.

Perhaps the quintessential Blaxploitation hero, John Shaft was immortalized in a series of films that began with 1971's Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks, Sr. Based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman and starring actor Richard Roundtree, the first Shaft film traces a few days in the life of the titular private detective. At the movie's outset, Shaft is called upon by a Harlem gangster to locate the criminal's kidnapped daughter. Though unafraid to call on the police when he requires their help, Shaft generally operates above the law and assembles a team of skilled mercenaries to aid him in his business. After a series of run-ins with rival gangs and the Mafia, not to mention a handful of beautiful women, Shaft saves the day in an exciting (and violent) hotel raid.

Shaft was a major commercial successful upon its release in theaters and produced two 1970s sequels, Shaft's Big Score and Shaft in Africa. CBS made a short-lived series of TV movies starring a more straitlaced John Shaft, and Tidyman wrote a number of novels that followed Shaft's continued adventures in Manhattan and around the globe. The first Shaft was also a critical darling, and its iconic soundtrack, composed and performed by Isaac Hayes, won Golden Globe, Grammy, BAFTA, and Academy awards. Shaft was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress in 2000, the same year that saw the release of a third sequel, in which Samuel L. Jackson portrayed John Shaft's nephew. Though Jackson played an NYPD detective in this latest Shaft film, the character's pedigree seemed to strike a chord with audiences, who made the film a box office success.

Fred WilliamsonFred Williamson in 'The Soul of Nigger Charley', directed by Larry G. Spangler, 1973. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Photofest.

Certain tropes within Blaxploitation cinema lent themselves to other genres of film as well. Whereas most traditional Blaxploitation films are classified as dramas or action movies, a number of films produced in the mid-1970s might be more accurately characterized as Blaxploitation Westerns and comedies. Westerns commonly incorporated violence and themes of justice and revenge, and were a natural cousin to Blaxploitation films, while crowd-pleasing comedies brought Blaxploitation themes to wider audiences.

Fred Williamson starred in a number of Westerns between 1972 and 1976. Though dismissed by critics, Williamson's first Western, The Legend of Nigger Charley, was a box office success and led to two follow-up films, 1973's The Soul of Nigger Charley and 1974's Boss Nigger. Though set primarily in the Old West, the films presented Williamson's characters as typical Blaxploitation heroes: strong, passionate men in search of their own brand of justice. Other notable Blaxploitation Westerns from the era include Adios, Amigo and Take a Hard Ride, whose director, Antonio Margheriti, brought a bona fide Spaghetti Western pedigree to the production.

The typical conceits of many Blaxploitation films proved to be fertile territory for many comedy writers, as well. Bill Cosby found one of his first big-screen roles opposite Sidney Poitier in the 1974 crime comedy Uptown Saturday Night. The picture, which may or may not have been poking fun at the Blaxploitation films of the time, was well-received and led to two sequels. (Cosby was presumably intimately familiar with the genre: it is widely acknowledged that he provided a loan to filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles for the filming of his seminal early Blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.)

Pam GrierPam Grier as 'Foxy Brown', 1974. Courtesy AIP/Photofest.

Blaxploitation films were not particularly hospitable environments for actresses. Utilized more often than not simply as eye candy, women generally found minor roles that portrayed them as accessories to powerful men. A small subset of Blaxploitation movies, however, revised this archetype and presented a femme fatale who is now an integral part of the history of African American cinema.

The first Blaxploitation film to put a woman in the title role was 1973's Coffy. Coffy, portrayed by Pam Grier, is a nurse-turned-vigilante who exacts revenge on a number of underworld figures whom she blames for her family's involvement in the drug trade. Coffy is unafraid to use her feminine charms to take advantage of male villains, and the film was controversial for sustaining the notion of hypersexualized African American heroes that arose alongside Blaxploitation cinema. Nevertheless, Coffy was a hit with audiences and brought new life to Blaxploitation, which had already been identified as a formulaic genre a couple of years into its existence.

Pam Grier would go on to further notoriety in the title role of the 1974 film Foxy Brown, where she plays a character who, like Coffy, wreaks righteous havoc upon a wide swath of the criminal underground. Foxy Brown was originally intended to be a sequel to Coffy, and the films share the same director and studio. It was Pam Grier, however, who stood out as the force driving the films' popularity. Roger Ebert, for example, noted in his otherwise-negative review of Coffy that she "has a kind of physical life to her that is sometimes missing in beautiful actresses. [...] [S]he gets into an action role and does it right." Grier's performances in these films, as well as later turns in Sheba, Baby (1975) and the Blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown (1997), would come to define one possible vision of the empowered African American woman in the late twentieth century.

BlaculaWilliam Marshall in 'Blacula', 1972. Courtesy AIP/Photofest.

The writers and directors of Blaxploitation films, perhaps tiring of urban crime stories and looking to expand the breadth of the emerging genre, found a wealth of adaptable material in the realm of horror films. Blaxploitation horror films, set primarily in urban ghettoes and consisting of all-African American casts, enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the mid-1970s. While perhaps nothing more than a footnote in the wider scheme of film history, these movies form an essential component of the 1970s Blaxploitation craze.

1972's Blacula is often cited as the first Blaxploitation horror film. The movie tells the story of an African prince who is turned into a vampire in the 18th century, locked into a coffin for 200 years, and brought to 1970s Los Angeles, where he terrorizes an unsuspecting populace. Though campy in the extreme, Blacula received a number of positive reviews and was followed the next year by Scream Blacula Scream.

The success of Blacula led to further exploration of the Blaxploitation horror subgenre. 1973 saw the release of Blackenstein, a weakly-reviewed film loosely based on the tale of Frankenstein's monster. In 1974, the demon-possession thriller Abby was released in theaters for a short time, until Warner Bros. sued the producers for copyright infringement of The Exorcist. Finally, toward the end of the genre's life in 1976, Blacula director William Crain released Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, an update of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story, now set in Watts, Los Angeles. The film fared poorly and was one of the last Blaxploitation horror films produced during this period.

DolemiteCourtesy Xenon Entertainment Group/Photofest.

While Blaxploitation films may have hit a low point artistically with 1975's Dolemite, the film nevertheless spawned sequels as well as a cult following that continued into the 21st century. The Dolemite character came from the X-rated stand-up routine of Rudy Ray Moore, a moderately successful comedian who had been releasing recordings of his act for years, including the album Eat Out More Often (1970). In the title role of Dolemite, Moore revisited the common tropes of the genre: a wrongfully-accused black man out for revenge, a rough urban setting, and a heavy emphasis on action and sexuality. The astonishingly poor quality of the film, from the tone-deaf acting to the film crew flubs (boom microphones are accidentally visible in many shots) to the virtually nonexistent plot, contributed to its cult status. As amateur as the film was, it is rightly remembered as an almost gleefully subversive spoof, with the wisecracking protagonist repeatedly outwitting a racist political system. Moreover, the movie made enough money to spawn a sequel, The Human Tornado (1976). Moore directed the follow-up, and continued some of the unintentional hilarity of the first movie, which included Dolemite's signature "Pimp-Fu" style of fighting and random scenes of the character's raunchy stand-up act. Long after the era of Blaxploitation had ended, the popularity of Moore and his character was strong enough to produce a documentary (The Legend of Dolemite, 1994) and a straight-to-video sequel (The Return of Dolemite, 2002). Moore continued making public appearances until his death in 2008.

Curtis MayfieldCurtis Mayfield in an undated photograph. Courtesy AP Images.

The most easily identifiable music associated with Blaxploitation cinema is the landmark soundtrack for Shaft (1971). Composed by Isaac Hayes–who had originally expected to be cast in the lead role–the groovy score was so popular that it was mimicked relentlessly in the ensuing years. The soundtrack also included the songs "Do Your Thing" and the Oscar-winning "Theme from Shaft," both of which were Top Forty hits in their own right. As with Shaft, many of these film themes told the story of the protagonist in the vein of the folk ballad "Stagolee," which was about a pimp accused of murder. In keeping with the theme of black liberation, the soundtracks for these films emphasized the "black is beautiful" aesthetic, and further contributed to the popular African American soul music of the era. Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack for Super Fly (1972), for example, was one of the most successful albums of the decade. Other top artists of the time joined the trend, including Earth, Wind & Fire (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, 1971), Bobby Womack (Across 110th Street, 1972), and James Brown (Black Caesar, 1973). Indeed, while white-owned studios produced many of the movies, Motown Records often handled the soundtracks, including the music for The Mack (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Not surprisingly, the Blaxploitation era is directly linked to modern hip hop, and references to the look and sound of '70s crime dramas are ubiquitous in songs (and videos), with some obvious examples being Ice-T's "New Jack Hustler" (1991) and 50 Cent's "P.I.M.P." (2003).

Roy InnisRoy Innis, the national chairman of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on 5 January 2005. Courtesy AP Images.

As described previously, the term "Blaxploitation" itself was intended as a critique of what some viewed as the genre's exploitative intentions. The NAACP officially came out against the films, and joined forces with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation (CAB) in 1972. The CAB included nearly 400 African American constituents who worked in the film industry and attempted to effect positive change regarding the roles of African Americans in Hollywood.

In order to combat what CORE national chairman Roy Innis identified as the films' "subtle ways of promoting Black genocide in the Black community" through glorification of drugs and murder, the CAB attempted to develop a ratings system that would assign qualitative assessments to new films according to the films' representation of African Americans. The CAB also organized boycotts of theaters that ran Blaxploitation movies, and even attempted to promote its agenda behind the scenes through negotiation with studio executives.

Hollywood's African American contingent, however, was far from unified in its reaction to Blaxploitation cinema. Actor Jim Brown defended the films, for example, explaining that they created much-needed work for African American actors and writers. Fred Williamson, star of a number of Blaxploitation films, saw a double standard in the absence of similar criticism of violent films starring white actors. And director Oscar Williams understood the rejection of Blaxploitation cinema as a greedy Hollywood maneuver to keep African Americans away from the vast sums of money to be made in the movie business.

Though the reasons are unclear, production of Blaxploitation films waned at the end of the 1970s. Some have suggested that this decline was due to the actions of groups such as the CAB, while others point to general audience fatigue and the films' poor production values. Still others feel that Hollywood studios decided that they could continue to draw large African American crowds to films made up of white casts, and that Blaxploitation films were consequently not worth the trouble they created. Whatever the cause, the era of Blaxploitation had essentially ended by 1980.

Black DynamiteMichael Jai White and Salli Richardson-Whitfield in 'Black Dynamite', 2009. Courtesy Apparition/Photofest.

The low budget, guerilla quality of many Blaxploitation films made them ripe for parody. Several aspects in particular made easy targets for those wishing to poke fun: the overly serious, virtually invincible, and sexually aggressive protagonists; the caricatured and often incompetent white villains; the hypersexualized love interests; and the poorly choreographed action scenes. Rudy Ray Moore's Dolemite (1975) and the controversial animated film Coonskin (1975) were among the first to spoof the genre, although Dolemite was the subject of parody itself on more than one occasion. About a decade after Blaxploitation had left the mainstream, filmmakers who were brought up on the movies began to make their own comedic versions. The first of these was the popular I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans and starring several actors from the heyday of Blaxploitation, including Bernie Casey and Jim Brown. Other parodies and comedies followed, such as CB4 (1993), Leprechaun in the Hood (2000), Pootie Tang (2001), Undercover Brother (2003), and the critically acclaimed Black Dynamite (2009), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. In another popular example, the opening credits to Beavis and Butthead Do America (1996) featured a distinctively Shaft-like theme performed by Isaac Hayes, who created similar parodies of his signature sound as the character Chef on the show South Park. Like the movies on which they were based, these films were criticized for perpetuating stereotypes of African Americans; but, in many ways, they were in a position to add more nuance to the subversive social commentary at the heart of the genre.

Django UnchainedJamie Foxx in 'Django Unchained' (2012). Courtesy The Weinstein Company/Photofest.

As mentioned previously, the most visible influence of Blaxploitation is on hip hop, a subculture that is unimaginable without films such as Shaft and the soundtracks that accompanied them. More ambiguous, however, is the legacy of Blaxploitation in cinema–a direct result of the ongoing lack of diversity in the film industry. Numerous African American-directed movies have paid homage to the genre in some way since the late 1980s, often finding critical success, including Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), John Singleton's Boyz in the Hood (1991), Albert and Allen Hughes' Menace II Society (1993), and Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City (1991) and Posse (1993). In 2000, Singleton directed a new version of Shaft with Samuel L. Jackson and Christian Bale, which served as both a sequel and a remake. Van Peebles later directed and starred in Baadasssss! (2003), which detailed the making of his father's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). The influence has extended to big budget movies made by and starring mostly white people, most notably the crowd-pleasing action movies of the 1980s. Blockbusters such as Commando (1985), in which the protagonist would often deliver a snarky one-liner after killing an enemy, were reminiscent of the black gangster films of the '70s–only this time, the themes had more conservative and militaristic leanings.

But the filmmaker who has gotten the most mileage out of the genre is almost certainly Quentin Tarantino. Not without controversy, Tarantino has employed Blaxploitation tropes and music in hit films such as Jackie Brown (1997), which not only put Pam Grier in a leading role once more, but also revived Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" and the Delfonics' "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time?". In 2012, Tarantino was able to take the genre to an epic, Oscar-winning level with Django Unchained, a violent revenge fantasy starring Jamie Foxx. Though the film was a huge success, some critics (including Spike Lee) accused Tarantino of trivializing the crime of slavery, and raised questions about whether white filmmakers should be the ones to tell the most painful stories of black history. The ongoing debate calls to mind Robert Townsend's satire Hollywood Shuffle (1987). In that film, Townsend plays a black actor compelled to make an exploitative gangster movie, a situation illustrating the way black artists are often viewed in Hollywood. In other words, while the influence of the Blaxploitation era is undeniable, it has been coopted into the mainstream in ways that the original filmmakers did not foresee.