Blaxploitation, from Shaft to Original Gangstas

In tribute to Richard Roundtree, who has died aged 81, we revisit this 1996 feature by author Mike Phillips, which analysed the influence of 70s Blaxploitation films on contemporary Black-led cinema.

Updated: 25 October 2023

By Mike Phillips

Shaft (1971)
Sight and Sound
This feature first appeared in the August 1996 issue of Sight and Sound

Isaac Hayes was a hero of mine long before Shaft. As a student at Goldsmiths at the beginning of the 70s, before Walkmans or ghetto blasters, I used to carry a small portable tape recorder on which I played a cassette of Black Moses until it wore out. In 1972, the year I saw Shaft in Bayswater, I had just returned to London from a summer in New York. That year Harlem and the Village seemed full of words and music: Sly Stone, Isaac Hayes, Miles Davis, Ed Bullins’ plays, The Last Poets emoting from the back of a truck. Everyone said it wasn’t what it used to be, but what it was still seemed marvellous, glittering, as if I’d walked through a magic door.

In that mood, I was transported by the sight of Richard Roundtree swinging along a Manhattan street to the beat of lsaac Hayes’ soundtrack. This title sequence was the most memorable part of the movie, and it was instantly, achingly recognisable and familiar. From the first moment John Shaft appeared on the screen, everything about the image presented was familiar: haircut, leather coat, moustache and all. The funny thing was that I knew dozens of guys who looked and sounded like him, but I’d never seen a Black man who was anything like them up on the screen.

The shock was greater because I nearly hadn’t gone to see Shaft. Up to that time I tended to avoid Hollywood movies with Black people in them, because – with exceptions, such as In The Heat Of The Night – the experience was usually irritating or embarrassing, if not downright offensive. Shaft was different. If my reaction to it had changed a few years on, at the time, along with most of the Black people I knew, Shaft made me feel good.

In fact it was one of a trio of films – Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Super Fly (1972) being the others – which drew an identifiable Black audience together and into cinemas. The three films spawned a host of imitators which collectively came to be known as ‘Blaxploitation’ movies, but also created new Black stars, new opportunities for Blacks in the industry, and a network of images which came to be seen as an outline of African American identity. In all this, the impact of the imagery was the most important.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (1971)

Context is everything. It’s revealing to trawl through my memory of the movies before Sweetback and Shaft which had featured Black actors or focused on the issues which concerned Black people. There had been Black stars before – Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were household names all over the world – but after the furore of the 60s, Black people came to view them as passive, desexualised, almost impotent figures. Bill Cosby had already become a star in the weekly television show I Spy (1965). But I Spy was set abroad in Europe, and its heroes were CIA agents. When Cosby fought and defeated Russians or East Germans, the American audiences, Black and white, knew he was doing so as an instrument of a white American government and on behalf of the American way. At the height of the Cold War, his East European enemies were hardly viewed as authentic white men, and in any case, the character had to be sanitised by being in partnership with (and partly under the control of) a white buddy, Robert Culp. In the role Cosby seemed restrained and constipated, half a man. There were other contenders – James Earl Jones, Calvin Lockhart – but their Black roles were always strictly outlined and contained inside a white framework.

In contrast, the heroes of the landmark Blaxploitation films were out of control. Crucially, they were the work of African American directors: Melvin Van Peebles directed Sweetback, Gordon Parks Sr directed Shaft, Gordon Parks Jr directed Super Fly. While Hollywood’s ruling circles were still making no more than token responses to the attitudes emerging from the Black population, these Black directors were part of a new post Civil-Rights mood.

It was a mood which had begun to be expressed in Black drama almost ten years earlier with LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman, where a middle-class Black student strikes up a friendly conversation with a white woman on the subway. She turns out to be psycho and ends by killing him, aided by the other white subway riders. Dutchman expressed the angry, separatist mood, and the suspicion directed at whites then beginning to dominate the Black arts. It also outlined a Black cultural aesthetic which implied rejection of ‘white’ standards and privileged the style, language and landscape of the Black ghetto.

In one way or another, musicians, comedians and singers all echoed these feelings. In education a debate about the value of ‘Black English’ raged through the US school system. In the US workplace and colleges, Blacks had begun to confront discrimination, asserting their right to recruitment and promotion. In fact, the early Blaxploitation films were simply catching up with established trends. So when I saw Shaft, the shock was the shock of recognition, a frisson of pleasure that someone had realised what was going down and tried to put some of it right up there on the screen. Sweetback, Shaft and Super Fly had certain features in common, particularly violence and sex; and their plots provide an outline of the imagery forming the basis of Blaxploitation.

Super Fly (1972)

Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) is a Black stud who sees white policemen brutalising an innocent Black youth, takes them on and escapes the law. Shaft (Roundtree) is a private detective, coerced by a Black gangster into rescuing the gangster’s daughter, kidnapped by white mobsters. He recruits a group of political militants, clearly modelled on the Panthers, and they free the girl. Super Fly’s Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal) is a drug dealer who wants to give up the business and move out of his environment. But when the white drug kingpin (a policeman) offers a deal, Priest’s partner is satisfied: drugs will make him rich, he has all he wants and will do anything to keep it, including murder. He betrays Priest and his plans to escape, but Priest susses the trap, blackmails the drug boss into letting him go and escapes with half a million dollars.

What you noticed immediately about these films when you first saw them was the style. The characters talked like street people, they dressed the way you could see people dressed any Saturday night, they hung out in recognisable Black streets, restaurants and clubs, they moved to a soundtrack of Black music. This was a realism which seemed to offer a new value to Black manners and issues. The violence, which later became part of a trademark style, was actually a minor symptom of the characters’ assertiveness, ritual and defensive.

But this was the kind of element which became predominant when the major studios took advantage of the Black box office to churn out dozens of feebler imitations, mostly written, directed and controlled by whites. The 1972-3 titles alone tell you the story: Slaughter (directed by Jack Starrett), Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (Gordon Douglas), Blacula (William Crall), Black Eye (Jack Arnold), Black Gunn (Robert Hartford Davis), Cleopatra Jones (Starrett again). In Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974), Pam Grier kills and castrates the white gangster who has killed her boyfriend and her brother, then takes his genitals in a jar to show the man’s girlfriend, who screams out his name when she recognises them. Blaxploitation fans loved this, even more than they loved the scene in Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar (1973) where Fred Williamson wipes out a party of white mobsters.

On the other hand, it soon became obvious that the style of the Blaxploitation movies could cut both ways. On the one hand it reflected growing assertiveness, giving Blacks a platform for outlining a vision of the world from the ghetto, and furnishing such Black performers as Richard Pryor and later Eddie Murphy with a universalised background against which they could draw new characters. On the other hand, the style offered the white world a new set of caricatures which validated old prejudices, and far from reinforcing Black claims for equality, actually undermined them.

Cleopatra Jones (1973)

As early as 1973 it was clear that the boom was over, with the injection of Hollywood gimmicks: a female secret agent called Cleopatra Jones, Blacula the Black vampire, and so on. The genre was parodying itself, and confirmation of its total emasculation came with Poitier’s and Cosby’s Uptown Saturday Night (1974), which dished up lampoons of ghetto style. By the time the self conscious I’m Gonna Git You Sucka arrived in 1988, it was almost 20 years too late – the style had already been parodied to the point where the caricature itself had become a cliche.

By the late 70s the term ‘Blaxploitation’ had become one of contempt. As used in Black circles it attacked the white control and commercialisation of the ghetto imagery, while from the white side of the fence it denigrated the idea of Black creative control, since, though the bulk of the films were now written and directed by whites, they were still marketed and sold as the original and authentic product of Black imaginations.

Changing Black identity

Interest in the Blaxploitation formula declined rapidly through the remainder of the 70s, to such a degree that, if this had been the whole of the story, the new Original Gangstas (with Fred Williarnson) could have been a simple nostalgia feast, the revisiting of old pastures.

But in the 20-odd years since Sweetback something else had occurred. The imagery of Blaxploitation had furnished a template for how whites were to perceive the essential nature of the Black man, providing a stream of images for Black actors and directors to counter or juggle with, to produce new variations. For instance, such a film as the Black director Michael Schultz’s 1976 Car Wash (showcasing a lineup of ghetto characters with sympathy and affection) could probably not have been made prior to the Blaxploitation boom. But the aggression, violence and sexuality of the Black movie had also taken on a ritual quality, which by the mid-80s had become antiquated. In the real world, meanwhile, Black identity had taken a number of different turns. But just as the new mood of the late 60s and early 70s was signalled by such musicians as Hayes and Mayfield, the mood of the late 80s and early 90s seemed to emerge from a new kind of music.

What happened was that Gangster rap changed the nature of the bedrock of imagery. Unlike the fluent and sophisticated sound of Curtis Mayfield, rap was unsophisticated, or rather its sophistication was rooted in its deliberate countering of complex orchestral harmonies. It was crude, direct and angry. Instead of pride, and love and success, its themes were murder, getting even, police harassment, drive-by shootings and the incessant violence of gang warfare.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

The first movies to chart this new ghetto culture, such as Boyz N the Hood (1991), had very little in common with the structure of the earlier Blaxploitation films. But under the influence of the rappers a ‘new wave’ of Blaxploitation soon appeared, in many ways patterned on the 70s films – for instance, in their fascination with ghetto style. Fittingly New Jack City (1991), the model for this ‘new wave’, was directed by Mario Van Peebles, the son of Sweetback’s director.

But there were crucial differences. This time round the stars were already heroes of the new music and the culture from which it emerged, and a new element had been added to the style. In the 90s the imagery of Black manhood had mutated in the movies. Macho posturing had to be backed up by murderous intent. Violence had moved to the heart of the culture, and the brotherhood that the 70s Blaxploitation movies had taken for granted had been replaced by a deadly internecine warfare.

To the new anti-heroes of gangster culture, the quest for escape from the barriers of discrimination and racial oppression was less important than gang loyalty. It was as if Priest’s partner in Super Fly had won the argument, and taken over the community. In New Jack City all the old assumptions are turned on their heads.

Wesley Snipes’ villain is part of the ghetto and has no desire to leave it, but he has no desire, either, to improve it. Instead he uses a housing project as the locale for his crack industry. Ice-T’s policeman is motivated by revenge and hatred. The problem is drugs and the gangs’ control of the trade. There is no moral vision, no history, and no sense of a wider context.

In a sense this is a paradigm for the way that the movie-image of the Black man had changed, a triumph of style which at the same time managed to update and reflect the deeply held prejudices of white audiences. Certainly the new imagery broadcast itself with the same speed and vigour as its predecessor, and murderous Black gangs are now an essential element in any contemporary story set in an American city. Television documentaries and newspaper articles drool over the phenomenon, while the imagery of drugs, guns, and violence have become de rigeur for anyone claiming to represent a ‘realistic’ picture of Black life in the US.

The story of the new Original Gangstas is built round a confrontation with the imagery of gang violence and the first indication of its revisionist intent is the fact it’s produced by Fred Williamson’s own company Po’ Boy Productions, which churned out some of the most inept Black movies of the late 70s and early 80s (Death Journey, Mr Mean). The director is Larry Cohen, who had also directed Williamson in Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem. The film is set in Gary, Indiana, where a Black youth, Kenny, is shot dead by a gang, the Rebels, after he wins a bet at a basketball game. The owner of the local cornershop reports the drive-by car’s licence number to the police, and is shot and wounded in his turn. His son, John (Williamson), who 20 years earlier was a founder member of the Rebels, flies into town. Shocked by the violence that the gang is now visiting in its own neighbourhood, he begins recruiting his old buddies to break up the Rebels.

Original Gangstas (1996)

Though modelled on The Magnificent Seven, the plot subverts the preening macho of the 70s. As it must. When Fred Williamson’s screen father is shot and he arrives to sort matters out, you’re almost tempted to tell him to get his old ass out of there. This may be an action movie, but the old action hero is to be flanked by his even older Blaxploitation colleagues Jim Brown (Three The Hard Way), Ron O’Neal (Super Fly), Pam Grier (Foxy Brown) and Richard Roundtree (Shaft).

The idea seems ridiculous. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the use of the 70s stars has a deliberate and polemical purpose. All five, it transpires, were founder members of the Rebels, now run by Spiro and Damian, drug-dealing gang leaders in the New Jack City mould, who hold the local community hostage by killing witnesses, burning down houses and shooting all who get in their way. Williamson is now a famous Black football star who now lives in luxury in California – OJ perhaps? Brown is a decayed fighter who has deserved his wife and son Kenny (whose murder begins the film). Grier is Brown’s wife, mourning her dead child. O’Neal and Roundtree have remained in the old neighbourhood but abandoned all pretensions to leadership, keeping their heads down in order to survive. Williamson faces the same accusation on all sides: that he started the gang, pioneered its methods, then moved away and abandoned the old neighbourhood to its fate. “You’re pissed off,” the mayor tells him, when he demands police protection for the neighbourhood, “because you’ve become a victim of something you started.”

Original Gangstas (1996)

“These kids aren’t like we used to be,” everyone tells him. “They don’t even want to get out.” So Brown, when he arrives, is faced with the parallel charge of having created a culture of violence around him, then leaving his wife and child to try and survive it.

The arguments don’t simply echo Black critiques of the Blaxploitation heroes. By implication the film aims these charges at Brown’s and Williamson’s generation of Black men. The world to which they have returned is a dysfunctional and crazy place where the lunatics have taken over, and in the sense that they themselves have created these conditions it’s their own fault. When Brown confronts the gang leader and accuses him of murdering his son, the boy replies, “I am your son. You created me, and now you want to kill me?”

Managing crimewaves

Framing this discussion about the role of Black fathers and their relationship to ghetto violence is another argument about employment and the economy. The first frame tells us Gary is a steel town where the industry has collapsed. Williamson’s father talks about the life he’s given to his job in the steel-mill, and how the decline of the local economy has affected the town. The gang members dance the night away in an abandoned warehouse, and another gang occupies the former steel mill. Everything is rusting and dilapidated. The mayor manages crimewaves by negotiating to contain their gang activities within their neighbourhoods.

The use of the five former Blaxploitation stars creates a curious dialogue across time, as if the actors were personalities arguing with younger, more naive, less sensitive versions of themselves; which in a sense is precisely what’s happening. This is a debate which has been heating up among African Americans, sparked off partly by Louis Farrakhan’s lectures, partly by the challenges of Black women, partly by the sickening parade of violence and addiction among young Black men. In comparison with their younger selves the five are racked by doubt, uncertainty and the consciousness of failure. Nevertheless, the film signals an interesting indication that the core of Black opinion, bolstered by groups like the Muslims, is preparing to wrestle with the contemporary heroes of gangster chic for control of the imagery of Black identity.

As a result I suspect that Original Gangstas will be seen in very different ways by Black and white audiences. What’s extraordinary is that Cohen, its white director, has entered the argument in a more or less unselfconscious mood, so that (as with all the better Black films of recent years) it delivers arguments and debates with its core audience’s interests in a way which can sound crudely polemical to whites untouched by the emotional resonances. On the other hand, its five big names were once the hottest items in town – and stars never quite fade, even in the movies. In all the years since I last saw Williamson and Brown on the screen it never occurred to me that they could be touching, but when the old warriors end the movie by walking off into a metaphorical sunset I swear I was moved.

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Originally published: 6 July 2022

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