Blaxploitation is a specific body of work within the larger framework of exploitation films that focuses on the stereotypical images of the Black community and used satire to deconstruct those very images. Although these controversial works were condemned by activists for reinforcing prejudices, blaxploitation films have a special place in cinematic history because they signalled a unique era in which Black characters were no longer marginalised and came to the forefront as primary subjects of cinematic investigations.
A major figure of the genre, filmmaker Jack Hill explained: “Blaxploitation and other labels like that were created by writers for the trade papers that liked to come up with clever things. And exploitation was a common word at the time. The name blaxploitation did not actually come up until later and it was the invention of some writer for ‘Variety’ or something like that, I guess. I think it’s kind of demeaning because these films were…they played top of the bill. They were not like ‘B’ movies, you know, which were a totally different type of thing.”
Adding, “And what happened was that my films with Pam Grier, and a few others, attracted a much wider audience, which they used to call a crossover audience, meaning that white audiences were interested in black characters and lifestyles. And the result of that was that ultimately the mainstream films picked it up and incorporated those characters and lifestyles into their films and blaxploitation as a genre was no longer necessary.”
For this edition of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we take a look at some of the most definitive works from the blaxploitation genre in order to get a better understanding of this important oeuvre.
10 essential films from the ‘Blaxploitation’ genre:
Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles – 1971)
A true blaxploitation masterpiece, Melvin Van Peebles’ celebrated cult classic follows the life of a Black man who escapes the white imperialism of government authorities. Last year, the Library of Congress decided to include this gem in its national film registry for preservation.
The veteran filmmaker urged aspiring artists to look within themselves in order to facilitate the artistic process: “It’s all about how you look at stuff. Scars are the price you pay for success. You have to not let yourself believe you can’t. Do what you can do within the framework of what you have and don’t look outside, look inside.”
Shaft (Gordon Parks – 1971)
Starring Richard Roundtree as a private eye called John Shaft, Gordon Parks’ 1971 film is a striking thesis on Black power and hyper-masculinity. Shaft was a huge commercial success, earning around $13 million on a shoestring budget and becoming one of the most beloved blaxploitation works of all time.
“I went to see a newsreel about the bombing of the Panay, an American gunboat in China,” Parks recalled, “And there was this terrific footage by a man named Norman Alley. And then the lights went up and there was Norman Alley himself on the stage, talking about how he’d stayed at his camera position while the bombs were falling. That made a tremendous impression on me, and before long I was thinking of photography as a way to express myself.”
Super Fly (Gordon Parks Jr. – 1972)
This 1972 neo-noir blaxploitation film revolves around a cocaine dealer who is sick of his lifestyle and wants to get out while he can. Although many people were resentful of the stereotypes propagated by the blaxploitation works, audiences felt that Super Fly was a nuanced reflection on the horrors of American capitalism and class divides.
While discussing his reasons for getting into the world of cinema as a filmmaker, Gordon Parks Jr. said: “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”
Blacula (William Crain – 1972)
Probably the most famous entry on this list, William Crain’s 1972 film is a revision of the extensive mythology of Dracula. It stars William Marshall as an African prince who seeks the help of Count Dracula in order to destroy the slave trade but ends up being transformed into a vampire – Blacula.
Although the film is often criticised for its crude production, Blacula is now regarded as mandatory viewing for anyone getting into blaxploitation. The film inspired other blaxploitation horror films and was the first movie to win the ‘Best Horror Film’ prize at the Saturn Awards.
Trouble Man (Ivan Dixon – 1972)
Starring the iconic Robert Hooks as an unruly detective with a strong sense of justice, Trouble Man is an indictment of the corrupt institutions that enforce laws. The film became a part of blaxploitation history due to the brilliant use of a wonderful score composed by none other than Marvin Gaye.
Dixon commented: “Even among Black directors today, and I’m not saying that these guys haven’t done good work, there is more concern with making movies that make money, that titillate and get people to the box office. And I think that is the kind of horror of Black American life, that we have accepted that struggle for the dollar instead of struggling for humanity. For honour.”
Coffy (Jack Hill – 1973)
Featuring the indomitable Pam Grier as Coffy, Jack Hill’s 1973 cult classic tells the story of a truly badass female vigilante who refuses to bow down to the patriarchal powers that be. Coffy sets out on a mission to hunt and persecute a drug dealer who lured her sister into a terrible addiction.
While talking about Pam Grier, Hill said: “I just recognised something in her, even though she had never done anything in film at all, other than a walk on in a Russ Meyer film. And she just had what we used to call authority, in my opinion, and presence. So, I gave her a chance and she came through just great and then after that, I wrote scripts specifically for her as I got to know her abilities and made the most of them.”
Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn – 1973)
Bill Gunn’s 1973 experimental horror gem is an extremely underrated and often neglected blaxploitation masterpiece. The film stars Duane Jones as an anthropologist who mysteriously transforms into a vampire after he gets stabbed with an ancient dagger.
Ganja & Hess has become a bonafide cult classic due to its pointed critique of dominant cultural frameworks and organised religion. The film also received attention when Da Sweet Blood of Jesus came out, a 2014 remake of Gunn’s original made by Spike Lee.
The Education of Sonny Carson (Michael Campus – 1974)
Based on the moving autobiography of civil rights activist Sonny Carson, Michael Campus’ film is a brutal examination of the Black struggle during a particularly volatile period of American history. It is a haunting criticism of the perforated claim that America is/was the greatest country in the world.
Campus recalled: “When the film was screened, there was a scene where Sonny Carson was being sadistically beaten for 30 minutes and when we first show the film, someone in the audience got up and said ‘stop this, you can’t show this, it’s too barbaric.’
“‘It’s wrong’, said the same person came up to me at the end of the film and said, ‘how could you have shown this?’ I said, ‘If I had shown you what really happened to Sonny, you would have been appalled.’ That’s the impact of the film. It tells the story of the kids who really suffered.”
Coonskin (Ralph Bakshi – 1975)
A sharp satire that does not play by the rules, Ralph Bakshi’s 1975 film is an allegorical chronicle of some of the most troubling issues plaguing America. Featuring organised crime, crooked cops and scam artists, Coonskin is a relevant and insightful deconstruction of widespread prejudices.
The filmmaker explained: “The thing about Coonskin was, I didn’t consider it as anti-black, but pro-black. I was trying to record some of the things I’d observed and experienced myself. About bow the ghetto works and what’s good and evil about it. If you go into the ghetto and you can only portray the positive characters, what kind of a picture is that?”
Penitentiary (Jamaa Fanaka – 1979)
A part of the hugely influential L.A. Rebellion movement, Penitentiary is a terrifying meditation on the prison industrial complex and its inherently dangerous machinations. Fanaka’s work led to the rise of a number of sequels which became financially profitable ventures in the future.
“It was my Master Thesis—can you believe it! I had three theatrically released films out before I had even finished school,” Fanaka said while referring to Penitentiary. “The critics loved Penitentiary. It got all kinds of awards, and I was invited to speak just about everywhere.”
Adding, “I remember that at the time the movie was in theatres, the word was going around that the crime rate had dropped something like 50% in the Los Angeles area. I’m not sure if that’s true, but the point is that the story in Penitentiary spoke to a lot of young, poor, black men. The primal reality of prison life was brought home to them in a very realistic way.”