Blaxploitation: Then and Now
In the 1970s, a few films began targeting black people. All of the actors and actresses would be black. Producers, directors, composers, and editors would all be black. But compared to non-black targeting films, these were considered "B" movies. They had very simple plots, stereotypical characters, and while most were empowering and about black power, some introduced new negative roles and stereotypes for black people, such as a powerful, but evil black action heroine. Others claim there are redemptive qualities to these films. Modern black film, actors, and actresses have developed very differently from those "Blaxploitation" films, but in some ways, have not changed.
Through World War II, the United States government mobilized the film industry to use movies as a method of organizing and unifying citizens to work in the military. This upset the standard formulas Hollywood had been using to make films, and created a great opportunity for diversification. After the war, Hollywood's film industry was left in some turmoil as to what they should do next. A few films, such as The Foxes of Harrow, showed the horrors of slave life, but those films' exploration and popularity were short-lived. When Slaves came out in 1969, it was a box office success; it broke attendance records regularly. It was strange, though, because while it broke records and many people saw it, almost all of the critics said it was silly. When the director, Biberman, set out to make the film, he had to outsource the picture to Europe to have it produced, and everything was a mix of old and new messages about slavery. Hollywood quickly turned to more superficial films. Its depictions of black people evolved and moved away from the terrible treatment of slaves on plantations, to increasingly less controversial matters.
Before Blaxploitation films, black actors and actresses were frequently exploited. They were under payed and given the worst and most demeaning roles. Blaxploitation films were a change. They did not significantly exploit the actors and actresses, but the name "Blaxploitation" refers to the exploitation of the black audience now living and working in the cities, instead. When Blaxploitation films first began appearing in the late 1960s and the 1970s, they were Hollywood's response to the risky and dangerously empathetic films they saw Slaves to be. They might lose their white audiences. However, Hollywood did not want to lose anyone, and it certainly was not going to give up on the black audience. They fed black audiences these harmless "B" films that white audiences could at least ignore, if they could not appreciate them themselves.
Shaft was one of the first and most famous Blaxploitation films. It was released in 1971. It is rumored that it was originally written with a white leading character, but was rewritten because of earlier Blaxploitation films' success. Shaft was extremely successful. According to Jason T., Shaft was "an unpretentious action movie [transcending] its genre by simply being really well made." He says that most other Blaxploitation films, followers, and imitators, "missed the point".3 Anpu Ankhamen put it that Shaft united black people around the country. When Ankhamen went into the United States Army, he said he found that despite their separate backgrounds, the films gave the soldiers a "common frame of reference for communications." What made Shaft important was that it was giving a black person the position of standing up against "the man," fighting the norm, and winning. An empowered black person. It was cliché and made many blacks look like roguish criminals--but it made black people winners, too. Rolling with the Civil Rights movement's momentum meant there was a black audience hungry for heroes like John Shaft to appear on the silver screen.
The Internet Movie Database lists 203 films as Blaxploitation films, spanning from as early as 1964 to films that will be coming out in 2009. Modern Blaxploitation films are only minimally different from the earlier Blaxploitation films. They tend to acknowledge their nature; they know the history of Blaxploitation. But one of the initial issues with Blaxploitation films twas that they were all that a black person could be in film at the time. If you were black and in the industry, you could either play the role of a slave, a custodian, or a thief--or else you were in a Blaxploitation film. Now, however, there are black people in all levels of the film industry, and a black person can be cast in any role. There are still only a handful of well-known black actors and actresses, though they are well-respected. They tend to be cast in movies that are about specific, historic black people; generic movie roles about "some guy fighting for justice" or "some guy who has a superpower" are usually given to white actors, while Jamie Foxx can play Ray Charles, and Danny Glover can play Marty Madison. There is a strong community of black comedic actors, such as Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, who actually are comedians, and they tend to make movies in a more Blaxploitation style. But standard, iconic actors include Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover, Don Cheadle, and Samuel L. Jackson. There are not as many black women who appear in more historic films as there are men, though a few have appeared, such as Oprah Winfrey in the movie The Color Purple, in 1985, or the leading women in Dreamgirls in 2006.
Black women have always had a harder time in the film business than black men have--almost equivalent to white women having a harder time in the industry than white men have had. Blaxploitation was certainly black women's first chance at any notable film or television roles. Pam Grier said that though her roles in Blaxploitation cinema were one-dimensional and repetitive, she played them because they were at least powerful. Even if it was stereotyping, it was a more positive stereotype than just being helping hands. African Americans in Blaxploitation films made a difference.
Because of Postmodernism, even today Blaxploitation films are successful. After their initial success and then demise, they have become successful again, and Hollywood has kept a regular tap on that audience. According to the Internet Movie Database, this year alone three Blaxploitation-genre movies have been released, with two slated for 2009 already: Black Kissinger and Spats. It may be true that there is still a genuine audience for Blaxploitation films, but it seems more likely that the postmodern movement in art and culture has allowed Blaxploitation films to still be made and sold. Mary Klages, associate professor in the English Department at the University of Colorado, explains postmodernism as compared to modernism this way:
Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide unity, coherence, and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do. Postmodernism, in contrast, doesn't lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality, or incoherence, but rather celebrates that. The world is meaningless? Let's not pretend that art can make meaning then, let's just play with nonsense.
A film is a piece of art. When artists "play with nonsense", it means they may make anything! Any kind of art, any representation or perspective, is acceptable--and what's more, it is meaningless! Because of this, Blaxploitation has become popular again. It does not matter if you know the roots of the movement, what it meant or how it affected history. People completely unrelated to the original films will enjoy them and pay to see them.
Another possible reason why Blaxploitation films are still popular enough to be released as full-length films may be a re-use of similar themes through popular and creative directors like Quentin Tarantino with Jackie Brown in 1997. Yvonne Sims identifies this film as, "[creating] a new generation of Grier fans and [sparking] renewed interest in a genre where studios remained more interested in profits than in creating multi-dimensional roles for African American actresses." Pam Grier was one of the leading actresses, and the film was very popular. Nevertheless, it was seen by the NAACP as derogatory. Grier made the genre popular again with Jackie Brown, but those films after the genre's boom in the 1970s were seen by the black community as
[offering] no redeeming aesthetic or cultured value. Jackie Brown and Tarantino were certainly popular with the white audience, so whether the black community likes it or not, Blaxploitation films have the opportunity to flourish.
These two sides to Blaxploitation films, that they are positive because they empower African Americans, and they are negative because they keep African Americans in derogatory or one-dimensional roles, is often contested. Harry M. Benshoff, associate professor of Radio, Television, and Film at the University of North Texas, points out that black actors complained about auditions looking for ape-like black men to play King Kong when they
had chastised Hollywood for not casting them as ape-men in Planet of the Apes (1968). (no emphasis added) Benshoff says that the horror genre and Blaxploitation genre were closely related. He says African Americans have made up a large part of the horror movie audience, and have been able to associate in some way with the monsters on the screen. The films
[create] a potential space of problematic identification for people who might be gay, lesbian, or otherwise queer, and that while the evidence only confirms that "queer" people associate with the genre, he extends that to include anyone
who rejects the essential superiority of a straight white male identity. The monsters in Blaxploitation horror films claim vengeance, and they are presented as good. Somehow this is what black audiences appreciate. Benshoff notes that these films would be seen as racist, except that they are made for black people by black people, and it is more about empowerment than about insult; it would be racist to film the white Dracula with a black Dracula, but is not racist to have a black Blacula with everyone black, and Blacula wins instead of loses.
While early Blaxploitation films may not have been the most healthy perspective on African Americans, they were at least a positive one. That is the most common statement about Blaxploitation. Ankhamen says they unite black people. Yvonne Sims says,
Regardless of the weak story lines and under-developed characters, the heroines...brought her experiences as an African American woman and actress to her heroine...[and] shared a sense of helping their community. But most African American supporters of early blaxploitation films are not supporters of modern Blaxploitation films. Matthew Henry said this about the resurgence of the genre:
Has the nostalgia for all things '70s, including blaxploitation films, resulted in a simplistic replication of the original exploitation? If Shaft 2000 is any barometer, the answer is yes. Critics in the black community say they do not carry the same importance, and are made simply for the box office money, not the social impact of the early films.
- Toplin, Hollywood As Mirror, pp.2-10.
- Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067741/trivia.
- 20 Inches of Shaft, http://go.to/shaft, Click on [Classic Shaft].
- Anpu Ankhamen, http://blaxploitation.com, Click on [Articles], then ["I Was There and I Saw the Whole Thang"].
- Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/keyword/blaxploitation/?title_type=feature.
- Yvonne D. Sims, Women of Blaxploitation, p.87.
- Yvonne D. Sims, Women of Blaxploitation, pp.78-79.
- Mary Klages, http://www.colorado.edu/English/courses/ENGL2012Klages/pomo.html
- Yvonne D. Sims, Women of Blaxploitation, pp.71-72.
- Harry M. Benshoff, Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?, p.34.
- Harry M. Benshoff, Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?, p.32.
- Yvonne D. Sims, Women of Blaxploitation, p.112.
- Matthew Henry, He Is a "Bad Mother*$%@!#": "Shaft" and Contemporary Black Masculinity, p.126.