Blaxploitation or blacksploitation is a film genre that emerged in the United States in the 1970s. It is considered an ethnic subgenre of the general category of exploitation films. Blaxploitation films were originally made specifically for an urban black audience, although the genre's audience appeal soon broadened across racial and ethnic lines. The term itself is a portmanteau of the words "black" and "exploitation," following upon the briefly-common use "sexploitation" for porn-inflected films, and was coined in the early 1970s by the Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) head, and ex-film publicist Junius Griffin. Blaxploitation films were the first to regularly feature soundtracks of funk and soul music as well as primarily black casts.Variety credited Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, released in 1971, with the invention of the blaxploitation genre while others argue that the Hollywood-financed film Shaft, also released in 1971, is closer to being a blaxploitation piece and thus is more likely to have begun the trend.
When set in the Northeast or West Coast, blaxploitation films are mainly set in poor neighborhoods. Ethnic slurs against white characters, such as "crackers" and "honky," and other derogatory names are common plot and or character elements. Blaxploitation films set in the South often take place dealing with slavery and miscegenation.
Following the example set by Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, many blaxploitation films feature funk and soul jazz soundtracks with heavy bass, funky beats, and wah-wah guitars. These soundtracks are notable for a degree of complexity that was not common to the radio-friendly funk tracks of the 1970s, and a rich orchestration which included instruments rarely used in funk or soul such as the flute and the violin.
Blaxploitation films such as Mandingo (1975) provided mainstream Hollywood producers, in this case Dino De Laurentiis, a cinematic way to depict plantation slavery, with all of its brutal, historical and ongoing racial contradictions and controversies, including sex, miscegenation, rebellion and so on. In addition, the story world depicts the plantation as one of the main origins of boxing as a sport in the U.S. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new wave of acclaimed black filmmakers focused on black urban life in their movies, particularly Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood, among others. These films made use of elements of Blaxploitation, but also incorporated implicit criticism of the genre's glorification of stereotypical "criminal" behavior.
Later influence and media references
Blaxploitation films have had an enormous and complicated influence on American cinema. The acclaimed film auteur and noted fan of exploitation film, Quentin Tarantino, for example, has made countless references to the Blaxploitation genre in his films. An early blaxploitation tribute can be seen in the character of "Lite," played by Sy Richardson, in Repo Man (1984). Richardson would later go on to write Posse (1993), which could be described as a kind of blaxploitation Western.
Blaxploitation's influence is also seen in the medium of webcomics. In 2009, cartoonist Jay Potts introduced World Of Hurt, a serial, adventure webcomic which pays homage to black action movies of the 1970s, such as Shaft and Slaughter's Big Rip-Off. However, unlike most recent works that reference blaxploitation, the genre is treated seriously within the strip, not as a source of parody or humor.
Cultural references and parodies
The notoriety of the Blaxploitation genre has led to many parodies, both humorous and satirical. The earliest attempts to mock the genre, Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin and Rudy Ray Moore's Dolemite, date back to the genre's heyday in 1975. Coonskin was intended to deconstruct racial stereotypes, ranging from early minstrel show stereotypes to the more recent stereotypes found in blaxploitation film itself. However, the work stimulated great controversy even before its release when it was challenged by the Congress of Racial Equality. Even though distribution was handed to a smaller distributor who advertised it as an exploitation film, it soon developed a cult following with black viewers.Dolemite, less serious in tone and produced as a spoof, centers around a sexually active black pimp played by Rudy Ray Moore, who based the film on his stand-up comedy act. The film was followed by a sequel, The Human Tornado.
The satirical book Our Dumb Century features an article from the 1970s entitled "Congress Passes Anti-Blaxploitation Act: Pimps, Players Subject to Heavy Fines".
FOX's network television comedy, "MADtv", has frequently spoofed the Rudy Ray Moore-created franchise Dolemite, with a series of sketches performed by comic actor Aries Spears, in the role of "The Son of Dolemite". Other sketches include the characters "Funkenstein", "Dr. Funkenstein" and more recently Condoleezza Rice as a blaxploitation superhero. A recurring theme in these sketches is the inexperience of the cast and crew in the blaxploitation era, with emphasis on ridiculous scripting and shoddy acting, sets, costumes and editing. The sketches are testaments to the poor production quality of the films, with obvious boom mike appearances and intentionally poor cuts and continuity.
Adult Swim's Aqua Teen Hunger Force series has a recurring character called "Boxy Brown" - a play on Foxy Brown. An imaginary friend of Meatwad, Boxy Brown is a cardboard box with a crudely drawn face with a goatee on it that dons an afro. Whenever Boxy speaks, ’70s funk music, typical of blaxploitation films, is played in the background. The cardboard box also has a confrontational attitude and dialect similar to many heroes of this film genre.
Some of the TVs found in the action video game Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne feature a Blaxploitation-themed parody of the original Max Payne game called Dick Justice, after its main character. Dick behaves much like the original Max Payne (down to the "constipated" grimace and metaphorical speech) but wears an afro and mustache, and speaks in Ebonics.
Duck King, a fictional character created for the video game series Fatal Fury, is a prime example of foreign black stereotypes.
Jefferson Twilight, a character in The Venture Bros., is a parody of the comic-book character Blade (a half-black, half-vampire vampire hunter), as well as a blaxploitation reference: He has an afro, sideburns, and a mustache. He carries swords, dresses in stylish 1970s clothing, and says that he hunts "Blaculas". He looks and sounds somewhat like Samuel L. Jackson.
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song: Written, produced, scored, directed by, and stars Melvin Van Peebles. The hero is raised among prostitutes and is arrested for a crime he did not commit. During his arrest, he saves a young black male from a police beating by attacking the (white) police officers. He becomes a fugitive from police authority and heads for Mexico. In 2004, Mario Van Peebles directed and starred as his father in BAADASSSSS!, a biopic about the making of Sweet Sweetback.
Slaughter: Stars Jim Brown as an ex-Green Beret who seeks revenge against a crime syndicate for the murder of his parents. It spawned the sequel, Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973).
Trouble Man: Stars Robert Hooks as "Mr. T.": A hard-edged private detective who tends to take justice into his own hands. Although the film itself was unsuccessful, it did enjoy a successful soundtrack which was written, produced, and performed by Motown artist Marvin Gaye.
Coffy: Pam Grier stars as Coffy, a nurse turned vigilante who takes revenge on all those who hooked her 11-year-old sister on heroin. Coffy marked Pam Grier's biggest hit and was re-worked for Foxy Brown, Friday Foster and Sheba Baby.
Detroit 9000: Set in Detroit, MI, features street-smart white detective Danny Bassett (Alex Rocco) who teams with educated black detective Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes) to investigate the theft of $400,000 at a fund-raiser for Representative Aubrey Hale Clayton (Rudy Challenger). Championed by Quentin Tarantino it was released on video by Miramax in April 1999.
Gordon's War: Stars Paul Winfield as a Vietnam vet who recruits ex-Army buddies to fight the Harlem drug dealers and pimps responsible for the heroin-fueled death of his wife.
The Mack: A film starring Max Julien and Richard Pryor. This movie was produced during the era of such Blaxploitation movies as Dolemite. However it is not considered by its makers a true blaxploitation picture. It is more a social commentary according to Mackin' Ain't Easy, a documentary about the making of The Mack, which can be found on the DVD edition of the film. The movie tells the story of the life of John Mickens (AKA Goldie), a former drug dealer recently released from prison who becomes a big-time pimp. Standing in his way is another pimp: Pretty Tony. Two corrupt white cops, a local crime lord, and his own brother (a black nationalist), who all try to force him out of the business. The movie is set in Oakland, California and was the biggest grossing blaxploitation film of its time. Its soundtrack was recorded by Motown artist Willie Hutch.
Abby: A blaxploitation version of The Exorcist and stars Carol Speed as a virtuous young woman possessed by a demon. Ms. Speed also sings the title song. William H. Marshall (of Blacula fame) conducts the exorcism of Abby on the floor of a discotheque. A hit in its time, it was later pulled from the theaters after Warner Bros. successfully sued AIP over copyright issues.
Black Belt Jones: Better known for his role as "Mister Williams" in the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, Jim Kelly was given a leading role in this martial arts film. He plays Black Belt Jones, a federal agent/martial arts expert, who takes on the mob as he avenges the murder of a karate school owner.
Black Eye: An action-mystery starring Fred Williamson as a private detective investigating murders connected with a drug ring.
Foxy Brown: Largely a remake of her hit film Coffy, Pam Grier once again plays a nurse on a vendetta against a drug ring. Originally written as a sequel to Coffy, the film's working title was Burn, Coffy, Burn!
Get Christie Love! (TV movie later released to some theaters): A police drama, this time with an attractive young black woman (Teresa Graves) as an undercover cop. Later made into a short-lived TV series.
Johnny Tough: starring Dion Gossett and Renny Roker.
T.N.T. Jackson: Starring Jean Bell (one of the first black Playboy playmates), this film is partly set in Hong Kong, and notable for blending blaxploitation with the then-popular "chop-socky" martial arts genre.
Truck Turner: Starring Isaac Hayes, Yaphet Kotto, Nichelle Nichols, and directed by Johnathan Kaplan. Former football player turned bounty hunter is pitted against a powerful prostitution crime syndicate in Los Angeles.
Willie Dynamite: Roscoe Orman (Gordon from Sesame Street fame) plays a pimp. As in many Blaxploitation films, the lead character drives a customized Cadillac Eldorado Coupe (the same car was used in Magnum Force).
Sheba, Baby: A female private eye (Pam Grier) tries to help her father save his loan business from a gang of thugs.
The Black Gestapo: Rod Perry plays General Ahmed who has started an inner-city People's Army to try to relieve the misery of the citizens of Watts, Los Angeles. When the Mafia moves in, they establish a military style squad.
Boss Nigger: Along with his friend Amos (D’Urville Martin), Boss Nigger (Fred Williamson) takes over the vacated position of Sheriff in a small western town in this Western Blaxploitation film. Because of its controversial title, it was released in some markets as The Boss, The Black Bounty Killer or The Black Bounty Hunter.
Darktown Strutters (1975): A farce produced by Roger Corman's brother, Gene, and directed by William Witney. A Colonel Sanders-type figure with a chain of urban fried chicken restaurants is attempting to wipe out the black race by making them impotent through his drugged fried chicken.
Dolemite: Also the name of its principal character, played by Rudy Ray Moore, who co-wrote the film. Moore had developed the alter-ego as a stand-up comedian and released several comedy albums using this persona. The film was directed by D'Urville Martin, who appears as the villain Willie Green. The film has attained something of a cult status, earning it a following and making it more well-known than many of its counterparts. A sequel, The Human Tornado, was released in 1976.
Mandingo: Based on a series of lurid Civil War novels, this focuses on the abuses of slavery and the sexual relations between slaves and slave owners. It was followed by a sequel, Drum (1976) starring Pam Grier.
The Candy Tangerine Man: The film opens with pageantry pimp Baron (John Daniels) driving his customised two-tone red and yellow Rolls Royce around downtown L.A at night. His ladies have been coming up short lately and he wants to know why. It turns out that two L.A.P.D. cops - Dempsey and Gordon, who have been after Baron for some time now, have resorted to rousting his girls every chance they get. Indeed in the next scene they have set Baron up with a cop in drag to entrap him with procurement of prostitutes.
Take A Hard Ride: Rugged trail boss and reformed criminal Pike (Jim Brown) promises his honest wealthy employer Morgan that he will venture across the dessert to deliver $86,000 dollars in payroll money to a ranch in Sonora, Mexico. Pike makes an uneasy alliance with smooth, yet shifty gambler Tyree (Fred Williamson) in order to successfully complete his dangerous mission.
Ebony, Ivory & Jade: By Cirio Santiago (also known as She Devils in Chains, American Beauty Hostages, Foxfire, Foxforce). Three female athletes are kidnapped during an international track meet in Hong Kong and fight their way to freedom. Another cross-genre blend of blaxploitation and martial arts action films.
The Muthers: Another Cirio Santiago combination of Filipino martial arts action and women-in-prison elements. Jeanne Bell and Jayne Kennedy rescue prisoners held at an evil coffee plantation.
Passion Plantation (a.k.a. Black Emmanuel, White Emmanuel): A blend of the Mandingo, and Emmanuelle are erotic films with interracial sex and savagery.
Velvet Smooth. Johnnie Hill is the titular Velvet Smooth: a female private detective hired to infiltrate the criminal underworld.
Human Tornado. Rudy Ray Moore plays in the sequel to the 1975 film Dolemite.
Black Fist: A film featuring a streetfighter who goes to work for a white gangster and a corrupt cop. The film is in the public domain. Cast members include Richard Lawson and Dabney Coleman
Black Samurai: Based on a novel of the same name by Marc Olden, is directed by Al Adamson and stars Jim Kelly (martial artist). The script is credited to B. Readick, with additional story ideas from Marco Joachim.
Petey Wheatstraw (a.k.a. Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-In-Law): A blaxploitation film written by Cliff Roquemore and stars popular blaxploitation genre comedian Rudy Ray Moore along with Jimmy Lynch, Leroy Daniels, Ernest Mayhand, and Ebony Wright. It is typical of Moore's other films of the era, Dolemite and The Human Tornado, in that it features Rudy Ray Moore's rhyming dialogue.
Death Dimension: An action and martial arts film by Al Adamson starring Jim Kelly, Harold Sakata, George Lazenby, Terry Moore, and Aldo Ray. The movie also goes by the names Death Dimensions, Freeze Bomb, Icy Death, The Kill Factor, and Black Eliminator. The plot revolves about a scientist, Professor Mason, who has invented a powerful freezing bomb for a gangster leader nicknamed "The Pig" (Sakata).
Disco Godfather (also known as The Avenging Disco Godfather): An action film starring Rudy Ray Moore and Carol Speed. The plot centers on Moore's character, a retired cop, who owns and operates a disco and who tries to shut down the local angel dust dealer after his nephew becomes hooked on the drug.
"The Rise and Fall of Blaxploitation" by Ed Guerrero, in The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, eds. Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, Art Simon, (New York, 2012): Vol 3, pp. 435-469, ISBN 978-1-4051-7984-3.
What It Is...What It Was!; The Black Film Explosion of the ’70s in Words and Pictures by Andres Chavez, Denise Chavez, Gerald Martinez ISBN 0-7868-8377-4
"The So Called Fall of Blaxploitation" by Ed Guerrero, The Velvet Light Trap #64 Fall 2009