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Blaxploitation

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 agreed.

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, Baby.

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:

  1. Superfly (1972)

  2. Shaft (1971)

  3. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

  4. Coffy (1973)

  5. Foxy Brown (1974)

  6. The Mack (1973)

  7. Black Caesar (1973)

  8. Cotton Comes To Harlem (1970)

  9. Dolemite (1975)

  10. Shaft's Big Score! (1972)

  11. Black Mama, White Mama (1972)

  12. Friday Foster (1975)

  13. Cleopatra Jones (1973)

  14. Bucktown (1975)

  15. Shaft in Africa (1973)

  16. Hell Up In Harlem (1973)

  17. Blacula (1972)

  18. Willie Dynamite (1974)

  19. Sheba, Baby (1975)

  20. T.N.T. Jackson (1975)

* 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 Blaxploitation.

 

Share Your Memories!

Do you have anything interesting to add to this story? What do you remember about it? Share your stories (or your reviews) with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

 Your Memories Shared!

"The top 20 list is definately a "who's who" of Super70s Blaxploitation. All of them are must see films (as well as must own !!) I also urge you to check out THREE THE HARD WAY with Fred Williamson, Jim Brown & Jim Kelly. It's a great action film with three of the Super70s most popular Black actors. Speaking of Jim Kelly, BLACK BELT JONES is required viewing!! Kelly wages a one Man (backed up by several Kung Fu Mamas) to keep an inner city Martial Arts school open.

ABBY was a legend in it's own time. Released shortly after The Exorcist (who it borrowed liberally from) it was pulled from theatres when Warner Brothers sued over it's obvious similarities. Never on TV , Never on VHS. It finally saw the light of DVD in Dec. 2003. William (Blacula) Marshall stars as an exorcist/archeologist who lets a Demon out of it's tomb only to have it inhabit his prudish daughter-in-law. Like a sailor on shore leave, Abby hits the town, picking up men and literally loving them to death. A genre classic finally available. Thanks for giving Super70s Black Films their due. They were a real staple in Theatres during the Super70s. (Oh yeah. MANDINGO and THE KLANSMAN, with Lee Marvin, Richard Burton & O. J. Simpson, were pretty wild films that could never be made today !!) [Editor's note: Thanks Michael, I appreciate the recommendations.]"

--Michael C.

 

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