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Blaxploitation or blacksploitation is an ethnic subgenre of the exploitation film that emerged in the United States during the early 1970s. The films, though receiving backlash for stereotypical characters, are among the first in which black characters and communities are the heroes and subjects of film and television, rather than sidekicks or victims of brutality. The genre's inception coincides with the rethinking of race relations in the 1970s.
Blaxploitation films were originally aimed at an urban African-American audience, 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.
The Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) head and ex-film publicist Junius Griffin coined the term from the words "black" and "exploitation." 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.
[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.
When set in the Northeast or West Coast, blaxploitation films are mainly set 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. Blaxploitation films are often bold in their statements and rely on violence, sex, drug trade, and other shock-value characteristics to provoke the audience. The films usually portray black protagonists overcoming "The Man" or emblems of the white majority that had oppressed the black community in the preceding decades.
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 feature a rich orchestration which included flutes and violins.
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). 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.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. Later films such as Superfly softened the rhetoric of black power, encouraging resistance within the capitalist system rather than radical transformation of society, and were easier for the general public, to stomach. Superfly did, however, indirectly support the black nationalist movement by showing that black and white authority cannot coexist easily.
The genre's role in exploring and shaping race relations in the US has been controversial. Some held that the blaxploitation trend was a token of black empowerment, 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."
Films such as "Shaft" 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.
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) and John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) 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 accusation 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.
Later influence and media references
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). Richardson later wrote Posse (1993), which is a kind of blaxploitation Western.
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. It was later released on commercial video and can be seen on YouTube.
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". 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is written, produced, scored, directed by, and stars Melvin Van Peebles. The hero is raised among prostitutes and is arrested for a crime he did not commit. During his arrest, he saves a young black male from a police beating by attacking the (white) police officers. He becomes a fugitive from police authority and heads for Mexico. In 2004, Mario Van Peebles directed and starred as his father in BAADASSSSS!, a biopic about the making of Sweet Sweetback.
Slaughter stars Jim Brown as an ex-Green Beret who seeks revenge against a crime syndicate for the murder of his parents. It spawned the sequel, Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973).
Trouble Man stars Robert Hooks as "Mr. T.", a hard-edged private detective who tends to take justice into his own hands. Although the film itself was unsuccessful, it did enjoy a successful soundtrack written, produced, and performed by Motown artist Marvin Gaye.
In 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 marks Pam Grier's biggest hit and was re-worked for Foxy Brown, Friday Foster, and Sheba Baby.
Detroit 9000 is set in Detroit, MI and 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 is a film starring Max Julien and Richard Pryor. This movie was produced during the era of such Blaxploitation movies as Dolemite. 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 (a.k.a. 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), 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 is the sequel to Blacula. William H. Marshall reprises his role as Blacula/Mamuwalde.
Slaughter's Big Rip-Off features Jim Brown continuing his battle against the Mob in this sequel to Slaughter (1972).
Abby is a 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.
In Black Belt JonesJim Kelly, who is better known for his role as "Mister Williams" in the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, is given a leading role. 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 is an action-mystery starring Fred Williamson as a private detective investigating murders connected with a drug ring.
Foxy Brown is largely a remake of the hit film Coffy. Pam Grier once again plays a nurse on a vendetta against a drug ring. Originally written as a sequel to Coffy, the film's working title was Burn, Coffy, Burn!. The soundtrack was recorded by Willie Hutch.
Get Christie Love! is a TV movie later released to some theaters. This police drama, starring an attractive young black woman (Teresa Graves) as an undercover cop, waslater made into a short-lived TV series.
T.N.T. Jackson stars Jean Bell (one of the first black Playboy playmates) and is partly set in Hong Kong. It isnotable for blending blaxploitation with the then-popular "chop-socky" martial arts genre.
Truck Turner stars Isaac Hayes, Yaphet Kotto, and Nichelle Nichols. Johnathan Kapland directs. Former football player turned bounty hunter is pitted against a powerful prostitution crime syndicate in Los Angeles.
In 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).
In Sheba, Baby, a female private eye (Pam Grier) tries to help her father save his loan business from a gang of thugs.
In 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.
In 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.
Darktown Strutters is 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 trying to wipe out the black race by making them impotent through his drugged fried chicken.
Dolemite is 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 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 is based on a series of lurid Civil War novels and focuses on the abuses of slavery and the sexual relations between slaves and slave owners. It features Richard Ward and Ken Norton. It was followed by a sequel, Drum (1976) starring Pam Grier.
The Candy Tangerine Man opens with pageantry pimp Baron (John Daniels) driving his customized 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.
Ebony, Ivory & Jade from director Cirio Santiago (also known as She Devils in Chains, American Beauty Hostages, Foxfire, Foxforce), features three female athletes who are kidnapped during an international track meet in Hong Kong and fight their way to freedom. This is another cross-genre blend of blaxploitation and martial arts action films.
The Muthers is 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)is a blend of the Mandingo and Emmanuelle, erotic films with interracial sex and savagery.
In Velvet Smooth, Johnnie Hill is a female private detective hired to infiltrate the criminal underworld.
Petey Wheatstraw (a.k.a. Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-In-Law) is 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.
Death Dimension is a martial arts film directed by Al Adamson and 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. A scientist, Professor Mason, invents a powerful freezing bomb for a gangster leader nicknamed "The Pig" (Sakata).
Disco Godfather, also known as The Avenging Disco Godfather, is an action film starring Rudy Ray Moore and Carol Speed. Moore's character, a retired cop, owns and operates a disco and tries to shut down the local angel dust dealer after his nephew becomes hooked on the drug.
Penitentiary, directed by Jamaa Franklin, follows the travails of Martel "Too Sweet" Gordone (played by Leon Isaac Kennedy) after his wrongful imprisonment. Set in a prison, the film exploits all of the tropes of the genre, including violence, sexuality and the eventual triumph of the lead character.
"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, ISBN978-1-4051-7984-3.
What It Is ... What It Was!; The Black Film Explosion of the '70s in Words and Pictures by Andres Chavez, Denise Chavez, Gerald Martinez ISBN0-7868-8377-4
"The So Called Fall of Blaxploitation" by Ed Guerrero, The Velvet Light Trap #64 Fall 2009
^Tom Symmons (2014): 'The Birth of Black Consciousness on the Screen'?: The African American Historical Experience, Blaxploitation, and the Production and Reception of Sounder (1972), Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, DOI: 10.1080/01439685.2014.933645
^Andrew Dawson, "Challenging Lilywhite Hollywood: African Americans and the Demand for Racial Equality in the Motion Picture Industry, 1963-1974"The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 45, No. 6, 2012
^Ed Guerrero, FRAMING BLACKNESS. Temple U. Press. pp. 95-97.