By Patrick Mondout
The same decade which saw the production of the most successful TV
miniseries of all-time (Roots),
also brought us a short-lived and controversial film genre called Blaxploitation.
What was Blaxploitation and why was it controversial?
Blaxploitation was a term coined in the early Super70s to refer to
exploitive thrillers/action films aimed at black audiences. Critics of the
films saw them as morally bankrupt and as portraying African-Americans in
the most negative way. However, not everyone in the black community
One of the first such films,* Melvin Van Peebles' remarkable Sweet
Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, was indeed a sex and violence fest
(the hero is born in a whorehouse and grows up to be a pimp who gets even
with Whitey). But it was also an all-black production and portrayed a
black man getting even with the racist Establishment. At a time when young
black men in the inner cities had to fight racism at home and dodge
bullets in Vietnam, this was a powerful and popular message. That the film
was "rated X by an all-white jury" only helped the film.
By far and away the most popular Blaxploitation films were Superfly
("He's got a plan to stick it to The Man!") starring Ron
O'Neal and Shaft starring Richard
Roundtree. The former was aided by the bestselling
soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield while Isaac
Hayes provided the score to the latter. Hardly anyone black or white
(or otherwise) who grew up in the Super70s has forgotten "the black
private dick whose a sex machine to all the chicks" as Isaac Hayes
(and later Sammy Davis, Jr.!) sang. Shaft not only had two sequels
and the 1973-1974 Shaft TV series,
but it was remade
in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson in the lead.
The Queen of Blaxploitation was Pam Grier, who was introduced to a new
generation of moviegoers in 1997's Jackie
Brown. Grier got her start in 1971 with the most
successful of the women-in-prison exploitation films and graduated to
Blaxploitation with 1972's Black
Mama, White Mama. Over the next three years, she'd also star in Coffy,
Foxy Brown, Friday
Foster, Bucktown and Sheba,
Television executives were eager to cash in on the popularity of these
films and came up with the tame and inoffensive Get
Christie Love starring Theresa Graves in 1974.
Soon black versions of mainstream heroes (or antiheroes) began to
appear: Blacula (Dracula), Black
Caesar, Blackenstein, Cleopatra
Jones and the Casino of Gold, The Black Gestapo, Black Shampoo,
Black Samson, Dr. Black & Mr. Hyde, and perhaps
inevitably, Disco Godfather. By the end of 1975 moviegoers had seen
enough and the genre slowly ceased to exist. Between 1970 and 1975, well
over 100 such films were produced - most were very low budget affairs.
This genre was ripe for parody by the mid-Awesome80s
and finally received the appropriate treatment in Keenen Ivory Wayans' I'm
Gonna Git You Sucka.
Here's our list** of what we believe are the 20 best blaxploitation
films of the Super70s:
Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)
Foxy Brown (1974)
The Mack (1973)
Comes To Harlem (1970)
Mama, White Mama (1972)
Shaft in Africa
Hell Up In
* No one can agree on what the first
Blaxploitation film was any more than they can agree on what the first
disco recording was. The term did not exist when Sweet Sweetback's
Baadasssss Song was made. But in retrospect, films in that style
had existed for a while.
** Coming up with a list of these films
always leads to debates about what is and what is not "Blaxploitation."
We're going with films that have been labeled - rightly or wrongly - as