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Blaxploitation is a film genre that emerged in the United States in the early 1970s when many exploitation films were made that targeted the urban African American audience; the word itself is a portmanteau, or combination, of the words "black" and "exploitation". Blaxploitation films starred primarily black actors, and were the first to feature soundtracks of funk and soul music. Although criticized by civil rights groups for their use of stereotypes, they addressed the great and newfound demand for Afrocentric entertainment, and were immensely popular among black audiences. The blaxploitation genre officially began in 1971 with the release of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. This film is also noteworthy in that it was written, directed, produced, and funded by Melvin Van Peebles, an African American. This remained the premise of the early blaxploitation films; film by, for, and about black people. [1]


Common qualities

Almost all blaxploitation films featured exaggerated sexuality and violence. When set in the North or West Coast of the U.S., they tended to take place in the ghetto and dealt with pimps, drug dealers, and hit men. In all these films, it was common to see drugs, the Afro hairstyle, "pimpmobiles," and crooked and corrupt white police officers. When set in the South, the movies most often took place on a plantation and dealt with slavery and miscegenation. [2] [3]


These films were made for an African American audience and often showed negative depictions of Caucasian characters; whites were often cast as crooked and racist police officers or government officials, and the racial slur "honky" was frequently used toward them. Italian Americans were frequently portrayed negatively as drug dealing members of the Mafia whom black characters would often rip off. Anti-Italian epithets such as 'dago' and 'wop' were used in conjunction with 'honky' against these characters.

At the same time, the films also created a negative stereotype of African Americans, the audience they were designed to appeal to, as pimps and drug dealers. This stereotype fit with common white stereotypes about black people, and as a result many called for the end of the Blaxploitation genre. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Urban League joined together to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Backed by many black film professionals, this group received much media exposure and quickened the death of the genre by the late 1970s.

Though still regarded as racist by many, some film scholars defend the cinematic genre as instrumental in bringing greater screen presence to African Americans. Furthermore, blaxploitation films laid the foundation for future filmmakers to address racial controversies regarding inner city poverty. In the early 1990s, a new wave of acclaimed African-American filmmakers focused on African American urban life in their films (particularly Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood) among others.

Famous blaxploitation films

Abby (1974) was a blaxploitation version of The Exorcist and starred then rising star Carol Speed as a virtuous young woman possessed by a demon; Ms. Speed also sings the title song. William H. Marshall (of Blacula fame) conducts the exorcism of Abby on the floor of a discotheque.
Black Belt Jones (1974) - Better known for his role as 'Mister Williams' from the Bruce Lee film "Enter the Dragon;" Jim Kelly was given a leading role in this martial arts film. In it he plays Black Belt Jones, a federal agent/martial arts expert who takes on the mob as he avenges the murder of a karate school owner.
Black Caesar (1973)
Black Mama, White Mama (1972) A remake of The Defiant Ones (1958) with Pam Grier and Margaret Markov in the roles originally played by Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis.
Blackenstein (1973) is a joking quasi-sequel to Blacula, featuring a black Frankenstein's monster.
Blacula (1972) is a take on Dracula, featuring an African prince William H. Marshall bitten by a vampire.
Boss Nigger (1975)
Car Wash (1976)
Cleopatra Jones (1973) and its sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975), are films about a tough, street-smart black woman. The first film marked the beginning of a subgenre of blaxploitation films which focused on strong female leads who took an active role in shootouts and fights. Some of these films include Coffy, Black Belt Jones, Foxy Brown, and Get Christie Love!.
Coffy (1973)
Coonskin (1975) is an animated satire of the blaxploitation genre, directed by Ralph Bakshi.
Cotton Comes to Harlem was written and directed by the African American Ossie Davis in 1970. It featured two black NYPD detectives Coffin Ed played by Raymond St. Jacques and Gravedigger Jones played by Godfrey Cambridge who were looking for a money filled bail of cotton stolen by a corrupt reverend named Deke O'Malley. Blazing Saddles star Cleavon Little makes an appearance in the film.
Darktown Strutters (1975)
Dolemite (1975) is a comedy which is a parody of blaxploitation films, centered around a black pimp of dubious sexual orientation. It was immensely popular and spawned several sequels.
Foxy Brown (1974) features the charismatic actress Pam Grier as Foxy Brown.
Get Christie Love! (TV movie later released to some theaters)
The Mack (1973)
Mandingo (1975). Based on a series of novels, this blaxploitation film was set in the American South during the U.S. Civil War and focused on the sexual relations between slaveowners’ wives and slaves. It was followed by a sequel, Drum, which became a favorite among black audiences for a scene in which a slave literally tears the testicles off of a white slave driver.
Passion Plantation (1976)
Shaft (1971) Directed by Gordon Parks and featuring Richard Roundtree as the black detective John Shaft, a character comparable to James Bond and Dirty Harry. The soundtrack has contributions from such prominent musicians as Isaac Hayes, whose recording of the titular song won several awards, including an Academy Award. Perhaps the most famous blaxploitation film, it was deemed culturally relevant by the Library of Congress. It spawned two sequels, Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), as well as a remake in 2000.
Sheba, Baby (1975)
Space Is the Place (1974)
Superfly (1972) Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., this film had a soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield and is considered to be a classic of the genre.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles. This tale of a black male prostitute turned vigilante is considered by many to be the first true blaxploitation film, and the film that thrust afrocentric films into the spotlight. (Van Peebles himself does not consider his film to be a part of the genre.)
Trouble Man (1972)
Truck Turner (1974)
Watermelon Man (1970). Written by a white man (Herman Raucher) but directed by an African American (Melvin Van Peebles), this film about a white man who is turned into a black man is considered a forebearer of the 1970s blaxploitation boom.
Willie Dynamite (1974)

Later media references

Later movies such as Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) and Undercover Brother (2002) , as well as Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003), feature pop culture nods to the blaxploitation genre. The parody Undercover Brother, for instance, starred Eddie Griffin as an Afro-topped agent for a clandestine organization satirically known as the "B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D". Likewise, Austin Powers in Goldmember co-stars Beyoncé Knowles as the Tamara Dobson/Pam Grier-inspired heroine, “Foxxy Cleopatra”. Furthermore, the acclaimed film auteur and noted fan of exploitation films, Quentin Tarantino, has made countless references to the blaxploitation genre in his films, in addition to Jackie Brown. In a famous scene in Reservoir Dogs, for instance, the main characters engage in a brief discussion regarding Get Christie Love!, a mid-1970s blaxploitation television series. Similarly, in the catalytic scene of True Romance , the characters are seen viewing the movie The Mack.

John Singleton’s remake of Shaft (2000) is a modern-day interpretation of a classic blaxploitation film. The 1997 film Hoodlum starring Laurence Fishburne was an attempt at gangster blaxploitation, portraying a fictional account of black mobster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. In 2004, Mario Van Peebles, Melvin’s son, released Baadasssss!, a movie based on the making of his father’s movie in which Mario played his father.

Furthermore, Blaxploitation films have made a profound impact on contemporary hip hop culture. Several prominent hip hop artists (including Snoop Dogg, Big Daddy Kane, Ice T, Slick Rick, and Too $hort) have taken the no-nonsense pimp persona popularized by the films Superfly, The Mack, and Willie Dynamite, as inspiration for their own works. In fact, many hip-hop artists have paid tribute to pimping within their lyrics (most notably 50 Cent's hit single "P.I.M.P.") and have openly embraced the pimp image in their music videos, by including entourages of scantily-clad women, flashy jewelry (known as "bling-bling"), and luxury Cadillacs (referred to as "pimpmobiles"). Perhaps the most famous scene of The Mack, featuring the "Annual Players' Ball", has become an often-referenced pop culture icon, most recently by Chappelle's Show, where it was parodied as the "Player-Haters' Ball."

Parodies and spoofs

I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Action Jackson (both 1988) are famous spoof of urban blaxploitation films, featuring several of the male stars of that genre. A later film, Original Gangstas (1996), also featured many of those stars, but was made as a tribute to the genre. Pootie Tang (2001) also parodies many blaxploitation elements. Robert Townsend's comedy Hollywood Shuffle (1987) features a young black actor who is tempted to take part in a white-produced blaxploitation film.
The anime series Cowboy Bebop features several episodes with blaxploitation themes, particularly Mushroom Samba which extensively parodies blaxploitation movies.
The Hebrew Hammer (2003) is another parody of blaxploitation films, but with a Jewish protagonist (and was therefore ironically called “Jewsploitation” by some).
The animated series Family Guy, in episode 1ACX12, If I'm Dyin', I'm Lyin', showed a cutaway based on blaxploitation movies in the form of a parody of Back to the Future (Black to the Future), starring the main character Peter’s distant cousin Rufus Griffin as "Marty McSuperFly" (refrence to Back to the Future protagonist Marty McFly). Also mentioned were other fake blaxploitation movies: Caddyblack, Blackdraft, and Black Kramer vs. Kramer.
In The Simpsons episode “Simpson Tide” (3G04) a TV announcer says “Next, on Exploitation Theatre...Blackula, followed by Blackenstein, and The Blunchblack of Blotre Blame!".
In The Simpsons episode 1F18 is entitled Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song.
The Onion's book Our Dumb Century has an article from the 1970s entitled "Congress Passes Anti-Blaxploitation Act: Pimps, Players Subject to Heavy Fines".
FOX’s network television comedy, “MadTV”, has frequently spoofed the Rudy Ray Moore-created franchise Dolemite, with a series of sketches performed by comic actor Aries Spears, in the role of “The Son of Dolemite”. Other sketches include the characters "Funkenstein and Dr. Funkenstein" also make fun of the inexperience of the cast and crew in the Blaxploitation era, making references to ridiculous scripting and shoddy acting, sets, costumes and editing. The sketches are testaments to the poor production quality of the films, with obvious boom mike appearances and intentionally poor cuts and continuity.
Among Saturday Night Live's longest running and most popular sketches, "The Ladies Man," parodied blaxploitation’s exaggerated sexuality. The Ladies' Man, played by Tim Meadows, featured an Afro-topped and sexually-crazed talk-show host who believes himself to be the living definition of what females search for in a man.
In the movie Leprechaun in the Hood, a character played by Ice-T pulls a baseball bat from his afro; this scene is a satire of a similar scene in Foxy Brown, in which Pam Grier hides a revolver in her afro.
Many of actor and wrestler The Rock's catchphrases have come from blaxploitation films.
Cartoon Network's "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" series has a recurring character called 'Boxy Brown' (A play on Foxy Brown, a lead character in another blaxploitation film). An imaginary friend of one of the main characters, Boxy Brown is a cardboard box with a crudely drawn face with a goatee on it that dons an afro. Whenever the character speaks on the show 70's funk music, typical of blaxploitation films, is played in the background. The cardboard box also fronts a confrontational attitude and dialect similar to many heroes of this film genre. Sample Dialogue
Some of the TVs found in the action video game Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne feature a blaxploitation-themed parody of the original Max Payne game called Dick Justice, after its main character. Dick behaves much like the original Max Payne (down to the "constipated" grimace and metaphorical speech) but wears an afro and mustache, and talks with an African-American accent.
The animated series Drawn Together features a character named Foxxy Love who spoofs both 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoons and blaxploitation characters. Her name is derived from those of the characters Foxy Brown and Christie Love.

See also

Further reading

  • What It Is... What It Was!; The Black Film Explosion of the '70s in Words and Pictures by Andres Chavez, Denise Chavez, Gerald Martinez ISBN 0786883774

External links

  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ [3]

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