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Blaxploitation: not always very good, but always groovy

Blaxploitation means, duh, black exploitation films. These were mainly produced in the first half of the 1970s and typically featured superhero-type characters in urban settings. Many of these are revenge film crime dramas, although numerous other genres were represented: There were kung-fu films, a number of westerns, comedies, the occasional musical, and a few horror movies. A number of these movies were "black" versions of mainstream films. Abby, which was removed from distribution after the producers of The Exorcist sued it for plagiarism, is one such example.

The superhero-type characters so common in these movies reflects the sense of black pride that was growing at the time. Protagonists often struggled against oppression, which was often imposed by the white power structure but was just as likely to have been introduced by criminal elements within the black community. There is a strong parallel in Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack series, whose protagonist was a Native American.

Blaxploitation films began to appear in 1970, shortly after the Watts riots and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. In the Heat of the Night is credited as an inspiration for the genre, and Cotton Comes to Harlem is considered to be its first full-fledged example. This was followed shortly thereafter by Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, a pungently political action film directed by renegade filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles. The successes of Sweetback, Superfly and Shaft were followed by a wave of low-budget films and even a few television series, like Get Christie Love!

Fred Williamson, ready for action

African-Americans had not previously been featured prominently in film. What few black stars existed were priced beyond these movies' budgets, so football stars such as Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Carl Weathers were often cast in the action hero roles. The all-NFL lead cast of The Black Six is more typical of an early-1970s Pro Bowl roster than of a film cast. Lem Barney, Willie Lanier and Mercury Morris can be seen here in their lone credited acting roles. Many of these action heroes, such as Foxy Brown, Shaft, Superfly and Dolemite, became pop culture icons.

There was some opposition to these films from Jesse Jackson and other leaders in the black community, who felt that these movies presented stereotyped portrayals of blacks and were a bad influence on youth. NAACP leader Junius Griffin is credited as having coined the name "blaxploitation" in a 1972 interview, and it is unlikely that the slavery connotations of "black exploitation" escaped him. These leaders advocated the positive portrayals of black culture seen in the Oscar-nominated Sounder and the multiple Emmy-winner The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. It should be noted that many of the genre's best-known titles, including Foxy Brown, Little Caesar and Blacula, were written and/or directed by whites, albeit often socially conscious whites like Larry Cohen.

Production of blaxploitation films declined as the decade wore on. A number of blaxploitation actors and actresses went on to enjoy solid film careers, including Pam Grier, Carl Weathers and William Marshall. Even the most popular actors of the genre experienced a sharp drop in employment when its popularity declined, as Hollywood had no idea of how to work them into mainstream roles. This changed when the emergence of Spike Lee in the 1980s effectively pushed black cinema into the mainstream. Blaxploitation films may not have shown realistic African-American characters, but they put an end to the subservient kinds of roles to which black actors had previously been limited. This helped pave the way for the more realistic depictions of black life now standard in film.

Community leaders were upset with the image that blaxploitation presented

Major blaxploitation titles:

  • Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
  • Shaft
  • Superfly
  • Foxy Brown
  • Coffy
  • Black Caesar
  • Dolemite
  • Blacula
  • Cleopatra Jones
  • Car Wash
  • I'm Gonna Git You Sucka

Directors known for their work in blaxploitation films:

  • Ossie Davis
  • Melvin Van Peebles
  • Gordon Parks
  • Gordon Parks, Jr.
  • Sidney Poitier
  • Jack Hill
  • Larry Cohen
  • William Girdler

Blaxploitation films made Pam Grier one of Hollywood's biggest stars

Iconic actors of the genre:

  • Pam Grier
  • Fred Williamson
  • Richard Roundtree
  • Tamara Dobson
  • Richard Pryor
  • William Marshall
  • Jim Brown
  • Rosalind Cash
  • Jim "the Dragon" Kelly
  • Rudy Ray Moore
  • Antonio Fargas
  • Carl Weathers
  • Yaphet Kotto
  • Vonetta McGee


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