Fav Five Blaxploitation Films

 

PamGrier5

Pam Grier, the queen of Blaxploitation films.

During the late 60’s and early 70’s, Hollywood studies saw a rise in films produced independently on minimal budgets.  Though such films would seldom reach ‘blockbuster’ status, many of the films did manage to turn a significant profit with minimal investment, often by highlighting certain elements present in the film during promotional campaigns.  George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead, for instance, drew in fans of horror films, whilst movies produced and directed by Russ Meyer promoted nudity and sexual situations to sell his films, defining the sexploitation genre.  It was around this time that studios began to realize that America’s Black community shared a love of films and were willing to go to theatre to see films with casts that featured members of their own community, and so the Blaxploitation was born.  With minimal funding, studios were able to turn out several such films a year, and while none managed to rake in the kind of money that big-budget Hollywood films made, they each assured a modest profit. Though the productions ran on a shoe-string budget, the film makers and actors that created these films managed to make a number of classic films.  Below is a list of my five favorite films from the era.

 

5: SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG

 

Sweetsweetback1There are likely better films that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song that have not been included in this list, but the genre may never have been born were it not for the foresight and initiative of Melvin Van Peebles, who wrote, directed, and starred in the film (he also scored and produced the movie).  Van Peebles, who had put together the script for the film, wanted to shoot the movie with a primarily Black cast.  Though studios were happy to occasionally give Black actors like Oscar winner Sidney Poitier lead roles, so long as the rest of the cast was overwhelmingly white, producing a script like Van Peebles’ was out of the question as the cast was primarily Black.  The opening credits, after all, boasts that the film is starring the “BLACK COMMUNITY“.  After securing a loan from Bill Cosby for $50 000, Van Peebles was able to make the film, which then went on to gross over 4 million dollars.  Studios took note that this independent film managed to profit over 4 million dollars with a minuscule budget and minimal advertising, and so were convinced, not of the merits of such films, but of the profitability of them.  The film itself is not terribly good.  The editing is not much better than the editing in Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny, and like Gallo, Van Peebles boasts that the sex scenes in his film were unsimulated, an approach that seems unnecessary given that the camera angles show nothing that wouldn’t have been just as easily captured with simulated scenes.  The film has exciting moments, with scenes that make one wonder if Van Peebles had ripped a few pages out of a Donald Goines novel and used them as inspiration for his script.  Van Peebles also does a great job tearing down the decorum one typically expected upon entering a cinema with his abrasive toilet scenes, vulgarity and violence.  The film pushed the boundaries in more ways than one and paved the way for a number of other films, and for that reason, is has forever secured itself a spot as one of the most important films of all time, and one of the most vital films to the Blaxploitation genre.

 

 

4: FOXY BROWN

 

FOxyBrownStarring the queen of Blaxploitation films, Pam Grier, Foxy Brown set the standard for the  Blaxploitation genre.  Incorporating topical conflicts that remain relevant today, the film explores the ways in which crime in urban areas, often organized by affluent crackers white people, serves to perpetuate the institution of slavery, but rather than being slaves to the whip, the people in urban communities are often slaves to addiction and/or fear.  With a subplot that sees the titular character go undercover in a prostitution ring, the audience is offered a pertinent analogy that demonstrates the way the Black people, especially Black women, were treated as commodities by white men even a hundred years after the Civil War, and how drug addiction is employed as a tool to keep the exploited class under control.  One scene in particular, where Grier’s character is forcibly injected with heroin, harkens back to the hysteria of the ‘white slave trade’, when it was believed that white girls would be kidnapped and likewise forcibly injected with heroin. But by unfolding a similar narrative in this context, director and screen writer Jack Hill demonstrates how the problem is actually one the white culture is perpetrating, not one that it is the necessarily a victim of.  The film also demonstrates how the white crime bosses use familial ties to encourage Black women to consent to their authority, as one mother watches her husband get beaten and is threatened with the loss of her child should she not comply.  These themes are all wrapped up in a vintage 70’s crime film, and most who watched the film will see that Grier was still developing her acting skills.  Regardless of the fact that Grier sometimes looks like she’s auditioning for a role, she has an allure that extends beyond her voluptuous hips and bodacious breasts and buttocks, and manages to allow the audience to suspend their disbelief and simply enjoy the unfolding narrative.

 

3: SUPER FLY

 

SuperflyFor me, Super Fly is a film Van Peebles was trying to make.  Directed by Gordon Parks Jr., and starring Ron O’Neal, the film is perhaps most famous for its legendary soundtrack, performed by Curtis Lee Mayfield.  The soundtrack remains a must have for any soul/R&B fan and still gets sampled by any number of hip-hop artists today, with the title theme and “Pusherman” (later sampled by Ice-T) being the most popular tracks on the album.  With its smooth baselines and piercingly empathetic vocals, the movie is worth watching if for no other reason than to listen to the music.  Though overshadowed by Mayfield’s score, the film itself is not without its own merits.  O’Neal gives a convincing performance as an unapologetic drug dealer named Priest who thumbs his nose at ‘the man’.  The white cops are exposed as crooked, extorting drug dealers, and Priest refuses to be put under the thumb of a crooked cop, eventually making his big score and assaulting police in the film’s climax.  Given the abuses the people of colour have to go through at the hands of the police at the time (and still go through today), one can imagine how exhilarating it must have felt for an audience to see that Black antihero not only make an escape, but also have an opportunity to fight back against an oppressive and unjust authority.  And few actors have been able to pull off ‘cool’ the way O’Neal does in Super Fly.

 

 

2:  SHAFT

 

shaftIn making Super Fly, Gordon Parks Jr. was following in his father’s footsteps, his father of course being Gordon Parks, director of the Blaxploitation classic Shaft.  Anything that is problematic in Super Fly, seems to be corrected in in Shaft.  Some may have struggled with Super Fly’s protagonist because he was willing to sell out his own community to make a profit off of their misery, a point of contention in many other Blaxploitation films.  In Shaft, however, the lead character is a private investigator who refuses to join the corrupt police force so that he might represent his own community.  Like Priest, he stands in opposition to the police and undermines their authority, but unlike Priest, he does so that he might assist his community.  As far as scoring, Mayfield’s work throughout Super Fly is superior to the overall score in Shaft, but Isaac Hayes‘s title theme from Shaft is perhaps as iconic as any score not written by John Williams or Ennio MorriconeRichard Roundtree, who plays the title character, does not exude the indifferent, outward coolness that made Priest so appealing, but he has an internal coolness brewing throughout most of the scenes that is perhaps more appealing and better suited to the film noir genre that Parks is calling upon with his narrative.  The screenplay, though not entirely original as far as detective narratives go, cleverly encourages the audience to call upon the film noir genre and link it with Blaxploitation, fostering an interesting word play.  The film also has some witty word play and dialogue throughout  that further enhances the conversation on race.  In one scene, for instance, a police officer that Shaft is working with in order to secure information for his case, holds a black pen out to Shaft and notes that Shaft is ‘not so Black’.  Shaft holds a white coffee mug to the officer’s face and makes the inverse observation, both finding a middle ground and noting how false the rigid categories and walls of needless estrangement are.  Though perhaps spoiled by the uninspired sequels that followed it, the original film is a fantastic work and manages to encapsulate all the issues addressed in Super Fly, but without the problematic antihero at the center of the narrative.

 

 

1:  COFFY

 

CoffyAnother Pam Grier/Jack Hill collaboration, Coffy is easily my favorite Blaxploitation film.  Part of me feels bad for including two films from the queen and king of Blaxploitation, as I should likely try to promote works by a diverse group of actors and directors. However if I were to be honest, my entire list would be Jack Hill/Pam Grier movies, so by limiting myself to only two, I feel as though I’ve made an honest effort.  Watching Foxy Brown and Coffy back-to-back, it is easy to confuse the plotting for the two films, given that both films draw on prostitution and drug trafficking to demonstrate the analogous nature to the figurative slavery of the 70’s to the literal slavery the scarred America’s history, but this film manages to stand out on its own for a couple of reasons.   The film, for instance, focuses on the economic motivations of conflict.  The titular character, played of course by Grier, has a sister who has become a victim of addiction.  Whilst dealing with this struggle, Coffy takes a Black politician as a lover and seems enamoured with his efforts to clean up the streets, but soon discovers that he is in league with both drug dealers and ‘the man’.  In the climactic scene, Booker Bradshaw, who plays boyfriend-cum-antagonist Howard Brunswisk, reveals that it is not white or Black that motivates him, but rather ‘green’, alluding to money, highlighting the economic source of the conflict.  Themes aside, Grier’s curvaceous figure, ample endowments, and genuine enthusiasm for the role makes it hard not to be pulled into her performance, even as she struggles to imitate a Jamaican accent to comedic effect.  Despite its flaws, the performance is enduring and captivating and manages to put a spell over the audience.  Then there is the classic scene where Coffy puts razor blades in her hair in preparation for a cat fight where she anticipates hair pulling.  Despite its obvious flaws, the film is easily one of the most enjoyable pieces of cinema I’ve ever watched and one I got back to every couple of years.  And a special kudos to Sid Haig for his hilariously awkward Russian accent that manages to surpass Grier’s attempt at the Jamaican vernacular for the film’s more pleasantly awful accent.

 

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Trouble Man, one of the many great Blaxploitation films that didn't make the list.

Trouble Man, one of the many great Blaxploitation films that didn’t make the list.

There are so many fantastic films in the genre that a list of five simply does not do it justice.  With that said, if you want to check out more Blaxploitation titles, be sure to peruse the 50 Best lists from IMDB and Complex, and read reviews of Boss Nigger Dolmite, Black Belt Jonesand Coffy by Michelle Kisner.  If you are looking for more Grier/Hill collaborations, check out The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House, and if you like those, be sure to check out Black Mama White Mama, the best Jack Hill movie that Jack Hill never made.  Grier is also fantastic in Friday Foster.  For those of you who are not as infatuated with Grier as myself, I recommend checking out Black Caesar, Trouble Man (poplar with many in part because of Marvin Gaye‘s soundtrack), and Cleopatra Jones, though there are a host of great films I have not mentioned.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Martha Loretta Queen Martha Loretta Queen says:

    Great list Jason! I’d include Little Caesar on my list, but Foxy Brown and Coffy are at the very top for me as well. I’d give the edge to Super Fly over Shaft though.

  2. I did have a hard time picking between Coffy and Foxy Brown.

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