The ’70s were a volatile time, and film, like any great art form, reflected the decade’s torrent of social and racial upheaval. America’s decaying inner cities, long ravaged by violence and poverty, gave birth to an edgy, provocative, and wildly successful new genre in cinema known as Blaxploitation. Though initially dominated by black filmmakers, Blaxploitation cinema’s meteoric rise led opportunistic “white” studios to seize upon the trend, churning out countless derivative titles, many of which fostered ugly stereotypes. Though a backlash inevitably ensued and Blaxploitation’s popularity eventually waned, the genre helped open the door for a number of artists and established more than a few as icons, and its immense cultural impact can still be felt today. Let’s examine a few of the entries of note.
Often dubbed the very first Blaxploitation film, Melvin Van Peebles’ revolutionary film is undoubtedly the most important of the genre. In a time when Hollywood was still very wary of integration, Van Peebles broke new ground by not only starring in, but also writing and directing the film. In an era when even distinguished African-American talent were performing in films produced by the white infrastructure of Hollywood, Van Peebles saw an opportunity to create something wholly original and, at least in his view, more honest.
If Sweet Sweetback established the spirit and message of Blaxploitation, Shaft refined its quintessential hero to iconic status. Richard Roundtree’s titular performance exemplifies the anti-hero who bucks authority even as a cop, and systematically dismantles the Italian mafia. Shaft’s other major contribution to Blaxploitation is its soundtrack. When most people think of Blaxploitation today, the first thing that pops into their heads, is the signature sound. Those pulsing, staccato guitar chords heralded by the rapid high-hat of the drums were born out of the Shaft theme song.
This is the film that solidified Pam Grier as the queen of badass cinema. Already a staple of Roger Corman’s “women-in-cages” films, Grier plays a woman out for revenge after gangsters slip her young sister a loaded dose of heroin. This film proved that not only was Blaxploitation progressive in terms of racial equality, but feminism as well. An entire generation of actresses, both African-American and white, came to regard Grier as a formidable symbol for feminine power and strength.
Though not the most technically proficient film, even within this genre, Dolemite introduced the world to Blaxploitation’s most unusual superstar. Rudy Ray Moore was not handsome, nor did he have a commanding screen presence. In fact, he not only falters as an actor in the film, but as an aspiring rapper as well. The moments were the plot grinds to a halt so that we can be treated to a Rudy Ray Moore lyrical performance are something wholly unique. But he would go on to star in five more inexplicably successful Blaxploitation films including a Dolemite sequel. I think the importance of Rudy Ray Moore’s contribution to Blaxploitation was that he was living proof that the opportunities it provided for African-Americans weren’t limited by attractiveness or even traditional ideals of acting talent.
Boss N***er (1975)
I’ll admit I’m uncomfortable relaying the full title of this film, but regardless, it is one of my absolute favorite Blaxploitation entries. Boss’ importance to Blaxploitation is that it brings the anti-hero archetype to the western. Fred Williamson, another superstar and mainstay of the genre, rides into town as the new sheriff and must contend with both outlaws and bigots. It’s sort of a Blaxploitation reaction to Blazing Saddles and amounts to it officially crossing over into one of the most beloved of American film genres. In this way, it helped Blaxploitation leave a bold, indelible mark on, what was still at the time, the most racially one-sided of film categories. The film is also written by Williamson who subsequently directed numerous films both within and outside blaxploitation.