originally published July 16, 2012

As a film student eager to make the most of his final year of University, I approached the head of the Film Studies department last year and asked if he’d consider offering a course on Blaxploitation film next year. He was less than enthusiastic about the idea, which is why I’m taking a course on Westerns instead. It’s a shame; there’s a lot of curious history behind the Blaxploitation curtain.

As the Civil Rights movement hit its peak, its effects failed to seep into Hollywood culture. There were some groundbreaking films that boldly proclaimed, “Look! Black people really are good people!”. In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner both featured Sidney Poitier in a lead role, and they both dealt extensively with themes of acceptance, tolerance, and blurring those previously thick-markered lines of entrenched racism. Both hold up as tremendous films, but it didn’t change the fact that the focus was on race. If Hollywood wanted to spit out an action-crime thriller, a western or a comedy, the leading roles would be a lot more mayo than Nutella.

It’s fitting that one of the first films in the Blaxploitation genre is a sequel. In The Heat of the Night was an Oscar-winning 1967 Norman Jewison film about a murder in Mississippi. Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a visiting Philly cop who gets pulled into the investigation. The feel of the movie is precariously perched on the blade of southern-style racism. For the 1970 sequel, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs, Poitier resumes his role, now as a cop in San Francisco, investigating the murder of a prostitute.

Racism remains an element of the film’s world – as is frequently the case in the Blaxploitation genre – but while the first film focuses on a displaced black man outsmarting the dopey white majority and impressing local sheriff Rod Steiger (or Carol O’Conner in the TV adaptation), Poitier’s character in the sequel is in his element, his legitimacy and command unquestioned by the general population.

And that’s the key to Blaxploitation. The genre is about empowerment, about black heroes (and heroines) who no longer have to work ‘up’ to white people, but who possess their own power with no novelty angle. These were movies for people who had already accepted the notion of racial equality and were ready to move past it. Campy and corny as many of these films may appear today (and wow, do they ever), Blaxploitation was a necessary leap forward in the collective consciousness.

No discussion of Blaxploitation can omit the essential factor of the music. While In The Heat Of The Night used a lot of southern twang to set the tone of the locale, its sequel employed Quincy Jones and the new incarnation of funk-soul music that had oozed from the rich musical cauldron of 1960s Motown and Stax soul, blended with innovations by James Brown and Sly Stone.

No piece of music better captured the spirit of Blaxploitation than Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-nabbing theme to 1971’s Shaft. The film itself was one of only three money-making ventures for MGM that year, and is credited with saving the company from bankruptcy. Shaft was released six months before Dirty Harry, playing on a number of similar themes – a street-tough PI (or cop) in a crime-ridden urban metropolis, solving a case in an uncompromisingly alpha style.

The melding of Blaxploitation bad-assery and top-notch music continued with 1972’s Super Fly. The Curtis Mayfield-produced soundtrack, which actually outgrossed the film, is one of the finest albums from that year. The movie itself was rooted in controversy, depicting its hero not as a tough urban cop or detective, but as a successful cocaine dealer looking to make one big score before getting out of the business.

I’m not certain depicting drug dealers and pimps as protagonists did much to further the popularity of Blaxploitation among non-black audiences, but it does deliver a commentary on the state of black America at the time. And the movie still sounds killer in surround-sound. Later films were scored by other icons of soul music like Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock and James Brown.

Blaxploitation brought fame to a number of performers and their impressively coiffed spheres of afro-hair. Pam Grier became the female face of the genre, starring in Hit Man, Coffy, the women-in-prison flick Black Mama, White Mama, and Foxy Brown. Her iconographic status in the Blaxploitation world netted her a starring role in Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the genre, Jackie Brown.

It wasn’t all about urban crime thrillers though. Blaxploitation ran the spectrum of possibilities, from comedic farce (1975’s Darktown Strutters), to weird, partial animation fusion (Coonskin), to crime epic adaptations (The Black Godfather), to outlaw biker cinema (The Black Six), into the strange fringe of horror:

That’s William H. Marshall in the lead role of 1972’s Blacula. This film was followed up by Blackenstein, and Abby, a demonic-possession film made in the shadow of the hugely popular The Exorcist.

Like any genre, the cycle of Blaxploitation popularity only lasted a few years, just as I’m sure the current wave of Superhero epics and dopey sparkly-vampire movies will subside in the next few years. No genre dominates the cinemascape for very long. By the end of the 1970s, the only Blaxploitation film of note was something called Disco Godfather (no doubt a timeless classic) and the Barry Gordy-produced The Last Dragon, a melding of Blaxploitation and martial arts.

Now that we live in an era where a cinematic hero in virtually any genre can just as feasibly be black as white, Blaxploitation has been replaced by a style of movie which features mostly-black casts, but can be comfortably pigeon-holed into whichever genre makes the most sense. The Friday series of films are considered comedies. Spike Lee’s oeuvre doesn’t need its own genre.

What’s left of the Blaxploitation world is now only found in parody. I’m Gonna Git You Sucka started the ball rolling in 1988, followed by Pootie Tang (2001), Undercover Brother (2002), and 2008’s Black Dynamite (now being made into a cartoon, because that’s easier than coming up with another original idea, I guess).

The genre is truly a time capsule, an after-effect of a turbulent but necessary liberating of our culture’s perception of equality. Most of the films appear comedic now, with the wide lapels and garish medallionry of fashion’s cheesiest age. The music is wah-wah pedal heavy and, okay, a little dated. But I stand by my conviction that this is a genre worth studying, worth analyzing as much as film noir, silent comedy or any other subset of cinematic history.

Can I get a Right On?

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