A Brief History of Blaxploitation
Film article by: Witney Seibold
For the last decade or so, Blaxploitation, as a genre, has been enjoying something of a renaissance. This is due largely to Quentin Tarantino, although styles and trends have been borrowing heavily from the early 1970s for a while now (and not always to advantage; who else is sick to death of the word “pimp” being used to mean “decorate garishly?”). The original wave of Blaxploitation movies, oddly, only existed for a few years, from about 1971 to 1975. Who is to say what caused Blaxploitation? It’s certainly a product of the civil rights movement, but it’s more. Perhaps we can learn from a few examples:
Shaft (1971) starring Richard Roundtree as the black private dick who’s a sex-machine to all the chicks, is still hailed as the first and best of the genre. Which is kind of ironic, as the director, Gordon Parks, has never considered it an exploitation movie. Tough black cop, crooked white cops, a lotta funk and a lotta soul. It has become synonymous with a certain badass attitude. Whether it was exploiting the black audiences or not, it certainly created a lasting aesthetic. It was followed by two sequels, Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973) and a 2000 remake.
Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Friday Foster (1975) rose Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier out of her trash Roger Corman women-in-prison movies into a sexy kick-ass Amazon goddess. Switchblades, hot cars, and lotsa guns. If bodysuits and afros and big sunglasses were ugly before, they become acceptable on Pam Grier. Grier vanished briefly, and then rose again when Tarantino released his Jackie Brown in 1997.
Superfly (1972) may not be remembered as a film, but the title is embedded in most minds, and the soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield has permeated the collective unconsciousness. The funky baselines, disco influences, and waka-ja-waka have become one of the most important influences on modern rock.
And we cannot forget The Thing with Two Heads (1972) in which a white racist’s head (Rosy Grier) is attached to a black soulbrother’s body. Or Blacula (1972), whose title in self-explanatory. Or Blackenstein. I think by the time the comic sexual ambiguity of Dolemite! (1975) rolled around, the genre was losing its already shaky credibility.
I think the mixture of civil rights angst, 1960s hippie culture, 1970s war fear, and the irrepressible bright colors and drug excess of the time, all blended to form a genre that is truly unique and, despite its imitators (be they campy mockers or hallowed homages), can never be recreated. No matter your race, go rent Shaft, and relive the era.