What do you get when you combine Hollywood, African American actors, gritty urban settings, sex, and a whole lot of action? Some would simply call it a recipe for box office success, but since the early 1970s, most people have known this filmmaking formula by the name “Blaxploitation.” Blaxploitation cinema occupies a fascinating place in the landscape of American pop culture. At once vilified and glorified by different facets of the African American community, the films of this genre provide an extended meditation on the impact of racial divisions that persist even now.
1971’s Shaft, one of the first films commonly identified as Blaxploitation, gave us the character of John Shaft, possibly the quintessential Blaxploitation hero. Based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman and starring actor Richard Roundtree, the first Shaft film traces a few days in the life of the titular private detective. The contours of the story are familiar: After a series of run-ins with Harlem gangs and the Mafia, not to mention a handful of beautiful women, Shaft saves the day in an exciting (and violent) final scene. Shaft was a major commercial success and also a critical darling. Its instantly-recognizable theme song, composed and performed by Isaac Hayes, won Golden Globe, Grammy, BAFTA, and Academy awards.
Scores of similar films followed, including 1972’s genre masterpiece Super Fly. The film’s plot is perhaps less important than the attitude and image that star Ron O’Neal projected in the principal role of Youngblood Priest. Here was an African American man with power, undeniable swagger, a cool car, even a desire to put his drug-dealing ways behind him and do something greater with his life. Financed and produced entirely by African Americans, accompanied by Curtis Mayfield’s now-classic soul soundtrack, and the source of much controversy regarding the role of film in the African American community, Super Fly may have been Blaxploitation cinema’s high-water mark.
Combining the words “black” and “exploitation,” “Blaxploitation” was originally intended to draw attention to what some saw as the corrupting nature of the emerging genre. Coined in 1972 by Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP chapter leader Junius Griffin to describe Super Fly, the term came to designate certain films thought to be taking advantage of African American cinemagoers’ desire to see recognizably African American stories and characters represented in cinema. Instead of providing positive depictions of African Americans, Blaxploitation films offered a window into a world of crime, sex, and violence that appealed to an audience’s most prurient interests.
Opposition to Blaxploitation cinema proved to be a galvanizing force within the landscape of American activism. The NAACP officially came out against the films, and joined forces with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation (CAB) in 1972. The CAB included nearly 400 African American constituents working in the film industry and attempted to effect positive change regarding the roles of African Americans in Hollywood.
In order to combat what CORE national chairman Roy Innis identified as the films’ “subtle ways of promoting Black genocide in the Black community” through glorification of drugs and murder, the CAB attempted to develop a ratings system that would assign qualitative assessments to new films according to the films’ representation of African Americans. The CAB also organized boycotts of theaters that ran Blaxploitation movies, and even attempted to promote its agenda behind the scenes through negotiation with studio executives.
While many joined Griffin in decrying the nascent trend in African American film, there were others who denied the notion that these films were engaging in any sort of exploitation. For some, the genre’s frequent use of strong male and female leads who lived by their own code was empowering. African American characters who thrived outside the law exemplified a necessary rejection of an oppressive system designed and controlled by “the Man.” And films set in urban ghettoes reflected the experiences of millions of African Americans whose lives were otherwise absent from representation in mainstream American culture.
Indeed, Hollywood’s African American contingent was far from unified in its reaction to Blaxploitation cinema. Actor Jim Brown defended the films, for example, explaining that they created much-needed work for African American actors and writers. Fred Williamson, star of a number of Blaxploitation films, saw a double standard in the absence of similar criticism of violent films starring white actors. And director Oscar Williams understood the rejection of Blaxploitation cinema as a greedy Hollywood maneuver to keep African Americans away from the vast sums of money being made in the movie business.
Though the reasons are unclear, production of Blaxploitation films waned at the end of the 1970s. Some have suggested that this decline was due to the actions of groups such as the CAB, while others point to general audience fatigue and the films’ poor production values. Still others feel that Hollywood studios decided that they could continue to draw large African American crowds to films made up of white casts, and that Blaxploitation films were consequently not worth the trouble they created. Whatever the cause, the era of Blaxploitation had essentially ended by 1980.
The most visible influence of Blaxploitation is on hip hop, a subculture that is unimaginable without films such as Shaft and the iconic soundtracks that accompanied them. More ambiguous, however, is the legacy of Blaxploitation in cinema—a direct result of the ongoing lack of diversity in the film industry. Numerous African American-directed movies have paid homage to the genre in some way since the late 1980s, often finding critical success, including Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991), Albert and Allen Hughes’ Menace II Society (1993), and Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991) and Posse (1993). In 2000, Singleton directed a new version of Shaft with Samuel L. Jackson and Christian Bale, which served as both a sequel and a remake. Van Peebles later directed and starred in Baadasssss! (2003), which detailed the making of his father’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). The influence has also extended to big budget movies primarily made by and starring white people, most notably the crowd-pleasing action movies of the 1980s. Blockbusters such as Commando (1985), in which the protagonist would often deliver a snarky one-liner after killing an enemy, were reminiscent of the black gangster films of the ’70s—only this time, the themes had more conservative and militaristic leanings.
But the filmmaker who has gotten the most mileage out of the genre is almost certainly Quentin Tarantino. Not without controversy, Tarantino has employed Blaxploitation tropes and music in hit films such as Jackie Brown (1997) and Pulp Fiction (1994). In 2012, Tarantino was able to take the genre to an epic, Oscar-winning level with Django Unchained, a violent revenge fantasy starring Jamie Foxx. Though the film was a huge success, some critics (including Spike Lee) accused Tarantino of trivializing the crime of slavery, and raised questions about whether white filmmakers should be the ones to tell the most painful stories of black history. The ongoing debate calls to mind Robert Townsend’s satire Hollywood Shuffle (1987). In that film, Townsend plays a black actor compelled to make an exploitative gangster movie, a situation illustrating the way black artists are often viewed in Hollywood. In other words, while the influence of the Blaxploitation era is undeniable, it is also clear that the genre has been co-opted into the mainstream in ways that the original filmmakers did not foresee.