Between 1971-75 an estimated 200 "Blaxploitation" movies were produced. On witnessing many of these films,as the standard formulaic plots and characters mesh into one, with their funky "vines", outlandish street talk and generally bad acting one might ask why?
Thankfully there is an answer, and, although it may not always be obvious there are intelligent forces at work. Enter Melvins Van Peebles, who as writer, producer, director, editor, actor, and soundtrack composer of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song set the pace in 1971.
An entirely black production, it broke the mould of black characterisation . Its story of a black pimp/stud suddenly radicalised by aiding a young black revolutionary who is beaten by white cops, keenly displayed Van Peebles' disgust at the white establishment and struck a chord with black audiences. The films ending, with it's proclamation that "a badasssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues" heralded the arrival of a new kind of black hero.
Van Peebles rightly became the first folk hero of black cinema, introducing a D.I.Y. ethic which allowed him total control of his product and message, which was no holds barred, as were the graphic depictions of sex and violence and use of experimental cinematic techniques. Viewed today it may be difficult to understand its extreme impact, it certainly didn't encompass a broad view of the black experience, but it did redefine the nature of black characters in films and it's success suggested that this section of the cinema going public were crying out for a voice.
The two films which consolidated the success of 'Sweetback' followed in quick succession, Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972), pictured on the right. If Shaft (Richard Roundtree) was a black James Bond fighting crime, then Superfly 's Youngblood Priest was his antithesis, a slick, hip pusher, doing what he's gotta do to survive on the "mean streets".
Both films were hugely successful, Shaft, the more palatable of the two by white standards, outlived all expectations, rescuing MGM from a slump and receiving an Oscar for Isaac Hayes' enduring score. The title track which frames the opening sequence is one of the most memorable in recent movie history, one which the film itself sadly fails to live up to. Superfly on the other hand aroused controversy for what was seen as it's assimilation and endorsement of a "by any means necessary" credo. While its was one of gritty realism there was something decidedly fake about the glamorised Priest selling dope to white people and taking on the mob and winning? He improbably escapes his life of crime, making of with the loot and his old-lady.
If the social ramifications of the unreserved success of Priest's plan "to stick it to the man" are less cut and dry, is certainly clear that Superfly is as American as apple pie; the gun-play, the aggression, the self-assertion, like Shaft he reeks of rugged-individualism. Terrible values perhaps but the most American of values nonetheless.
But why waste time on analysis, these films are remembered more for their surface elements; the clothes, the music (Curtis Mayfield surpassing himself for Superfly ) the hip talk, the sex and the violence. Not surprisingly, it was these that provided the blueprint for the Hollywood take-over. Once the white executives saw the dollar signs, they weren't to concerned with honestly depicting the black experience.
"Blaxploitation" was born and it pandered to the lowest common denominator. Every available genre was plundered in an attempt to re-hash old ideas. There were black westerns like the improbably titled Boss Nigger ("He's Black, He's Brutal, He's Boss") and horror variations with Blacula. Blaxploitation had it's own kung-fu hero in Jim Kelly, who, having risen to prominence in Enter The Dragon, got his own starring role in Black Belt Jones. There were even excursions in a sci-fi/fantasy vein with Christopher St. John's Top Of The Heap. A well intentioned tale of a young black cop cracking up under the pressure of city life and the racist forces that control him - he escapes by fantasising about being the first black man on the moon. Unfortunately, suffering from a confused and poorly realised script, low production values and taking itself a bit to seriously it is frequently unintentionally funny, bizarre and sometimes quite surreal.
Despite the weaknesses of the movies themselves the Blaxploitation era did succeed in creating it's own stars. Ex-football players like Jim Brown and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson fitted the bill perfectly, with the eponymous Antonio Fargas enlivening scores of shoddy product. Of the female leads Pam Grier is probably the most enduring.
Plucked from obscurity on the studio switchboard, she was catapulted to B-stardom in a succession of made to measure roles showcasing her more prominent assets. Whether Grier was a convincing personification of black female power is debatable, she takes on her roles with zeal and conviction, but they are merely comic book characters, one dimensional, campy and occasionally amusing. Foxy Brown (1974) somehow manages to live up to it's outlandish tag-line "A pinch of sugar and a kiss of spice ... and for an she keeps a cold steel .38 in a nice warm place! with Pam turning out in more fly outfits than De Niro in Casino, but even though Coffy (1973) promises "she's black and stacked" it could go down as one of the worst films of any genre, ever! It is true though, that despite the presence of high profile female leads the depictions of women in Blaxploitation movies was at best archaic, frequently brutally degrading and sometimes disturbing.
In Hitman, a remake of Get Carter (as if!) Bernie Casey and the unfortunate Pam Grier get to be ripped to shreds by lions in a safari park, perhaps typifying their common place roles as pieces of meat. But it's so easy to find fault with any and all of these movies on many levels that it becomes pointless. In retrospect it's almost impossible to take them seriously, and therefore slotting them under the broad heading of "cult" seems most appropriate.
Of course when you consider how many of these movies were made it's no surprise that there are a few notable exceptions to the rule of bad meaning bad. Exploitation guru Larry Cohen's Black Caesar(1973) is a superior gangster movie from the genre (Cohen was also responsible for Hell Up In Harlem from the same year and also starring Fred Williamson), while Max Julien in The Mack pulls off a suitably stylish yet sympathetic turn as a pimp on the way up (its unsubtle social critique is nonetheless quite affecting), and the Tamara Dobson showcase Cleopatra Jones (1973) which features a bizarre turn from Shelley Winters, is slick and funky if ultimately asinine. Also a special mention should go to Rudy Ray Moore's Dolomite character who featured in a series of films right up until the late 70's.
An icon with rappers, Dolomite's foul mouthed antics have inspired Richard Prior and Eddie Murphy among others. Unfortunately, it would take more than a few gems to reverse the damage done. Black audience's need for assertive black characters in which they saw a reflection of themselves was now paralleled by a new set of stereotypes which merely served to reinforce previously held prejudices. If blacks were no longer slave, servants or sidekicks then they were pimps, pushers, informers, studs and hot mama's.
Ultimately the audience was to realise it was being patronised and exploited, by 1975 they were leaving the cinemas in their droves just as they had first arrived to see 'Sweetback' in 1971. To all intents and purposes, the Blaxploitation boom was over. It wasn't until 1986 that Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It was to live up to Melvin Van Peebles' wish for white people to view black films in the same way they might Italian or Japanese films and form the basis of a true and consistent Black Cinema.
By the time Lee had delivered his tour de force Do The Right Thing in 1989 the floodgates had once again been opened. Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle and the Wayans brothers' I'm Gonna Git You Sucka in 1987 and 1988 were satirical put-downs of Blaxploitation era stereotypes which treated the past with the levity it deserved while clearly showing that those days would never return (and all this before the style mags told us that the 70's was cool again). However, by the early 90's a spate of movies in the wake of John Singleton's Boyz 'N' The Hood(1991),despite their good intentions and the superlative nature of some of them, start to provide new successful formula's. Film's like New Jack City (1991),made by Melvin's son Mario, and Juice(1992), made by erstwhile Spike Lee cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, while excelling in their own rights, because of their success and the success of Boyz 'N' The Hood in particular we begin to see (yet again) an unhealthy interest from white studio executives in this particular aspect of the black experience.
The most successful of these "Gangsploitation" movies, indeed the most successful of all the post 'Boyz' movies, was Albert and Allen Hughes' Menace II Society (1993). 'Menace' typifies what has ostensibly become Blaxploitation for the 90's, a concentration on the surface elements especially music and violence, with a story line that pretends it's trying to say something genuine about the black experience, instead of just re-hashing last week's news. Fortunately, we are not dealing with 70's budgets and the direction is assured if not flamboyant, making the film eminently watchable.
This is hardly surprising since 'Menace' has more in common with the narration driven camera gymnastics of Scorsese than it does with Superfly , but like all the best (worst?) Blaxploitation it is all style and no substance. However, one thing is certainly true of the Hughes Bros., they know their movies, or more precisely they know other peoples movies inside out. Their follow-up movie Dead Presidents (1996) is a slice of genre defying Scorsese/Coppola-lite which serves to cement the Blaxploitation renaissance. It's a sort of coming-of-age/buddy movie kinda Vietnam/gangster with a splattering of gore and a sort of heist (gone-wrong) theme going on at the end. Like 'Menace' it has undeniable style and flair which somewhat belies the sledgehammer subtle social agenda. But, if you want the slickest violence, the meanest threads, and the definitive 60's/70's soundtrack ( 2 volumes no less !) then it certainly delivers.
And since this whole retro vibe shows no signs of letting up, I'll be waiting for the much touted John Singleton remake of Shaft to bring things full circle and put a cap on it (or should that be bust a cap in it?). Hopefully, he'll tighten up the original and make a defining action movie (black or otherwise) for the 90's, without too much earnest philosophising (laid on a bit thick in his last movie Higher Learning (1995), and with any luck Sam L. Jackson as John Shaft. Once the dust has settled and all the clichs have been spent, undoubtedly directors like Lee, Singleton and the Hughes Bros. will find new areas of the black experience to explore (as Lee has already done with Crooklyn, he has also just made the 'hood' movie to end all 'hood' movies in Clockers (1996) ). Joining their ranks, the likes of Bill Duke (A Rage In Harlem and Deep Cover) and Carl Franklin (One False Move and The Devil In A Blue Dress) both of whom have explored uncharted terrain, in a distinctly Noir vein, confirming that the black presence in cinema today (at least in America) will only go from strength to strength.
Ironically if it were not for the saturation of Blaxploitation in the 70's the present explosion of talent might not have made such an impact, but generally the lessons were learned and today's black filmmakers have been able to work and gain respect within the industry, not just for their artistry but for their pulling power also. There's a black audience out there but like anyone else they demand a decent product... Just to think all this from a few pairs of dodgy flares and Maceo And The Macks on the soundtrack: now that's progress.Written by Superfly guy,
A recent reponse to this piece:
Sir or Madam,
I just read the piece on Blaxploitation at http://www.fly.co.uk/blaxploit.html and find a small portion of it to be complete and utter bullshit. Specifically, "Shaft" was not part of the so-called blaxploitation to which you refer and did not "consolidate the success of 'Sweetback.'" First, I can tell you with great assurance that the screenwriter of "Shaft," Ernest Tidyman, never saw "Sweetback" and couldn't have cared less about it. Indeed, "Shaft" the movie was based on Tidyman's novel of the same name, and both were written before "Sweetback" was produced. Second, if you'd read the novel, you'd know that "Shaft" was a story about New York City-- specifically, a tough New York winner who happened to be a black private eye -- not a story about blackness or the oppression of blacks by cracker cops. Third, "Sweetback" was, relatively speaking, a cinematic flop. Had it been the only influence around, there would have been no so-called blaxploitation. "Shaft," on the other hand, was a box-office bonanza. It was "Shaft" that showed Hollywood that there was serious money to be made exploiting black characters, and particularly black heroes, and it was therefore "Shaft" (not the obscure "Sweetback") that spawned, but was not itself part of, the exploitation demonstrated by subsequent movies such as "Superfly " and "Get Christie Love."
If you're going to speculate about genres and influences like that, you should take better care to get your facts straight.