Last February, Audiences Everywhere celebrated Black History Month by taking a deep dive into the Blaxploitation movement of the 70s, with a countdown of the 10 best Blaxploitation films, a retrospective on Pam Grier’s career, and an analysis of Blaxploitation’s legacy and impact on film in For a Time We Were There. Within those pieces, I examined a world of black power where crime, justice, stardom, and some of the best soundtracks to ever be featured in motion pictures collided in a way that provided insight into the only black film boom in history, and it’s contemporary influence.
This year, I had the pleasure of discussing Blaxploitation with a foremost expert on the subject, Josiah Howard. Howard has emerged as prominent voice of pop culture analysis, his writing and research featured at The Village Voice, Parade, and The New York Times. He’s lent his analysis on everything from TV, movies, music, pop singers, and black representation in media on The Today Show, Entertainment Tonight, and Access Hollywood. His book Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide is regarded as the primary source on the subject, and has proved indispensible in my continuing study of the movement. So tune in to a few Curtis Mayfield tracks, crank up the volume, and join us as we venture down the backstreets of film history to Blaxploitation corner with Josiah Howard.
What was your introduction to Blaxploitation cinema?
My first introduction came in 1973. I grew up in New Jersey and on Front Street in Plainfield, there was a theater called The Strand. It was one of the old theaters from the fifties—it still had the neon lights under the protruding marquee (although they were broken and unused) and a box office cube outside of the theater! I remember standing outside of that theater and looking at all the colorful Blaxploitation posters. The films would change each week and I was the first one there to see the new posters being hung up. That fantasy Blaxploitation world was where I wanted to be. What was going on in those beautifully illustrated posters seemed so much more exciting than my thoroughly unremarkable garden apartment complex New Jersey existence.
What was the appeal of Blaxploitation films for movie-goers?
It was the first time in movie history that Hollywood presented contemporary black images, themes and scenarios on screen. Preceding Blaxploitation there was of course Oscar Micheaux and his essential “race films,” but those films weren’t Hollywood mainstream: they were niche and only blacks knew about them. Sidney Poitier was our front line American star, and he did a stellar job in films like In The Heat of The Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and For The Love of Ivy, but Poitier, as trail blazing as he was, was also unfailingly presented as a pseudo saint: someone who was above reproach and content to suffer in stoic silence. Additionally, Poitier’s on-screen character triumphs were all realized by working within the established (white man’s) system-not bucking it.
Blaxploitation films offered a dynamic and illicit alternative to this old world mis-en-scene. Alternative ways of being were of great interest to blacks; especially young blacks. Consequently these new black films showcased black anti-heroes flourishing outside of the white man’s system. Yes, they were selling drugs, involved in prostitution and running numbers, but they were as successful as “whitey” and doing it according to their own rules. They weren’t looking for approval from the white man. That was a liberating concept: you don’t have to do it like “they” do it.
As you point out in Blaxploitation Cinema, this was the one and only African-American motion picture boom. What made the 1970s the climate for this kind of black film boom to happen?
The ‘60s were such a volatile time. Not only was the Vietnam War omnipresent, there were concurrent movements: Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, Civil Rights—there was a sea change. “White flight” happened because white people were afraid to remain in America’s inner cities following race riots and unrest. This (literal) movement took place at the same time that Hollywood was going through a fiscal crisis: there was no money coming in and they were, for a time at least, open to new ideas.
The financial windfall that was 1970’s Cotton Comes to Harlem, a funky, take-it-to-the-streets, black-cast comedy, woke the town up. This along with the concurrent easing of censorship laws ushered in a new era of freedom and an openness to taking chances. The pornography industry and the Drive-In exploitation movie market flourished like they never had before. It was just a matter of time before Hollywood turned to the untapped African American movie going audience. Add the fact that there were empty and waiting venues in which to make money—giant abandoned former movie palaces usually located in inner cities, and you had a confluence of events that facilitated a dramatic change of direction.
Shaft has become synonymous with Blaxploitation. But I’d argue (and based on your book, I think you would, too) that it’s a lesser example of the movement. Is the accessibility and preferential treatment of Shaft an effort to re-frame Blaxploitation films under lawful blackness?
I love Shaft as well as the two follow-up films Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft in Africa, but the trio of Shaft pictures really have nothing to do with the Blaxploitation film genre. That’s pretty much why director Gordon Parks refused to be interviewed for my book Blaxploitation Cinema. He didn’t want Shaft categorized as Blaxploitaiton and, from his point of view, maybe he was right. Shaft is really a detective film with a black star in a formerly white role. It’s funky and fun, there’s a glimpse of the black underworld and John Shaft uses black slang and has a stable of ladies: both black and white. But, in the end, he’s a representative of the law, he’s licensed to carry a gun.
Shaft continues to hold its place as a noted film because it doesn’t challenge the senses. It’s a cinematic continuation: a black update of an already established formula. Add Richard Roundtree’s appearance (as John Shaft) on the cover of Newsweek, and Isaac Hayes’ Oscar and Grammy-winning No. 1 Pop hit “Theme From Shaft” and you have all the makings of an across the board success.
How did Blaxploitation films change the perception of black women in film and in our culture?
I believe this is in area in which Blaxploitation films excel. Although the argument is often made that women are abused and objectified in the films one must also point out that the pictures offer a rare forum in which black women have both redefined and taken control of their own destinies. Before Blaxploitation black women in films mostly followed the rules. After Blaxploitaiton women made the rules and told you how to abide by them! They prove themselves powerful and worthy of respect, even if that respect is sometimes hard to come by.
Throughout the many “female hero” blaxploitaiton films—Coffy, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, TNT Jackson, women are not only just as powerful as all the pimps and players that surround them, but way more clever and adaptable. Don’t worry, the abuse and disrespect that women suffer in Blaxploitation films is paid back in spades!
A number of the movement’s detractors have suggested that because so many white directors and producers made a great deal of these films that the Blaxploitation movement was a clever move by white studios looking to reinforce existing prejudices by securing the narrative of the black criminal and troublemaker through film. Do you think that’s a valid criticism? Did the involvement of white filmmakers damage the movement or shift the narrative?
There were very, very few name black directors and producers at the time in Hollywood so this argument does not hold up. There weren’t even any black stunt women employed by the industry—Coffy (1973) is the first American film to hire a black stunt woman. Before Coffy scenes requiring a black stuntwoman were filled with white stuntwomen in blackface or “paintdown.” White directors like Larry Cohen and Paul Bogart did a wonderful job with scripts written to appeal to black audiences and Jack Hill was particularly sensitive and open to suggestions from his largely black casts. It may be true that the Hollywood studio heads wanted to build on stereotypes, but it is also true that the creative people on the ground; the artists and craftsmen (both black and white) had a vision and were, by nature, sensitive, aware and desirous of creating something that was modern, politically aware and—whenever they could make it happen—uplifting.
Let me give you an example of a white director’s take on his Blaxploitation films. When I spoke with Jonathan Kaplan about Truck Turner he said he and the cast were trying to win the record for the most “mother fu…..” uttered in a single scene. That choice wasn’t made with the intention of making black people look bad, it was giving the audience what they came to see: something outrageous, vulgar and funny. White people say “mother fu….” too!
Did the outcry against the violence and lifestyles in Blaxploitation films ultimately kill the momentum of the black action vehicles, or was it more so a shift in popular culture interests?
I believe the outcry did just the opposite: they extended the life of the films! Imagine how exciting it was to go and see a film that was being picketed—especially if you were young and impressionable. It made you cool! These films were made for young people coming of age not people over age. Let’s look behind the scenes: the critics of these films were usually older white men and older black intellectuals. They were forced to see pictures not made for them in the first place—and they had come from another generation: they had a different take. Their outrage makes sense but they forgot about being young, having outlandish dreams, being preoccupied with sex and, perhaps drugs, and wanting the latest “threads” and the coolest “ride .”
The cycle of films came to an end because the budgets were never expanded and there were only so many ways to re-package the same story. Additionally, seeing new black faces on the screen was exciting the first time around but that excitement was significantly diminished when people could stay home and see black faces on TV: for free. Roots was a TV phenomenon. If that didn’t appeal to you there were long-running, topical, black cast sitcoms like Good Times, The Jeffersons, What’s Happening!! and Sanford and Son. You didn’t have to get dressed and drive to the theater to see black folk!
Many of the social conditions displayed in Blaxploitation films never really saw their end in America. The racism, the poverty, the drugs, the emphasis on material goods, and the violence of inner city neighborhoods are things we still see today. Rap and Hip Hop managed to stay alive and relevant largely because of those conditions, but did those same conditions also help slow the Blaxploitation movement when a lack of change for the black condition became apparent, despite having heroes and icons in the movies?
I don’t believe this is true. One didn’t have anything to do with the other. Blaxploitation films were fantasy first. They pulled from the real black experience—especially as it related to inner city life, but they were not meant to be agents of change. They were escapist entertainment filled, such as they were, with familiar urban black life scenarios and imagery.
Hip Hop continues the tradition of presenting ethnic and class concerns, but the impact is different, in part because it is built on the high/low points of the Blaxploitation film genre. Additionally, Hip Hop is popular alongside concurrent black achievement in Soul, Jazz, Pop, Classical and Country music. There’s a much larger plate on which blacks can excel. Blaxploitaiton films flourished because they, for a time at least, were the only forum in which one could see modern minded, Hollywood-endorsed, black entertainment. The fact that the essential issues concerning black America haven’t much changed over the years and are still vividly presented in Hip Hop music, is a whole other discussion.
So many of the films during the boom of Blaxploitation cinema were similar. Even as the movement played with different genres, from gangster, action, slave period-piece, neo-noir, kung-fu, and horror, a certain recognizable pattern began to occur. Did filmmakers run out of ways to tell the story of black urban conditions during this time? What was needed to keep it going? Where did the movement go wrong?
The boom played out. No one did anything wrong its time just came and went; like the 8-Track tape! But Blaxploitaiton cinema, like “disco” music which was also wildly popular, was a reaction to the times in which they were made: that’s why we still talk about them. I’ve had the honor to talk to the stars, writers and filmmakers who were working in the genre and the one thing that they all agree on is that Blaxploitation cinema was a necessary step in the evolution of the black image on screen.
Director Arthur Marks is convinced that the films died out because of concurrent black protest—and the press made a lot of this. Writer/Director Larry Cohen thinks audiences stopped believing they would see something new and different: “how big can you keep making the car?!” Either way, more than 200 films and a decade of success is something to be proud of: it’s a good run.
What’s the best soundtrack featured in a Blaxploitation film?
Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly is, by far, the best. Infectious, topical, innovative, it contains three genuine Pop/Soul hits: “Super Fly,” “Freddie’s Dead” and “Pusherman.” “That film would not have been what it was without Mayfield’s music” admits Super Fly’s co-star Sheila Frazier; and she’s right. James Brown’s Black Caesar is also a well known classic.
Other important but lesser-known soundtrack albums include Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man: a hauntingly beautiful work; Johnny Pate’s Brother on the Run, Don Julian’s Savage! and Gladys’ Knight and the Pips’ Pipe Dreams.
What are five Blaxploitation films that every film fan should see?
Coffy (“female hero” revenge epic), Super Fly (slice of ghetto life), Amazing Grace (Comedy), Blacula (Horror) and The Guy From Harlem (unintentional farce).
The Guy From Harlem is a marvel of ineptitude; a flat out unintentional hoot. It’s so low budget that the movie poster was in black and white—no logo or art direction, just a mismatched collage of B x W snapshots! And the title: how uninventive can you be?! Coffy is the absolute best of the genre: the “male hero” formula expanded, embroidered and turned scandalously upside down.
What’s the lasting legacy of Blaxploitation today?
The ‘70s were banner years for exploitation cinema. Karate films were an industry unto themselves. So were Mondo films, disaster films, Women in Prison films and splatter films. Blaxploitation films hold their place as cheaply and expediently made entertainments that did more than they were originally intended to do: make quick cash. Flashy, outrageous, vulgar and filled with great music, they helped let the steam out of the powderkeg that was the 1970s black American experience and paved the way for today’s African American superstars.
Made in the shadow of the Black Power Movement and fully endorsed by the Black Panther Party (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was required viewing) Blaxploitation films were unapologetic “wake-up-America” entertainments: a watershed moment for black progress in front of and behind the scenes of the motion picture industry.
Given the Black Lives Matter movement, our current political state, and the popularity of shows like Luke Cage, do you think a resurrection of Blaxploitation could happen? Should it happen?
It won’t happen again because there’s no need for it to. At the time we were just happy to see young black faces on the screen and in the media. Now, of course, #OscarSoWhite not withstanding, we’re used to seeing African Americans in elevated positions of power. For the past eight years we had the pleasure of gazing upon a beautiful black family in the (no pun intended) White House. Dreams really do come true.
There will always be throwback pictures and homages, director Quentin Tarrantino loves the films and I appreciate the efforts of genre fans in and outside of the industry: they help to keep the genre alive by bringing it to a whole new generation. But Fred “The Hammer” Williamson will have the last word here: “Don’t pay me homage… pay me money!” I’m with The Hammer!
Super Fly knocked The Godfather out of the top spot on Variety’s all-important Top Grossing Films List.
Jonathan Kaplan (The Slams, Truck Turner) would go on to direct the Oscar-winning 1988 Jodie Foster vehicle The Accused.
Shaft (1971) was followed by Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), Shaft in Africa (1973) and a short-lived (seven episodes) Shaft TV series.
You can find more from Josiah Howard at his website: http://www.josiahhoward.com/
Featured Image: United Artisits