Blaxploitation: A genre that has come and gone

(News4usonline) – It is easy to criticize individuals based on the color of their skin, their nationality and their culture when you already have a pre-existing notion that has been taught to a society that rationalizes prejudice as a normal justification based on fictitious stereotypes that embolden white supremacy and demonize minorities.

“Blackface” was once utilized to keep African-Americans out of lead roles in Hollywood. There was a time when Blacks received only specific stereotypical roles as slaves and by portraying the tirte “mammy” cliche. It simply was not cool to be Black.

During the rise of the Civil Rights Movement that would establish leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and the Black Panthers Party, African-Americans began to slowly see more representation of themselves on television and in films.

Although what happened in the film industry became almost as controversial as giving equal rights in the 1960s, even African-Americans had issues with the rise of Blaxploitation movies.

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The blaxploitation film era was a subgenre that was aimed at an urban African-American audience that would use black stereotypes to mold their characters and narratives and implemented funk and soul music in their soundtracks to market each movie.

The term blaxploitation was coined by Junius Griffin, president of the NAACP Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch. Griffin simply blended the words “black” and “exploitation” into one word. The reason why that particular genre of films was perceived as contentious was due to offensive themes of criminal behavior and outlandish characters that could be seen as perpetuating racial fallacies and demeaning the African-American community.

However, when analyzing each movie, the overall messages and heart of the films are based on Black liberation, feminism and heroism as most characters were usually from a poor background who wanted to protect their neighborhoods.

Also, regardless of the overall misconceptions, each film starred a person of color in a leading role that paved the way for more representation for Black individuals in the film industry.

One of the first and most recognizable blaxploitation films, Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” demonstrated systemic racism among the police department. Van Peebles’ character, Sweetback, is beaten by cops, among other black men, and is almost framed by officers for a murder he did not commit.

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The movie is not perfect as the character of Sweetback is not morally good since he works at a brothel and is a glorified sex fiend. It was Van Peebles’ ambition to finance the film independently, as well as to write and direct the movie on his own.

Van Peebles would also perform his own stunts which gives the motion picture a pure authenticity that was undeniably unique and cool. When it comes to the blaxploitation film genre what received a lot of attention were the action thrillers that Pam Grier starred in.    

“Coffy,” and “Foxy Brown,” both starred the sexual alluring Grier. “Coffy,” was about a nurse who turned vigilante after her 11-year-old sister died of a heroin overdose. In “Foxy Brown,” Grier plays another badass Black heroine.

“Foxy Brown,” is a story about white drug dealers killing off the boyfriend of Grier’s character.  In this film, Grier yet again goes into revenge mode. Not only does the film have a strong anti-drug message but it also paints a picture of Black women being powerful enough to carry a movie in the leading role.

That was not the norm.  

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Blaxploitation would allow women to employ their femininity with a sense of pride by being the “baddest chicks” ever. Grier’s characters fought with purpose while having a charming personality that was profound and did not fall into comedic parody.

Regardless of the intentions that these filmmakers had, the overall concepts were still rooted in aggressive stereotypes that many would see as belittling the efforts of African-Americans in political, social and cultural circles.

Although the blaxploitation time period was made with the intent to provide more job opportunities to African-American actors and entertainers, the subgenre only lasted for about nine years. This may be due to the fatigue of the genre itself with more progressive actors like Sydney Poitier paving the way for people of color to be accepted as serious actors.

Modern filmmakers including Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino have paid homage to the blaxploitation genre in their films including “Do the Right Thing,” and “Jackie Brown. The blaxploitation genre lost its gas and has not been popular since the 1970s.”

If the blaxploitation filmmakers utilize or upgraded methods of engagement, it has been mostly used for comedic effect like in “Undercover Brother” or “Black Dynamite.”

Blaxploitation was a controversial genre of film that was not always well received. However, the ideals of targeting the urban African-American audience that had little to no representation from filmmakers that were of color was still valuable in the overall history of cinema.

Feature Image: Rare photograph of Pam Grier and Antonio Fargas behind the scenes on Foxy Brown. Photo courtesy of Museum of Cinema