It hums of casual racism to define a movie genre by the colour of someone’s skin but that’s exactly what happened at the start of the seventies. Unscrupulous movie producers discovered a cheap way of prising dollars from Afro-American cinema goers by providing them with films where the hero or heroine was black and had a penchant for "sticking it to the man”. The "man” in this case was a despicable "honky”, a nasty white American who deserved everything he had coming to him, which was usually a size fourteen to the goolies. You might think cinema has moved on since these exploitative days, and to a large extent is has. But in an era where the defining characteristic of a new President is the colour of his skin (a momentous turning point for sure, but still an inability to see past an immediate visual), some prejudices are hard to discard. What was the general make-up of the villains in super-smash The Dark Knight (2008)
? They were all foreign immigrants, Italian, Russian or Afro-American gangsters. Perhaps the Joker’s white face paint was an ironic commentary. But for those that couldn’t give a toss whether a person has green skin, purple hair, red eyes or blue toenails, there is tremendous fun to be had from the back catalogue of Blaxploitation hits. To start with blaxploitation heroes are infinitely more cool than just about every action star that has strutted across the silver screen. James Bond would have to bed an army of women and destroy a cloud-base full of bag guys to be as hip as John Shaft. The movies also came with a default soundtrack so effortlessly funky you can spend half a Blaxploitation movie cutting dance moves on the living room rug. Then there are the trappings of the time. The mean streets of America circa 1974 were awash with day-glo shirts, two-foot wide lapels, razor-sharp three quarter length coats and killer turtle necks. And that’s just the fashions. No film genre throws you back to a moment in time with such trendy wit as the Blaxploitation pictures do. The ironic thing is though that a lot of them were written and made by god-damn honkies. That’s jive, fo’ sho’.
- SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)
Don’t judge a book by its cover? To hell with that; Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) had such an off the wall title crowds flocked just to find out what this movie was all about. What this enticingly titled film consisted of was a tour de force from budding writer/director Melvin Van Peebles. Sweetback not only starred Peebles, but was written, directed, produced, and edited by the man. On a one-man mission to create a picture where the black man stuck it well and truly to the white man Peebles also funded the movie himself, only taking a $50,000.00 loan from actor Bill Cosby when he struggled financially towards the end of the production. The film told the story of Sweetback (Peebles) a male prostitute who runs into trouble with some racist police officers after saving the life of a member of the Black Panthers. Peebles unique filmmaking techniques ensured Sweetback was awash with a panache all of its own. Multiple jump-cuts, left over sixties psychedelia and rapid montage scenes moved the story along at an exhilarating pace. And while the on-the-hoof design gave away its economical production it was perfectly in keeping with Peebles movie dedication, "…to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man”. Peebles was insistent on supplementing the films scattershot action with a unique soundtrack. Not being able to read music did not prevent Peebles from creating exceptional musical accompaniment. Recruiting a then unknown Earth Wind and Fire to perform the soundtrack was an inspired choice. Despite being an unknown quantity the movie performed well at the box office prompting Hollywood studios to take a chance on African-American centric movies.
Tasty Morsel – Peebles son, actor Mario Van Peebles, played his father in the film BAADASSSSS (2004) which detailed the making of this seminal Blax picture.
- SHAFT (1971)
The film that supposedly launched a genre (it was preceded by Cotton Comes To Harlem (1970) and the aforementioned Sweetback) was perhaps never bettered. Story wise there isn’t a whole lot to Shaft (1971), a short film with a slight premise, adapted from the 1971 Ernest Tidyman novel of the same name. But what it lacked in plot substance it sure made up for in style. Kicking off with Issac Hayes’ all time great theme tune, we are immediately introduced to "private dick” John Shaft. Within four minutes this towering man is colourfully painted in all his glory, a dude who would risk his neck for his brother man but who will take no shit in doing so, "Up yours!” he barks at a passing cab. The wafer thin story, Shaft is recruited to rescue a New York gangster’s kidnapped daughter, wastes no time getting into its stride and the concluding rescue raid is over in a flash. But the journey that director Gordon Parks takes us on is so joyously comfortable Shaft is assured of plenty of revisits. Each viewing whisks the audience back to the colourful streets of seventies New York and into the presence of the coolest cat you will ever have the good fortune to hang with. The king of the swingers is Richard Roundtree as the titular private eye, and his template Blaxploitation hero was never topped. Sequels quickly followed. Shaft’s Big Score (1972) was a carbon copy of the original and Shaft In Africa (1973) started the trend of blax sequels heading to foreign locales. A short lived television series hit home screens in 1973, but with the choice language and street violence removed it couldn't hope to match its big screen predecessors and only lasted seven episodes. A serviceable remake of sorts was released in 2000. Samuel L Jackson (the only real choice for the role) played John Shaft’s nephew out to settle a score with Christian Bale. Roundtree also returned but alas he wasn’t granted the opportunity to kick any ass.
Tasty Morsel – Issac Hayes originally auditioned to play the role of John Shaft; he got to write the soundtrack instead.
- ACROSS 110th STREET (1972)
It didn’t take movie makers long to dissect Shaft’s design and replicate the funky components that led to its success. First off you had to have a tight theme tune, and director Barry Shear’s 1972 effort Across 110th Street (1972) had one of the era’s most toe tapping anthems, tunefully warbled by Bobby Womack. Next you had to have the eponymous black champion, a rule breaking anti-hero who could spit back at the countries many years of African-American oppression. Black American’s finally had a cinematic genre all of their own and "whitey” wasn’t invited to the party. The twist with Shear’s movie though was to have a central duo of cops, one black and one white, and have the white cop be the take-no-shit, tear up the rulebook character. Based on a 1970 novel by Wally Ferris, gruff Anthony Quinn played the hard nosed Captain Frank Mattelli, while Yaphett Kotto played the by-the-book Lieutenant William Pope. Matelli loves beating a confession out of a suspect and naturally suspects every black-man he sees. Pope is struggling to make inroads in a semi-racist police force. To solve the film’s central mystery ($300,000 stolen from the Mafia and two dead policemen) the pair must overcome their differences and blend their two contradictory styles of policing. A surprisingly strong story, anchored by Quinn and Kotto’s excellent performances, raises this Blax movie above the trappings of the genre whilst remaining true to the Shaft ideals laid down a year before its release. A violent and surprising conclusion leaves the story on a surprisingly downbeat note.
Tasty Morsel – Watch out for Antonio Fargas, Huggy Bear himself, one of the mainstays of the Blaxploitation cinema, in a small role.
- SUPER FLY (1972)
If 110th Street had a classic theme song, Super Fly (1972) had an entire soundtrack of unforgettable music courtesy of soul superstar Curtis Mayfield. A soundtrack parallel to Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking What’s Going On Mayfield’s work was a hit with critics and fans alike. Its impact on the funk and soul genres has been such that it has unfairly overshadowed Gordon Parks Jr’s film. Parks had seen his father hit pay-dirt directing Shaft and was keen to emulate its success. Straying into slightly uncomfortable drug-use territory the film followed Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal) a cocaine dealer trying to pull himself out of the perilous life of a drug peddler. But despite the storyline the film glamorised the world of stardust dealing, Priest resplendent in his long coat and fedora combo, and looking sharp in his customised Cadillac Eldorado. A number of critics lambasted the film for glorifying the drugs trade, and ignoring the grubby reality of cocaine addiction. Such detractors were missing the point though. Super Fly was not created as a social commentary on New York’s drug infested underbelly but as a colourful exercise in style. The story, like many blxaploitation classics, was slight (a swift conclusion even hastier than Shaft’s screeching halt) but coated in flair. Fans flocked to see the movie and basked in the joy of O’Neal’s performance as the next Blax hero. Its success prompted a sequel released the following year Super Fly T.N.T. (1973), which moved Priest to Rome to help African rebels overthrow a gun running overlord. Second time round the British group Osibisa were granted soundtrack duties; the fact that you’ve never heard of them gives you some idea how successful that venture was. Almost two decades later Priest resurfaced for a third outing The Return of Super Fly (1990). O’Neal stepped aside, replaced by Nathan Purdee, but Mayfield was back to supply the music and ensure Priest got one final funky flourish.
Tasty Morsel – Keep an eye out for Mayfield performing during the film, as the lead singer of the Curtis Mayfield Experience.
- BLACULA (1972)
The crime drama seemed to be a comfortable fit for the Blaxploitation flick. But it was disparaging to assume that the only tale that suited black people would be one where they were breaking the law or bending it for their own ends. It was high time other genres were inserted into the burgeoning Blaxploitation camp. Writers didn’t look too far for inspiration though, and one of the more successful efforts involved cheeky takes on the horror genre. Black Frankenstein (1973), Sugar Hill (1974), The House On Skull Mountain (1974), Dr. Black Mr. Hyde (1976), Petey Wheatstraw (1977), there were numerous cheaply produced offerings for the blood and Blax fan to enjoy. The king of this short lived sub-genre was Blacula (1972) and no prizes for guessing what gothic tale they borrowed for the story. It would take a monumental plot ploy to get the Prince of Darkness embroiled in a typical Blaxploitation setting, and boy did the scriptwriters come up with one. Way back in 1780 African ruler Prince Mamuwalde seeks the assistance of Count Dracula in order to quash the slave trade. Unsurprisingly Dracula tells the Prince to get stuffed and turns him into a vampire as punishment for bothering him with such a ludicrous notion. Skip forward to 1972 and a couple of fruity interior designers have acquired the coffin in which the now vampiric Mamuwalde sleeps. Bringing it back to sunny Los Angeles, the Prince rises from his tomb to nibble on as many afro topped starlets as he can before the inevitable death by California sun. The story is a cheesy as it sounds, but as an alternative take on the Dracula mythos it works a lot more proficiently than the mountain of other Dracula film products that have riddled the market in the years since. Fans certainly appreciated its novel take on the fanged fiend and the film became one of the highest grossing movies of 1972. A sequel, Scream Blacula Scream (1973), was summoned up less than a year later. William H. Marshall got toothy once again in the title role and had Blaxploitation Queen Pam Grier for stake bearing company.
Tasty Morsel – As a promotional tool AIP (Blaxploitation stalwarts American International Pictures) promised free movie tickets to all New York cinema patrons who went to the theatre wearing black Dracula-esque capes.
- BLACK CAESAR (1973)
The Blaxploitation genre occasionally had lofty heritage. In 1973 at the height of the Blax boom director Larry Cohen was tasked with remaking Little Caesar (1931), a gangster flick from Hollywood’s Golden era that featured acting legends Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks. To update the story Cohen got rid of the Tommy guns and moved the action to Blaxploitation central, New York. He also secured soon to be Blax legend Fred Williamson for the central role of Tommy Gibbs. Ever since Tommy was a kid he wanted to be gangster, and feeding off of his hate for dodgy cops (after one bad copper broke his leg as a child) he clambers up the Mafia ranks. But Tommy’s growing fury at the corruption in society, on both sides of the law, leads to a dangerous acquisition of power and an eventual gang war. Labelled the "Godfather of Harlem” in the film’s advertisement posters the story drew some intriguing parallels with Coppola’s Mafia classic and Michael Corleone’s drive for criminal supremacy. Williamson acquits himself well in the title role, and with a surrounding cast of equally impressive performers Cohen’s picture was one of the few Blax pictures that had a solid stab of escaping the trappings of its genre. As with most successful Blax flicks a sequel quickly followed. Less than a year later Hell Up In Harlem (1973) saw Cohen return to writing and directing duties, and Williamson reassume the role of Tommy. This time Tommy had to rescue his kidnapped wife from the Mafia in a story that followed the Blaxploitation formula much more closely, to its detriment.
Tasty Morsel – Cohen originally had crooner Sammy Davis Jr. in mind for the lead role when writing the script.
- FOXY BROWN (1974)
And you thought Pam Grier looked hot in Tarantino’s Brown titled Blaxploitation tribute. The passing of twenty three years has barely aged Grier at all. Equally pleasing on the eye and equally impressive on screen, Grier cemented her reputation as the Queen of the Blaxploitation flicks with this Jack Hill directed crime drama. Grier plays the title character, a woman who seeking revenge on the drug barons and upper class pimps who murdered her government agent boyfriend. To achieve her goal Brown goes to the extreme length of disguising herself as a prostitute. Hooker status secured Brown worms her way into the gang and works her way towards vengeance, by any means necessary. Not only did Grier contribute to the cinematic emancipation of black Americans, she also empowered black women by embodying such a tough but feminine hero. Grier stuck it to the man but always looked stunning doing it, even when she was in the heat of the sort of action scenes some male actors would baulk at taking on. The movie was originally intended to be a sequel to Grier’s earlier Blax hit Coffy (1973) but AIP decided against it, and made Foxy a star all of her own. She also had writer / director Jack Hill back on board to, the Coffy director ensuring the action and plot was even more audacious; highlights for Foxy included a lesbian bar brawl, dismemberment by light aircraft, forced heroin addiction, coat-hanger eyeball assault, and pickled penises. Both Foxy and Grier had a huge impact on its target audience and Grier went on to star in a number of subsequent Blax pictures, taking on similar strong female roles for the likes of Friday Foster (1975) and Sheba, Baby (1975). As an embodiment of the chic stylings of the time Grier was second to none, and though the distinctive look of Foxy places the movie very much in mid-seventies territory there is no denying the effortless grooviness and chic that pervades the entire film. Sloshing a heavy dose of prickly violence on top of the entire package, Grier and Hill made their movie forever timeless.
Tasty Morsel – As a tribute to the film that helped to launch her career Grier entitled her 2010 autobiography Foxy: My Life In Three Acts.
- ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO (1982)
The Blaxploitation movie had run its course by the late seventies. Such was the embarrassment of film riches between 1971 and 1975 the sudden drying up of the Blax well was all the more disappointing. The occasional classic emerged from the drought (Death Dimension (1978), Disco Godfather (1979)), usually cashing in on concepts or stars from the now defunct blaxploitation heydays. In 1982 genre legend Fred Williamson got behind the camera and assembled one of the best Blax quartets of all time. The director created a story around the kick-ass team of Richard Roundtree (Shaft (1971)), Jim Brown, (Slaughter (1972)), Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones (1974)) and himself (Black Caesar (1973)). As the ultimate action ensemble it pre-dated The Expendables (2010) by twenty eight years. The resulting movie failed to wow critics but it was a treat for Blax fans who were thrilled to see four of the genres biggest names teaming up to take on the mob. When Kelly suspects that a martial arts tournament he has entered has been rigged by the Mafia he calls on some old friends from California to bust some heads and get the money he is owed. The story doesn’t quite live up to the potential of combining the four charismatic leads, but with some hearty throw-downs and lines such as "I may not know kung-fu, but I know gun-fu” to enjoy it is hard to fault this cheap cult offering. Williamson also considered the movie to be a sequel to the earlier Blax classic Three The Hard Way (1974) which also featured Brown, Williamson and Kelly, and had a controversial plot with White Supremacists planning to unleash a toxin that would be harmless to white people but deadly to black people.
Tasty Morsel – Roundtree teamed up with Williamson again a year later for The Big Score (1983).
- JACKIE BROWN (1997)
Director Quentin Tarantino was clearly a fan of all genres of cinema but his appetite for cult films in particular bled into his script-writing and filmmaking. His follow up to critical and box office success Pulp Fiction (1994) was much anticipated. Anyone that played close attention to the dialogue in Fiction and Tarantino’s previous effort Reservoir Dogs (1991) could smell wafts of Blaxploitation’s cinematic past, none more so than in Samuel L Jackson’s afro-haired, bad-ass motherfucker Jules. For his next offering the director threw all faint acknowledgment out of the window and went for a full-on Blax homage. Jackie Brown (1997) not only had a classic contorted tale or crime and revenge, but also one of the biggest stars of the Blax flicks in the title role, Pam Grier. An adaptation of pulp crime-writer extraordinaire Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, Tarantino put together yet another amazing ensemble cast to play alongside Grier. Jackson got another plum role as drug runner Ordell, Robert De Niro managed to stand out despite an unusually restrained performance, Bridget Fonda became the ultimate beach bimbo and Michael Keaton was the FBI agent with a heart. But it was Robert Forster as bail bondsman Max Cherry that stole the show with Grier. Their affecting relationship showed Hollywood that a good love story did not have to be played by twenty year old starlets. Forster and Grier are as pleasing on the eye as any muscle-head or big-breasted doll, and together they craft a couple teetering on the cusp of true movie love. Jackie Brown did not set the world alight like Pulp Fiction did and some critics saw this as a failure. But as time has gone by, with Fiction’s parodied traits becoming a touch cliché Brown has grown into the more watchable movie.
Tasty Morsel – Recognise the white Honda Grier drives in the film? It was the same one Bruce Willis used to run over Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction.
- BLACK DYNAMITE (2009)
With the characteristics of the Blaxploitation movie being larger than life, they were rich for spoofing. But it took some time before anyone was brave enough to have a stab at sending up the Blax flicks of old. It also required someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the movies that would be lampooned. I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) had a bash at the concept with mixed results. Director Scott Sanders and actor Michael Jai White nailed the notion twenty two years later with Black Dynamite (2010), a glorious send-up and a loving tribute all in one. The titular character is a muscular amalgamation of every Blaxploitation bad-ass, a former CIA agent and Vietnam vet turned private vigilante, singularly bent on bedding ladies and kicking butt. When his brother Jimmy is killed "Dy-no-mite” sets out on a quest for justice and revenge. A plot as hackneyed as the seventies classics of yester-year allowed Sanders to craft scene after scene of Blax mayhem and humour. Typical Blax production mistakes were written in deliberately, such as boom mikes appearing in shot and actors screwing up their lines. The brash fashions were spot on to, as was the hokey, "quit yo’ jive” dialogue and the Adrian Younge written soundtrack. Fans of the genre can pick out what movies are being aped in almost every scene but rather than a spot-the-origin puzzler it is the right-on humour that makes the biggest impression. Whether it’s the constant stream of comical characters, the discovery of President Nixon’s cock-shrinking plot, or the intentionally dodgy special affects there is much to keep you chuckling throughout. Credit also to Jai White for his titular creation, an afro and moustache making him almost unrecognisable but for his carved from stone physique. A Black Dynamite animated television series hit screen’s on the Cartoon Network’s adult slot in July 2012.
Tasty Morsel – The tiny penis sported by Gunsmoke near the films conclusion was actually a flesh coloured baby’s dummy.