"From the Mouth of Reality"? Truth, Illusion, and Inescapable Symbolism in Blaxploitation Film by Ann Tyler Moses

“...Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality...” With these white words on a black background, cited as “a traditional prologue of the dark ages,” the 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song began—and with it, a new, puzzling, passionate, and eventually short-lived genre of American cinema was born.[1] Later deemed “Blaxploitation” by its critics, this class of films turned its lenses on the African American experience, typically as it intertwined with urban crime and its resolution. Fortified with fierce and clever protagonists, buoyant soul-funk soundtracks, cynical humor, and exuberant violence, the films depicted blacks in roles of power and influence, characters they had rarely if ever played in American cinema. The genre electrified audiences, but within it soon became a lightning rod for criticism, particularly in the black community. Within four years of  Sweetback's prologue splashing across screens, Blaxploitation film met an abrupt demise, due to increasing controversy and decreasing profitability. Confined to the years 1971 to 1975, the genre stands as a fascinating manifestation of the sentiments that inflamed its era, and, if viewed critically, a revealing illustration of the ideas that competed for sway in the African American community during it.

This paper examines films of the Blaxploitation genre as commentary on the social realities of the early 1970's. So first, it begs the most obvious question: what is Blaxploitation? Definitions are scant and slippery. According to Josiah Howard in his Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide, the genre comprises “1970s black-cast or black-themed films...created, developed, and most importantly, heavily promoted to young, inner-city, black audiences.”[2] Novotny Lawrence, in Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s, establishes the genre more simply (and provocatively) as “movies made between 1970 and 1975...to exploit the black film audience.”[3] Both admit their definitions to be limited and tailored to the scope of their studies. Based upon viewing seventeen Blaxploitation films and reading about the principal remaining thirty, I identify five factors that define the genre—five aspects that each “Blaxploitation” film contains—as: Black protagonists, creation during the years 1971-1975, a soundtrack of 70s-era black-produced music, a plot centered on the commission and/or resolution of crime, and an American perspective.[4]

I focus on the feature of a crime-oriented plot, which mobilized both positive and negative reactions to the genre. Within this category, I have found, lie clues to a set of fundamental questions about the genre as a historical site. How was it inspired and shaped by its era—particularly the contemporaneous social movements for racial and gender equality, and the debates over strategy and purpose that raged within them? What was the historical context that compelled the African American community to react as it did? And finally, why did the genre end so abruptly? The differing depictions of crime and justice in Blaxploitation film illuminate the debate between integrationism and separatism, and its rogue cousin violence, that divided the African American community. These changing roles also engendered support as well as opposition to the films, the latter of which proved more vehement and, coupled with the materialistic whims of the film industry, effectively killed the genre.

The relationships of the films' protagonists to crime fall into three categories: legal, extralegal, or illegal. Sometimes they work with law enforcement, as in the films that would become the cheerful crowd-pleasers of the genre, such as Shaft and Cleopatra Jones. Often they pursue vigilante justice, as in Sweetback, Coffy and Foxy Brown. In these films, cinematic exploitation plays a larger role, particularly in  depictions of women. Finally, a portion of the genre follows protagonists who are downright criminal, as in Super Fly and The Black Godfather. It was this last category that saw the problems of exploitation come to a head, and engendered the harsh opposition to the genre that catalyzed its quick and sharp decline.

Sweetback's prologue shows striking prescience when viewed in light of the controversy that it, and the genre it enabled, would engender. Absolving themselves of responsibility, the bard of the Dark Ages and Sweetback's creator Melvin van Peebles blame reality for the brutality they will depict, establishing themselves as communicators of its important if troublesome lessons. For African Americans of the 1970s, that brutality appeared chiefly through crime or through the often corrupted law enforcement intended to counter it. And the African American community was plagued equally by exaggerated stereotypes of its predilection to crime. Therefore, responses to Blaxploitation, particularly in the black community, would be necessarily constrained by a hyper-consciousness of identity and image—both as featured in the films and as featured in the ensuing discourse. Blacks had suffered a harsh history of stereotyping and discrimination in America—they had to deeply consider which of the emerging images would aid the cause for equality, and which would hinder it, in both Black and non-Black communities.

Ed Guerrero opens his seminal work on the black image in film, Framing Blackness, with this line: “Once many plantations grew cotton; today, some grow movies. But the imperatives remain pretty much the same.”[5] Profits are the first and last concern of Hollywood, Guerrero goes on to argue, and the Blaxploitation genre emerged out of a timely confluence of social factors with economic motivations. The increasing political and social consciousness of black people, particularly in black nationalist movements, created a large audience hungry for humane treatment.

The historically degrading and then frustratingly acquiescent roles of blacks in cinema had pushed critics and viewers to their limits. In 1967, black actor Sidney Poitier emerged as the biggest box office star in Hollywood, with such hits as the Oscar-sweeping In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, which ranked as the second highest grossing film of the year. Poitier found praise and celebration in the middle-class Black magazine Ebony, while he faced derision and frustration from more radical critics for his recurring assimilationist and sexless roles. Poitier's oeuvre, like most classic Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s, were so-called “problem pictures.” Helmed by white directors, they presented the audience with a communal problem to solve, stripped of any social or political dimension or realistic context, distilled down to its bare elements so that it could be shared, solved satisfyingly, and pushed aside. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? stands as a key example: Poitier's character boasts wealth, education, and social standing as a prominent doctor and head of the World Health Organization, so the problem of his acceptance by his white girlfriend's parents becomes a matter of mere skin color, divorced from the economic and social factors responsible for defining race in the United States.

According to Donald Bogle in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks In American Films, Poitier's success came from his images as “the model integrationist hero.”[6] But his conciliatory roles, and the lack of alternatives to them, drew steadily more ire in segments of the Black community in the late 1960's. InThe Crisis of the Negro Intellectual in 1967, author Harold Cruse, pushing back against the integrationist impulse, urged action against the “film-producing conspiracy” that had made Sidney Poitier the single black movie star—one by himself “supposed to represent the cultural presence, the aspirations, and the social psychology of the largest minority in the United States.”[7]

The Blaxploitation films of the early 1970's fiercely rejected Poitier's “ebony saint” image and the tidiness of the problem pictures, shaping their own genre in the process. It stood apart from white mainstream cinema as well. Sweetback director Melvin van Peebles later recalled, “I had a grudge growing and growing and growing against what I kept seeing on the screen....The cause that I had was giving black folks a sense of self, which had been stolen from us.”[8] So he created Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, a tour de force of artistic innovation and swipes at the bounds of decency. Sweetback tells the story of a male prostitute, Sweetback, who meets a member of the Black Panthers, MuMu, in the back of a cop car (Sweetback had been faux-arrested, assuming a proximate release, to boost the police department's image). When the two policemen begin to brutally beat MuMu, Sweetback defends him, killing both officers in the process. He then commences an odyssey to escape the vengeful police force, running from Los Angeles to Mexico, using his sexual prowess to get him out of scrapes along the way, and eventually crossing the border to freedom. This synopsis belies the film's borderline pornographic realism, its disjointed and often anti-narrative plot, and its psychedelic interludes of repeated and layered images and dialogue. The film opens with a sex scene between a young boy and an adult woman. It was one of the most radical films of the century, “Blaxploitation” or otherwise.

The immense success of Sweetback—particularly considering its shoestring budget—intrigued money-minded mainstream Hollywood. By the late 1960s, Hollywood's audience had  been educated and liberalized, and seduced by television. The average weekly box office earnings sunk to a record trough of $15.8 million in 1971, as compared to their post-World War II high of $90 million.[9] However, blacks remained in the audiences, at disproportionately high percentages. With white flight to the suburbs, blacks increasingly patronized urban movie houses. And, because the black population statistically skewed younger than the white, blacks made up a significant percentage of the young audience that the film industry was desperate to woo.

Seeking to capitalize on the Sweetback success, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which had an adaptation of Ernest Tidyman's 1970 detective novel Shaft in the works, decided to rescript and recast the story as a black film.[10] Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks, already admired for his success as a black artist,[11] directed the resultant film. Released in 1971, it starred Richard Roundtree as the quick-witted and perpetually smooth John Shaft, a private investigator able to navigate both Times Square and Harlem, and deal with black drug lords as well as white policemen.[12] Shaft evoked classic private investigator Sam Spade, created by Dashiell Hammett in The Maltese Falcon and enacted most memorably by Humphrey Bogart. In the words of New York Times film critic Vincent Canby upon the film's release, the film's hero surpassed Spade “in just about every department.”[13] Shaft investigates some suspicious events in Harlem at the behest of his frequent collaborator at the NYPD, Italian American Lieutenant Vic Androzzi, while simultaneously looking into the mysterious disappearance of a druglord's daughter as a favor. Some snooping and schmoozing reveals the two cases to be part of a larger simmering conflict between competing black and Italian drug-dealing factions, primed to ignite an all-out race war. Shaft cracks the case and, with the help of Ben Buford, the leader of a Black Power-esque “movement,” he saves the hostage daughter and exacts vengeance upon her mafiosi captors.

Much more than Sweetback, Shaft endeared a wide audience. Humor and a rose-colored view of interracial cooperation tempered its political message, one already far less overt (the film refers only to a “movement,” rather than “Black Power,” for instance). Though Sweetback enabled the genre, Shaft is often regarded as the first true Blaxploitation film. Sweetback convinced Hollywood that a violently black-centric film could rake in profits, but Shaft established the onscreen tropes (a wisecracking black protagonist, beloved defender of the ghetto; a convoluted crime plot to unravel, with an unsuspected double agent; a gaggle of admirers hopelessly attracted to the protagonist) and offscreen production conventions (mainstream Hollywood distribution companies reaping the benefits of independent producers) that would shape and define the genre.

Shaft and Sweetback delineated the two oppositional types of roles held by protagonists of the genre: they would either work within the law, like Shaft or outside of it, like Sweetback. John Shaft, though an independent actor, collaborates extensively with the all-white (at least onscreen) NYPD. He weathers criticism for it, particularly from Ben Buford. “You think like a white man,” he spits at Shaft as they flee the mafia assailants who have killed some of Buford's team. “And you don't think at all,” Shaft retorts.[14] Working with the NYPD appeals to Shaft's practical, realist nature; indeed, the police force provides convenient assistance on multiple occasions during the film. However, for the final showdown against the mafia, Shaft places his trust in Buford's men, notifying Lt. Androzzi only after the matter has been addressed. Rather than the police force using Shaft, as Androzzi seems to view the situation, it is Shaft who takes advantage of the NYPD's help as he needs it. He controls the relationship, appearing and disappearing at will and divulging to Androzzi only the limited information he deems fit. The script does far more for Shaft than the police force, as well; Androzzi comes off as likeable, albeit a bit slow, but his subordinates are earnest buffoons. They provide the comic relief via ineptitude that minor black characters had historically provided in American cinema.

Many other Blaxploitation films followed suit and depicted their black protagonists working with The Man, so to speak, either serving alongside or reporting back to a largely white police force. The titular character of Cleopatra Jones, released in 1973 from white director Jack Starrett, serves as something of a female parallel to Shaft.[15] She collaborates with the United States government to an even greater extent, employed by it as an undercover special agent; though based out of Los Angeles, she claims, “My jurisdiction extends from Turkey to Watts Tower, baby.”[16]

The film begins with Cleopatra's exhortation to a Turkish general to burn a vast field of poppies—“Thirty million dollars worth of shit that ain't going in some kid's veins.” The poppies, and the money to be made from selling their opium to poor blacks on the streets of LA, belong to “Mommy,” a comic book villain with flaming red hair, a house of whiter-than-snow sycophants, and a vengeful streak. In retaliation, she plants heroin at Cleo's personal charity, a halfway house for recovering addicts, and calls in the police for a drug bust.[17]

While on her quest to vindicate her charity and bring Mommy to justice, Cleo puts a small-time pusher in his place, in a possible direct rebuke to Super Fly, a 1972 Blaxploitation film that met with a storm of controversy for its glorification of a drug-dealing lifestyle. Referring to him as “pusher man,” the same phrase used in Curtis Mayfield's iconic Super Fly theme song, she dismisses his defense that he deals only “light” drugs and quickly finds heroin upon searching his apartment. She then destroys his “doubleknits” and golden “high heels,” waging war on the sartorial trappings that came to characterize the pusher lifestyle, especially with the influence of Super Fly's stylish costumes.

Most of the female Blaxploitation protagonists fit Cleo's role as a motherly defender of the black community from drugs. The PG rating sought and gained by the film meant that her maternal nature was emphasized even more; its requisite Blaxploitation sex scene features only a minutes-long close up of Cleo and her beau kissing. However, the film also reversed conventional female roles: Cleo patrols the streets in a Corvette outfitted with guns and races dirt bikes as she investigates the case, while her boyfriend, Reuben, nurses the addicts at the halfway house, known as the B&S House.

In a microcosm of the larger debate within the black community between whether or not to embrace violence, Reuben prepares to defend the B&S House with an arsenal of guns that it has amassed. He raises a Black Power fist to his coworkers preparing the weapons as he shows them to Cleo. At her core a symbol of PG-rated cooperation with authority, however, she dissuades their bloodlust. Though she defends herself with a gun when shot at upon a few occasions, for the series of final battles against Mommy and her subordinates, Cleo and her supporters use only their prodigious Karate skills.

Like Shaft, Cleo keeps her distance from her coworkers in authority, meeting with them only briefly, leaving abruptly, and leaving them out of her larger plans. She, too, draws on a civilian force for her final showdown against Mommy—this time made up of karate masters from her dojo, the staff of the B&S house, and a band of neighborhood kids. The diverse band recalls a force of domestic workers assembled in The Black Godfather, who, though untrained and unexpected, capitalize on their proximity to their employers, and invisibility to the public at large, to advance their cause.[18] The snubbed police chief is left to ask his underling, “D'you ever have feelings of inadequacy?” Though Cleo works alongside the police force, she chooses a crew of children over them for her biggest battle. Her choice empowers the black community, regarding even its children as powerful and clever, and possibly serves as a jibe at the inefficacy or corruption of law enforcement, particularly harmful during the Civil Rights movement and persisting in the early 1970s. Indeed, Cleopatra Jones seems to make the argument that black women might well do a better job policing the inner cities than white men.

A third instance of the genre's black heroes working with the law drives Detroit 9000, a 1973 work by a white director, Arthur Marks. The film follows the efforts of a pair of policemen, one black and one white, to solve a complicated case involving theft of an aspiring black governor's funding, which, in true Blaxploitation style, merely represents a facet of an international smuggling scheme. It is notable for presenting a world that blacks, at least on paper, dominate; they make up the majority of the city's population in the film. However, representation in government is a final frontier, as is real help from the police force.[19]

The interracial cooperation of the two policemen ends up complicating matters in the end: because of information on a black cop (Jesse), the smugglers do not trust his white partner, Danny, when he meets with them to stage a bust. They shoot him. Jesse rushes in to capture the villains and is left wondering whether Danny was a villain as well. In the ambulance, he asks whether Danny planned to truly confiscate the smugglers' jewels or to save them for himself; Danny declines to answer, and dies. The now-victorious governor praises Jesse and Danny's cooperation in his acceptance speech, expounding that it “points the way to a future not of black brothers, nor white brothers, but merely brothers.” Jesse is left doubting this statement.

Jesse's lingering confusion suggests the larger sense of distrust gripping the African American community in the early 1970s, which manifested itself in support for Black Nationalist movements and desires to circumvent the mainstream institutions that had proven unresponsive or ineffective. According to the National Research Council's A Common Destiny, a report published in 1989 examining the status of African Americans since the 1940s, one of the most significant trends discovered in its studies was a distrust and suspicion of white institutions and intentions.[20] According to one study,  “sizeable” groups of Los Angeles residents reported grievances ranging from police brutality to institutional discrimination, and “most important, those who felt most aggrieved were exactly those who felt the conventional channels of redress were denied to them.”[21] In a study on “Black Alienation from White Society in the Detroit Area, 1968-1976,” whose findings were reported in A Common Destiny, the percent of blacks who responded that they could trust no white people “at all” peaked (at 16%) in 1971. A third of those surveyed in 1971 felt that there “hadn't been much real change” in progress against racial discrimination. And the willingness to resort to violence was also strongest in the early seventies: eleven percent responded that they were “ready to use violence,” compared to just 4% by 1974.[22] But feelings of alienation had fermented by the time of a 1979-1980 National Survey of Black Americans: over half of respondents—56%—reported feeling closer to black people in Africa than to white people in America.[23]

The Blaxploitation films like Shaft and Detroit 9000 that showcased these sort of cooperative relationships thus met with criticism for their rose-colored inaccuracy. Upon its release, Clayton Riley, a black film critic for the New York Times and Harlem's The New Amsterdam News, swiftly condemned Shaft, calling it a “soothing falsehood” in opposition to Sweetback's “painful truth.”[24] Shaft, and the optimistic, conciliatory films its success would engender, committed an injustice by distilling America's brutally racist past and present into witty banter and stylized fantasy. The arguments against these films used the reasoning of arguments against political integrationism. “The Negro Integrationist runs afoul of reality,” declared Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, “in pursuit of an illusion.” He argued that the civil rights movement's emphasis on “[legitimizing] its social aims with American standards” rendered it definitively ineffective.[25] Channels for change outside of mainstream institutions, and possibly outside the often unjust law, would need pursuing.

Many—indeed most—other Blaxploitation films, in adherence to these ideas, follow protagonists who work outside the law, either in vigilante justice or even crime. They mirror and reference this growing sense that the civil rights movement had run its course, and a larger lack of faith in the power of American institutions to bring about change. Hope had soured into disillusionment as racial progress proved sluggish; in Blaxploitation film, more cynical heroes, with more relativist moralities, took up the cause. The aforementioned survey respondents had lost trust in law enforcement; the Black Panther party explicitly targeted the police and criminal justice system as “the military arm of our oppressors.”[26] Blaxploitation protagonists, like many real-life activists, sought an extralegal solution.

This portion of the oeuvre engendered most of the questions of its merit. Conservative and mainstream leaders of the black community feared these films that insinuated and glorified criminal activity, of which blacks already faced disproportionate suspicion. These films were freed of the Shaft subgenre's compulsion to be family friendly and palatable; thus they could embrace more radical content and often seem to throb with more passion and truth. However, they also provide the bulk of examples of “exploitation” in the genre, through more complicated and often compromising depictions of blacks and females.

Sweetback ushered in this subgenre of extralegal, vigilante justice. In an ending that enabled the whole Blaxploitation genre, Sweetback, despite his bloody vengeance wreaked upon the white police force, escapes to freedom in Mexico. He gets away. What struck Van Peebles most, as he recounted in a 2002 interview, was audiences' shock at the survival of the black protagonist, Sweetback. Van Peebles recalled slipping into a packed theater during the film's initial release, sitting next to an elderly black woman, and listening to her plead with the film to allow Sweetback to die, rather than be killed by the police. She never even considered his survival. “When Sweetback got away, there was a stunned silence,” Van Peebles remembered. “And then the place exploded.”[27] At a time when even mainstream white cinema was, in the words of film critic Elvis Mitchell, “about defeat,” echoing Nixon, Watergate, and Vietnam, “Black movies had heroes who won, people who could affect change.”[28]

A second explosion ensued amongst black film critics and community leaders. The debates over Sweetback raged most notably in two polarized publications: The Black Panther and Ebony—the first the megaphone of the radical eponymous movement, the second a provider of discussion fodder for the black bourgeoisie. Huey Newton, in Black Panther, argued for Sweetback's significance in presenting “the need for unity among all the members and institutions within the community of victims,” as exemplified by its opening titles, which define it as “Starring the Black Community.”[29]

In contrast, Lerone Bennett's Ebony article “The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland” derided the image created by Van Peebles as naught but an exaggerated backlash against the image of upright bourgeois blacks, enacted by Poitier and his ilk, which was itself an overcompensation for the stereotypes of savagery that had historically plagued blacks. Bennett especially condemned Sweetback's sexualized narrative, in which the protagonist continually uses sex to achieve his goals and save himself, even more than he condemned its violence. He closes the article with the harsh conclusion that “It is necessary to say frankly that nobody ever fucked his way to freedom.”[30] Bennett anticipated the concerns of the coalition of organizations that would later form against Blaxploitation. He feared the power of the films' protagonists' immorality or amorality—in this case, Sweetback's stereotypical hypersexuality—to encourage dangerous emulation and to implant the public with false images that would set back the black cause still further.

In another radical and galvanizing move, Sweetback explicitly endorsed the Black Power movement. At one moment, a preacher advising Sweetback looks directly into the camera and admits that while his job provides a sort of mass-opiate, MuMu and the Panthers have “the real religion.” Later, Sweetback gives MuMu the one spot on a bike to freedom: “He's our future. Take him.”[31]

According to Elvis Mitchell, in the early seventies, “the fear was that black power was going to have to come from the barrel of a gun.” Or, extrapolating from Sweetback, it could come from even a single handcuff put to sinister use. Racial violence, sparked by the Watts Riots of 1965, had peaked in 1967 and 1968 with 384 uprisings across 298 American cities, including massive ones in Detroit and Newark.[32] Though the riots were not directly related to the Black Power movement, they brewed fear and made spokespeople of the black community hypersensitive of their image. According to Floyd McKissick of CORE, “Often, [sixties activists'] methodologies were perceived to be their goals—violence as an end in itself or disruption for disruption's sake.”[33] Similarly, black leaders feared the misinterpretation of extralegal violence in Blaxploitation films. McKissick chided the nonblack audience: “All you can see, all you can hear, are two words: 'black power.' You would like us to stand in the streets and chant 'black power' for your amusement.”[34]

According to McKissick, developing a shared sense of black identity, and the cooperation that would stem from it, was essential to the effectiveness of the Black Power movement—or of any effective campaign for change.[35] Sweetback was dedicated to “The Black Community,” and most other Blaxploitation films portrayed coalitions of blacks working together to exact (typically) violent justice.

The coalitions were always headed by a fierce, individualistic leader, however. A few of the most effective were enacted by Pam Grier, the first lady of Blaxploitation cinema. In 1975, Ms. magazine reported that the three most bankable female stars in Hollywood—those that could sell a movie based solely on being in it—were Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Grier.[36]

Grier gave her most famed performances as the title characters of Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both by Jack Hill, a white director and exploitation film legend.

In Coffy, Grier plays a well-dressed and impossibly smooth nurse-turned-vigilante, exacting violent justice on the drug pushers who got her younger sister addicted and the mobsters who attacked her upstanding good-cop friend. Upon its release, Coffy landed the twentieth spot on Variety's list of the week's top 50 films. By the fifth week, Coffy had risen to the eighth spot, evidencing the momentum it built as the film's and Grier's merits spread by word of mouth.[37] The bulk of Grier's power in Coffy comes from her own irresistible good looks and the sexuality she uses as a decoy and weapon—the somewhat more mature Foxy Brown sees her more as a part of an official, Black Power-esque movement.

In the film's electric first scene, Coffy is introduced to a mid-level pimp and drug pusher masquerading as a girl willing to do anything for a fix of heroin. Throughout the film, women proffering sexual favors in return for drugs emerges as a common trope—the drug pusher and his runner do not bat an eyelash at Coffy's behavior. The three return to the runner's apartment, where Coffy suddenly drops her act and kills both men.[38] Coffy uses her sexuality as a weapon time and again—in a way that relegates the film to a gray area between feminist and exploitative. Coffy is fully in control of her own body, offering it as bait it to further her agenda while remaining faithful to her boyfriend Howard Brunswick, a city councillor, with whom she takes full enjoyment of its use. However, the camera lavishes upon her body as well, and her shirt slips or is ripped open a truly implausible number of times over the course of her escapades. In “Baad Bitches” and Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films, Stephane Dunn considers the “overfocus on Grier's breasts.” Citing the research of Stanford historian Londa Schiebinger, he traces this preoccupation to nineteenth century racist-sexist perspectives of European explorers and scientists, who were obsessed with the breasts of African and other presumed “exotic” women and exaggerated their size in their reports.[39]

The film's writer and director, Jack Hill, created the character of Coffy as a normal working woman, with no special skills. Her ordinariness is both empowering and toublesome. “She lacks legitimate resources of power,” writes Dunn. “Her grit, sass, and skill at manipulating prescribed notions of sexualized racial femininities are weapons she utilizes.”[40] In Dunn's chapter on Coffy and Foxy Brown, he observes the tendency of director Hill and American International Pictures, the film's distribution company, to depict female empowerment chiefly through semi-pornographic portrayals of fierce black female sexuality.

Thus the depictions of Grier and her characters could be seen as complicated at best and sexist at worst, despite their refreshing female agency. However, the gender issues in Blaxploitation film never faced the objections of the racial ones. The complicated relationship between the fights for racial and gender equality was likely a cause. In When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Women on Race and Sex in America, Paula Giddings writes, “As far as many Blacks were concerned, the emergence of the women's movement couldn't have been more untimely or irrelevant.”[41] The problems of the white suburban housewife on which the women's movement initially rested were alien to many black women, and many of them devoted such single-minded focus to the movement for racial equality that they had no time or energy to fight against another oppression, one which most believed secondary in its effects. “Black women are not resentful of the rise of the power of Black men,” observed Frances Beal, who co-founded the Black Women's Liberation Committee of SNCC. “We welcome it.”[42] Tamara Dobson, who played Cleopatra Jones, seemed to agree in an interview with The New York Times: “We're trying to free our men. I believe in equal pay, but the rest just doesn't involve me. I don't think of Cleopatra Jones as being a women's libber. I see her as a very positive, strong lady who knows what she has to do.”[43] In Blaxploitation films, the female protagonists nearly always privilege the racial cause—depicting strong female role models in the process, albeit tempered by the occasional exploitative gaze.

Foxy Brown, which was imagined as a semi-sequel to Coffy but eventually morphed into its own story, also starred Grier as a vigilante seeking racial equality and personal vengeance.[44] This time, Grier's Foxy seeks retribution for the murder of her boyfriend, a government agent, targeting and infiltrating the drug and prostitution syndicate responsible. And this time, she has a bit more than her sexuality to assist her—namely, the help of a so-called “neighborhood anti-slavery committee,” that, inspired by extralegal black nationalist movements, attack and evict drug pushers from the community. The committee relies on its status outside of the law for its power: says a leader, “These pushers buy protection from the police, and from the man. But from us, there is no protection.” Foxy's policeman boyfriend disagrees. “I don't know,” he objects, “Vigilante justice?” She responds that “It's as American as apple pie.” When the boyfriend is brutally attacked by the same drug-dealing ring that addicted, corrupted, and then employed her brother Link, she seeks the eye-for-eye justice the law cannot provide her, arguing to her now-convalescent boyfriend that the only way to deal with those criminals is “with a bullet in the chest, just like they tried to do to you.”[45]

In a climactic scene, Foxy stands in front of a wall of posters of George Jackson—a prominent member of the Black Panther party who produced activist writings from prison and was killed (either in the process of a violent escape attempt or as a political assassination, depending on the source)—and delivers a rousing speech to the crew of neighborhood vigilantes whose help she needs. “I want justice for all the other people whose lives are bought and sold so a few big shots can climb up on their backs, and laugh at the law and laugh at human decency," she says. One protests: "Sister, I think what you're asking for is revenge." She responds, "You just take care of the justice, and I'll handle the revenge myself.”[46]

The speech is rousing, but some of its potential political power gets lost in the cinematic violence Foxy enacts, and her playing of the prostitute role to enact it. According to Armond White, “Part of the problem with Blaxploitation has always been that they degraded the political needs of the audience...too often, going to those movies, you were encouraged to forget the politics and indulge the pleasure of the sex, the cars, the clothes, the drugs.”[47]

Super Fly, a 1972 work by Gordon Parks, Jr. (son of Shaft's director), took this stylish seduction of Blaxploitation to an extreme, which placed the industry on the defensive—Foxy Brown became one of the last gasps of an industry ravaged by Super Fly backlash. The film tells the story of a successful drug dealer, Youngblood Priest, who plans to do one last huge deal, then quit the business and live off of its profits. Along the way, a white syndicate, later revealed to be led by the chief of police, threatens Priest with a deal of their own, which will make him a bit of money but indenture him as their employee on the streets. With the help of his mentor, who had years ago boosted Priest into the business, he concocts a plot to turn the tables on the syndicate, make off with the money, and retire.[48]

The exuberance of Priest's lifestyle, especially as materialized in his costumes and rendered aurally in Curtis Mayfield's buoyant soundtrack, provided a strong endorsement of his chosen career, even as he rejects it onscreen. Everyone else in the film, from Priest's compatriots in the business to white law enforcement, is shocked by his desire to quit. “You're gonna give all this up?” his closest associate asks. “It's the American dream.” He later revises his sentiments, lamenting the job but fatalistically accepting it: “I know it's a rotten game. It's the only one the man left us to play.” Still, it's a game that served Priest well for some time: a long shot blatantly places his beautiful car alongside to the police officers' sputtering tin cans.

Inspired by Super Fly, and going along with the spin-off commodities that clustered around Blaxploitation films, the new vogue among young blacks became luxurious crushed velvet hats, white fur suits and—most damning to the observant black civil rights organizations—cocaine spoon necklaces like the ankh-shaped one sported by Priest. According to Ed Guerrero, “This was the shift from the self-sacrificing “we” generation of the Civil Rights movement ...and the “me,” consumer generation that was starting to rise.”[49] The young consumers—seduced by riches featured on television but often lacking legitimate career paths to attain them—were enthralled; the older generation appalled.

The civil rights organizations working for political gains sensed a danger, and three of them—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—fought back against the genre, jointly forming a “Coalition Against Blaxploitation.” Said Roy Innis, of CORE, in an early 1970s press conference: “Once you get through the vicarious thrill of seeing a black man beat up a white man on the screen, you go back and you face the same evil system that you faced before you went there,” he said. “And we should always deal with reality and not fantasy.”[50] Both sides sought to be freed of illusion—whether the separatists (who typically supported at least the Sweetback strain of Blaxploitation) deriding the fantasy of integration, or Innis and his coalition decrying the fantasy of imagined violence.

The Coalition Against Blaxploitation formed in direct response to Super Fly. In 1972, Junius Griffin, the former president of Hollywood's NAACP branch and a prominent member,  explained his position. “We will not tolerate the continued warping of our black children's minds with the filth, violence and cultural lies that are all pervasive in current productions of so called black movies,” he stated. One inaccurate stereotype had engendered the overcompensatory creation of an opposite, but equally detrimental one. “The transformation from the stereotyped Stepin' Fetchit to Super Nigger on the screen is just another form of cultural genocide.” The African American writer and actress Ellen Holly agreed about the destructive power of this new image. Writing in The New York Times, she complained that “In the avalanche of buffoons and superstuds that can't be taken any more seriously than Batman and Captain Marvel, plain honest-to-goodness black men of human stature who can be taken seriously are scarce as hen's teeth.”[51] In the view of the coalition and its supporters, Blaxploitation films still embraced the theatricality of generalization, merely creating a different image, one that was both more powerful and more dangerous than the previous.

The sex, violence and "super-cool" individualism depicted by Super Fly and its ensuing ilk, like The Mack (1973) andWillie Dynamite (1974), were the antithesis of what those contemporaneous black political organizations, like SNCC, the NAACP, or SCLC, supported for black people. Their coalition proposed a fairly ineffectual ratings system, but the philosophical damage done to the genre was far-reaching. The Coalition was responsible for the term “Blaxploitation,” one almost unilaterally despised by those who worked on the films. Actress Gloria Hendry, the fierce female protagonist of Black Belt Jones, still indignant thirty years later, recalled: “At the time I thought, what is that? Don't pigeonhole us.”[52]

Super Fly's creators defended the film against the storm of criticism. Lead actor Ron O'Neal derided the coalition's self-righteous censorship: “They're saying that they know better than the black people themselves what they should look at, that they're going to be the moral interpreters for the destiny of black people.” Curtis Mayfield—a presumably partial source, considering that he refused to disclose how much he had made off of Super Fly's massively popular soundtrack—defended the cinema's right to depict ugly truth. “The way you clean up the film is by cleaning up the streets,” he said. “The music and movies of today are about conditions that exist. You change the music and movies by changing the conditions.”

Mayfield's soundtrack has been described as too good for its film; it seems objectively too clever. Elvis Mitchell eloquently described it as “all seduction, as he's saying no, in thunder, to everything this movie's representing.” The music condemns Priest's lifestyle, and his world, by using that world's own language, couching itself in his own style. The opening track's lyrics give a crooning lament of the “ghetto child” with his “broken home, father gone / mama tired.” One of the film's best sequences is a photographic montage of the life cycle of Priest's drugs, from their packaging and distribution by black pushers to their spirited consumption by goofy white men and women, accompanied by Mayfield's cleverly satirical “Pusher Man”: “You know me, I'm your friend / your main boy, thick and thin / I'm your pusher man.” Remarks film critic Armond White, “The film ethically went in one direction, and Mayfield went in the other.”

Despite the qualified artistic merit of the film and its soundtrack, the Coalition's backlash took on a life of its own. Especially in the coining of the volatile new phrase to define the genre, it spooked Hollywood, contributing immensely to the decline of Blaxploitation films. The industry had been more than happy to turn around $700,000 budgets for multi-million-dollar-grossing films, until controversy threatened the viability of the venture—and, more causally,  the industry realized that crossover films, with racial undertones softened and race-related plots eschewed, could bring in the needed cash as well. The still-largely-white film industry swiftly dropped the genre, concluding a profitable coup as tidy as Youngblood Priest's. “Black films saved Hollywood,” reflected Gloria Hendry, “And when it got through with us, it dropped us.”[53]

Crime movies starring blacks—the definition of Blaxploitation film—proved to be excessively troublesome in light of the tensions and conflicts of the early seventies. According to black nationalist and cultural critic Larry Neal, blacks in cinema were “locked into such a prison of distorted symbols and images that the very attempt to extricate ourselves only leads to more confusion.”[54] Attempts to create a fresh genre, with strong black protagonists, real themes, and occasional exuberant fantasies of retribution, were no match for the tangled net of stereotypes and harmful imagery that had plagued blacks throughout the entire history of the United States.

Pam Grier reflected that “We have to be very thoughtful of what we do and say on film. And the stereotypes that we have are often what we perpetuated ourselves. I broke them, but I also created some.”[55]

Today, Blaxploitation film has been the subject of a rebirth in critical attention and popular respect. According to director Quentin Tarantino, whose reverence for the genre and use of its style in his modern blockbusters is largely responsible for the revival in interest, it was not until the late nineties that “all these actors who were associated with those movies can actually talk proudly about them. They always had to almost apologize for them, because they took such heat.”[56] Because of the harmful net of recurring images and stereotypes that constrained the production and molded the reception of these films in the early seventies, creators, actors and audiences were forced to conclude that the United States was simply not yet ready to watch black people in crime films. But the genre had a powerful and to an extent positive impact, and its works evidence a fierce repository of creativity, passion, intelligence, and artistic bravery. Finally, some of those who contributed to that store can acknowledge their achievements. With apt panache and fitting cheesiness, an impressive number of Blaxploitation stars reunited in 1996 for Original Gangsters a film directed by genre pioneer Fred Williamson and starring Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, and Ron O'Neal, among other greats. “We wanted to do it,” says Williamson, “to prove we were still here.”[57]




Primary Sources


Black Belt Jones. Dir. Robert Clouse. Perf. Jim Kelly, Gloria Hendry and Scatman Crothers.  Warner Bros., 1974.

Blacula. Dir. William Crane. Perf. William Marshal and Vonetta McGee. American  International Pictures, 1973.

Blackenstein: The Black Frankenstein. Dir. William A. Levey. Perf. John Hart and Ivory Stone.  American International Pictures, 1973.

The Black Godfather. Dir. John Evans. Perf. Rod Perry and Don Chastain. Cinemation  Industries, 1974.

Boss Nigger. Dir. Jack Arnold. Perf. Fred Williamson and D'Urville Martin. Dimension  Pictures, 1975.

Cleopatra Jones. Dir. Jack Starrett. Perf. Tamara Dobson and Bernie Casey. Warner Bros., 1973.

Coffy. Dir. Jack Hill. Pef. Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw. American International Pictures, 1973.

Detroit 9000. Dir. Arthur Marks. Perf. Alex Rocco, Hari Rhodes and Vonetta McGee. Holly  Hill Productions, 1973.

Foxy Brown. Dir. Jack Hill. Perf. Pam Grier and Antonio Fargas. American International  Pictures, 1974.

Friday Foster. Dir. Arthur Marks. Perf. Pam Grier and Yaphet Kotto. American International  Pictures, 1975.

Shaft. Dir. Gordon Parks Sr. Perf. Richard Roundtree and Moses Gunn. MGM, 1971.

Shaft's Big Score! Dir. Gordon Parks Sr. Perf. Richard Roundtree and Moses Gunn. MGM,  1972.

Shaft in Africa. Dir. John Guillermin. Perf. Richard Roundtree, Frank Finlay and Vonetta  McGee. MGM, 1973.

Superfly. Dir. Gordon Parks Jr. Perf. Ron O'Neal. Warner Bros., 1972.

Super Fly T.N.T. Dir. Ron O'Neal. Perf. Ron O'Neal and Roscoe Lee Browne. Paramount,  1973.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Dir. Melvin Van Peebles. Perf. Melvin Van Peebles and  John Amos. Yeah, 1971.

Three the Hard Way. Dir. Gordon Parks Jr. Perf. Jim Brown and Fred Williamson. Allied  Artists Pictures Corp., 1974.

Other Primary Sources:

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Bannon, Barbara, "What's Happening to Ernest Tidyman's 'Shaft' On the Way to the Screen,"  in Publishers Weekly, April 1971.

Bennett, Jr., Lerone, "The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland," in Ebony, no. 26,

September 1971.

Broun, Hale, "Is It Better to Be Shaft Than Uncle Tom?" in The New York Times, 26 August


Canby, Vincent, "'Shaft'—At Last, a Good Saturday Night Movie," in The New York Times, 11  July 1971.

Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Morrow, 1967.

Elson, John T, "Black Moses," in Time, 20 December 1971.

Farrell, Warren. The Liberated Man: Beyond Masculinity: Freeing Men and Their Relationships  with Women. [1st ed.] New York: Random House, 1974.

Goldberg, Herb, The Hazards of Being Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege. New York : Nash Pub., 1976.

Herbers, John. The Lost Priority: What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement In  America?. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1970.

Lee, Don, "The Bittersweet of Sweetback, or, Shake Yo Money Maker," in Black World,

November 1971.

Murray, Albert. The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives On Black Experience and American  Culture. New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey; distributed by E. P. Dutton, 1970.

Seale, Bobby, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. New  York: Random House, 1970.

Newton, Huey, "He Won't Bleed Me: A Revolutionary Analysis of 'Sweet Sweetback's  Baadasssss Song'," in Black Panther, no. 6, 19 January 1971.

Poussiant, A. F. “Blaxploitation Movies: Cheap Thrills that Degrade Blacks,” in Psychology  Today, 1974, Vol. 7, Issue 9, Page 22.

Riley, Clayton, "What Makes Sweetback Run?" in The New York Times, May 9, 1971.

Riley, Clayton, "A Black Movie for White Audiences?" in The New YorkTimes, July 29, 1971.

Walker, David, Andrew J. Rausch, and C. J. Watson. Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and  Directors Speak. Scarecrow Pr, 2009.

Secondary Sources:

Belton, John, American Cinema/American Culture, New York, 1994.

Benshoff, Harry M, and Sean Griffin. America On Film : Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality At the Movies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004.

Blumberg, Rhoda Lois. Civil rights: The 1960s freedom struggle. Boston: Twayne Publishers,  1991.

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of  Blacks In American Films. 4th ed. New York: Continuum, 2002.

Dunn, Stephane. "Baad Bitches" and Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films. University  of Illinois Press, 2008.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women On Race and Sex In  America. 1st Quill ed. New York: W. Morrow, 1996.

Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Guerrero, Ed, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Philadelphia, 1993.

Guerrero, Ed. "The Rise and Fall of Blaxploitation." The Wiley-Blackwell History of American  Film (2012).

Hartmann, Jon. "The Trope of Blaxploitation in Critical Responses to “Sweetback"." Film  History 6.3 (1994): 382-404.

Hooks, Bell. Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Vol. 3. Boston: South End Press,  1981.

Howard, Josiah. Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide. FAB Press, 2008.

Howell, Amanda. "Spectacle, Masculinity, and Music in Blaxploitation Cinema."Screening the  Past 18 (2005).

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[1] Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, dir. Melvin Van Peebles, 1971.

[2] Josiah Howard, Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide (Godalming, Surrey, England: FAB Press, 2008), p. 7.

[3] Novotny Lawrence, Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s: Blackness and Genre (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2008), p. 18.

[4]     The film need not be set in the U.S., nor its creators exclusively American (or African American) but it must   stem from the African American experience, and therefore be governed by an American point of view.

[5] Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), p. 10.

[6] Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks In American Films (New York: Continuum, 2002), p. 175.

[7] Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, p. 111.

[8] Isaac Julien, Paula Jalfon, and Colin MacCabe, Baadasssss Cinema: A Bold Look At 70's Blaxploitation Films (New York: Docurama, 2002).

[9] Guerrero, 83.

[10] Isaac Julien, Paula Jalfon, and Colin MacCabe, Baadasssss Cinema: A Bold Look At 70's Blaxploitation Films (New York: Docurama, 2002).

[11] Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans (New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1970), “Two Case Histories,” p. 97.

[12] Shaft, dir. Gordon Parks Sr., 1971.

[13] Canby, Vincent. "' Shaft' -- at Last, a Good Saturday Night Movie." New York Times (1923-Current File), Jul 11, 1971. http://search.proquest.com/docview/119247469?accountid=14026.

[14] Parks, Shaft.

[15] Similarly, Pam Grier's eponymous characters of Coffy and Foxy Brown could be seen as parallels to Sweetback.

[16] Cleopatra Jones, dir. Jack Starrett, 1973.

[17] Cleopatra Jones, Starrett.

[18] The Black Godfather, dir. John Evans, 1974.

[19] Detroit 9000. Dir. Arthur Marks. Perf. Alex Rocco, Hari Rhodes and Vonetta McGee. Holly Hill Productions, 1973.

[20] Gerald David Jaynes and Robin Murphy Williams, A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1989), 131.

[21] Jaynes, 131.

[22] Schumann and Hatchet, in Jaynes, A Common Destiny, 133.

[23] Jaynes, 134.

[24] Riley, Clayton. "A Black Movie for White Audiences?" New York Times (1923-Current File), Jul 25, 1971. http://search.proquest.com/docview/119273499?accountid=14026.

[25] Cruse, p. 100.

[26] Lawson, Running for Freedom, 129-139.

[27] Interview in Baadasssss Cinema.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Huey Newton, "He Won't Bleed Me: A Revolutionary Analysis of 'Sweet Sweetback's  Baadasssss Song'," in Black Panther, no. 6, 19 January 1971.

[30]  Bennett, Jr., Lerone, "The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland," in Ebony, no. 26, September 1971.

[31] Van Peebles, Sweetback.

[32] Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Philadelphia, 1993, p. 71.

[33] William L. Van Deburg New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965- 1975. University of Chicago Press, 1992, 24.

[34] Ibid, 13.

[35] Van Deburg, 27.

[36] Michael Koven, Blaxploitation Films (Great Britain: Kamera Books, 2010), p. 26.

[37] Novotny Lawrence, Blaxploitation films of the 1970s: Blackness and genre. Routledge, 2007, 83.

[38] Coffy, dir. Jack Hill, 1973.

[39] Stephane Dunn, "Baad Bitches" and Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films. University of Illinois Press, 2008, 111.

[40] Dunn, 108.

[41] Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter (New York: W. Morrow, 1996), p. 299.

[42] Quoted in Giddings, p. 309.

[43] Lawrence, 88.

[44] Foxy Brown, dir. Jack Hill, 1974.

[45] Hill, Foxy Brown.

[46] Hill, Foxy Brown.

[47] Baadasssss Cinema.

[48] Superfly, dir. Gordon Parks Jr., 1972.

[49] Baadasssss Cinema.

[50] Clip featured in Baadasssss Cinema.

[51]  Holly, Ellen. "Where are the Films about Real Black Men and Women?" New York Times (1923-Current File), Jun 02, 1974. http://search.proquest.com/docview/120157342?accountid=14026.

[52] Interview in Julien, Baadasssss Cinema.

[53] Interview in Julien, Baadasssss Cinema.

[54] Cited in Guerrero, 73.

[55] Interview in Baadasssss Cinema.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Interview in Julien, Baadasssss Cinema.