Almost everyone knows that “the man that would risk his neck for his brother man” is John Shaft, the title character of one of the most important and famous blaxploitation movies. Almost everyone knows Pam Grier as the sexy and tough “Foxy Brown” and recognizes the song “Pusherman” by Curtis Mayfield, from the soundtrack to the famous Superfly. But there’s more to Blaxploitation than those pop culture icons.
Blaxploitation emerged in the early 1970s at a popular time for Exploitation films–a genre that sacrificed tradition notions of artistic value for sensational display and valued advertising over content. Exploitation films often featured sex, gore, violence, and other subjects considered taboo in the 1970s. Blaxploitation films were seen as a subgenre of Exploitation films, featuring the same exaggerated sex and violence, but within a different racial context.
In almost all Blaxploitation films, the main character is an untraditional hero in conflict with “The Man.” Most Blaxploitation films take place in the inner city and focus on drug dealers, pimps, or hit men. Men and women commonly have Afros and nice looking cars, and people use slang such as “turkey,” “jive,” and “sucka,” making some people believe that the films enforce stereotypes by focusing on pimps and drug dealers and glorifying the drug game. In fact, Blaxploitation was made for a black audience, and considering the political climate of the United States during the late ’60s and early ’70s, featured negative depictions of white characters, particularly of those in authority.
The first recognized Blaxploitation film was Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 Sweet Sweetbacks BaadAsssss Song. Just one year earlier, Van Peebles directed Watermelon Man, a hit comedy about a white bigot who wakes up to discover that his skin has turned black. With the success of Watermelon Man, Van Peebles set out to write a film targeted primarily towards African-Americans focusing on the ghetto and presenting a black man as independent and empowered, a radical concept for the time. Many studios considered the subject matter too complex for the general audience and would not finance the film. Van Peebles had to do it himself and after getting a few theaters to show the film, it became a success. The X-rated film centers on the male prostitute Sweetback evading the police and speaking to the black community’s dislike for white authority during the late ’60s and early ’70s.
After the success of Van Peebles’ film, MGM Studios changed its new film Shaft from an all-white cast to a Blaxploitation movie. Directed by Gordon Parks, Shaft is about a handsome black detective named John Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree, who fights against various criminals while looking cool and bedding women. MGM Studios had needed a hit movie and Shaft did well commercially and also won an Oscar for Isaac Hayes’ theme song for the movie. After the success of Shaft, many other studios began making Blaxploitation movies.
Besides Sweet Sweetbacks BaadAsssss Song and Shaft, other classic films from this era include Dolemite, The Mack and Superfly. Dolemite, released in 1975, is actually a parody of Blaxploitation films, centering on a black pimp with ambiguous, rather than hypermasculine, sexuality. The Mack, starring Max Julien and Richard Pryor, tells the story of Goldie, a black man released from prison who becomes a pimp and has to deal with corrupt cops. Although it’s considered to be social commentary and not a true Blaxploitation in the narrow definition, it was the highest grossing film of its time about and featuring black people. Superfly, starring Ron O’Neal, focuses on Youngblood Priest, a drug dealer who is trying to retire from the game.
While many of the films focused on male characters, there were some female-oriented films that usually had a tough, sexy heroine taking an active part in fighting “The Man.” The first film that focused primarily on a female was Cleopatra Jones, starring Tamara Dobson as Cleopatra, about a female agent assigned to eliminate drug-trafficking who has to fight a drug lord played by Shelley Winters. The most well-known film with a female lead is arguably Foxy Brown, featuring an African-American woman who seeks revenge when her agent boyfriend is killed by “The Man,” also vowing to get rid of the drug dealers and pimps in her community.
In addition to the Afros and colorful clothing, Blaxploitation films are also known for their soulful soundtracks. Before Earth, Wind, and Fire became stars in their own right, they contributed to the soundtrack for Sweet Sweetbacks BaadAsssss Song. Curtis Mayfield’s songs, “Pusherman” and “Superfly,” are probably better known than the movie on which they were featured.
The Blaxploitation film era has had an enormous impact on American cinema and culture and its influence can still be seen today. In Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, the characters briefly discuss Get Christie Love! , a Blaxploitation television series. In another of his films, Jackie Brown, he chose Foxy Brown’s Pam Grier to play the title role, and also included many nods to the genre. In contemporary hip-hop culture, many rappers have taken on the pimp persona and have embraced the image with entourages of scantily clad women and flashy jewelry. Although Blaxploitation films don’t necessarily project the best or most diverse images of African Americans, at the time they allowed black people to have a greater screen presence and provided precedent for modern black filmmakers such as Spike Lee and John Singleton.