Blaxploitation is a term coined from the merger of two words, namely black and exploitation. It referenced a new, unconventional at the time, ethnic genre where film would focus on the lives of black characters. Blaxploitation infamously earned the term because it faced backlash for its use of non-black directors, writers, and filmmakers in general to produce movies they had no idea about or experience with.
The resistance mostly came from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), with the term blaxploitation popularized by the movement’s leader, Junius Griffin. Not every African American agreed with him though.
The Black Power movement is thought to have heavily inspired this new direction of filmmaking. This social movement that started in the 1960s pushed for equality across all spheres of life, with the primary goal of felling the enormous cactus that was white supremacy back then.
Telling black stories in a bid to appeal to urban black audiences, most movies of the kind were criticized for their lack of authentic perspectives. These films were taking advantage of the black angle for new realms of movie success for a target audience that had very little material to be proud of before then.
The genre came into focus somewhere around the 1970s, when there was an absence of significant roles in cinema for African Americans. The racial unease of back in the day meant that African-Americans were rare faces in the old movies. When they did feature, screen time was often restricted to crumbs of appearance or insignificant roles inconsequential to the plot.
Blaxploitation films were popular but also faulted for portrayals of African-Americans in a bad light. They regularly fanned the flames of stereotypes such as black people being uneducated or doing not-too-pleasing jobs such as prostitution, for instance.
However, blaxploitation cinema did cast a spotlight on an often-ignored minority, giving a marginalized community its day in the cinematic sunshine and kickstarting an acceptance and popularity of African-American movies. The genre is positively remembered for being among the first to hand black characters the roles of protagonists in film, instead of playing the stereotypical criminal or sidekick.
Today, the blaxploitation genre is dead and buried. It created huge divides among the African-American community. Some gave the niche a thumbs up, lauding it as a powerful statement of black empowerment. Another group however wasn’t as enthusiastic. A section of the black community believed that these kinds of films not only lacked originality but also encompassed stereotypes by white people about African-Americans.
A strong opposing coalition soon rose against blaxploitation and it wasn’t too long after its inception that the genre was on its death bed.
However, there were more than 200 movies made during its decade-or-so-lifetime and we still hear echoes of blaxploitation cinema to this day.
Traces of it remain alive in modern cinema trends. Recent examples of films with blaxploitation accents include Undercover Brother 2, Black Panther, and the recent reboot of Super Fly (2018).
Deviating from production norms, it was common for blaxploitation cinema to be independently produced outside of Hollywood studios. The genre was identifiable for its array of unique qualities, some of which include:
Before blaxploitation cinema, black characters rarely made it onto the cast. When they did, it was a subsidiary role that the plot wouldn’t miss had they not been in it. The characters they played even then were up to no good or took on a derogatory position in the fictional world e.g. a thug, a drug dealer, etc.
Blaxploitation cinema was among the first to pass the mantle of plot concentration to a black character. It inspired a new age of moviemaking by going where few would dare venture at the time. Films of the genre consequently had black characters stepping into the shoes of the hero with a white character offering conflict.
For the first time, the African-American wasn’t merely a scapegoat for innate evil even when they did play the big bad. They had comprehensive character development and there was logic to their actions. Black characters enjoyed a considerable chunk of the plot and often played the noble and, sometimes the antihero like in Blacula, in these movies.
In an ironical sense and to flip the social pyramid, white characters were restricted to the fringes or handed servitude or villainous roles instead. E.g. you’d find a wealthy black man being driven about by a white chauffeur, or a white antagonist stirring trouble as the criminal.
Soul music was popular with the African-American people. It was part of the emerging black pop culture of the day and embodied the blazing spirit of a community that sought to set itself apart from the white man trends. It was an authentically inspired brand of music that featured passionate vocals with gospel undertones as an oppressed community appealed to a higher power for comfort and guidance.
It encompassed Jazz as well, a brand of music also heavily associated with the traditionalism of the African-American lineage. Soul music had accents of blues too. It was in its entirety a beacon of black culture, kind of like a bat signal for the people it represented.
Some music became hits like in the cult classic Shaft
To set the stage for a black movie, blaxploitation cinema would rely on soul music, which was at some point herald as the “music of Africa.” The jazzy tunes and wah-wah guitars would resonate with the target audience. It gave films of these kinds their personality and x-factor. Film soundtracks and visuals would feature dramatic body movements, handclaps, and other catchy rhythms that characterized the sounds of soul.
These features would give the movies that African-American identity, setting apart a distinct culture in a way that emphasized the pride of the people. Blaxploitation movies hence became famous as well for their curation of African musical scores and soundtracks in general.
In the mid-20th century, African-Americans had to deal with all sorts of institutional and systemic discrimination. A culture of slavery still lingered in the memories of White America. The black community was still, in many ways, at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Racial hurdles came from every side.
Be it police offers warry of black presence to schools and football teams that were shy of colored players, there were challenges across educational, sporting, political, and basically every sphere of life. Blaxploitation cinema often went with a concept of black empowerment, challenging the institutionalization of racism in the 60s and 70s.
Slavery was a common angle to drive the storytelling. Filmmakers would sensationalize slavery as they tapped into a sensitive subject matter to create an emotive film that would get people talking. Black characters would find themselves in positions of oppression, on the receiving end of sexual violence and general mistreatment.
Graphic and gratuitous violence was a popular tactic to illustrate the brutality of suffering, which was meant to make their inevitable triumph much more emotionally meaningful. It was such a popular theme that it veered into its own, dedicated subgenre called slavesploitation. This over-reliance on one angle of storytelling meant that ideas ran out fast, hence contributing to the genre’s demise.
The black community had several stereotypes fester against them over the years. Blaxploitation cinema, often crafted from a third-party perspective, furthered some of these notions. One such stereotype was the “magical black.”
One black character would play a “supernatural consultant.”
They’d help out other characters by “consulting the ancestors” and performing other mystical or unexplainable acts. Another stereotype commonly propagated by blaxploitation was the concept of black people taking on domestic worker duties in a white household. The mammy or mammie role was popularly the source of conflict for many movies of the niche.
Black neighborhoods were also not depicted in the best ways. They were riddled by drug abuse and generally set up as an epicenter for crime and violence. Gang activities and concepts also popularly provided a plot axis that also hinged on themes of poverty and illiteracy. It featured stereotypically characterization of black characters such as bounty hunters, prostitutes, pimps, and pushers.
Consequently, blaxploitation cinema was considered more negative than it was positive because of its often demeaning take on the black community. The movement didn’t make it past the 80s because of the stiff resistance it faced.
However, its influence persists in modern cinema.
The black power movement had taken on a life of its own by the time the 70s rolled around, ensuring that the black community was starting to make headlines. Hollywood, on the other hand, wasn’t doing too good. Musicals were nose-diving and cinema’s new little brother, television, was stealing audiences.
The growing popularity of black power paved the way for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, released in 1971. Melvin van Peebles led the way for African Americans into film with his provocative drama which he not only wrote but also starred in, directed, produced, and edited. He even made some of the musical scores himself.
Consequently, Sweetback seeks to tell the black story from the rare eyes of an insider. White antagonists and a supremacist system are branded as the unreasonable evil, in typically blaxploitation fashion. The protagonist is a towel boy serving in a brothel, and the plot sees him tangle with “The man” in search of love, life, and freedom.
The authentically black musical score and the soundtrack were also contributed to by the African-American RnB band Earth, Wind & Fire. Sweetback’s cast is predominantly black as well, and the funky music invites the audience into an exotic culture.
Shaft followed hot on the heels of Sweetback’s success as a struggling media giant sought to rediscover its glory days by tapping into the black power trend. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer took a huge gamble with Shaft. Luckily, their Hail Mary landed a cinematic touchdown that would help them plug the financial leaks. Initially meant to appeal to black audiences with its eccentric African-American characters, its success outgrew ethnic lines.
It became talked about in mainstream media, earning fans across divides.
Sweetback and Shaft were some of the industry pioneers, kickstarting an acceptance of the blaxploitation genre in Hollywood.
Ridding on the funky waves and musical genius of Oscar-winner Isaac Hayes, Shaft featured not-too-subtle sexual innuendo on its soundtrack and dialogues, typical of the strong language associated with blaxploitation cinema. A hip black hero led the charge of a PI tasked with finding a mobster’s kidnapped daughter.
Gang battles erupt around him as he makes sense of more than meets the eye. The film explores customary themes of turf wars, gratuitous violence and encompasses stereotypical characterization. Nonetheless, Shaft was proof that blaxploitation cinema was not out of place within the Hollywood system.
Not to be confused with the 2018 remake, Super Fly (1972) flew the blaxploitation flag even higher. The crime drama was a box office hit, and was one of the most enduring of the genre, leaving a huge impression on cinema.
An African American protagonist makes a fortune in the underworld drug trade. He opts out but not before dipping his hand in the cookie jar one last time. References to “The Man” are clear and vivid. In one scene, one character outrightly blames the white hierarchy for the black neighborhood’s impoverished predicament and having to resort to drugs to earn a living.
Super Fly’s soulful soundtrack is one of the most memorable aspects of the film and was highly significant to the movie’s blaxploitation packaging. Music critics lauded Curtis Mayfield, the African-American singer behind the composition, for his meaningful tunes.
They praised what was a unique, and funky new sound at the time, and also the delicate themes discussed in the lyrics. Curtis tackled various issues on poverty, drug abuse, and self-liberation. His Super Fly album caused huge rumbles, even going on to out-gross the film itself.
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