11 blaxploitation movies that helped define the genre
Blaxploitation is back. The film genre, first launched by African American actors and directors in the ‘70s to show what some considered controversial slices of life in their communities, makes its return to the big screen in the upcoming “SuperFly” remake. Given that, The Times thought it was a good time to look back at the films that originally came to define the genre, and the era. Here are some of the most influential blaxploitation films:
“Cotton Comes to Harlem” | 1970
One of the earliest films to be identified in the blaxploitation era, “Cotton Comes to Harlem” literally linked what was happening in the late ’60s/early ’70s to slavery through a well-known symbol: cotton. Money that was meant to be used in a back-to-Africa movement is stolen and all heck breaks loose. The money, it’s later found, was hidden in a bale of cotton that was lost from a getaway vehicle, and a local scavenger picks it up. Harlem detectives, mob leaders and the community clash, while the scavenger, Uncle Budd, runs off with the stolen money and settles down in Ghana.
“Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song” | 1971
Some may not have considered Melvin Van Peebles’ movie a blaxploitation film, but the self-funded movie, which showed several clashes between African Americans and white police officers and was endorsed by the Black Panthers, helped hasten and popularize blaxploitation when it was shown to be a success. The plot showed the struggles of a young, sexually gifted black man from a childhood being raised in a brothel through being an adult on the run to Mexico for escaping police custody and beating guards.
“Shaft” | 1971
What’s the black private eye film that’s still synonymous with early ’70s cool? “Shaft.” You’re damn right. What is the hit film that spawned a pair of sequels and a 2000 remake starring Samuel L. Jackson? “Shaft.” Can you dig it? Who’s the film icon who stands above virtually every other character in the history of blaxploitation fare? John Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree. Oh, and then there’s Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme song, but no one remembers how that goes, except that it is the definition of a character theme song when you hear it.
“Super Fly” | 1972
In one of the blaxploitation themes, a man, Youngblood Priest, is attempting to get out of the drug-dealing game and go straight with one big score. The film shows Priest’s high-end lifestyle in Harlem, and shows how some believed that “the Man” would never let a guy like him go straight. There were actually real pimps in the movie, and Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack made him one of the most sought-after musicians around. The 2018 remake also has a talked-about soundtrack featuring numerous songs by the rapper Future.
“Blacula” | 1972
In 1972, American International Pictures applied its pulpy, low-budget sensibilities to two genres in one, putting a blaxploitation spin on the then-popular Hammer cycle of horror film coming from the U.K. William Marshall plays an 18th century African prince-turned-vampire who awakens in 1972 L.A. after a two-century slumber. A box office success, the film kicked off a wave of blaxploitation horror films including the inevitable sequel, 1973’s “Scream Blacula Scream.”
“Slaughter” | 1972
A Vietnam vet named Slaughter played by football Hall of Famer Jim Brown goes on a rampage when his father is killed by a car bomb. He kills a Mafia member and must do a job for the government when he’s arrested to capture the escaped mobster responsible for his dad’s murder. Mayhem ensues, there’s a racist mobster named Hoffo, and Slaughter succeeds in killing Hoffo by incinerating him in a crashed vehicle.
“Coffy” | 1973
When the main character’s name is Coffy, and the film’s tagline is “They call her ‘Coffy’ and she’ll cream you!,” you know something awesome is happening with this film. Pam Grier, probably the face of the blaxploitation genre alongside Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, plays a nurse who turns into a female vigilante when her sister is killed and her friend is severely injured. She kills cops and bad guys alike, and even slaps around some of her patients. She’s on the warpath for revenge -- don’t mess with Coffy.
“Black Caesar” | 1973
Harlem guy Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson), after being beaten by a cop when he was a kid, joins the New York Mafia as an adult and becomes the head of a black crime syndicate. His enemies conspire with his girlfriend, and they try to kill him. He instead kills his assassins, and kills the cop who beat him as a kid. He gets his all-important ledger, with all of the illegal activities in it, just in time to be attacked by a random street gang.
“The Mack” | 1973
John “Goldie” Mickens gets out of prison and finds that his brother is into black nationalism, but that’s not what he’s into. Goldie wants to be the biggest, baddest pimp in California. Cops and old partners want to change him and use him for their own means, and their clash leads to the death of his mother. Alongside his brother, they plot revenge on their enemies and kill them all. Richard Pryor was one of the stars of the film in a non-comedic role as something of a pimp’s assistant.
“Foxy Brown” | 1974
Pam Grier is back, with more revenge on her mind. An even more iconic role that Coffy, Foxy Brown goes undercover as a prostitute to infiltrate the company that killed her boyfriend. She’s fondled and forcibly made to take heroin and raped. And she kills them all. Yeah, there was a lot of controversy.
“Dolemite” | 1975
Comedian Rudy Ray Moore starred in and co-wrote the film “Dolemite,” and helped do the soundtrack. Dolemite, which started as an urban legend Moore heard about, is a pimp and a former nightclub owner who’s looking for revenge on the people who set him up for a prison stint. Again, written by a comedian. It’s 1975 and everybody seems to have a gun and everybody knows martial arts from bar patrons to cooks to women just out to have a good time. Eddie Murphy will take Moore’s place in a forthcoming remake.
Two of the more recent examples of films that exhibit the style and some of the themes of blaxploitation-era films are Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” and Michael Jai White in “Black Dynamite.”
“Jackie Brown” | 1997
After the massive success of “Pulp Fiction,” Quentin Tarantino turned his attention to the Elmore Leonard crime novel “Rum Punch,” which he freely adapted into an affectionate vehicle for ’70s superstar Pam Grier. Some 20-plus years after “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown,” Grier was more than up for the task, aided by an ace supporting cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and fellow cult actor Robert Forster.
“Black Dynamite” | 2009
Blaxploitation tropes, as well as ’70s martial arts movie conventions, are lovingly sent up in this gleefully silly spoof pitting Michael Jai White’s superheroic ex-CIA agent against an ever-widening drug conspiracy that culminates in our hero duking it out with Richard Nixon in the White House. Little seen on its initial release, it soon developed a cult following and was resurrected as an animated Adult Swim series featuring the voice of White.
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