Blaxploitation film is a type of film oriented to black audiences. It developed in the late 1960s and flourished up through the late 1970s. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term blaxploitation was first employed in the June 12, 1972, issue of New York magazine to characterize such films, specifically Superfly (1972). The word derives from sexploitation, first used in 1942. The OED defines blaxploitation as "the exploitation of blacks, especially as actors in films of historical or other interest to blacks." A variant spelling, blacksploitation, is provided by Colliers Year Book (1973). Some film critics, such as James Robert Parish and George H. Hill, have preferred the term black action film, seeing the form as a continuum of black adventure films that began in the 1950s. For the film scholar Thomas Cripps, blaxploitation is a subgenre of the black film itself. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), an independent production written, filmed, directed, and produced by Melvin Van Peebles (who also plays the title role), is generally considered the first blaxploitation film. Notable successors include Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), Blacula (1972), Coffy (1973), The Legend of Nigger Charlie (1972), Melinda (1972), Cleopatra Jones (1973), and The Mack (1973). An estimated 150 blaxploitation films were produced before the vogue faded.
Origins of the Blaxploitation Film Movement
The blaxploitation film movement had six sources of origin: (1) the precedent of integrationist films that began in the 1940s; (2) the decline of the Hollywood studio system; (3) the Black Power movement; (4) the independent black film movement; (5) the availability of talented black actors and musicians; and (6) the newly discovered profitability of the urban black film audience.
After World War II, pressure from black and white American groups and the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union for favorable world opinion made the integration of America a national priority. For Hollywood, desegregation meant the increased hiring of black actors, the creation of viable black characters instead of replicating stereotypes, and the production of serious films that addressed the issue of sustaining democratic values in a racist society. Films such as Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Defiant Ones (1958), and Pressure Point (1962) portray black men in complex social relationships with whites, in which they often assert themselves through moral or physical confrontation of racism—a first step in a new black cinema.
In the 1960s, the feature action film was integrated. A number of such feature films starred the former football great Jim Brown (Rio Concho, 1964; The Dirty Dozen, 1967; Ice Station Zebra, 1968; The Split, 1968; 100 Rifles, 1969; and Riot, 1969) with white stars such as Gene Hackman, Julie Harris, Rock Hudson, Lee Marvin, Burt Reynolds, and Raquel Welch. Brown's virile, brooding presence reflected the growing influence of the Black Power movement upon mainstream culture and established the black rebel as a legitimate screen persona. Brown became the prototype of the black male action star.
From his athletic prowess on the football field to rubbing elbows with the likes of Lee Marvin and John Cassavettes in films like the Dirty Dozen, Jim Brown was a larger-than-life hero for many African Americans growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.
Much is made of Brown's physicality, speed, and power, but he was also considered one of the smartest players on the field. Generally regarded as the greatest full back of all time, he led the league in rushing eight of his nine years in the National Football League. He rushed for a total of 12,312 yards, while averaging 102 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry—a record that still stands. Twice he ran for 237 yards in a single game. He was named to the Pro Bowl (the NFL's "all-star game") every year he played and elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Unlike many athletes, Brown retired when he was on top. At age 30, he decided he'd rather star in movies than on a football field and helped usher in the blaxploitation genre. He appeared in Ice Station Zebra, a number of action films, and, as mentioned above, the Dirty Dozen. Eventually he would become the head of his own independent movie production company and would go on to executive produce Richard Pryor Here and Now.
Despite a highly publicized volatile personal life, Brown is still respected by many in the community. In 1988 he created the Amer-I-Can program, an effort to improve the lives of Los Angeles gang members. Brown also founded an organization called Black Economic Union that assists black-owned businesses. He has written two autobiographies, Off My Chest (1964) and Out of Bounds (1965), and is the subject of a documentary directed by Spike Lee titled Jim Brown: All American, which came out in 2002. The film chronicles Brown's athletic and movie career, youth, and personal life.
Another contributing factor was the decline of the Hollywood studio system as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court antitrust ruling of 1948. This ruling required Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Warner Brothers, Paramount, Columbia, Twentieth Century Fox, and other giant studios to divest themselves of their nationwide theater chains, thus breaking the studios' previous monopoly on all aspects of the film industry. The decline of this monopoly also ended Hollywood's power to define the black presence in American films and control its dissemination to the public. Television further weakened the studios, and in the free fall that followed, major actors became independent contractors, independent film companies developed, and the theater chains were forced into open competition for the moviegoer's dollar. By the mid-1960s, 80 percent of all films released by major distributors were made by independent companies, in contrast to 20 percent in 1949. Independent black filmmakers begin to spring up and production companies emerged that were free to address racial issues. The seminal films Nothing but a Man (1964, Ivan Dixon, director), The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968, Melvin Van Peebles), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), were independent productions. The independent black film movement was furthered by the demands of the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement for positive portrayals of black life. Black actors, always minimally employed during the Jim Crow era, provided a ready pool of talent for the new films; among these actors were Adolph Caesar, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Moses Gunn, Ellen Holly, William Marshall, Brock Peters, and Beah Richards. New talents also emerged, among them John Amos, Rosalind Cash, Godfrey Cambridge, Pam Grier, Vonetta McGee, Ron O'Neal, Richard Pryor, and Richard
Roundtree. Composers such as Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man, 1972), Isaac Hayes (Shaft ), Quincy Jones (Melinda ), and Curtis Mayfield (Superfly ) composed scores for these films, with Hayes winning an Oscar in 1971 for his score for Shaft.
Character, Plot, Content, and Thematic Concerns of Blaxploitation Films
The typical blaxploitation protagonist, male or female, is a proud, self-assured, independent person of action who is often a private detective, intelligence agent, or underworld antihero. The protagonist's ethic includes professionalism; loyalty to friends, family, and community; a belief in the efficacy of violence and the necessity of revenge; a distrust of government; and a relentless opposition to white racism. This ethic does not preclude professional and sexual bonding across the color line or open conflict with black antagonists who, typically, have "sold out the black community," betrayed a personal trust, cheated on a business deal, or in some other way violated the protagonist's ethic.
Fast-paced action is the essential feature in a blaxploitation film plot, and it usually supersedes character development. The plot line is simple and direct, often based upon revenge, rescue, or money. At the film's conclusion, the protagonist has usually achieved his or her goal and emerged intact. In one of the most critically esteemed films, Shaft, the protagonist, John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) is a private detective hired by a black gangster, Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), to rescue his daughter, who has been kidnapped by the Mafia. The Mafia hopes to extort control of the Harlem rackets from Bumpy, while white control of black rackets is viewed as an intrusion by the black community. As is often the case in blaxploitation films, the black community is portrayed as a unified whole, and youths, militants, and hustlers all unite to help Shaft rescue Bumpy's daughter.
Blaxploitation films also featured female protagonists. Tamara Dobson portrayed a U.S. government agent, Cleopatra Jones, in Cleopatra Jones and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975). In the style of the 1970s, Cleopatra Jones is a sexually liberated female and, like her male counterparts, is expert in martial arts and weapons use. In Coffy, Pam Grier stars as a black woman who seeks vengeance upon the drug dealer who made her sister a hopeless drug addict at the age of eleven. To achieve this goal she poses as a call girl, seduces the drug czar, and after failing in her first attempt to assassinate him, escapes, destroys his operation, and then kills him.
There are two Americas in the blaxploitation film, a privileged white America and an oppressed black America, separated by racism and economic exploitation. Characteristically, the ghettoes of urban black America are its mise-en-scène, and their problems of crime, drug traffic, sexual exploitation, police brutality, and government indifference and corruption are grist for the plot. The positing of a separate black America in such films permitted a nationalist and, at times, revolutionary treatment of U.S. race relations. This black perspective engaged the African-American community and at times distanced white American viewers, particularly critics who would complain of reverse racism. Blaxploitation films often provided a parodic treatment of black-white relationships and the stereotypes portrayed during the earlier stages of American film.
Black films of this era also reworked earlier white films and genres. John Ford's The Informer (1936) became Uptight (1968); Edward G. Robinson's Little Caesar (1931) was refilmed as Black Caesar (1972); John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was remade as The Cool Breeze (1972); the Dracula legend was retold as Blacula, starring William Marshall; and Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960) was reworked as The Arena (1974), featuring a revolt of female gladiators led by Pam Grier, reprising Kirk Douglas's role in the original film. Cotton Comes to Harlem (1972) and Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972), both based upon novels by black author Chester B. Himes, recast the detective genre in humorous terms.
The Profitability of Blaxploitation Films
The black urban film audience proved a lucrative market and inner-city blacks filled the decaying old-line theaters in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and other metropolises that had been left empty by whites' migration to the suburbs. Shot on location with low budgets, rapid schedules, and unknown or low-paid black actors, the blaxploitation film's average cost ranged from $150,000 to $700,000. Shaft, for example, cost less than $700,000 to make, including a $13,500 salary for its star Richard Roundtree, and within its first year it grossed over $16 million. It is credited with saving MGM from bankruptcy. (Roundtree received $50,000 for the sequel, Shaft's Big Score, in 1972.) Coffy (1973), starring Pam Grier, cost an estimated $500,000 and grossed over $2 million in domestic film rentals. The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), a black Western starring Fred Williamson, another former football star, cost $400,000 to make and grossed $3 million in domestic film rentals. The independent production, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, cost under $500,000 and grossed $4.1 million in domestic film rentals. However, with the exception of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Superfly, both black-financed productions, the majority of blaxploitation profits went to the white studios, producers, and distributors responsible for their production. (The figures cited represent the distributor's gross income after the theaters have been paid; figures do not include videotape and DVD rights and rentals.)
The Critical Response to the Blaxploitation Films
These films influenced fashion and styles and had social impact. The chic clothing and accessories worn by the heroes of Shaft and Superfly were marketed to black youth, as were hairstyles, cosmetics, and jewelry, and their soundtracks became best-selling records. The blaxploitation film, some critics argued, not only exploited the black moviegoer, but as its images became reified throughout the society, it influenced black consumer and behavior patterns, too.
Black psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint (1974) charged, "These movies glorify criminal life and encourage in black youth misguided feelings of machismo that are destructive to the community as a whole…. These films, with few exceptions, damage the well-being of all Afro-Americans. Negative black stereotypes are more subtle and neatly camouflaged than they were in the films of yesteryear, but the same insidious message is there: blacks are violent, criminal, sex savages who imitate the white man's ways as best they can from their disadvantaged sanctuary in the ghetto." Poussaint continued, "Movies of any type are seldom mere entertainment because they teach cultural values and influence behavior." The black critic Clayton Riley added, "the danger of this fantasy is to reinforce the ordinary black human being's sense of personal helplessness and inadequacy." Observing the hunger of black audiences for films that see the world from a black point of view, Newsweek magazine concluded that "the intent of the new black films is not art but the commercial exploitation of the repressed anger of a relatively powerless community" (Newsweek, August 28, 1972). Junius Griffin, the former head of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the NAACP, made similar criticisms, and in 1972 he launched the Los Angeles-based Coalition Against Blaxploitation (CAB), which included the NAACP, CORE, and SCLC.
In responding to the fantasy-versus-reality critique, the photographer and auteur Gordon Parks, director of Shaft, argued, "It's ridiculous to imply that blacks don't know the difference between truth and fantasy and therefore will be influenced by these films in an unhealthy way." "People talk about black movies being exploitative," said Hugh Robertson, director of Melinda, "and sure a lot of them are spoofy and outrageous, but the black community has been conditioned to want fantasy in films by the movies they've seen just as white people have. The only difference now is that the black fantasy isn't totally negative." In the distinguished black actor James Earl Jones's opinion, "If they're going to put the damper on John Shaft, let them put it on John Wayne too and they'll find out that there are a lot of people who need those fantasies" (Micher, 1972).
In reference to the issue of crime and violence, the white film producer Larry Cohen (Black Caesar ) argued that the "white" gangster films of the 1930s that starred Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson also featured violence to an approving audience: "The only difference was that the perpetrator had to pay for his crime before the film ended, due to the Code restrictions of that day … it really made no difference in the impact on the audience" (Variety, March 7, 1973). Further, stated Ron O'Neal, the star of Superfly, "the critics of Superfly want to support the myth that crime doesn't pay. But we all happen to know that crime is paying off for some people every day." In a review of The Mack and Superfly, the critic Stanley Kauffmann addressed the issue of quality: "Why in the world should we expect black film people, now empowered to make movie money, to behave differently or better than 99 percent of white film people behaved in the seventy years that they had full control of the screen … only after there is a body of black films, as generally
rotten as most white films, will there be a chance for the occasional good black film, as there is for the occasional good white one" (New Republic, April 28, 1973).
As the movement drew to a close, most blacks involved in the film industry concluded that to assure quality, blacks must finance and control the production of black-oriented films. In Jim Brown's view, the blaxploitation films were a necessary stage: "The Black films were at least developing producers, directors and technical people, and everyone knows that you have to crawl before you can walk. Maybe the Black films weren't of the highest quality, but Black people were getting experience in the industry" (Ebony, October 1978).
The Legacy of Blaxploitation Films
Blaxploitation films were part of a general resurgence of black artistic and political activity during the 1960s and early 1970s. In tandem with these black action films, a number of black feature films were produced that satisfied the concern of middle-class black and white communities for black positive images and value systems that would vindicate the quest for assimilation into mainstream American society. These films included Sounder (1972), Claudine (1974), The Learning Tree (1969), and The River Niger (1976), and featured such black stars as Diahann Carroll, Louis Gossett, James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier, Richard Pryor, Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, and Paul Winfield. In considering the complex relationship between market, film quality, and the audience for race-related films in 1963, Variety commented, "it's a hard fact of film life that the race pix which have been most successful at the box office have been out-and-out exploitation dramas of rather dubious artistic and social import." The marketing strategy of race films was to budget the picture so that the producer, if necessary, could recoup the film's costs in just the black market, even while aiming at as broad a market as possible. Concluded Variety : "Ironically, however, as the equal rights fight must continue to succeed, that very hard core 'Negro market' must continue to diminish. Thus, to succeed, these projected films must appeal to the new, 'desegregated market' " (Variety, July 17, 1963). The great appeal of the blaxploitation films indicated that much of America's population and imagination was still segregated in the 1970s.
But the blaxploitation films integrated attitudes, expressions, body language, and style of inner-city blacks into the repertory of both black and white feature films, thus legitimizing both black culture and these media. Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy became major box office attractions in the 1980s through a series of fast-paced action comedies. Often playing fast-talking street hustlers, Pryor and Murphy incorporated into their characters many of the iconoclastic and scatological attitudes of inner-city blacks toward whites that were first developed in the blaxploitation films. Whoopi Goldberg continued this trend in many of her vehicles.
Among the first of the post-blaxploitation action films, Sylvester Stallone's Rocky series, (beginning in 1976) effected such an integration through the use of black actors Carl Weathers (who plays flamboyant heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, patterned upon Muhammad Ali) and Mr. T. (who plays ghetto-tough boxer Clubber Lang). However, Stallone's films valorized the Italian-American working-class culture, as roustabout Rocky Balboa, played by Stallone, becomes a champion boxer in a sport dominated by blacks. Increasingly, feature films began to include black actors in major roles, but the ideological authority of the film resided within the actions and perspective of the white protagonist.
Interest in blaxploitation films and actors revived following Keenan Ivory Wayans's affectionate spoof I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1989), and the genre enjoyed a popular renaissance in the 1990s, a development influenced by such diverse factors as nostalgia for the 1970s and the popularity of hip-hop films. In particular, Quentin Tarentino, a white director, openly acknowledged the influence of the blaxploitation film on his scenarios, dialogue, and directorial style, and he paid tribute to the genre with his film Jackie Brown (1998), which provided a comeback for actress Pam Grier.
In summary, blaxploitation films achieved several things: they (1) proved that black audiences would support black films; (2) revitalized white studios and urban theaters during the late 1960s to mid 1970s; (3) developed a genre of black action film; (4) stimulated the integration of mainstream feature films; (5) broadened the range of character for black actors and actresses; and (6) provided an opportunity for new black talent, in front of the camera and behind it.
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robert chrisman (1996)