We’ve already delved into the lasting impact that Blaxploitation has had on race relations and identity, but as part of this ongoing Black History Month project, I wanted to take the time to focus on some of the specific films that shaped my love of the genre. I should add a caveat to this notion of genre. While Blaxploitation is considered a genre in itself, it’s really a composite of several other genres ranging from crime, political thriller, comedy, historical drama, action, and neo-noir. Pretty much any genre you can think of was at one point filtered through the lens of Blaxploitation, though there was an unfortunate absence of science-fiction. While most of these films centered on elements of crime and street-level injustice/justice in some way, there were a few films that stepped further outside of the bounds of reality like Blacula and Exorcist rip-off, Abby (which despite my best efforts has become impossible to find since Warner Bros. sued over the film). Though critics have accused many of these films of being derivative of better films and derivative unto themselves, they truly do show quite a range in tone, style, and focus. For those unfamiliar with the genre, and for those who want to delve deeper, here are the 10 best Blaxploitation films.
10. Trouble Man (1972)
While Shaft cornered the black P.I. market first, Ivan Dixon’s Trouble Man surpasses that more famous film in nearly every way. Robert Hooks’ Mr. T may lack the magnetism of Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft, but his quiet intelligence, and blistering intensity make him a figure reminiscent of Old Hollywood noirs. While many detective-centric Blaxploitation films lean heavier on action than case solving, Trouble Man actually establishes a compelling mystery involving a gang of masked thieves, a crime kingpin whose move in on the black territory has created a division in the ghetto. But this doesn’t mean the film is lacking in the action department. The film’s final 20 minutes feature some of the best choreographed action in the entire genre. While the stunts have to be regarded in the context of ’70s filmmaking, most of it holds up better than any low-budget action film that’s come out in recent years. Best of all Trouble Man features a stellar soundtrack by Marvin Gaye that’s come to outshine the film over the years (it was also referenced and used in Captain America: The Winter Solider).
9. Friday Foster (1975)
As one of the later Blaxploitation films, Arthur Marks’ comic-strip adaptation Friday Foster has the benefit of distinguishing itself from prior entries in the genre by cleverly subverting expectations. It also has the benefit of starring not one but two Blaxploitation legends in Pam Grier and Yaphet Koto. While most women in these films were either military agents or prostitutes, Grier’s Friday Foster is a career woman. Sure, she’s a former model, but she’s also a photo-journalist. Friday and Koto’s Colt Hawkins find themselves in the midst of a conspiracy to destroy all the blacks in government positions. Despite the high-stakes plot, and political elements, Friday Foster gives us some of the most uniquely human characters in all of Blaxploitation. These are super heroes and legendary archetypes, but regular people who become involved only by accident. This is best evidenced by Colt Hawkins who finds himself in the midst of a gunfight and stops to ask, “What am I doing here?” Indeed, none of these characters belong in this high-stakes world, which is a refreshing departure from the numerous characters who were born to take the heat. The action and narrative twists are all solid, but the comedic elements are what make Friday Foster worth remembering.
8. Foxy Brown (1974)
Easily the most iconic of Blaxploitation films, thanks in no small-part of Quentin Tarantino’s Blaxploitation-inspired Jackie Brown (1997), Foxy Brown is the most violent of all Blaxploitation films. After she’s betrayed by her brother and her government-agent boyfriend is killed, Foxy poses as a prostitute and sets out on a brutal path of revenge. Revenge comes in the form of using hangers like Wolverine’s claws to carve a guy’s face, dousing a guy in gasoline and lighting him on fire, dismembering a guy with an airplane propeller, and the always reliable castration. When compared to the other films of this era, the level of violence is surprising, especially in the hands of a black female lead. But there are elements of the film’s brutality that don’t work in the favor of its female characters (including a quickly dismissed rape scene), but it’s impossible to deny the fact that Foxy Brown is one badass action hero. While most of the film’s appeal comes from superficial elements, the film’s recognition of the impact of whites’ introduction of drugs into black neighborhoods is deftly handled. Foxy may dispatch man after man, but her ultimate goal of abolishing “new slavery” (dope) is what makes her a memorable hero.
7. The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972)
While slavery movies had a resurgence during the Blaxploitation era, the underseen gem The Legend of Nigger Charley broke away from the plantation and situated itself in the tradition of the American Western. Martin Goldman’s film follows three escaped slaves in the West who become defenders of the peace by taking on a group of white bounty hunters, and a crazy, gun-toting preacher. This film and Mandingo (1975) served as primary influences to Tarantino’s Django Unchained. While Mandingo sought to portray the “accurate” brutalities of slavery by ironically focusing on white pain, Nigger Charley is our slavery myth, one that plays into the fantasy of the escaped slave narrative. The simple film works as a freedom song, one that allows blacks to act against whites with impunity. While other films at the time tried to depict real-world consequences, this film stayed true to its title and served as nothing more than an entertaining legend.
6. Super Fly (1972)
One of the most controversial Blaxploitation films of its day, Gordon Parks, Jr.’s Super Fly positioned a coke-dealer as a hero. Ron O’Neal’s Youngblood Priest became an icon for life in the ghetto with his fancy suits and coke-spoon fashioned into a cross. But as cool as Priest’s ensemble was and his lasting legacy on rappers in the ’90s, Super Fly doesn’t celebrate a life of crime but depicts the struggle to escape from it. Ron O’Neal’s utter coolness and Curtis Mayfield’s seductive soundtrack collide with the central character’s urge to do something else with his life, creating a resonating theme of image versus identity. While so many crime films work in the way of Greek tragedy with death being the only way out, Priest actually gets to escape his life as a dealer. For a criminal character to escape death and reform was nearly unheard of at the time, especially if they were black. There are realistic consequences in the film, but it’s succeed by an optimism that promises that a person’s fate is not bound to the fact they were born in a ghetto.
5. Coffy (1973)
This is the film that made Pam Grier into a cult icon and elevated the status of women within Blaxploitation. Directed by Jack Hill, who would later direct the aforementioned Foxy Brown, Coffy follows a nurse looking to take out the whole dope racket in her area after her sister’s overdose. Where Coffy differs from Pam Grier’s other features and women-led Blaxploitation films, is that Coffy shows little remorse. If Foxy Brown shows sympathy for the prostitutes and pushers, Coffy is pure wrath, a Punisher-like figure who will attack dealers, suppliers, prostitutes, and junkies alike. Some considered its message to lean too far into anti-drug preachiness. But preachy or not, Coffy provided a necessary alternative to the liberal-minded Super Fly. The film is unpolished, especially when compared to similar Foxy Brown, but its grit and workman-like filmmaking only add to its rage-charged mission statement. The film also features some of the genre’s roughest fight scenes, including the infamous fight between Coffy and a bunch of white prostitutes who grab her hair and are cut by hidden razor blades. You can bet that any movie after that featured a black woman with an afro taking out criminals was only paying tribute to Coffy.
4. Black Caesar (1973)
Black Caesar has the distinction of being not only one of the best Blaxploitation films but also one of the best gangster films. Larry Cohen’s film follows Tommy Gibbs, a former shoe-shine boy who uses what he learned from the mob to carve out his own territory. But Gibbs wants more than just money, and women, he wants to be regarded as the same by his white peers. He even goes as far as buying out his lawyer’s apartment and keeping all the furniture and clothes so that he can keep up the appearances of being a white man in every way except skin color. Fred Williamson portrays Gibbs with a sensitivity that can turn to brutality on a dime, creating a character that preys on audience sympathy and uses that sympathy against them. Black Caesar’s influence on Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is easily noticeable, and unlike the other Blaxploitation films that had criminal protagonists we can’t walk away feeling that Gibbs is a decent guy caught in poor circumstances. But despite Gibbs’ outright cruelty there is a level of satisfaction as the character becomes a means for the film to offer reparations against Birth of a Nation in its final act. In Gibbs’ final act, he confronts the cop who wrongfully imprisoned him years before and forces him to sing a minstrel song at gunpoint while smearing his face in shoe-polish. Blaxploitation may be known for a certain schlockiness but this scene and the one that immediately follows are some of most powerful racial images in all of cinema.
3. Truck Turner (1974)
There simply isn’t a Blaxploitation film that’s more fun, or polished than Jonathan Kaplan’s Truck Turner. This is the Bad Boys of the ’70s, only with less explosions and Bayisms. Soul singer Isaac Hayes, who lost out on the role of Shaft, stars as bounty-hunter Truck Turner, who alongside his partner Jerry chase down a pimp which puts them in conflict with the sociopathic Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto). While so many Blaxploitation films feel firmly situated in their era, Truck Turner feels distinctly modern and its narrative could easily fit into today’s world with only a few changes. Ironically, this film was originally written for white leads before casting decisions changed in order to reap the financial benefits that black audiences were providing. While the idea of a soul singer as an action hero sounds like a vanity project disaster, Hayes has extraordinary charisma and comedic timing; it’s a shame he didn’t get to lead more films. Kotto gives an equally stellar performance as a ruthless pimp with a frightening detachment towards human beings. And in terms of actions, the first act car chase, and the climatic shootout in a busy hospital, stand head and shoulder above what other action movies were doing at the time. While the film doesn’t have the same social relevance or political interests as its contemporaries, there are few entry points to the genre that can match its thrills.
2. Detroit 9000 (1973)
If you’ve ever wanted to see the racial tensions of Detroit explored in a buddy cop/heist film then look no further than Arthur Marks’ Detroit 9000. A popular black police sergeant is partnered with an old and weary white Lieutenant to solve a case involving funds stolen from a black Representative’s campaign. The cops know that if blacks were responsible for the heist the black community will blame the cops and if whites were responsible then it will lead to riots. While the film is filled with over-the-top shootouts and one-liners, Detroit 9000 examines very real conflicts that exist in cities where whites have become the minority. It looks at Detroit’s issues in the ’70s and foreshadows the incompetent government decisions that have left the city what it is today. The film examines the fallibility of both black and white officials and the partnership at the heart of the film doesn’t end on a picturesque moment of racial acceptance, but an ambiguous ending where no party is left unscathed. While the film is filled with entertaining moments of spectacle, Detroit 9000 is the most narratively and emotionally complex Blaxploitation film, save for the last film on this list.
1. Across 110th Street (1972)
When we think of the ’70s, we think of great filmmaking. We think of Lumet, Cassavetes, Coppola, Scorcese, and Schlesinger. Even if these filmmakers had only made one film during this period they still would have redefined the medium. If we were only going by one film, then Barry Shear, a long-time television director, could stand next to these giants. When three black men rob and kill a group of low-level Mafia employees, a police Lieutenant (again, the incomparable Yaphet Kotto) and a racist Captain (Anthony Quinn) are tasked with discovering the identity of the three men. If the Blaxploitation genre’s greatest success is its ability to look empathetically at both sides of the law, then Across 110th Street is the peak of that success. We’re drawn to Kotto’s serious, and naïve Lt. Pope, just as we’re drawn to the street-wise and brutal methods of Quinn’s Capt. Mattelli. But we’re also drawn to the three burglars, each with hopes and ailments which only money could solve. All of these characters are tied to each other thematically in their desperation, their desperation to be seen for more than their race, their desperation to redeem themselves, their desperation to escape the ghetto or die trying. While so many New Hollywood films focused on white desperation and existentialism, Shear looked at the other side of the street and brought together a film that moves beyond the tropes of Blaxploitation in order to deliver something hard-hitting and concise. In this film, there are no unnecessary music montages, no over-the-top elements of gore or sex, and no quips meant to make an audience cheer in the comfort of knowing everything will turn out alright in the end. Instead, Across 110th Street is filled with quiet moments of sadness that are punctuated by savage acts of violence. Blaxploitation movies can be immensely fun, but Across 110th Street traps us in a sweat box of racial tension.