Blaxploitation

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Poster of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) Sweet sweetback poster.jpg
Poster of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

Blaxploitation is an ethnic subgenre of the exploitation film that emerged in the United States during the early 1970s. The term, a portmanteau of the words “black,” and “exploitation,” was coined in August 1972 by Junius Griffin, then president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood NAACP branch. He so named it because he claimed the genre was “proliferating offenses” to the black community in its perpetuation of stereotypical characters often involved in criminal activity. [1] However, the genre does rank among the first in which black characters and communities are the heroes and subjects of film and television, rather than sidekicks, villains, or victims of brutality. [2] The genre's inception coincides with the rethinking of race relations in the 1970s.

Contents

Blaxploitation films were originally aimed at an urban African-American audience, [3] but the genre's audience appeal soon broadened across racial and ethnic lines. Hollywood realized the potential profit of expanding the audiences of blaxploitation films across those racial lines.

Variety credited Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and the less radical, Hollywood-financed film Shaft (both released in 1971) with the invention of the blaxploitation genre. [4] Blaxploitation films were also the first to feature soundtracks of funk and soul music. [5]

Description

General themes

[S]upercharged, bad-talking, highly romanticized melodramas about Harlem superstuds, the pimps, the private eyes and the pushers who more or less singlehandedly make whitey's corrupt world safe for black pimping, black private-eyeing and black pushing.

Blaxploitation films set in the Northeast or West Coast mainly take place in poor urban neighborhoods. Pejorative terms for white characters, such as "cracker" and "honky," are commonly used. Blaxploitation films set in the South often deal with slavery and miscegenation. [7] [8] The genre's films are often bold in their statements and utilize violence, sex, drug trade, and other shocking qualities to provoke the audience. [2] The films usually portray black protagonists overcoming "The Man" or emblems of the white majority that oppresses the Black community.

Blaxploitation includes several subtypes, including crime ( Foxy Brown ), action/martial arts ( Three the Hard Way ), westerns ( Boss Nigger ), horror ( Abby , Blacula ), prison ( Penitentiary ), 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 complexity that was not common to the radio-friendly funk tracks of the 1970s. They also often feature a rich orchestration which included flutes and violins. [9]

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

Black Power

Afeni Shakur claimed that every aspect of culture (including cinema) in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by the Black Power movement. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was one of the first films to incorporate black power ideology and permit black actors to be the stars of their own narratives, rather than being relegated to the typical roles available to them (such as the "mammy" figure and other low-status characters). [10] [11] Films such as Shaft brought the black experience to film in a new way, allowing black political and social issues that had previously been ignored in cinema to be explored. Shaft and its protagonist, John Shaft, brought African American culture to the mainstream world. [11] Sweetback and Shaft were both influenced by the black power movement, containing Marxist themes, solidarity, and social consciousness alongside the genre-typical images of sex and violence.

Knowing that film could bring about social and cultural change, the Black Power movement seized the genre to highlight black socioeconomic struggles in the 1970s; many such films contained black heroes who were able to overcome the institutional oppression of African American culture and history. [2] Later films such as Superfly softened the rhetoric of black power, encouraging resistance within the capitalist system rather than a radical transformation of society. Superfly did, however, still embrace the black nationalist movement in its argument that black and white authority cannot coexist easily.

Stereotypes

The genre's role in exploring and shaping race relations in the United States has been controversial. Some held that the blaxploitation trend was a token of black empowerment, [12] but others accused the movies 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 to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Their influence in the late 1970s contributed to the genre's demise. Literary critic Addison Gayle wrote in 1974, "The best example of this kind of nihilism / irresponsibility are the Black films; here is freedom pushed to its most ridiculous limits; here are writers and actors who claim that freedom for the artist entails exploitation of the very people to whom they owe their artistic existence." [13]

Films such as Superfly and The Mack received intense criticism not only for the stereotype of the protagonist (generalizing pimps as representative of all African-American men, in this case), but also for portraying all black communities as hotbeds for drug trade and crime.[ citation needed ]

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. The story world also 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, particularly Spike Lee ( Do the Right Thing ), John Singleton ( Boyz n the Hood ), and Allen and Albert Hughes ( Menace II Society) focused on black urban life in their movies. These directors made use of blaxploitation elements while incorporating implicit criticism of the genre's glorification of stereotypical "criminal" behavior.

Alongside accusations of exploiting stereotypes, the NAACP also criticized the blaxploitation genre of exploiting the entire black community and culture of America, by creating films for a profit that those communities would never see, despite being the vastly misrepresented main focus of many blaxploitation film plots. Many film professionals today still believe that there is no truly equal "Black Hollywood," as evidenced by the "Oscars So White" scandal in 2015 that caused uproar when no black actors were nominated for "Best Actor" Oscar Awards. [11]

Slavesploitation

Brenda Sykes and Perry King on the set of Mandingo (1975). Perry King and Brenda Sykes 1975.jpg
Brenda Sykes and Perry King on the set of Mandingo (1975).

Slavesploitation, a subgenre of blaxploitation in literature and film, flourished briefly in the late 1960s and 1970s. [14] [15] As its name suggests, the genre is characterized by sensationalistic depictions of slavery.

Abrams, arguing that Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) finds its historical roots in the slavesploitation genre, observes that slavesploitation films are characterized by "crassly exploitative representations of oppressed slave protagonists". [16]

One early antecedent of the genre is Slaves (1969), which Gaines notes was "not 'slavesploitation' in the vein of later films", but which nonetheless featured graphic depictions of beatings and sexual violence against slaves. [17] Novotny argues that Blacula (1972), although it does not depict slavery directly, is historically linked to the slavesploitation subgenre. [18]

By far the best-known and best-studied exemplar of slavesploitation is Mandingo, a 1957 novel which was adapted into a 1961 play and a 1975 film. Indeed, Mandingo was so well known that a contemporary reviewer of Die the Long Day, a 1972 novel by Orlando Patterson, called it an example of the "Mandingo genre". [19] The film, panned on its release, has been subject to widely divergent critical assessments. [20] Robin Wood, for instance, argued in 1998 that it is "greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood, certainly prior to Spike Lee and in some respects still". [21]

Legacy

Influence

Blaxploitation films have had an enormous and complicated influence on American cinema. Filmmaker and exploitation film fan Quentin Tarantino, for example, has made numerous 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).[ citation needed ] Richardson later wrote Posse (1993), which is a kind of blaxploitation Western.

Some of the later, blaxploitation-influenced movies such as Jackie Brown (1997), Undercover Brother (2002), Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), and Django Unchained (2012) feature pop culture nods to the 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 a famous scene in Reservoir Dogs , the protagonists discuss Get Christie Love! , a mid-1970s blaxploitation television series. In the catalytic scene of True Romance , the characters watch 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 and recasts gangster blaxploitation with a 1930s twist. In 2004, Mario Van Peebles released Baadasssss! , about the making of his father's movie (Mario plays 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 its prominent featuring of the song "Across 110th Street".

Blaxploitation films have profoundly impacted 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 . 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, which include entourages of scantily-clad women, flashy jewelry (known as " bling "), and luxury Cadillacs (referred to as "pimpmobiles"). 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. [22]

In Michael Chabon's novel Telegraph Avenue , set in 2004, two characters are former blaxploitation stars. [23]

In 1980, opera director Peter Sellars (not to be confused with actor Peter Sellers) produced and directed a staging of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni in the manner of a blaxploitation film, set in contemporary Spanish Harlem, with African-American singers portraying the anti-heroes as street-thugs, killing by gunshot rather than with a sword, using recreational drugs, and partying almost naked. [24] It was later released on commercial video and can be seen on YouTube. [25]

A 2016 video game, Mafia III , is set in the year 1968 and revolves around Lincoln Clay, a mixed-race African American orphan raised by "black mob". [26] After the murder of his surrogate family at the hands of the Italian mafia, Lincoln Clay seeks vengeance on those who took away the only thing that mattered to him.

Cultural references

The notoriety of the blaxploitation genre has led to many parodies. [27] 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, from early minstrel show stereotypes to more recent stereotypes found in blaxploitation film itself. The work stimulated great controversy even before its release when the Congress of Racial Equality challenged it. 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. [4]

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. A sequel, The Human Tornado , followed.

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.

Another of FOX's network television comedies, "Martin" starring Martin Lawrence, frequently references the blaxploitation genre. In the Season Three episode "All The Players Came", when Martin organizes a "Player's Ball" charity event to save a local theater, several stars of the blaxploitation era, such as Rudy Ray Moore, Antonio Fargas, Dick Anthony Williams and Pam Grier all make cameo appearances. In one scene, Martin, in character as aging pimp "Jerome", refers to Pam Grier as "Sheba, Baby" in reference to her 1975 blaxploitation feature film of the same name.

In the movie Leprechaun in the Hood , a character played by Ice-T pulls a baseball bat from his Afro. This scene alludes to a similar scene in Foxy Brown , in which Pam Grier hides a small semi-automatic pistol 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, plays 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 black, half human, 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 like Samuel L. Jackson.[ citation needed ]

The intro credits of Beavis and Butt-Head Do America feature a blaxploitation-style theme sung by Isaac Hayes.

A scene from the Season 9 episode of The Simpsons , Simpson Tide", shows Homer Simpson watching "Exploitation Theatre." A voice-over announces the fake movie titles, "Blackula," "Blackenstein," and "The Blunch Black of Blotre Blame."

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

1970

1971

1972

1973

1974

1975

1976

1977

1978

1979

Post-1970s Blaxploitation films

Other

See also

Further reading

Related Research Articles

<i>Shaft</i> (1971 film) 1971 American film directed by Gordon Parks

Shaft is a 1971 American crime action film directed by Gordon Parks and written by Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black. It is an adaptation of Tidyman's novel of the same name and is the first entry in the Shaft film series. The plot revolves around a private detective named John Shaft who is hired by a Harlem mobster to rescue his daughter from the Italian mobsters who kidnapped her. The film stars Richard Roundtree as Shaft, alongside Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John and Lawrence Pressman. The film deals with themes like the Black Power movement, race, masculinity, and sexuality. It was filmed in Harlem, Greenwich Village, and Times Square within the Manhattan borough of New York City. The Shaft soundtrack album, recorded by Isaac Hayes, was also a success, winning a Grammy Award for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture and a second Grammy that he shared with Johnny Allen for Best Instrumental Arrangement. The "Theme from Shaft" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and has appeared on multiple Top 100 lists, including AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs. A prime example of the blaxploitation genre, it was selected in 2000 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Pam Grier American actress

Pamela Suzette Grier is an American actress. She achieved fame for her starring roles in a string of 1970s action, blaxploitation, and women in prison films for American International Pictures and New World Pictures, most notably Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Her other major films during this period included The Big Doll House (1971), Women in Cages (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), Black Mama, White Mama (1973), Scream Blacula Scream (1973), The Arena (1974), Sheba, Baby (1975), Bucktown (1975), and Friday Foster (1975).

<i>Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song</i> 1971 blaxploitation film by Melvin Van Peebles

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is a 1971 American blaxploitation film written, co-produced, scored, edited, directed by and starring Melvin Van Peebles. His son Mario Van Peebles also appears in a small role, playing the title character as a young boy. The film tells the picaresque story of a poor Black man fleeing from the white police authorities.

<i>Dolemite</i> 1975 film by DUrville Martin

Dolemite is a 1975 American blaxploitation crime comedy film and is also the name of its principal character, played by Rudy Ray Moore, who co-wrote the film and its soundtrack. Moore, who started his career as a stand-up comedian in the late 1960s, heard a rhymed toast about an urban hero named Dolemite from a regular at the record store where he worked, and decided to adopt the persona as an alter ego in his act.

Rudy Ray Moore American comedian, singer, actor, and film producer, godfather of rap

Rudolph Frank Moore, known as Rudy Ray Moore, was an American comedian, singer, actor, and film producer. He created the character Dolemite, the pimp from the 1975 film Dolemite and its sequels, The Human Tornado and The Return of Dolemite. The persona was developed during his early comedy records. The recordings often featured Moore delivering profanity-filled rhyming poetry, which later earned Moore the nickname "the Godfather of Rap." Actor and comedian Eddie Murphy portrayed Moore in the 2019 film Dolemite Is My Name.

<i>Foxy Brown</i> (film) 1974 film by Jack Hill

Foxy Brown is a 1974 American blaxploitation film written and directed by Jack Hill. It stars Pam Grier as the title character, described by one character as "a whole lot of woman", who showcases unrelenting sexiness while battling the film's villains. The film was released by American International Pictures as a double feature with Truck Turner. The film uses Afrocentric references in clothing and hair. Grier starred in six blaxploitation films for American International Pictures.

<i>Coffy</i> 1973 blaxploitation film directed by Jack Hill

Coffy is a 1973 American blaxploitation film written and directed by American filmmaker Jack Hill. The story is about a black female vigilante played by Pam Grier who seeks violent revenge against a heroin dealer responsible for her sister's addiction.

Robert DoQui was an American actor who starred in film and on television. He is best known for his roles as King George in the 1973 film Coffy, starring Pam Grier; as Wade in Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville; and as Sgt. Warren Reed in the 1987 science fiction film RoboCop, the 1990 sequel RoboCop 2, and the 1993 sequel RoboCop 3. He starred on television and is also known for his voice as Pablo Robertson on the cartoon series Harlem Globetrotters from 1970 to 1973.

<i>Blacula</i> 1972 film by William Crain

Blacula is a 1972 American blaxploitation horror film directed by William Crain. It stars William Marshall in the title role about an 18th-century African prince named Mamuwalde, who is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula in the Count's castle in Transylvania in the year 1780 after Dracula refused to help Mamuwalde suppress the slave trade.

<i>Sheba, Baby</i> 1975 blaxploitation action film directed by William Girdler

Sheba, Baby is a 1975 American blaxploitation action film directed by William Girdler and starring Pam Grier and Austin Stoker.

<i>BaadAsssss Cinema</i> 2002 American film

BaadAsssss Cinema is a 2002 TV documentary film directed by Isaac Julien. Julien looks at the Blaxploitation era of the 1970s in this hour-long documentary.

William Girdler was an American filmmaker. In a span of six years, from 1972 to 1978, he directed nine feature films in such genres as horror and action. Girdler also wrote and produced three of his features, Abby, Sheba, Baby and The Manitou.

<i>Black Mama White Mama</i> 1972 film by Eddie Romero

Black Mama White Mama is a 1973 women in prison film directed by Eddie Romero and starring Pam Grier and Margaret Markov. The film has elements of blaxploitation. The movie also was released as Hot, Hard and Mean.

DUrville Martin American actor and director

D'Urville Martin was an American actor and director in both film and television. He appeared in numerous 1970s movies in the blaxploitation genre. He also appeared in two unaired pilots of what would become All in the Family as Lionel Jefferson. Born in New York City, Martin began his career in the mid-1960s and soon appeared in prominent films such as Black Like Me, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Rosemary's Baby. Martin also directed films in his career, including Dolemite, starring Rudy Ray Moore.

<i>Scream Blacula Scream</i> 1973 US blaxploitation horror film by Bob Kelljan

Scream Blacula Scream is a 1973 American blaxploitation horror film. It is a sequel to the 1972 film Blacula. The film was produced by American International Pictures (AIP) and Power Productions. This was the acting debut of Richard Lawson.

<i>Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde</i> 1976 American blaxploitation horror film by William Crain

Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde is a 1976 blaxploitation horror film loosely inspired by the 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The film stars Bernie Casey and Rosalind Cash and was directed by William Crain, who had also directed the successful Blacula for American International Pictures in 1972. Along with Crain, the film was written by Larry LeBron and Lawrence Woolner with cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. The movie was filmed primarily in Los Angeles and at locations such as the Watts Towers. Along with other blaxploitation films, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde is filled with themes surrounding ideas of race, class and Black Power, yet it is unique in that the film depicts these themes through the genre of horror.

Xenon Pictures

Xenon Pictures is an American film production and distribution company which releases titles produced by African-American filmmakers for African-American audiences. The label has distribution deals with numerous prominent filmmakers, such as Melvin Van Peebles, Rudy Ray Moore, Jamaa Fanaka, Ralph Bakshi and Perry Henzell.

Blaxploitation horror films are a genre of horror films involving mostly black actors. In 1972 director William Crain did the first blaxploitation horror film, Blacula.

<i>Dolemite Is My Name</i> 2019 film directed by Craig Brewer

Dolemite Is My Name is a 2019 American biographical comedy film directed by Craig Brewer and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. The film stars Eddie Murphy as filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore, who is best known for having portrayed the character of Dolemite in both his stand-up routine and a series of blaxploitation films, which started with Dolemite in 1975.

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