Black Star is a celebration of the range, versatility and power of black actors on film and TV, taking place in cinemas nationwide, on DVD and on BFI Player, October-December 2016
Much like American society in the early 1970s, the country’s film industry was experiencing its own period of upheaval, turbulence and insecurities regarding the future. The collapse of the old Hollywood studio system, the rise in independent filmmakers, producers and distributors and changing audience demographics ushered in a new era of moviemaking.
One subgenre to emerge was blaxploitation cinema. Emerging out of the civil rights and Black Power movements and aimed squarely at young, city-dwelling African-American males, this was the first real explosion of American cinema dominated by, for and about communities of colour.
With its main years of production being between 1972 and 1975, blaxploitation cinema was a contradictory, confrontational and controversial beast that both smashed and reinforced stereotypes of ‘blackness’, reflected and exaggerated life on the streets and in the ghettos and, despite its crossover appeal with white audiences, alienated as many viewers, critics and activist groups as it attracted. Blaxploitation’s often regressive representation of African-American women and its numerous anti-hero pimps and pushers were elements that drew criticism from all corners.
On the positive front, African-American music, fashions, celebrities, social issues and political viewpoints became regular sights and sounds on the big screen as a wave of movies capitalised on the unexpected box office success of Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972), directed by Gordon Parks Sr and Jr respectively. Crime films, revisionist westerns, horror movies, family dramas and buddy comedies all got the blaxploitation treatment, in which the language was caustically profane, the female nudity frequent, and the violence meted out in increasingly graphic detail.
Employing the likes of popular ex-American footballers Jim Brown and Fred Williamson on screen and music stars such as Isaac Hayes, Bobby Womack and Curtis Mayfield to provide the films’ soundtracks helped to give African-American audiences stars they could identify with and a distinct sound which perfectly accompanied the on-screen action. The music, especially, was intrinsic to the feel of blaxploitation movies, with even the minor, forgettable entries into the canon usually backed by an attention grabbing funk/soul score.
Often shot on location in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles or Detroit, the core blaxploitation movies were contemporary dramas that spoke directly to local audiences at the time and now provide an invaluable record of those cities as they were in the early 70s.
Pushers, pimps, hookers and gangsters on the one hand and blue collar workers, private dicks, army veterans and detectives on the other, the character types represented in the blaxploitation movies all had one common enemy: white America. Decades of racial discrimination, police brutality, poverty and limited opportunities for self-betterment had led to the Black Power movement and blaxploitation movies were a justifiably in-your-face expression of anger and a middle-finger-flicking celebration of black American culture in all its various guises.
Soon falling into the trap of repetition, the subgenre may have burned brightly, but it also burnt itself out quickly, with many of its stars moving on to more mainstream work and the themes, sounds and styles being co-opted into the wider body of American cinema. For that relatively brief period in the ‘70s, however, blaxploitation was a major player, and transformed forever how African-Americans were portrayed onscreen. Here are 10 of the best blaxploitation movies for your viewing pleasure.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (1971)
Director Melvin Van Peebles
Reminiscent of avant-garde and arthouse cinema as much as the subgenre it helped establish, Melvin Van Peebles’ action thriller Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song is a deeply personal and truly independent movie. Part financed, directed, written, produced, edited, scored by and starring Van Peebles, this gem of a film was technically experimental and thematically provocative.
Employing split screen and double exposure photography, jump cuts, montage sequences and a non-linear narrative structure, Van Peebles’ third movie is technically daring despite its lo-fi production values. Telling the story of male stud Sweetback – a sex-show worker on the run from the law – Sweet Sweetback’s controversial imagery, (reputedly) unsimulated sex scenes and confrontational narrative earned it an X rating on release. A formally radical film, it’s a seminal part of African-American cinema.
Director Gordon Parks
If you asked a casual moviegoer to name one blaxploitation movie, the answer you’re most likely to get is Shaft. With box office takings of $13m off the back of a £500,000 budget, this early entry into the genre is also one of its most successful.
As suave and tough as he was successful and virile, Richard Roundtree’s macho private eye John Shaft was, ultimately, a wish-fulfilment vision of ‘blackness’ bankrolled by the studio’s Caucasian moneymen. The casting of a black actor in the lead role of a major studio picture for the first time, however, marked a long overdue turning point for African-Americans in Hollywood. Shaft proved to be such a hit it spawned three sequels, the last of which starred Samuel L. Jackson in 2000.
Super Fly (1972)
Director Gordon Parks Jr.
Another of blaxploitation’s influential and financial big hitters, Super Fly briefly knocked Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather off the top of the American box office charts. To the sounds of Curtis Mayfield’s fantastic and now iconic soundtrack, Ron O’Neal’s sharp-suited drug pusher Youngblood Priest devises a risky but lucrative plan to sell a huge shipment of cocaine and reap enough rewards to quit the business for good.
Presented as a sympathetic, quasi-heroic figure, Super Fly’s lead character proved to be a controversial creation. However, despite voices such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) expressing their concerns over the movie, Gordon Parks Jr’s entertaining crime drama took $6.2m against production costs of just $500,000.
Trick Baby (1972)
Director Larry Yust
Somewhat overlooked when blaxploitation films are discussed, Larry Yust’s adaptation of Iceberg Slim’s 1967 novel Trick Baby is an entertaining buddy crime drama tinged with melancholy due to its downbeat climax.
Caucasian actor Kiel Martin stars as con-man ‘White Folks’ – known by the derogatory term ‘trick baby’ as he was born to an African-American prostitute made pregnant by a white client – alongside Mel Stewart as his older mentor ‘Blue’ Howard. A tale of ever decreasing circles, the narrative sees the engaging pair attempting to outwit the mob, a crooked detective and their ‘marks’ as they try to pull off their biggest ever con. Trick Baby’s noirish tale reaches a fittingly tragic conclusion that hammers home the fact that for some, the streets were indeed mean.
Directors Jack Hill
The third of four collaborations between exploitation filmmaker Jack Hill and the now iconic Pam Grier, Coffy was the film that saw the North Carolina-born actor crowned the undisputed queen of blaxploitation. Written as well as directed by Hill, Coffy tells the violent, action-packed and revenge-fuelled tale of Grier’s Nurse ‘Coffy’ Coffin. After her younger sister falls prey to heroin addiction, Coffy’s life outside of work sees her dishing out justice, vigilante-style, to the inner-city drug dealers who enabled her sibling’s corrosive habit.
Notable for its early portrayal of a strong, independent female African-American lead and for a staunch (and then unfashionable) anti-drugs message, Hill’s movie was an influential and quintessential entry into the blaxploitation canon.
Ganja & Hess (1973)
Director Bill Gunn
An experimental curio that went down a storm at the Cannes Film Festival but died a death at the box office, Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess is a strange melding of the blaxploitation and horror genres. Gunn’s self-penned tale starred Night of the Living Dead’s lead actor Duane Jones in his only other significant role of note as Dr Hess Green.
A wealthy anthropologist studying ancient blood drinkers, Hess is turned into a vampire after being stabbed with a cursed dagger, and subsequently seduces his new lover, Ganja (Marlene Clark), into joining him as an immortal. Gory, sexually explicit and awash with fantasy/dream sequences, Ganja & Hess has gained a cult following over the years and stands out as the best of the blaxploitation movies to dabble in horror.
Three the Hard Way (1974)
Director Gordon Parks Jr.
What’s better than a blaxploitation action movie starring Jim Kelly, Fred Williamson or Jim Brown? One starring all three of course, and Gordon Parks Jr made that happen for the first time in the fast-paced, stunt-laden Three the Hard Way.
Former NFL players Brown and Williamson star as record producer Jimmy Lait and entrepreneur Jagger Daniels respectively, who along with Kelly’s martial arts specialist Mister Keyes seek to foil a plan by white supremacists to kill the African-American population by poisoning. Written to be role models worthy of emulation, Lait, Daniels and Keyes are more traditionally heroic and respectably successful central protagonists than drug pusher Youngblood Priest in Parks Jr’s previous film Super Fly. An outlandish and entertaining romp, Three the Hard Way is one for all serious action-movie aficionados.
The Education of Sonny Carson (1974)
Director Michael Campus
Verisimilitude is the order of the day in Michael Campus’ bruising and moving adaptation of community leader and civil rights activist Robert ‘Sonny’ Carson’s 1972 autobiography of the same name. You’d be hard-pushed to find another blaxploitation movie as grimly realistic and depressing as this retelling of Carson’s turbulent early life. Juvenile delinquency, police brutality, gang culture, poverty, discrimination and the effects of drug use on African-American communities are the harsh elements shown to have shaped Carson’s conflicted and at times controversial later life.
Like Campus’s The Mack from the previous year, stark social commentary is foregrounded to powerful effect in a film that reflects the socially, ethically and morally unacceptable conditions experienced by many African-Americans at the time.
Director Ralph Bakshi
It’s a sure sign that when a particular filmic trend has reached saturation point it starts to be satirised, and by 1975 that’s exactly what happened to blaxploitation. A startlingly filthy and violent mix of live action and animation, Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin is part fairytale, part crime drama and fearlessly holds a mirror up to across-the-board racial and lifestyle stereotyping along the way.
Decried as racist by the Congress of Racial Equality, Coonskin is in fact a smart, funny and poignant deconstruction of not just the derogatory African-American stereotype, but that of poor rural Caucasians, Italian-Americans and homosexuals among many others. Featuring the acting and voice talents of Scat Man Crothers, Barry White and Charles Gordone, Coonskin is rated by its director as the best of his own films.
Director Jamaa Fanaka
Though the blaxploitation heyday had long since passed by the time Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary saw the light of day, it’s one of the subgenre’s most memorable entries. Fanaka hated his films, which also include Emma Mae (1974) and Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975) being tagged with the blaxploitation label, but they were always, to his chagrin, marketed as such.
A bruising mix of prison drama and boxing movie, Penitentiary stars Leon Isaac Kennedy as ‘Two Sweet’, an African-American drifter wrongly imprisoned for murder. The prison’s illegal underground boxing club, organised and run by a white prison guard, is a pointed, political reminder that for a significant period of American history, black Americans were once nothing more than ‘property’ to their white owners and oppressors.