by G. Brown
“Shaft”, “Blacula”, “Mandingo”, “Foxy Brown”…in their day, Blaxploitation films were as loved as they were hated, cheered as much as they were jeered and often seen as both heroic and villainous. To understand the schizophrenic dichotomy of the genre, you have to know a little about why the films existed.
After the Civil Rights battles of the turbulent 60’s, the struggle for equality was far from over. The Black Power Movement propelled the continued social and political fight through a solidarity that focused on racial pride, self sufficiency and equality. It was a rallying cry to combat oppression and instill pride in a race of people who had spent centuries as human chattel stripped of identity, self worth, descency and dignity.
The movement resonated with Hollywood which was force to make changes after recognizing money was being lost at the box office as Blacks no longer wanted to see Black actors confined principally to stereotypical roles as slaves and servants.
The emergence of Black Power led to Blaxploitation films…movies made specifically targeting Black audiences. The movies were primarily set in urban areas that were poor and often pitted the White man as the villain. The power shift meant pejorative terms like cracker and honky that had previously been whispered in private conversations were now on blast in theaters in crisp, new Dolby stereo.
Writer, director, actor Melvin Van Peebles pioneered this new subgenre with the introduction of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”. The movie grossed $10 million in 1971 which made it a mega hit. Hollywood realized to ignore the Black community was costing them millions. Then came the onslaught of movies like “Shaft”, “Blacula”, “Cool Breeze”, “Black Belt Jones” “Cleopatra Jones”. Hollywood cranked out an estimated 150-200 films over the next few years to cash in on the Black Power movement.
Fast forward forty years to present day— Hollywood is again poised to cash in on Blackness following the unprecedented success of movies like Marvel’s “Black Panther” and TV series like “Black Lightning” and “Netflix’s “Luke Cage”.
A trailer dropped last week for one Blaxploitation reboot…”Superfly” which is ushering in a new wave of reboots including rumored re-imaginings of “Shaft”, “Foxy Brown” , “Cleopatra Jones” and a confirmed reboot of “Dolemite” starring Eddie Murphy.
Timing for these Blaxploitation reboots couldn’t be better according to Vanity Fair which says, like the original Blaxploitation films, these movies come “… during an era of regression, of resurgent white supremacy.”–which makes them urgently necessary. With racism lurking behind every barbeque Becky and Coupon Carl(called police on Black woman who had a coupon the CVS manager didn’t recognize), these movies could also reboot a solidarity and Black pride like in the 70’s.
The movement intended to restore those values had one big design flaw—it mimicked the very system of racial segregation it was trying to depose. Ideals that were carried over on the big screen and reversed the wheel of racism making Blacks the racists who hated Whites.
And even though Blaxploitation films were meant to empower Black people, many argued that the movies perpetuated White stereotypes of Black people as glorified drug dealers, pimps, killers and gang members. Critics included the NAACP, SCLC and Urban League which formed a coalition to stop Blaxploitation films. Their success lead to the genre’s demise about six or seven years after it started.
Filmmakers like Director X (Julien Christian Lutz) behind “Superfly” are trying to do more than exploit Blackness for sake of the almighty dollar. X includes real headlines like the police killing of Philando Castile to focus on police brutality against people of color just as the original movie did.
The first wave of Blaxploitation films did set a new Hollywood standard that created more opportunity for Black actors, directors, writers than ever before. You wouldn’t have had an Olivia Pope or an Oprah Winfrey without them. But you have to wonder, if after 40 plus years, Blacks are still fighting for Hollywood equality, will another wave of Blaxploitation films make a difference?