Blaxploitation: A History Lesson
A black movie can start a dialogue. Rake in millions. Create demand for a sequel. Snag a nomination or two. Still nigga.
In a recent interview with The Root actress Gabrielle Union reminded viewers that Hollywood is still very much segregated and that “no matter how well you do, it is, you did well for a black movie”.
It might come as a surprise to some that a film such as Girls Trip is one of the most successful comedies of 2017, or that Diary of a Mad Black Woman grossed $50.7 million, ten times its $5.5 million budget, at the box office back in 2005. Studio executives have been aware of the tendency for black films to overachieve since the 70s, and have been using the success of these black films to fund movies they actually care about. Way before Bad Boys II, Hidden Figures and Sisters Act, studios realized the potential of movies that gave black characters meaningful lead roles to perform at the box office and quickly began to exploit it.
The Blaxploitation genre was born from the suppression of politics in film and the inclusion of black characters in more favorable narratives. The term comes from “Black” and “Exploitation” and was based on the idea that Hollywood was able to profit from ridiculing black culture. However, this shift was seen as a way for black actors and actresses to gain access to the film industry. At the end of the 60’s Hollywood studios weren’t making money so they took a risk on art they never had faith in. Blaxploitation films were commercial-minded movies of the seventies marketed to black audiences. At a time where people of color were presented only as slaves, maids, criminals and the like, black directors like Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks believed that by making movies they could challenge the cinematic landscape for black people by giving them a sense of self that had been stolen from them. Instead of showcasing foolish, unintelligent personalities viewers were presented with charismatic, tough characters with finesse. Most blaxploitation antagonists were anti-heroes fighting against ‘The Man’, an endeavor shared by the black community.
1971 saw the release of Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadassss Song, which went on to be the highest grossing independent film that year. Often considered radical, Sweetback was bold and provocative cinema. At this stage, a black man escaping from a police officer (a white man) had never been seen before. Shortly after, that same year saw the release of the original (Hollywood financed) Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree. Shaft was the first black character that black people wanted to be. He was the slick, fast-talking, streetwise detective. Not only was Shaft selected to be preserved by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”, the film has one of the most memorable soundtracks within the genre. Scored by Isaac Hayes, the funk and soul musical score gave the film a layer of its own, adding a laid-back yet emotive tone to the movie. In 1972 Gordon Parks Jr. directed Super Fly starring Ron O’Neal as Youngblood Priest, a drug dealer trying to get out of the game. Curtis Mayfield scored its seductive soundtrack that remains iconic to this day.
Although the audiences were politically conscious, blaxploitation films encouraged viewers to forget the politics. As time went on the films became popular for promoting the indulgence of money, sex, drugs, and cars among black people. Black Nationalists who were against blaxploitation from its inception began to form a resistance against the movement. It was believed that black people were making progress socially and politically, and that blaxploitation was only setting black people back. Nevertheless, the movies kept coming. In 1973 Jack Hill directed Coffy starring Pam Grier as the lead character. For the first time, black audiences witnessed a strong independent female character on screen. The film's narrative was a response to the drug wars that poisoned the black community and took away male figures from families. Grier redefined the archetype for African American beauty and sexuality. The portrayal of a female vigilante scrapping with symbols of the white system created a demand for similar characters, giving way for actresses like Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones,1973) to give Hollywood a taste of black feminism. Gloria Hendry was another prominent female actress in the genre and starred alongside Fred Williamsson in Black Caesar (1973) and its sequel Hell Up In Harlem (1973). James Brown scored the former while Edwin Starr worked on the latter. Pam Grier continued her on-screen display of black female power in Foxy Brown (not to be confused with Jackie Brown, although the latter does also star Grier as the main character) in 1974.
Blaxploitation accentuated black people’s obsession with fashion and style. The furs, floppy hats, shiny suits, encrusted sticks and large sunglasses were ubiquitous costumes in most productions (e.g. Willie Dynamite, The Mack, Dolemite). They started to perpetuate stereotypes to white American audiences. The music, fashion and on-screen personas were either adding or confirming existing stereotypes.
The popularity of the genre began to decline by 1974 as its polarization led to so many sub-par movies being produced. It spawned subgenres of its own including westerns, kung fu films and horror movies (e.g. Blacula, Blackenstein, etc). The moment studios realized that black audiences were starting to prefer movies marketed to white audiences they no longer felt the need to participate in the blaxploitation wave. It became increasingly difficult for black films to get funded. Black people lost their bargaining chips in the film industry as the black community grew tired of seeing their reality parodied at their expense. The demand for the films had come and gone. Years later it got to the point where Fred Williamson had to fund his own movie (Original Gangstars, 1996) when studios wouldn’t give him $4 million to make a film under his conditions. The conditions were he could not be killed or die, he could not lose a fight, and he had to the girl at the end (if he wanted her).
Fast forward to 2017 and not much has changed. Studio executives still don’t care how well black films do at the box office, unless it's in relation to how they can fund the movies they’re interested in. Despite the low expectations, films like Fruitvale Station, Get Out and Moonlight, show that black people will continue to create unapologetically original content that kills at the box office.
The Blaxploitation era no doubt made it easier for the the likes of Boyz In The Hood, Set It Off and Do The Right Thing to get made, but at what cost?