Here's everything you need to know about the larger-than-life film genre that's blaxploitation. Can you dig it?
These are good times for African-American filmmakers: the likes of Da Five Bloods, One Night in Miami and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom look likely to be rewarded come Oscar time and it's quite possible they'll be joined by another hotly tipped title, Judas and the Black Messiah.
This is a biopic, about Fred Hampton, one of the founders of the Black Panthers (and a prime target for the FBI). It's set in the early 1970s, the period after the triumphs of the civil rights movement had brought a new visibility for Black people, in politics, in music and—relevant for our purposes here—movies too.
Now, Black filmmakers have been working in “the movies” almost from the very start, even if they didn't always get much credit. But with Black concerns suddenly in the limelight, exploitation producers—the guys who made low budget action and horror pictures—sensed a new way to turn a buck: the same sort of films, but with Black stars. “Blaxploitation”, it was called—“Black exploitation” (which sounds a bit dodgy until you realise that “exploitation” referred to the sorts of films that played in drive-ins).
That's where we're headed now, a wander down a too-often ignored avenue of film history to get you in the moment for Judas and the Black Messiah. These are movies that time as it happened, a brief flowering when it looked like change was coming...
We begin with an exam. Blaxploitation studies, induction level.
Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?
Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's there's danger all about?
Finally, Question Three:
Who's the Black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?
If you answered anything but “SHAFT” to any of the above, then your education is lacking. You need to watch more blaxploitation movies, and this one is a good place to start. Richard Roundtree stars as the private “dick”—and no, it's not “big” or “clever” to pretend that's anything other than a diminutive of “detective”—as he battles the mob.
It's best known for its theme tune by Isaac Hayes, a symphony of brass, beats and wah-wah that's one of the greatest earworms that ever there's been but there's more to it than that. Made in 1971, this was a rare studio picture directed by an African American (veteran photographer Gordon Parks), and its huge success brought Black heroes into the mainstream. That's quite something.
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
Shaft was a milestone, a trailblazing film that kicked in many doors. But its importance lies in the fact it was a fundamentally conventional film, a decent detective drama that didn't derail the genre. It wasn't going to give middle-America sleepless nights, in other words. Sweet Sweetback, however...
Written, produced, directed by and starring Melvin Van Peebles (a friend to the Black Panthers), this Badass Song might have been calculated to put the willies up President Nixon and J Edgar Hoover. The main character Sweetback is... well, let's call him an “exotic dancer”, who starts a war with the cops and lives to brag about it.
Ever the radical, Van Peebles made the form as abrasive as the content, using jump cuts and other disruptive devices. When people used to speak of “sticking it to The Man”, this is probably what they had in mind.
Pam Grier was the first lady of blaxploitation, in large part thanks to these two films, both directed by Jack Hill. In Coffy, she's a warrior woman on the trail of the drug syndicate that got her sister hooked on drugs, while in Foxy Brown, she's a warrior woman on the trail of another drug syndicate that killed her boyfriend.
Both were a significant influence on Quentin Tarantino, who obviously saw them at an impressionable age; his film Jackie Brown takes its heroine's surname from Foxy (Jackie was a Burke in the book it was adapted from), and the part was earmarked for Pam Grier from the start. The warrior women in Kill Bill were partially inspired by Grier's fightin' heroines, and—more blatantly—other details were stolen outright, but since those count as spoilers, you'll have to watch the films to find out what. That should not be a hardship.
Hot from the success of Shaft, and perhaps mindful that the straight-arrow hero of that film had been a bit square, Gordon Parks returned with one of the great triumphs of blaxploitation. The title is the nickname of one Youngblood Priest, a major league drug pusher looking for the proverbial last big score so he can get out of the biz, who finds himself entangled by the cops, many of whom are bigger crooks than he is.
It was criticised by church groups and the NAACP, that most venerable of the Civil Rights groups, because its anti-hero is anything but a positive role model, playing up to the stereotypes of young Black men that right-wing politicians peddled. They complained in vain, for but it proved all too influential: many a rapper would take Priest as a template, and receive similar criticism for it.
Super Fly also boasts one of the great soundtracks, courtesy of Curtis Mayfield:
If blaxploitation gets an unfair rap, it's because of things like Blacula. Not the film itself, you understand—it's nothing special, but it's watchable—but because it presents itself as an unashamed rip-off. Too often, blaxploitation films were consciously sold as simply a twist on an established formula, earning the movement an unfair reputation for being derivative.
Blacula begins with African prince Mamuwalde seeking the help of an Eastern European aristocrat in combatting in the slave trade. Unfortunately, that aristocrat is Count Dracula and you can probably guess the rest.
The film would have been forgotten but for the presence of William Marshall as Mamuwalde. He was one of the great actors in America, and he is magnificent here (and in the sequel, Scream Blacula, Scream, with Pam Grier). He should have been doing King Lear. We have to settle for this.
In the days before the internet, it was rumoured that Blacula was not the only blaxploitation film repurposed from a classic horror, that there was a film called “Blackenstein”. It sounded too good to be true but, lo and behold, the rumours were right! And even better, the monster's afro has been flattened into a flat-top a la Boris Karloff!
Hailed as “the Citizen Kane of blaxploitation” by the New York Times, Dolemite is a film that's been brought back into circulation thanks to Eddie Murphy; as Netflix subscribers will know, he appears in My Name Is Dolemite, a comedy about the making of this film with Murphy playing its star, Rudy Ray Moore.
Moore's Dolemite is a pimp/ night club owner who gets out of prison—he was fitted up—and not only seeks revenge on those who put him inside but also get his club back. In truth, My Name is Dolemite is a better film than its inspiration, but there are still pleasures to be had here, even if it probably isn't the Citizen Kane of blaxploitation.
JD's Revenge isn't the Citizen Kane of blaxploitation either but if you were sorting these films based on quality, then it ought to come somewhere near the top. It's another horror but altogether more original than Blacula or Blackenstein: JD Walker was a hoodlum shot down in the Forties. Some three decades on, his angry spirit finds his way into the body of law student Ike (Glynn Turman). The title should give you an idea as what ensues.
Much more than just a cheap shocker, it deals with interesting themes, addressing how African-American life has changed (or hasn't) between JD's time and the here and now. It also takes a more critical view of the church than often shown in many Black films, with the very great Louis Gossett Jr as a preacher who had a run-in JD back in the day. It's a considerable film, and not just by the standards of blaxploitation.
A little bit of a cheat this, since blaxploitation usually refers to American films and this here is South African. It's a low-budget action film and it was intended to be shown to township audiences. But that was before it was banned by the Apartheid-era government.
You will have to look closely to understand why this was. It's slam-bang entertainment, entirely denuded of politics: Ken Gampu plays Joe Bullet, a tough guy hired to protect “Flash” and “Jerry”, star players of a local football club, when they're threatened by a gambling syndicate. Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song it is not.
However, like many/ most action films, it features a character holding a gun. Had that character been white, there would have been no problem. Since he wasn't, the authorities in Pretoria stamped on it from on high: they didn't want the audience to get ideas. Seriously (but that's the thing with repressive regimes. Their censorship only shows up how pathetic they are).
I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!
The blaxploitation boom had waned by the mid-1970s and was on its last legs by the end of the decade, but it was fondly remembered, because many of these films were very good—and because many others were deeply, deeply silly.
It's the latter that gets celebrated in Keenan Ivory Wayans’ loving tribute, released in 1988. He plays “Jack Spade”, a man who rounds up his childhood heroes to take down one of the crime syndicates so often found in blaxploitation movies. Co-starring genre icons like Antonio Fargas and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, it's affectionate and very funny.
So laugh along but remember there was always more to blaxploitation than gold chains and rip-offs. The best of these films don't just evoke their times, they remain vibrant and contain social commentary that's sadly still relevant today: it's only when they look like museum pieces that we'll know real change has occurred.
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