Blaxploitation  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
American exploitation, Goodbye Uncle Tom

Blaxploitation is a film genre that emerged in the United States in the early 1970s when many exploitation films were made that targeted the urban African American audience; the word itself is a portmanteau of the words “black” and “exploitation.” Blaxploitation films starred primarily black actors, and were the first to feature soundtracks of funk and soul music. Although criticized by civil rights groups for their use of stereotypes, they addressed the great and newfound demand for Afrocentric entertainment, and were immensely popular among black audiences. The blaxploitation genre officially began in 1971 with the release of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. This film is also noteworthy in that it was written, directed, produced, and funded by Melvin Van Peebles, an African American, unlike most blaxploitation films, which were normally made by white directors.

Contents

Common qualities

Almost all blaxploitation films featured exaggerated sexuality and violence. When set in the North or West Coast of the U.S., they tended to take place in the ghetto and dealt with pimps, drug dealers, and hit men. In all these films, it was common to see drugs, the Afro hairstyle, “pimpmobiles,” and crooked and corrupt white police officers. When set in the South, the movies most often took place on a plantation and dealt with slavery and miscegenation.

Stereotypes

At the same time, the films also stereotyped African Americans, the audience they aimed to appeal to, as pimps and drug dealers. This dovetailed with common white stereotypes about black people, and as a result many called for the end of the blaxploitation genre. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Urban League joined together to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Backed by many black film professionals, this group received much media exposure and quickened the death of the genre by the late 1970s.

These films were made for an African American audience and often showed negative depictions of caucasian characters; whites were often cast as crooked and racist police officers or government officials, and the racial slur “honky” was frequently used toward them. Italian-Americans were frequently portrayed negatively as drug-dealing members of the Mafia whom black characters would often rip off. Anti-Italian epithets such as “dago” and “wop” were used in conjunction with “honky” against these characters.

Though regarded racist by many, some film scholars defend the cinematic genre as instrumental in bringing greater screen presence to African Americans.{Furthermore, blaxploitation films laid the foundation for future filmmakers to address racial controversies regarding inner city poverty. In the early 1990s, a new wave of acclaimed African-American filmmakers focused on African-American urban life in their films (particularly Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, among others).

Famous blaxploitation films

see also List of blaxploitation films
  • Abby (1974) was a blaxploitation version of The Exorcist and starred then rising star 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.
  • Black Belt Jones (1974)—Better known for his role as “Mister Williams” from the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon; Jim Kelly was given a leading role in this martial arts film. In it 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 Caesar (1973) Fred Williamson plays Tommy Gibbs, a street smart hoodlum who worked his way up from the bottom of the barrel to the crime boss of Harlem.
  • Black Mama, White Mama (1972) A remake of The Defiant Ones (1958) with Pam Grier and Margaret Markov in the roles originally played by Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis.
  • Black Shampoo, a take off on the Warren Beatty hit Shampoo.
  • Blackenstein (1973) is a joking quasi-sequel to Blacula, featuring a black Frankenstein’s monster.
  • Blacksnake (1972) A unique Russ Meyer period piece about colonial slavery, a cruel white plantation mistress named Lady Susan and her domination of both the black and white men on Saint Cristobal (Barbados).
  • Blacula (1972) is a take on Dracula, featuring an African prince (played by William H. Marshall) bitten by a vampire.
  • Boss Nigger (1975) 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.
  • Cleopatra Jones (1973) and its sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975), are films about a tough, street-smart black woman. The first film marked the beginning of a subgenre of blaxploitation films which focused on strong female leads who took an active role in shootouts and fights. Some of these films include Coffy, Black Belt Jones, Foxy Brown, and Get Christie Love!.
  • Coffy (1973) Pam Grier is Coffy, a nurse turned bad ass who takes revenge on all those who hooked her 11-year-old sister on heroin.
  • Coonskin (1975) is an animated satire of the blaxploitation genre, directed by Ralph Bakshi.
  • Cotton Comes to Harlem was written by Chester Himes and directed by the African American Ossie Davis in 1970. It featured two black NYPD detectives Coffin Ed played by Raymond St. Jacques and Gravedigger Jones played by Godfrey Cambridge who were looking for a money filled bale of cotton stolen by a corrupt reverend named Deke O’Malley. Blazing Saddles star Cleavon Little makes an appearance in the film.
  • Darktown Strutters (1975) is a farce directed by Roger Corman's brother, Gene. A Colonel Sanders-type figure with a chain of urban fried chicken restaurants is attempting to wipe out the black race by making them impotent through his drugged fried chicken.
  • Dolemite (1975) is a comedy which is a parody of blaxploitation films, centered around a sexually active black pimp. It was immensely popular and spawned several sequels.
  • Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde is a retelling of the Jeckyll and Hyde tale, starring Bernie Casey.
  • Ebony, Ivory & Jade (1976) by Cirio Santiago (also known as She-Devils in Chains, American Beauty Hostages, Foxfire, Foxforce). Three female athletes are kidnapped during an international track meet in Hong Kong and fight their way to freedom.
  • Foxy Brown (1974) features the charismatic actress Pam Grier as Foxy Brown.
  • Get Christie Love! (TV movie later released to some theaters)
  • Hammer (1972). Starring Fred Williamson as B.J. Hammer. He plays a boxer who gets mixed up with a crooked manager who wants him to throw a fight for the mafia.
  • The Mack (1973)
  • Mandingo (1975). Based on a series of novels, this blaxploitation film was set in the American South during the U.S. Civil War and focused on the sexual relations between slaveowners’ wives and slaves. It was followed by a sequel, Drum, which became a favorite among black audiences for a scene in which a slave literally tears the testicles off of a white slave driver.
  • Passion Plantation (1976)
  • Shaft (1971) Directed by Gordon Parks and featuring Richard Roundtree as the black detective John Shaft, a character comparable to James Bond and Dirty Harry. The soundtrack has contributions from such prominent musicians as Isaac Hayes, whose recording of the titular song won several awards, including an Academy Award. Perhaps the most famous blaxploitation film, it was deemed culturally relevant by the Library of Congress. It spawned two sequels, Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), as well as a spin-off starring Samuel L. Jackson in 2000. (It was not a remake.)
  • Sheba, Baby (1975)
  • Space Is the Place (1974)
  • Sparkle (1976) Directed by Sam O’Steen and written by Howard Rosenman and Joel Schumacher. It is the story of three sisters from Harlem who embark on a singing career. The movie shows the pitfalls and the background dealings in the music business. The story is a dynamic piece on family connections with it showing the love of the three sisters and the devotion they have to each other. It also showcases a wonderful performance by Lonette McKee as “Sister” whose rise to fame leads her to a life of drug use and abuse. This movie also stars Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas as “Sparkle” and “Stix,” a young couple in love and straining to deal with all that success has to offer, the highs and the lows. The musical score for this production was done by Curtis Mayfield and the album for the movie was recorded by Aretha Franklin.
  • Superfly (1972) Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., this film had a soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield and is considered to be a classic of the genre. Curiously enough while the movie celebrates drugs and the people dealing them Mayfield’s soundtrack is the exact opposite; a harsh commentary to the way drugs ruins the lives of especially the black man.
  • Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles. This tale of a black male prostitute turned vigilante is considered by many to be the first true blaxploitation film, and the film that thrust afrocentric films into the spotlight. (Van Peebles himself does not consider his film to be a part of the genre.)
  • Three the Hard Way (1974), three black men must stop a white supremacist group from imposing genocide against negroes in three American cities.
  • Trick Baby (1973), based on the book of the same name by ex-pimp Iceberg Slim
  • Trouble Man (1972)
  • Truck Turner (1974)
  • Watermelon Man (1970). Written by a white man (Herman Raucher) but directed by an African American (Melvin Van Peebles), this film about a white man who is turned into a black man is considered a forebearer of the 1970s blaxploitation boom.
  • Willie Dynamite (1974)
  • The James Bond franchise once took on some elements of blaxploitation during the heydey of the genre, in the movie Live and Let Die (1973). (The plot involved many African-American and blaxploitation themes, including drugs and voodoo.)

Later media references

Later movies such as Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) and Undercover Brother (2002) , as well as Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003), feature pop culture nods to the blaxploitation genre. The parody Undercover Brother, for instance, starred 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. Furthermore, the acclaimed film auteur and noted fan of exploitation films, Quentin Tarantino, has made countless references to the blaxploitation genre in his films, in addition to Jackie Brown. In a famous scene in Reservoir Dogs, for instance, the main characters engage in a brief discussion regarding Get Christie Love!, a mid-1970s blaxploitation television series. Similarly, in the catalytic scene of True Romance , the characters are seen viewing the movie The Mack.

John Singleton’s remake of Shaft (2000) is a modern-day interpretation of a classic blaxploitation film. The 1997 film Hoodlum starring Laurence Fishburne was an attempt at gangster blaxploitation, portraying a fictional account of black mobster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. In 2004, Mario Van Peebles, Melvin’s son, released Baadasssss!, a movie based on the making of his father’s movie in which Mario played his father.

Furthermore, blaxploitation films have made a profound impact on contemporary hip hop culture. Several prominent hip hop artists (including Snoop Dogg, Big Daddy Kane, Ice T, Slick Rick, and Too $hort) have taken the no-nonsense pimp persona popularized first by ex-pimp Iceberg Slim's 1967 book Pimp and then by films such as Superfly, The Mack, and Willie Dynamite, as inspiration for their own works. 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, by including entourages of scantily-clad women, flashy jewelry (known as “bling-bling”), and luxury Cadillacs (referred to as “pimpmobiles”). Perhaps the most famous scene of The Mack, featuring the “Annual Players’ Ball,” has become an often-referenced pop culture icon, most recently by Chapelle’s Show, where it was parodied as the “Player-Haters’ Ball.”

Parodies and spoofs

  • I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) was a famous spoof of urban blaxploitation films, featuring several of the male stars of that genre. A later film, Original Gangstas (1996), also featured many of those stars, but was made as a tribute to the genre. Pootie Tang (2001) also parodies many blaxploitation elements. Robert Townsend’s comedy Hollywood Shuffle (1987) features a young black actor who is tempted to take part in a white-produced blaxploitation film.
  • The anime series Cowboy Bebop features several episodes with blaxploitation themes, particularly Mushroom Samba which extensively parodies blaxploitation movies.
  • The Hebrew Hammer (2003) is another parody of blaxploitation films, but with a Jewish protagonist, Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg). He is assigned to protect the future of Hannukah from a demented Santa Claus (Andy Dick). It employs various Jewish stereotypes, such as finding pennies on the ground, and Jewish-American last names (the female protagonist’s last name is Bloomenbergensteinenthal, referencing that most Jewish-American last names end in either -bloom, -berg, -stein, or -thal). In referring to the film, director Jonathan Kesselman coined the term Jewsploitation as a joke, to allude to the film being a satirical Jewish exploitation film; although it does feature some blaxploitaion elements in the form of African-Americans trying to protect Kwanzaa, led by Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim (Mario Van Peebles).
  • The animated series Family Guy, in episode 1ACX12, If I’m Dyin’, I’m Lyin’, showed a cutaway based on blaxploitation movies in the form of a parody of Back to the Future (Black to the Future), starring the main character Peter’s distant cousin Rufus Griffin as “Marty McSuperFly” (reference to Back to the Future protagonist Marty McFly). Also mentioned were other fake blaxploitation movies: Caddyblack, Blackdraft, and Black Kramer vs. Kramer.
  • In The Simpsons episode “Simpson Tide” (3G04) a TV announcer says “Next, on Exploitation Theatre...Blacula, followed by Blackenstein, and The Blunchblack of Blotre Blame!” The first two were real films.
  • The Simpsons episode 1F18 is entitled Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song.
  • The Onion’s book Our Dumb Century has 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 and Dr. Funkenstein” also make fun of the inexperience of the cast and crew in the Blaxploitation era, making references to 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. There was even an episode where the Son of Dolemite met and faced off against Black Belt Jones.
  • Saturday Night Live’s long-running character the Ladies Man parodied blaxploitation’s exaggerated sexuality. The Ladies’ Man, played by Tim Meadows, was an Afro-topped and sexually-crazed talk-show host who believed himself to be the living definition of what females search for in a man.
  • In the movie Leprechaun in the Hood, a character played by Ice-T pulls a baseball bat from his afro; this scene is a satire of a similar scene in Foxy Brown, in which Pam Grier hides a revolver in her afro.
  • Many of actor and wrestler The Rock’s catchphrases have come from blaxploitation films.
  • Adult Swim’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force series has a recurring character called “Boxy Brown” (A play on Foxy Brown, a lead character in another blaxploitation film). An imaginary friend of Meatwad, Boxy Brown is a cardboard box with a crudely drawn face with a goatee on it that dons an afro. Whenever Boxy speaks ’70s funk music, typical of blaxploitation films, is played in the background. The cardboard box also fronts a confrontational attitude and dialect similar to many heroes of this film genre. Sample Dialogue
  • 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. It should be noted that in the original Max Payne, there is a dialogue between two mercenaries, one of whom admits that he has christened his gun “Dick Justice.” Dick behaves much like the original Max Payne (down to the “constipated” grimace and metaphorical speech) but wears an afro and mustache, and talks in ebonics.
  • Duck King, a fictional character created for the video game series fatal fury, is a prime example of foreign African-American stereotypes.
  • The animated series Drawn Together features a character named Foxxy Love who spoofs both 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoons and blaxploitation characters. Her name is derived from those of the characters Foxy Brown and Christie Love.
  • Hollywood comedy Undercover Brother spoofs popular racial stereotypes and blaxploitation movies, in particular Shaft. Afro-clad protagonist Anton Jackson (AKA “Undercover Brother”) along with BROTHERHOOD members such as Sistah Girl and Conspiracy Brother fight to stop a plot by The Man to foil the seemingly locked presidential bid by a popular African-American General.
  • The Internet phenomenon “The Juggernaut Bitch!!!” features a Blaxploitation-styled over-dub on a series of X-Men cartoon clips featuring the Juggernaut.
  • The sub-cult movie short Gayniggers from Outer Space, 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-vampire vampire-hunter), as well as a blaxploitation reference: he has an afro, sideburns, and a mustache; carries swords; dresses in stylish 1970s clothing; and says that he hunts “Blaculas.” He looks and sounds somewhat like Samuel L. Jackson.

See also

Further reading

  • What It Is...What It Was!; The Black Film Explosion of the ’70s in Words and Pictures by Andres Chavez, Denise Chavez, Gerald Martinez ISBN 0-7868-8377-4




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Blaxploitation" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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