The Birth and Demise of the 'Blaxploitation' Genre

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the release of the "Shaft" remake today, there's bound to be another blast of nostalgia for the so-called "blaxploitation" genre of the early '70s.

Keenen Ivory Wayans' "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!" (1988) sent it up affectionately, never forgetting its ridiculous limitations. Quentin Tarantino's strangely convoluted "Jackie Brown" (1997)--"Coffy" meets Elmore Leonard--reminded us of it again. And several home-video entrepreneurs have been reviving many of the more than 40, mostly studio movies that qualify under the blaxploitation label. Check out the special blaxploitation shelves in some of the independent video stores.

But before the new "Shaft" makes us all fondly recall the brief era of supercool Superflys, we might pause and take a look at what we're celebrating. Black images in American films have usually been reflections of the history of race relations in this country. For a brief period (basically 1971-73), some studios jumped on a cynical fast-buck bandwagon to grab a young urban black audience for the first time.

Flashback: winter 1971. Downtown movie theaters in several major cities are experiencing a box-office bonanza with a black, low-budget indie outrageously entitled "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." Everywhere it plays the houses are sold out and the lines are around the block.

For more than a year, urban movie theaters have been closing down "for remodeling" or for good. The pattern of Hollywood's distribution has changed radically. Studios are going through one of those periodic recessions and feature production has been cut back. The big-budget, reserved-seat event pictures, so popular in the '60s--from "Lawrence of Arabia" to "Funny Girl" to "2001"--are now considered bad investments. And, most of all, studios have altered first-run distribution, having moved away from downtown exclusive releases to multiple bookings in new "twin cinemas" in middle-class neighborhood shopping malls. Downtown theaters have begun to cater to a mostly black audience, at least in heavily black cities--thus far to diminishing returns.

Hollywood had begun to acknowledge black themes by the mid-'60s, and there were an increasing number of visible black actors, including superstar Sidney Poitier. But the output of black-content pictures of the era's last few years yielded little success. Poitier's "The Lost Man" (1969), a remake of Irish rebellion-themed "Odd Man Out"; "Tick, Tick, Tick" (1970), an "In the Heat of the Night"-style thriller with action hero Jim Brown; and the movie of the Broadway hit "The Great White Hope" (1970), with original lead James Earl Jones as boxing champ Jack Johnson, among others, were all flops.

Nor did the movies show any special popularity among black audiences. Indeed, there never seemed to be much of a black demographic for Hollywood. And then out of nowhere, "Sweet Sweetback" arrived.

Its creator, Melvin Van Peebles, was no novice. He had done a critically acclaimed French interracial love story, "The Story of a Three Day Pass" (1968), and a flawed but outrageous "race change" comedy for Columbia, "Watermelon Man" (1970). "Sweetback," however, was a radical departure, made on a shoestring with money he raised himself promising some backers a porno film, which the opening resembles. With a schlock distributor called Cinemation (whom he later sued), he promoted his movie--about a pimp who blows away two white racist cops and runs for his life--exclusively to urban black audiences. He created a campaign including ads that not only sold the films as pro-black, but as anti-white. He even embraced the MPAA's X rating. "This is the movie the Man doesn't want you to see. Rated X by an all-white jury!"

"Sweetback" initially attracted few whites. Its huge grosses were exclusively black. And, to that young, urban audience the picture was an event, generating the kind of repeat business that would be unknown to Hollywood first-runs until "Star Wars."

Discovering a New Source of Business

"Sweetback" was a gold mine, a franchise, an entree to a new source of business. MGM already had "Shaft" in production in New York during "Sweetback's" run. Based on a slight novel about a black private eye by white author-scriptwriter Ernest Tidyman, it was given to the renowned black photographer-turned-director Gordon Parks for "authenticity."

John Shaft, P.I., was a stand-up guy from a genre of stand-up guys. Newcomer Richard Roundtree had a winning smile and a lot of charm, and his new take on an action hero had much to do with the film's success. Unlike the virtually silent Sweetback, Shaft was outspoken, especially to the cops, traditional nemeses to all private investigators and urban blacks. Yet he could gain the confidence of the only nonracist guy on the force and work with him in a private alliance.

He was equally tough on black gangsters for their demoralizing exploitation of the race, though he'd never "rat them out" and ended up rescuing the black mob boss' daughter from the Mafia. He dressed great--not the soon-to-be faddish pimp outfits but lots of expensive leather, turtlenecks and, yes, gold chains (future cannon fodder for the Wayans brothers). And he was an all-around good guy, with a few white friends. He even got to have a "no big deal" one-night assignation with a white chick. When Shaft hailed a cab and the driver passed him by for a white passenger, he raised a finger and shouted "You white mutha . . . " (he deleted the epithet). Some things never change.

As for the movie, it's as dated as "Sweetback" with almost as little plot, but the character is a winner. And Isaac Hayes' masterful title song--that year's Oscar winner--didn't exactly hurt. A huge box-office hit, "Shaft" even attracted a sizable white audience.

Two sequels and a short-lived TV series followed in rapid succession, but the new, economy-minded MGM, as well as other Hollywood execs, had already begun building a bigger franchise. There was a black urban audience hungry for more "Sweetback-Shaft" kick-ass fare, and the studios wanted to cash in.

Throughout much of 1972 and '73, Hollywood released more than 40 blaxploitation pictures. MGM was first with two cheap remakes in 1972: "Cool Breeze," the umpteenth recycle of "The Asphalt Jungle" and "Hit Man" from white writer-director George Armitage, starring Bernie Casey. Crediting a novel called "Jack's Return Home," it was a straight-up remake of the very recent British gangster picture "Get Carter" (1970) with Michael Caine.

At first the rush to production was welcomed by black artists. Casting opportunities opened up like never before. To a lesser extent, but still unprecedented, there were jobs in Hollywood for black writers, directors, and even crew. (In 1972, studios were also releasing A-budgeted, serious black-themed films with justifiable aspirations for white crossover audiences, and awards considerations. Hence, "Lady Sings the Blues" and "Sounder" were never considered part of the blaxploitation genre.)

Besides the two MGM quickie remakes and "Shaft's Big Score" in 1972, there was at least one attempt to make a serious topical urban picture--an original screenplay by black writer Philip Fenty about a Harlem drug dealer who tries to get out of the trade. "Superfly," directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. and starring perhaps the best actor of the genre, Ron O'Neal, was a serious, uncompromising movie. Its pimp, who snorts cocaine routinely and unapologetically throughout this film, gave it the most exploitative reputation of all. The lyrics of Curtis Mayfield's mournful but danceable songs exposed the tragedies of intelligent men, like O'Neal's Priest.

But the movie had enough gunplay against the corrupt of both races--especially the cops--to give "Superfly" the distinction of patenting the blaxploitation label. It came from critics and politicians, white and black--many of whom, typically, had not even seen it. On top of that, everything about the movie was marketable. Its soundtrack broke all sales records and Priest's pimp wardrobe became the new urban macho drag.

"Superfly" made a bundle for Warner Bros., and it did not need to play the white shopping-mall circuit. Studio execs took note. The style of the genre was set.

Most of the rest of the blaxploitation genre in '72 and '73 were cheap imitations of "Superfly," including two awful sequels. If drug glorification was distasteful, the studios could easily create heroes who were antidrug crusaders. What better excuse to blow away villains, especially white ones? Whether they were street heroes, like Jim Brown's "Slaughter" or Fred Williamson's "Hammer," or pimps, like Max Julien in "The Mack" (one of the worst pictures of the genre, despite its popularity), or vigilantes like Pam Grier's "Coffy" (nurse by day, hooker impersonator by night, blowing away the dealers with a shotgun), somehow the boys at the studios could use the antidrug crusade as the core of morality (from the Hollywood of the '70s, no less!) for what was becoming one of the sleaziest and most gratuitous movie genres ever.

In 1972, in spite of the financial gains many of them had made from these pictures, a group of actors and directors began to protest "a new form of celluloid stereotyping." Combining with several civil-rights organizations, they formed the Black Artists Alliance, which took out ads condemning the gratuitous violence and sex and negative portrayal of urban blacks. There were outcries that "Sweetback" and "Shaft" and "Superfly" were no closer to black reality then Stepin Fetchit. Even "Superfly's" writer and director came out against the trend and stated they would no longer work on such films.

If such protests didn't, at first, slow down studio production of the genre, they were heeded nevertheless. By late 1973 the genre simply ran out of gas. The formula had become dull and audiences just stopped showing up. The studio execs had already found a new staple to fill the downtown theaters--martial-arts movies.

For me, the end of the blaxploitation era came with the James Bond movie "Live and Let Die," released in 1973. With its super-hip bad guys and femmes fatale, its satire of the genre is comically ironic as the ultimate white superhero blasts them all away. (In 1976, the next Bond, "The Man With The Golden Gun," similarly skewered the martial-arts pictures.)

In truth, most of the blaxploitation movies were terrible. Not one produced a major star. And, sadder still, comedy was in surprisingly short supply (at least intentionally).

As soon as the blaxploitation cycle ended, a real star, Poitier, found a perfect antidote for that disaffected audience--a big-budget, all-star black-themed comedy, "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974), which had some appeal to white audiences. The excesses of blaxploitation notwithstanding, its earliest pictures did provide a liberating feeling for young audiences who had never seen blacks portrayed as so tough and so defiant.

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Richard Maynard is a film and television producer currently teaching and writing in New York.

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Some Video Options

Here are some of the blaxploitation films available on video.

* "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song": (1971)

* "Shaft": (1971)

* "Across 110th St": (1972)

* "Superfly": (1972)

* "Shaft's Big Score": (1972)

* "The Mack": (1973)

* "Coffy": (1973)

* "Slaughter": (1973)

* "Hammer": (1973)

* "Black Caesar": (1973)

* "Cleopatra Jones": (1973)

* "Detroit 9000": (1973)

* "Blacula": (1973)

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