Blaxploitation: A Retrospective
As the iconic Black Power Movement of the late 60′s and 1970′s was sweeping the nation on a political and cultural scale, the same values of pride and identity began to take shape in film and led to a genre of films the likes of which has never been seen before or since: blaxploitation films.
Depending on who you ask, one of two films is credited for spawning the genre that gave us our own Afro-sporting heroes—except for Priest from Superfly, of course—to follow. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song or Shaft are the usual films cited, with Shaft providing a more complete and closely followed template for the films which followed. If you’ve ever seen the former, which was actually funded by legend Bill Cosby, you know the genre probably wouldn’t have made it too long with that as the basis.
So what is a blaxploitation film, exactly? The word itself is a portmanteau (or combination) of the words “black” and “exploitation,” suggesting exploitation not only of black actors, but also of black audiences, perhaps. To put it simply, it is a film in which the usual plot and characters are modified to mesh with an urban perspective: most of the characters are Black, replacing the average Hollywood type. The plot usually involves the ghetto, and in many cases, involves some type of big-time crime scheme dealing with pimps, drug dealers and the like. Most importantly, the main character is a larger-than-life personality with a great sense of style, cool, wittiness and perhaps, most importantly, sex appeal that is on display regardless of the situation. The lines these characters deliver are usually unforgettable iconic staples.
During the blaxploitation era, we saw the emergence of stars such as Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier, former football players Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Ron O’Neal, and comedian Rudy Ray Moore to name a few. All carried a sense of cultural identity and a penchant for sticking it to the man, regardless of the specific plot line in their films. The era solidified these actors in their well-known roles, as most of the popular films spawned sequels.
Here’s a look at some of the most popular blaxploitation films.
Of course, even more iconic than the films in many cases, were the soundtracks. Soul legends like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield gave Shaft and Super Fly their very own theme songs while the legendary Earth, Wind, and Fire got their first big break recording the soundtrack for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
While many saw these films as empowering, others thought they reinforced white stereotypes about blacks and even formed an organization—the Coalition Against Blaxploitation—to put an end to the genre. As the coalition gained traction, the blaxploitation era waned and eventually ended.
What are your favorite blaxploitation films?