Early in the 1974 film Foxy Brown, Foxy tries to convince her dope-pushing brother to do more with his life. He responds, “You tell me what I’m supposed to do with all this ambition I got.” To understand the boom of the so labeled Blaxploitation films of the ’70s and their lasting impact on everything from music, fashion, film, and pop culture is to understand that line. Like any genre, Blaxploitation films are comprised of good and bad qualities, celebratory of and problematic towards black culture. Even the best of these reliably low-budget films are not known explicitly known as great works of art, but I can’t help but see them as such—great works in their own, often odd, ways. These movies had relevance and connected with black audiences (white audiences too, which is an interesting aspect I’ll get to). These movies became a means for black artists to be visible, and they were the best we could do with our burning ambition and slight funds. From acting, directing, screenwriting, and composing, we were present in films like never before.
In film, black artistry has never seen a resurgence of the kind of output and pop cultural monopoly that it saw for a fleeting moment in the ’70s. We came became better at all aspects of filmmaking through Blaxploitation, but as we got better the interests changed and the rise of the blockbuster and the auteur pushed those black voices back, further and further until we have the film landscape we see today. It became increasingly important to me that for Black History Month this year I didn’t simply learn some fact or short biographical note about blacks in America (as our education system has encouraged us to do) but to take a journey, and fully explore some aspect of black culture and its lasting impact. For me, there was no better means to this than through film. What follows isn’t simply a series of well-researched statements but a personal examination of my cultural identity that has been shaped by film.
For the second year in a row, no blacks were nominated for an Oscar, despite the tremendous filmmaking capabilities on display for both those years. And the year prior, blacks’ biggest cinematic achievement came in the form of a movie about slavery, an undeniably great one, but not necessarily a progressive one for the image of blacks in film. This isn’t new information, but it still hurts nonetheless. Over the past month we’ve all run across numerous articles about the Academy’s diversity problem, the systemic racism in major studios, and lack of distribution for artistry produced by people of color. There is truth and merit in all of these statements, but they are connected to a movement that film history has long treated as a back-alley secret, a dumpster fire when in reality it was a flare, signaling black voices to help shape their own image and attract their own audiences—to exhibit an ambition overlooked previously and overlooked now. For a time we didn’t have to rely on major studios to make us visible. For a time we didn’t need award shows to provide us with positions to create the work important to us. For a time we had a large margin of control over our image, and for a time we were there.
The first black filmmaker was Oscar Micheaux. Blacks couldn’t even sit with whites in the same theatre, and yet there he was making films in the early 20th century. From 1919 to 1948 he made 39 films, both silent and talkies. His films dealt with the black experience in America, showing the lower-class areas, and soon to be ghettos, like no other films were doing at the time. His films featured black actors instead of white men in blackface, and furthermore these blacks were educated, they were romantics, they were treated like actual human characters instead of the clowns and rapists that other filmmakers, notably D.W. Griffith, used film to establish them as. In 1919, Micheaux’s The Homesteader, which has since been lost, changed the representation of blacks in film, and lit the torch that the Blaxploitation era would pick up. As a tribute to the year Micheaux made his mark, I chose 19 Blaxploitation films to take me on this journey, 19 films to explore every avenue of the genre I could, and what I found was beautiful, painful, funny, and uniquely fixed in American identity, but not fixed by time.
Melvin Van Peebles is credited with starting the Blaxploitation genre with 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. How he decided on the exact number of a’s and s’s in badass we may never know, but the film’s title was only a small triumph in terms of its marketing. With a poster that trumpeted that it was “rated-X by an all-white jury” and “Starring: The Black Community,” the film attracted black audiences like no other film at the time, becoming a favorite of Huey P. Newton and his Black Panther Party. The thing about Sweet Sweetback’s, for all the attention it received in the form of both acclaim and controversy, it’s not a very strong film. Hell, it’s barely a narrative film, and more of an avant-garde piece. Focusing on a black prostitute on the run from the law after he kills a cop who was beating on a defenseless Black Panther Party member, Sweet Sweetback’s is a jumble of images and grainy footage all set to a gospel music soundtrack performed by Earth, Wind & Fire. The lead character, Sweetback, barely speaks for the entirety of the film and his run from the police, from Los Angeles to the Border of Mexico, is simply that, a whole lot of running. This isn’t a film about characters but rather a reaction to the Man.
Directed, written, produced, edited, composed by, and starring Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s is the rugged filmmaking of ambition and ego, perhaps just as appealing to audiences of 1971 for its unsimulated sex scenes as it was for its attitude. This is messy filmmaking, a montage of feeling that all feels like an experimental art from, not so different from the first great African-American art form: jazz. But what it managed in all of its messiness was giving audiences a look at ghettos and inner-city avenues, places that weren’t being featured at this time, and most importantly it showed the black community performing together. Not only in terms of the film’s production but in the film’s narrative as the black community is shown acting against the cops in order to help Sweetback escape. This film was “Fuck tha Police” before N.W.A. wrote the song. Ironically, for all the sound and fury issued against American police departments in this film, Blaxploitation really gained its foothold through films about black cops, private investigators, and their cautious and flimsy truce with white figures of power. As blacks became power figures in America, Blaxploitation films became more interesting in how they dealt with the shifting politics and conflicts of America.
The sense of black community displayed in Sweet Sweetback’s is undeniably attractive and was pushed even further in the second Blaxploitation film, Shaft (1971), which saw the titular black private eye working black crime organizations to take out the Italian mob and rescue a young black woman. In the years immediately following the Civil Rights Movement, lawfulness amongst blacks became something malleable, morality a question of circumstance. If we couldn’t trust the cops and the whites to see our side and aide us, then at least we had each other, regardless of circumstance. Trouble Man (1972) and Cleopatra Jones (1973) further emphasized the tensions between blacks and white officials, with the lone man and his ragtag posse becoming an all-out army trained and armed to take back their streets and rights. This wasn’t considered criminal but justice, and as Foxy Brown said, “Vigilante justice is as American as apple pie.” Jump ahead a few decades to the riots in Ferguson, and the others that stemmed from police brutality, can be viewed in the same vein—a community taking violent and desperate action against the system that betrayed them. Despite the fact that these riots stemmed from tragedy there is something remarkable in the fact that blacks from all walks of life, celebrities, the wealthy, the poor, the educated, and uneducated could all stand together in anger and hurt and make enough noise to rattle the system. This doesn’t condone the behavior of those who looted businesses and destroyed property, but it does at least provide a means to understand what is created when people feel like an entire system doesn’t care about their well-being, or will arrest or shoot them regardless of what laws they break or uphold.
This sense of black community is something that I’ve rarely felt in my life. It’s a shame that it’s so often publicly connected to death and anger, and it’s a shame that it so often feels responsive instead of proactive. There’s a divide amongst blacks, one that’s grown as blackness has become something we have tried to quantify, interestingly enough by the music, behaviors, and styles that Blaxploitation films left as a public and loosely interpreted legacy. Whatever that quantifiable aspect of blackness is, it’s something that I’ve mostly seemed to lack in the eyes of my immediate peers. But black identity is something I feel very strongly within myself, even if it doesn’t come in the form that others think it should. I feel a pull to that Civil Rights and Post Civil-Rights era sense of community, the one my parents speak so fondly of. My parents, who grew up in the South, faced the persecution of segregated neighborhoods and business, had power hoses turned on them, and dogs sent after them, had a community to fall back on, one that was welcoming of blackness in its entirety, instead of in the form of specific attributes. And blackness in its entirety is what Blaxploitation celebrates.
If Shaft gave the genre a means to play in the gray area of the law, then Super Fly (1972), Black Caesar (1973), and a whole host of other films gave the genre a way to play with the morality of pimps, pushers, and gangsters. It was then that Blaxploitation became just as much about black criminals as it was about black heroes. But these films sought to humanize the criminal archetype with an understanding that it was circumstances of racism, prejudice, and persecution that had put them in these positions in the first place. As cocaine dealer Priest says in Super Fly, “It’s a rotten game but it’s the only one the man left us to play.” And a “rotten game” was what many began to see the genre as, especially as it became increasingly apparent that unlawful blacks became the most appealing lead characters. Pushback and protest from the NAACP and CORE led to protests against the films and the term Blaxploitation was coined. There were many black leaders who felt these films exploited blackness, but those who made and starred in these films felt quite the opposite. As did the inner city audiences who finally felt like they were seeing themselves and their neighbors represented on screen. The term Blaxploitation unfairly lumped these films with the Exploitation films being made at the same time, and provided a means to strip the genre of any meaning beyond the shock value, sex-appeal, and one-liners that were only an incremental aspect of these films. It’s here where that notion of unity and community began to crack, and the division grew in terms of what blackness really meant. If these films that portrayed the lives that some people lived, were being called morally reprehensible by the black leaders who claimed to speak on their behalf, then what did that say about their identity? Did the fact that some blacks disliked the representation of other blacks nullify these films’ importance? And ultimately, what kind of message did this division send to the population whites who already saw these low-income people as niggers?
Here’s the thing about these Blaxploitation films that focused on prostitutes, pimps, and pushers–they showed consequences to the lifestyle. Super Fly, while it’s become a symbolic barometer for a ghetto fabulous lifestyle, largely because of Snoop Dogg’s unmistakable influence from it, was about a man who wanted to get out of dope dealing. Not only does Priest want to get out, but he actually succeeds and escapes the ghetto. In Black Caesar, Harlem gangster Tommy Gibbs established a criminal empire through the most violent means possible as means to set an example for what the black community can achieve if they just take what they want. In the end he is beaten and left to die by a gang of black youths emulating the behavior he pardoned and displayed. There was punishment and consequences for these offenses, and whether it was criminals learning the cost on their own, or in the clutches of black superheroes played by a rotating stable of black actors like Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, or Jim Brown, the fantasy was never too far moved from reality. In retrospect, these films are not so different from the multitude of gangster films from the ’30s, films that also found their resurgence in the ’70s. These white gangster films also faced pushback in their times for breaking the rules, but instead of seeing the similarities between these cinematic eras, the leaders of the NAACP and CORE became embarrassed. There’s been a long trend in America of black crime being treated more severely than white crime of the same nature, and this is true in art as well. Michael Corleone could be celebrated as a figure who represented the American Dream, while Tommy Gibbs became an example of where blacks had gone wrong. We see this same issue when rap and hip-hop is compared to rock songs that explicitly deal with the same lifestyle choices. Last year’s film, Dope, which took several cues from the Blaxploitation era, expertly handled this very discussion. Our identity is something constantly under scrutiny, and unfortunately our depiction in film becomes a means to represent an entire race instead of just a story like every single person who’s walked this Earth has in his or her right to tell and manipulate as he or she pleases.
Of course the fears of the NAACP and CORE stemmed from the minstrel shows that set back our image time and time again. But minstrel shows were made for whites and Blaxploitation films were made for blacks. Yes, many notable Blaxploitation films were written and directed by whites, but for the most part they represented our feelings, beliefs and interests. Either because of the actors involved or the audiences who would pack the theatres, white filmmakers were working for us even if their forward-thinking was backed moreso by dollar signs than a love of the culture. Black audiences understood that their identity didn’t need to fit into a box of white context, they didn’t need to worry about what the police or politicians or civilians would think of us because of the movies. Whites could see these films and judge us any way they pleased, love us or hate us, these films were for us. But when us went in separate directions, the films began to reflect that too. More films began to feature black leaders who weren’t in touch with and didn’t care about the community. Two of the strongest Blaxploitation films, Detroit 9000 (1973) and Friday Foster (1975) made pretty bold statements about upper-class blacks in government and their blindness. And perhaps most interestingly Blacula, which could be considered a throwaway cash-grab without the right context, offers the most tragic look at a division among blacks. In the film, the Prince Mamuwalde is given the “wild gnawing hunger” by the white Dracula and entombed to later be woken up in the ’70s. The Prince, now Blacula, strikes up a romance with an inner-city girl. He is rejected by the girl’s peers, and his different ways of thinking and well-spoken manner prove to doom them both. For those in tune to the culture, there’s an unmistakable metaphor about the tragedy of the black man trying to walk in the white man’s steps, hungering to be something he isn’t and can never be. It’s so clear in its aim that the film might as well be retitled Blacula or: The Tragedy of the Refined Black Man. In many ways, this struggle of refinement, and education in an academic system of white terms is something that still divides and damages, becoming a means to escape for some and a denial of a measureable-self to others.
I don’t want to falsely convey the sense that this genre was all great ideas and subtext. As I mentioned earlier, like any genre, there was good and bad. There’s a lot of bad in the genre’s treatment of women, particularly in the earlier years before Pam Grier’s Coffy (1973) made black women heroes that were often more capable and interesting than their male counterparts. There’s an alarming number of women who are treated as little more than objects, and the instances of rape are often portrayed so casually that it’s alarming. While miscegenation carries an important weight within the genre, it’s most often used for the point of taunting white audiences that yes, we can have your women too and they love us for it. Most damning is Blaxploitation’s treatment of gays. With the exception of Shaft’s gay bartender friend, every depiction of homosexuals is negative. Lesbians are something to gawk at for male pleasure, and male homosexuals are lying, pushy flirts. The word faggot is thrown around as an insult so often that it’s easy to see why rap and hip-hop still have such a problem with the acceptance of gays to this day. This bigotry pervades the entire genre, and it’s a damn shame. In our attempt to break out of the category of “other” we objectified, mocked, and used gays as a group to stand beneath us. How unfortunate that in the quest to maintain our semblance of Civil Rights, we denied the Civil Rights of another equally persecuted group.
We carry both the good and bad of the Blaxploitation era around with us. The music that defined the era created new genres and gave us artists like N.W.A., 2Pac, Biggie, and Kanye. And the films, the best and the worst, inspired other filmmakers like Spike Lee, John Singleton, Quentin Tarantino, and F. Gary Gray to explore representation and race relations in America. The division in the black community, problems of tolerance, and anger still linger today, influence our choices, relationships, and ensuring that we can never retreat to the brother and sisterhood of ’60s. Blaxploitation has become a literal symbol of my own complicated feelings of black identity. There are times I feel ashamed of what being black in America has become–ashamed of our gang violence, of our education system, of Bill Cosby and every single act of cruelty and manipulation that we’ve committed. Other times I feel an overwhelming sense of pride–pride for President Barack Obama and every black leader who has worked to better our position in America, pride over the sheer talent we exhibit, pride over our humor, bravery, and kindness. It’s times like these where I’m reminded that this line of thinking isn’t so different from that of the NAACP and CORE leaders when they sought to take down Blaxploitation. I’m using specific instances and people to define a whole; I’m being ruled by fear of how we’re perceived in the eyes of others. It’s only when I look at the whole picture, that I examine black existence like a genre laid out before me, that I realize that I don’t have to be torn between pride and shame, and that a complicated identity is not a negative one.
Of course there is more to this identity than some five odd years of the ’70s can ever hope to define, but the fact is that black identity is so intricate, so judged, so buried in lies and half-truths we may never uncover, that it becomes easiest for me to examine parts of mine own through this instrumental, silly, strange genre. Blaxploitation meant something then and it means something now. It’s a way for blacks to understand themselves, to create success stories and make mistakes, to see the evidence of their makings and know that no lack of Hollywood exposure or awards can erase us. Maybe it’s time to take all the things we’ve learned, all the leaps we’ve made in filmmaking and storytelling, the things we’re still trying to learn in terms of forgiveness, acceptance, and judgment and bring Blaxploitation back in the modern era. I think it’s time we take control of our own image again and create a low-budget, inescapable flood of honest to goodness blackness in all its forms. Call it exploitation if you will, but if we can’t create an outlet for ourselves, well, you tell us what we’re supposed to do with all this ambition we got.
Featured Image: American International Pictures