“America consistently countered the growing concepts of black pride and power with a virtual army of self-sacrificing mammy figures (both male and female), pimps, whores, ‘great black hopes,’ and the Good Negro . . .”
We’re now so far — chronologically and spiritually — from the early 1970s that it’s hard to imagine the kind of cultural climate that produced the blaxploitation film. Still, more than most genres, it’s impossible to separate films like Shaft, Superfly, Sweet Sweetback’s Badaaaass Song, Cleopatra Jones, Coffy, Foxy Brown, and The Mack from the period in which they were made. These films trumpet their topicality, with an outrageous gallery of hunky pimps and pushers, knockout whores, and corrupt cops snorting, shooting, and screwing everything in sight. Wildly colorful ghetto garb, lurid, approving drug and sex scenes, extreme (if often cartoonlike) violence, classic soulful scores (Curtis Mayfield, Willie Hutch, Isaac Hayes), and touches of black nationalism are the still irresistible lures of the blaxploitation movie.
The plots of most of these films — and they are conventionalized enough to confidently treat them as a group — are pastiches of old Warner Bros. melodramas, with dashes of MGM fashion glamor — via the street — thrown in. Most are gangster melodramas with elements of social protest, dominated by a single (male or female) charismatic personality. They fall loosely into two overlapping categories. First are the stories of the pimp or pusher at a crisis point, caught between the needs of his people (black nationalism) and sellout pressure from The Man. Standout examples are Superfly, with mesmerizing hunk Ron O’Neal; The Mack; and the masterful Sweet Sweetback.
The second is the straight-on revenge drama, in which a character — often female, more violent and less conflicted than her male counterpart — single-handedly destroys a white-based power structure that’s harmed her, her family, and by extension the black community. The Pam Grier films Coffy and Foxy Brown, as well as the Tamara Dobson vehicle Cleopatra Jones, figure here.
Though Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Sweet Sweetback (1971) have been credited with kicking off the genre, MGM’s seminal Shaft (1971) probably set a more precise grid for much of what followed. Shaft gives us a sexy, practically omnipotent hero (Ebony model Richard Rountree); a lewd score (“who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine for all the chicks?”); and the hero’s precarious balancing act between whitey’s world and the ghetto. This film features the casual gay element that we see in many of the films, with Shaft more amused than annoyed when a queen bartender gooses him.
In Superfly (1972), “Priest” (Ron O’Neal) has some of the same dilemmas as Shaft. He’s ridiculed as a Tom by the local black nationalists, but is less hampered by pesky conventional morality than Shaft; though both cheat on their wives, Priest also endlessly snorts coke and physically assaults the renegade pimps and punks who work for him. Some of the dialog is comically dated: Priest’s partner points dreamily to an “eight-track stereo” as one of the hallmarks of his having “arrived.” The incomparable Curtis Mayfield wrote the score — and performs.
Blaxploitation films were reviled as sexist during their initial release, and it’s true that the endless parade of “bitches and “ho’s” in gaudy make-up and multicolored elephant bells gives some evidence of this. Still, there was a whole genre of female-based films in which the women dominate. Cleopatra Jones (1973) introduced kung-fu elements, with Tamara Dobson in the title role moving with lightning speed from sweet smiles to grimaces and vicious kicks. This film cast Shelley Winters as one of American International Pictures‘ stock monstrous mother figures, a lesbian gangster named “Mommy”! Social consciousness — always the “redeeming” factor in these films — appears as Cleo fights Mommy’s mob’s attempts to destroy a black neighborhood halfway house. Ever-reliable comic character actor Antonio Fargas appears as “Doodlebug,” a world-wise pimp with a day-glo wardrobe.
Pam Grier was the great female star of the genre, and her first two AIP collaborations with director Jack Hill are among the best blaxploitation films. Unlike Tamara Dobson, Grier doesn’t need kung-fu. She just pulls out a shotgun and blows away an army of abusive pimps, aggravating johns, corrupt politicians, pushy whores, and anybody else who gets in her way. In Coffy (1973) she plays a nurse whose sister, age 12, has been “hooked on smack.” Director Hill’s script shows an insider’s knowledge of the early ’70s drug and sex scene, even as it goes over the top in documenting Grier’s killing spree.
Grier’s next film, Foxy Brown (1974) improves on the Coffy formula, since she gets to annihilate an even wider array of creeps. When her cop boyfriend is killed, she goes on a rampage, disguising herself as a whore to destroy a dealer’s connection with a corrupt judge; getting kidnapped and ripping out the eyes of one of her captors and setting the other on fire; castrating a dealer and presenting his lopped-off dick to his girlfriend. . . you get the idea. Foxy’s brother (Antonio Fargas) has a brilliant speech adapted from James Baldwin about being a black man in modern America (“I can’t dance. . . and I’m too ugly to be mayor. . .”) Both films have vivid lesbian sequences that again show the director’s familiarity with L.A.’s ’70s sex ‘n drugs demimonde.
Of special interest are The Mack, which was filmed in Oakland and showcases “The Players’ Ball,” a thrilling convention of pimps and whores; and Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badaaass Song, an annihilating look at black and white relationships in an imaginative, experimental — and triple-X rated! — format.