The term blaxploitation films refers to a series of films released between 1969 and 1974 that featured a primarily black cast and whose narratives focused on the contemporary black urban experience. Grounded in the action-adventure genre, these films were usually low-budget Hollywood productions geared toward the black youth market.
The blaxploitation period was preceded by several shifts in America's sociopolitical landscape. In the context of World War II, the United States felt vulnerable to charges that the country's racist practices were similar to the extreme nationalism exhibited by Germany and Japan. This started a thrust toward inclusion that resulted, among other things, in an agreement in 1942 between the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and heads of the major studios to increase the participation of blacks in the film industry. Hollywood responded to the charges with an attempt to improve the representation of blacks on screen. The 1950s became known as the era of integration in American cinema and led to the rise of actors such as Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Harry Belafonte. Poitier in particular came to symbolize the integrationist hero by starring in vehicles that cast him as a conservative, intelligent, sexually neutral, culturally ambiguous figure who posed no threat to the white establishment. He was the model of black respectability for white audiences as well as for a certain segment of the black community. Blacks who desired assimilation into the dominant culture generally embraced Poitier, but others rejected him because of his characters' unwillingness to articulate their oppression and rage.
The Black Persona of the 1960s
By the late 1960s, Hollywood had begun to respond to the desire of black audiences for a more assertive black film star, and Jim Brown, a former all-star football player with an appealing personality and arresting physical presence, proved to be exactly what Hollywood was looking for. Though black audiences initially welcomed Brown's aggressive film persona, they grew increasingly weary of the way in which his characters' emerging militancy was continually undermined by their support of the white power structure. Eventually, it became clear that Hollywood's typecasting of Brown in roles that required physical strength rather than emotional depth merely signaled a return to the caricature of the black buck popularized in early American cinema.
Hollywood's increasing interest in black-oriented films in the 1970s was the result of a financial crisis that left the industry on the verge of economic collapse. The advent of television and the expansion of the foreign film market after World War II steadily cut into the studios' profit margin. At the same time, middle-class whites were vacating urban areas for the developing suburbs, leaving cities to their black citizens. Though blacks made up only 11% of the population in 1970, they accounted for 30% of movie audiences in the urban areas where theaters were traditionally located. Studio executives had begun to notice this shift in racial demographics several years earlier, and they came to believe that the key to their financial solvency was the production and distribution of a film product specifically geared to the black community.
The New Black Directors
Melvin Van Peebles, a black director with several film credits to his name, is generally credited with popularizing the genre that eventually became known as blaxploitation. He directed Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967), a foreign film based on his novel, and Watermelon Man (1970), a low-budget Hollywood feature. Then 39-year-old Van Peebles decided to channel his resources into independently writing, producing, and directing Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), the story of a black man who triumphs over a corrupt white establishment. The protagonist of the film works as a sexual performer in a South Central Los Angeles bordello where he was abandoned as a boy. He received the name Sweetback at the age of 9 from a female prostitute who forced him to engage in sexual intercourse with her. At the beginning of the film, Sweetback appears to be a passive character, emotionally alienated from the people and events around him. As the narrative unfolds, two police officers request that the bordello owner allow Sweetback to act as a temporary suspect in a local murder case in an effort to calm public fears. While he is in custody, Sweetback becomes a witness to the brutal beating of a young black revolutionary by the two cops. He becomes enraged by the beating and physically attacks the officers. Sweetback then becomes caught in a series of misadventures as he attempts to elude police.
Van Peebles employed a number of technical devices (such as multiple exposures, jump cuts, and long montages) to differentiate his film from the standard Hollywood product, and the innovative musical arrangements of the 1970s soul group Earth, Wind, and Fire as well as the director's own poetry were used to enhance the narrative. Van Peebles produced his film for $500,000, yet it had grossed $10 million by the end of its run.
Sweetback was particularly popular with young, black males; however, it did not fare as well with other members of the community. Blacks who were fans of the integrationist hero did not care for this new style of protagonist. Though Huey P. Newton, one of the founders and leaders of the Black Panther Party, called Sweetback “the first truly revolutionary Black film made,” Lerone Bennett of Ebony magazine stated that “Sweetback is neither revolutionary nor black.” Black intellectuals and critics generally agreed with Bennett's criticism of the film. Though Van Peebles stated that his aim was to reappropriate the image of the bad, black buck, many felt that his emphasis on Sweetback's sexual prowess undermined any attempt to provide audiences with a conscious, liberated character. Especially problematic was Van Peebles's treatment of the women in his film, who functioned mainly as objects for Sweetback's sexual gratification. However, the representation of an overtly sexual, defiant hero who challenges the white power structure and wins was a refreshing change for many black moviegoers.
The success of Sweet, Sweetback's Baadasssss Song launched a host of imitators, the most notable being Shaft (1971), directed by Gordon Parks, Sr., the first black to work as a photographer for Life magazine, and Superfly (1972) directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. Shaft was originally conceived as a standard detective tale with a white protagonist, but studio executives refashioned the script to capitalize on tensions in the black community. The central character, John Shaft, is a smooth-talking, butt-kicking, leathercoat-wearing New York City detective who espouses black nationalist ideology through his rhetoric and demeanor. However, unlike Sweetback, who harbors no alliances with the white establishment, Shaft is able to successfully negotiate that world without jeopardizing his position of authority within the Harlem neighborhood he polices.
Critics had less trouble with Shaft than with Priest, the Harlem cocaine dealer who is the hero of Superfly. Though the plot of Superfly centers around the hustler's attempts to abandon the drug trade, the products of his corrupt lifestyle—the expensive wardrobe, apartment, and car and the beautiful, alluring women—are glamorized throughout the film. Especially problematic is Priest's apparent lack of remorse for the negative impact his illegal activities have had on his community. He simply wants out of the drug business and is looking for the most advantageous way to achieve his goal.
The Black Female Stars
Several vehicles starring female protagonists were also released during this period. Actresses Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson launched their careers in the films Coffy (1973, Hill) and Cleopatra Jones (1973, Starrett), respectively. And like their male counterparts, these characters also elicited a storm of controversy. Though many black moviegoers considered the sexually assertive heroines to be mere reformulations of the black jezebel, others applauded these aggressive, gun-wielding defenders of the black community.
The Nature and Limitations of the Genre
The blaxploitation genre is generally credited with articulating to a certain degree the social and political upheaval experienced by America, and particularly its black community, in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Vietnam War, political scandals such as Watergate, government social policies that led to the increased ghettoization of the black underclass, the rapid rise of drug use within the culture and its insidious infiltration into the black community, as well as the backlash on civil rights gains, resulted in increased feelings of cynicism among many. In films like Sweetback, Shaft, and Superfly, the stark, realistic cinematography depicted the decay of urban black communities, and the soulful lyrics of respected musical artists such as Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield reflected the community's feelings of disenfranchisement. However, as blaxploitation films continued to draw a sizable audience, Hollywood became even more conservative in its presentation of progressive black characters. By appropriating the discourse of black nationalism in its characterization of individualistic, materialdriven, pseudomilitants, Hollywood ultimately sought to undermine black social and political agency and the idea of black collective empowerment.
By the mid-1970s, Hollywood had emerged from its fiscal crisis. Amid increased public condemnation of the one-dimensional characters, rehashed plots, and poor technical quality of most of the blaxploitation films, studio executives no longer felt it necessary to invest in black-oriented material and the blaxploitation era soon came to an end.
- Bogle, Donald. (2000). Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. New York: Continuum. In this book, Bogle identifies the main racist characters that pervaded American cinema for a long time.
- Guerrero, Ed. (1993). Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. This is an insightful analysis of how devastating images have effectively undermined black agency.
- Martinez, Gerald. (1998). What It Is … What It Was: The Black Film Explosion of the '70s in Words and Pictures. New York: Hyperion. This book identifies major themes and trends in black cinema in the 1970s.