Historical Context

By the late 1960s, the war in bloody Vietnam was tearing the country apart. Black people hit the streets in protest, as it was often their sons and brothers being sent off to die in disproportionate numbers.  Economically, Tricky Dick’s policy of “benign neglect” and the empty promises of Civil Rights legislation had brothers in an all too familiar position; broke and tired. Like many Americans, blacks looked to the silver screen for a momentary respite.

At the same time, Hollywood was going through a fiscal nightmare. Because of television, a better educated audience and an influx of foreign films after WWII, the domestic film market had fragmented and was on the verge of collapse. By 1968, five out of six major studio films failed to make a profit. By 1971, the average weekly box office receipts had sunk to 15.8 million, down from an all-time high of 90 million dollars a quarter of a century earlier.

Yet, even at the onset of one of Hollywood’s largest financial crises in recent history, Variety reported that Ebony readers spent $450,000 a week on movie tickets. The writing was on the wall: in order for Hollywood to eat, they had to welcome the black audience to the table and feed its voracious appetite.  No longer satisfied with the leftovers offered by studio system, brothers wanted to hang around for dessert.

Black Identity in Film

Economics aside, the promise of Martin Luther King, ineffective Federal legislation and their parents’ stance of non-violence had black youths particularly disillusioned and disenfranchised. Black Nationalism and The Black Panther Party had young brothers thinking of revolution. The Negro was now dead and out of his ashes was born the black man. But to the asses in the seats during any given Saturday afternoon matinee, it was more of the same old shit.  Historically, from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind and beyond, blacks were portrayed as child-like spooks, gracious mammies and docile, dim-witted servants to the white status quo. Now the images on screen weren’t as overtly racist, but they were not at all a realistic representation of black identity.       

Around 1967, black critics became dissatisfied with the Sidney Poitier “Ebony Saint” image and the Hollywood pictures in which his characters strived for white acceptance or existed just to solve white folks’ problems.  

These roles reached their apex in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a rehash of the standard Hollywood “problem picture,” which, in this case, attempted to deal with race and miscegenation.

Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play Matt and Christina Layton, wealthy white liberals who have raised their daughter, Joey, to be open-minded and even-tempered. Enter Poitier’s Dr. John Prentice, the gifted 37-year-old head of the World Health Organization who falls in love with 23-year-old Joey. After an exotic vacation in Hawaii, the integrated couple returns to San Francisco to pose the film’s problem to Joey’s parents: the Laytons must consent to their marriage by day’s end or lose their daughter forever; and Dr Prentice, must, out of peerless personal sacrifice and dignity, break off the engagement and nobly bow out.

It was not long before black critics began to grow outwardly critical of Poitier's film persona. Cultural critic and Black Nationalist Larry Neal dubbed Poitier “a million dollar shoe shine boy.” They found that the seemingly marginalized sexuality of the “Ebony Saint” did not reflect the new sense of black manhood and self-reliance.

The New Black Hollywood

Just as Poitier’s screen presence been to fade and the studios continued their economic decline, the emergence of the black athlete as “star’ began.  Foremost among the athletes turned actors was former Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown. He had completed nine films by 1969 and was commanding a healthy $150,000 per picture. On screen, Brown personified the image of the new black male: assertive, aggressive and free to express the sexual desires once denied to actors of a darker hue. Beginning with the box office smash, The Dirty Dozen (1967) and continuing through 1969’s 100 Rifles (where he beds buxom beauty Raquel Welch), Brown’s characters existed in exotic environs where his aggressiveness is an asset and not a threat to white male dominance. Although criticized by some for perpetuating the “big black buck” stereotype, Brown’s roles were a breath of fresh air compared to the staid, archetypical “good nigger” of the silver screen’s past.

A more realistic representation of black life continued with Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree (1969). Gordon Alexander Parks was a well respected photographer for Life magazine (American Gothic is iconic), painter, poet, musician and author. A renaissance man in the true sense of the word, he became the first black person to direct, write, produce and score a major Hollywood motion picture. Adapted from his autobiography, The Learning Tree told the story of a black teenager in Kansas during the 1920s and the emotional minefield he had to navigate to reach manhood. Teenage pregnancy, racism and class discrepancies made this coming of age story relevant to many disenfranchised urban youth.     

A new decade brought a new sense of hope in Black America and with it two important films at the dawn of the Blaxploitation era. Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) was funny, hip and action packed. Set in the urban milieu, its menagerie of conmen, cops, junkies and working stiffs embraced audiences at urban grind houses across the nation.  Based on the Chester Himes’ 1965 crime novel, Cotton follows the escapades of Coffin Ed (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) two hard ass New York City detectives in Harlem. Rev. Deke O’Malley (Calvin Lockhart) is duping poor folks in the ‘hood by selling shares to a Back to Africa scheme. The detectives catch wind of this and bust some heads in search of the truth. In the process, a bail of cotton stuffed with the people’s pilfered loot gets stolen and the quest to find the cash turns Harlem upside down.

Cotton forged the template for the fast paced visual and musical elements (Hair’s Galt MacDermot scored the film) that were to follow in future Blaxploitation crime dramas. Additionally, Cotton also helped usher in an “urban style” in mainstream filmmaking where black culture and consciousness were used as plot devices. Directed and written for the screen by veteran black actor Ossie Davis, Cotton featured many of the better actors of the genre with a pre-Sanford and Son Redd Foxx added to the mix.

Released on the same spring day in 1970 was director Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man. On the strength of his early short films made while in San Francisco, Van Peebles traveled to France in 1959. While in Paris, he made his first feature Story of a Three Day Pass (1968). Said to be loosely based on Van Peebles own experiences, Story’s tale of racism, interracial romance and the notion of utopian existence for black expatriates made waves in certain Hollywood circles and he was called back home.

Thinking he was a French director, Columbia Pictures signed Van Peebles to direct Watermelon Man.  This comedy centered on suburban insurance agent Jeff Gerber (played by Godfrey Cambridge in whiteface) whose average, happy-go-lucky world is turned upside down when he experiences every white person’s nightmare; he wakes up black! Thinking its some horrible dream, he goes back to sleep. In the morning, he tries to wash the “black” off and in the process his startled wife shouts, “There’s a Negro in the bathroom!”  Alienated by his friends, vilified by his neighbors, harassed by cops (his morning jogs are now “getaways”) and molested by his secretary who comes down with a sudden case of “jungle fever”, Watermelon Man was a harmonious balance of light comedy and racial satire. The film was a commercial success and Columbia offered Van Peebles a three picture deal. Because of production issues, (Columbia’s suggestion that a white actor perform the role in blackface and their displeasure at the director’s “alternate” ending), Van Peebles turned them down. He had his own ideas of how a film should be made. Earlier that year, during a trip to the Mojave Desert, a furious masturbation session laid the seed for a new era in black cinema.

Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song: The Beginning of an Era

Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss song had to be a new cinematic experience. Van Peebles locked himself in his office and worked on a script; which began as notes and ideas written on yellow legal paper tacked to the wall. In a Black Panther style manifesto, he also laid out the foundation of his cinematic revolution: it had to be startling, true, tough, cynical and black. The term “sweetback man” has in roots in early 20th century black culture. It refers to a pimp who had skills at “layin’ the pipe”. His film had to express the authenticity of the black man’s experience on a black man’s terms. The story was simple but powerful; a street brother who, at a crucial moment, turns revolutionary and goes on the run.

Stylistically, the film was nothing like anything audiences had seen before. Through the use of montages, fast paced and jump cutting, he expressed the feverish journey of a man on the run. Embraced by the community, Sweetback wasn’t alone; he symbolized the Everyman (black man that is) that was tired of “the Man’s foot in their ass.” A true ghetto western, Sweet Sweetback’s man in black lived by an outlaw code and triumphantly proclaimed, “A bad ass nigger is coming to collect some dues!” Van Peebles score (performed by an early incarnation of Earth, Wind and Fire) added another element to the nascent Blaxploitation formula. Guided by the drum, Sweetback traversed the crumbling cityscape of the black community like a runaway slave in the shadow of the overseer’s lash.

But with no money to speak of, the making of the film would have to be revolutionary as well. Van Peebles knew he wanted a at least half of his crew to be minority, because he believed, as the black Panthers often said, “You can’t fight racism with racism.” But because the unions were lily white, Van Peebles had to improvise. He visited porn theaters and watched dozens of films in search of a talented crew: if he thought the cameraman kept the picture in focus, he knew it was someone he could use.  Using crew from Los Angeles’ other film industry was crucial for two important reasons: porn crews were cheap; and, to avoid drawing their reputed wrath, Van Peebles had to convince the union bosses he was actually making a black porn film. By shooting the sex scenes first, he kept the union thugs off his back.

Still, the production was beset with problems. Van Peebles fought on, believing that his mission was bigger than any obstacle.  After exhausting all of his finances, including $100K of his own money, the production ground to a halt. Van Peebles had one friend in Hollywood he could call that had that kind of bread. Without reading the script, Bill Cosby came through with $50K to help the director realize his vision.He found a small company, Cinemation Industries, to distribute the film and it opened on April 23, 1971 in only two theaters. By the end of the year, it was a nationwide smash, with a gross of over 15 million dollars, drawn mostly from black audiences (all 48 chapters of the Black Panthers instructed their members to see the film). It was the highest grossing film of 1971 and the most successful independent film up to that time.

The die was cast. A dying Hollywood took notice and a strategy was devised. By pumping up the sex and violence and leaving just a semblance of Van Peebles revolutionary manifesto, they could satisfy black audiences and keep their coffers full. The Blaxploitation genre was born.

Blaxploitation in Full Force

Now that the framework established by Van Peebles proved to be successful, Hollywood had to put it to the test.  At this time, MGM was developing a film based on Ernest Tidyman’s novel, Shaft.  Originally intended to be the standard detective story, it was to be a low budget affair starring a white actor. Sweet Sweetback’s success and the thought of black hands clutching green money caused MGM to retool the production. Model Richard Roundtree beat out Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Paul Winfield to win the role with the paltry salary of $13,000.

Directed by Gordon Parks, Shaft (1971) played it much safer and didn’t come off as vehemently anti-white as Sweet Sweetback did a few months earlier. John Shaft was able to successfully navigate the tense white world while at the same time still maintaining the cache of a sexually aggressive, violent, ghetto anti-hero. But Shaft walks alone, free from any political and sexual taint. He has a tenuous relationship with the black militants but needed their help to save the kidnapped daughter of the black crime boss. He wears the robes of black militancy without committing to the politics of revolution. Although he has a black girlfriend, he is free to bed available and attractive white women at his pad downtown thus destroying the constructs of white female virtue. This reductive formula proved to be successful and Shaft earned $10.8 million dollars in its first year of distribution. When asked to comment on the success of Shaft, Van Peebles famously said, “Originally, the script for Shaft was written for a white actor, but they changed to a black. They threw in a couple of ‘motherfuckers’ and that became a black film.”

After initial success of the “black films of 1971” Hollywood studios scrambled to scoop up eager black dollars and make their own black films. Between 1971 and 1975, over 50 Blaxploitation films were released. Although many were forgettable and reductive in nature, there were many standouts that appealed to critics as well as fans. Superfly (1972), Coffy (1973) and The Education of Sonny Carson (1974) all offered critically and commercially successful variants on the “bad nigger” archetype.

Gordon Parks Jr.’s Superfly had everything urban black youth wanted in a film: sex, drugs and women.  The film added a sartorial sense to the Blaxploitation formula and the main character Priest’s exaggerated but refined costuming had brothers in ‘hoods all across America trying to emulate it. Directed by Gordon Parks Jr., Superfly’s “bad nigger” lived in the margins of society and reaped all the rewards of “the life.” Superfly further refined the audio and video style of Blaxploitation, with its striking photo-montage depicting people from all walks of life using cocaine and Curtis Mayfield’s incredible score added depth and social commentary to the superficial material at hand.

Coffy took it in a different direction by incorporating a tough, sexy female lead with moral fiber that also kicks ass. Confident and triumphant, Pam Grier was just as comfortable showing her ample assets on screen as she was shotgunning a corrupt politician in the family jewels.

The Education of Sonny Carson was a serious-minded film, which struck a chord with black audiences. Directed by The Mack’s Michael Campus, it’s the true story of Brooklyn gang leader turned political activist Sonny Carson (whose son was Professor X, a member of the hip hop group X Clan) who, after being released from prison, looks to redeem himself. The violent realism adds to the subtext of the picture as Sonny Carson is ultimately purged by the violence he has wrought. The Education of Sonny Carson’s unconventional story of a “bad nigger” who redeems himself was a breath of fresh air in a genre that had already become stale and cliché.

The End of Blaxploitation

By 1975, the Blaxploitation genre had run its course. As the formula became hackneyed and reductive, audiences became bored with the same subjects, themes and plots. The garish costumes, low production values and implausible plots had become laughable. As a result, the budgets were further reduced and the audiences shrunk. Additionally, Hollywood was starting to gain new life with the release of several blockbuster films which had tremendous crossover appeal. Over one-third of the audience for both The Godfather (1972) and The Exorcist (1973) were black. 1973’s Live and Let Die played to a huge crossover audience and was a universally embraced by black and white audiences. With a voodoo subtext, James Bond successfully navigated the black milieu, bedded the black beauty and triumphed over the militant black crime boss. The black vs. white allegory played out on the silver screen and the white domination was again in full effect. By 1978, The Wiz was the only major film with a substantial black focus. With an exception made for Jamaa Fanaka’s gritty prison drama, Penitentiary (1979), it would be almost a decade later until an authentic cinematic voice told our story.   

-Mark Randolph