Blaxploitation movement emerged in the early 1970s. The first recognized Blaxploitation film was Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971, “Sweet Sweetbacks BaadAsssss Song”. The X-rated film starred a male prostitute name Sweetback. In this movie, Sweetback evades the police station and expresses his dislike for white authority.
After this movie became a great success, Hollywood began to make films with all black casts back to back. There were movies produced like “Shaft”, who portrayed the black James Bond and “Super Fly”, who was the infamous cocaine pusher. Although there were many blacks who were excited about this new movement, there were also some who strongly opposed Blaxploitation films. Some blacks felt Blaxploitation films portrayed African Americans in a bad light, and encouraged negative stereotypes.
Just one week prior to Newsweek Magazine’s, Blacks vs. Shaft article was published, some Civil Rights Organizations in Los Angeles, California got together to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation group. The CAB group main goal was to produce its own films that they felt were acceptable good movies and to make Hollywood stop producing Blaxploitation films. Many of the Blaxploitation film protestors felt the films only took place in the inner city and focused on drug dealers, pimps, and hit men. A lot of protestors also hated the language used in the films. Black men began to refer to the white man as “the man” during this era. On August 28, 1972, Newsweek Magazine published an article saying it is no coincident that blacks refer to the white man as, “the man”. Blacks who were against the Blaxploitation films felt by calling the white man, “the man”, in black films it showed the repressed anger of a relatively powerless community.
Blaxploitation is probably one of the best eras of black cinema to date. At its height between 1970-1979 these films were the escapism that black Americans needed from the very real and troubling political climate of the time. Black audiences of the 70's eagerly awaited blaxploitation films in the same way that I lost my shit when I heard about the release of Black Panther. Representation matters. Everyone wants to see themselves depicted and that was just as important in the 70's as it is now. So what is blaxploitation? On the surface think afro's, mink coats, soul sistahs, bad brothas and pretty corny one-liners. It can fall under crime, drama, comedy or horror, you name it but it was so special because blaxploitation flicks always centred on black people kicking ass.
Blaxploitation worked because they didn't just randomly plop a black character in a white world. This was their world. The characters were playing out the fantasies that black people couldn't live out in their real lives. Sprinkle in some terribly dubbed "pow" and "thwack" noises, a bit of funk music and a plot about vengeance and fighting "The Man" and you've got yourself a blaxploitation film. Yes, the genre still divides audiences to this day but nobody can deny its importance in the canon of African American pop culture. Instead of waiting for white Hollywood to give black creators an in, blaxploitation said "fuck it" and carved their own space in cinema.
On a deeper level, blaxploitation cinema was aimed at a black audience for commercial gain (hence the questionable name). The movies were cheap to produce and made a lot of capital. And although the height of blaxploitation was in the 70s, the genre still lives on today. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has all the tropes of any good blaxploitation film. In fact Spike Lee is one of the pioneers of post-blaxploitation cinema. He brings all the best elements of the genre and leaves out all the slightly problematic bits.
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