Pam Grier in COFFY

The Fuzzy Dice Era of Blaxploitation In The 1970’s

Dating sites are now as prolific as facemasks or empty seats on public transportation during rush hour nowadays.  I had a very interesting encounter on one dating site once – yes, I’ve used the sites before with some great and not so funky results – in which a lady had responded to my profile.  My profile was up and running and finetuned to the max and I contacted this beautiful divorcee whom was age appropriate and seemed to match everything I would be interested in in a partner.  As we spoke about our kids, families, and lives, she asked me “Hey!  I reread your profile and it says you love blacksploitation films, is that true?”  I said “Most definitely, many of the movies I remember from my youth I loved and having grown up in the 1970’s, the blacksploitation era’s offerings were one of them.”  She proceeded to dress me down in a sense, telling me that the blacksploitation films were a subjugation of the black populace by greedy WHITE filmmakers that needed to get more people into cinemas.  That really got this Greek boy’s mind a-racing.  How else to do this but to try and get all classes, races, and ages into the theaters, right?  

Pam Grier as Foxy Brown

The Blaxploitation era only really lasted from 1971 until 1979.  As they say, nature abhors a vacuum which is how Hollywood felt about their film product at this time.  Hey we’ve got shiny fancy-dancy films that are appealing to the music aficionado, right? As in the example of CABARET (1972) or the disenfranchised youth that quite often ended up being franchised such as BILLY JACK (1971) and EASY RIDER (1969).  What about the black and Latino crowd then?  The whole era kicked off with a small film called SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASS SONG (1971) that was produced, written, directed, edited and starred in by Mario Van Peebles.  He shopped the film around to all the studios and when no one picked it up, he decided to release it himself with, surprisingly enough, a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby of all people.  It went on to make $15.2 million dollars and an amazing musical score by none other than Earth, Wind and Fire.  Not bad for a film self produced and written by a heretherto unknown bit part actor.  Important to note that the profits all went back to Mario Van Peebles with the exception of producing and filming costs…. oh and that small loan from Bill Cosby.

During this period after Melvin Van Peebles crashed into Hollywood’s exclusive and inclusive private party, a run of films were released such as COFFY (1973), HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973), SUPER FLY (1972), ACROSS 110th STREET (1972), THE MACK (1973) and SHAFT (1971).  The beauty of these films was the fact that black talent – producers, directors, actors were given the opportunity to produce quality product that otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to access and at the same time make some good bread which was what the whole point was to begin with.  Keep this thought for awhile because it gets much more interesting here on in.

Predominantly, the films were frowned upon by many due to the racist nature they felt had been held in regards to the films being produced.  Most of the films featured black people as drug dealers or out of control cops that were marginalized by both their peers and the society around them.  Good and bad in equal measure in the sense that the good is that the bottom line was being generated but bad in that the prejudices came back up against blacks as a whole.  On a deeper level, the films spoke of the black man/woman’s fight against the Man – yes most of the time it was The Man they fought against – and their eventual victory over him/her.  Also, the majority of the time the Man were white supremacists which the black and Latino crowds rallied against therefore filling up the theatres en mass with the working man’s hard earned scratch.

Surprisingly enough, some fantastic talent rose from the jheri curl masses of these films.  Pam Grier (who had a late career renaissance in the well received Quentin Tarantino film JACKIE BROWN  (1997)), Fred Williamson, Ron O’Neal, and Richard Roundtree were some of the best talent to arise from the Blaxploitation era.  Sadly forgotten today but worth checking out their filmography to see what can be done with street heart and sans Acting Academy classes.  Born of the streets and speaking to the world was the motto.

After consistent backlash from the black community and civil rights organizations, Blaxploitation films sadly came to a tricked out Cadillac screeching halt in the late 1970’s.  The moniker alone black and exploitation together pretty well summed up the films amazing beginnings to their eventual decline.  A random black-centric film was released after the late 70’s such as THE PENITENTIARY (1979) series starring Leon Isaac Kennedy but the run of films were pretty well abandoned at this point in time.

What’s fascinating to note is that blacksploitation or as I would like to term it in a more positive sense, black-empowered films popped up with the aforementioned Right On! JACKIE BROWN, underrated UNDERCOVER BROTHER (2002), all the way to scratch your head it’s weird but kinda trippy appealing POOTIE TANG (2001).  Even Michael Myers wrote a character into the AUSTIN POWERS series named Foxxy Cleopatra as a homage to that great burst of velvety leopard printed golden gilded era called Blacksploitation Cinema.

My Soopah-Doopah-Far-Out-Films worth seeing

1)  SUPER FLY (1972)

Probably the pre-eminent film on this list aside from Shaft and the place to start.  Ron O’Neal spun the archetype of the pimp trying to get a break and survive with real acting chops – I mean mutton chops also.  Elvis would have died for these babies.  Spun off 2 other lesser remakes in the present day.

SHAFT (1971) still

2)  SHAFT (1971)

Man, you want to see machismo and bad ass?  Watch Richard Roundtree as a worn out private detective trying to go up against the Mafia…. yeah you heard it right – and where Can you dig it? is forever immortalized in fur and polyester stretchy pant material.

3)  COFFY  (1973)

I was never a really big fan if not for the beautiful and talented Pam Grier who elevates this film beyond the funky beyond with her acting and fighting skills.

4)  WILLIE DYNAMITE (1973)

You’re asking me for the films that stuck with me and this was one of them, not only for the wit and smarts of the script but also for Willie Orman as the title character and later to find bigger fame as Mr. Gordon from Sesame Street.  Also, check out the amazing clothing that worn in this film.  Animal prints never rocked so hard.

5)  BLACULA (1972)

I loved this bad boy as a kid not only because I was and am a big horror fan but because of the brilliant elegance of William Marshall in the lead role.  The voice alone will have you swooning and giving yourself up to the darkness. 

6)  ORIGINAL GANGSTAS  (1996)

Ok, a bit of a shift in gears to more present day with this quiet gem of a film in which some of the original stars of the blacksploitation era use their old school gumf and wiles to clean up a neighbourhood. Man, stuff never blewed up so good.

7)  BLACK DYNAMITE (2009)

Michael Jai White does the man right in this totally out of the blue and underrated homage to the 70’s black filmmaking period with his sendup of every black detective stereotype from that same era.  Michael Jai White should be bigger on his fighting chops alone and I urge you to check out his other films including his small role in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

8)  UNDERCOVER BROTHER (2002)

My eldest daughter’s favorite film when she was younger.  Eddie Griffin plays this broad but recalls the look, dress, and dialogue of the 1970’s in this overlooked comedy gem.  Ain’t no thang…..

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