One evening I was watching a news commentary program and one of the presenters was marking the recent death of actress Cicely Tyson. One of the many plaudits this commentator showered on Tyson was the fact that, in the 1970’s, she had declined the offer to appear in a “blaxploitation” picture. This seemed to me an odd thing to praise one for and I immediately thought that this commentator was using what I refer to as a “broad brush stroke”.
You see, just before the death of Miss Tyson, I had been immersing myself in the world of exploitation films of the early Seventies that featured African-Americans in starring roles, urban crime dramas that were given the name “blaxploitation” because they were of the exploitation family of movies and they featured black actors and were aimed at black audiences. I had also enjoyed One Night in Miami (2019) that told the story of the friendship between Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown. Brown was accurately depicted as a strong, proud man who was determined to forge a career in Hollywood in respectable films and roles he could be proud of.
I had also bravely soldiered through a viewing of the landmark 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a movie that was considered the first blaxploitation film and was the creation of Melvin Van Peebles. Peebles is a legend in the African-American film community because, with this the first movie he made over which he had complete control, he created the template for how blacks could make and distribute their own films. Peebles is a university graduate with a degree in literature who not only made films but who also composed music and wrote plays and novels.
All these things got me thinking; if people like Jim Brown and Melvin Van Peebles are associated with blaxploitation films, why is Cicely Tyson to be applauded for not making one? Well, I learned it’s complicated and it requires a look at two truths; and the avoidance of the “broad brush stroke”.
“The most empowering film genre in black history gave black audiences their first heroes, in raw, cathartically unmodulated movies that told it like it was.”– Mark Rahner, Seattle Times1
Up until the 1960’s, African-Americans had been marginalized in film; as us fans of classic films know all too well. It’s a quote of mine that I often use and that I first used when referring to Judy Garland; “I love Old Hollywood. And then I think of what it did to African-Americans. Then I still love it but…” Then Sidney Poitier began to blaze a trail, being honoured with an Oscar and playing respectable leading men in quality films. But it began to be noticed that while his characters were dignified and polished, they were politely navigating a white world. His characters weren’t seemingly endowed with an over abundance of physical strength and there were no female counterparts present for him to interact with and display his virility.
Add to this the conundrum Hollywood was facing. The industry was changing as were the times and the major blockbusters were proving to be too much of a gamble. Plus there was a major demographic that was being ignored; black audiences. While the numbers proved that African-Americans were indeed flocking to theatres no matter what was on the screen, the industry realized that there was an opportunity to make films about the “black experience” that needn’t be sweeping epics. In fact, it seemed better in many ways to make these films on a lower scale, punching up the salacious content. Into this atmosphere stepped Melvin Van Peebles.
His Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was a startling movie the likes of which hadn’t been seen before for many and varied reasons. It found an audience and was a hit. It was followed closely that year by Shaft, a film that has become legendary featuring a character that has been utilized well into the new millennium. But the difference was that these films featured strong black male leads who were not just navigating a white world, they were dominating, they were vanquishing, they were breaking out of chains and they were fighting back. They were forging their own world. However, many had issues with these characterizations.
The head of the Hollywood branch of the NAACP, Junius Griffin, was concerned that young blacks were being exposed to “a steady diet of so-called black movies that glorify black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters, and super males”2 and he coined the term “blaxploitation” in reference to the exploitation films that had been made since the Fifties. The term, though, is simply another example of labelling that can be misunderstood. The term blaxploitation does not mean that blacks are being exploited. It simply hearkens back to the term “exploitation”, as in films that rely heavily on content you wouldn’t see in mainstream films – sex, blood, taboo subjects etc. “BLAXploitaion” was perhaps an unimaginative variation on this. While it is a label so many actors and commentators objected to, the term itself matters less than the style; urban crime, automatic weapons, sexuality, audacity. Blaxploitation films were made to fit into the sub genre of films that were often shown in drive-ins and grind houses. They were good fun. And being that they were simply thus and did not aspire to greatness, they are exactly the type of film we like to explore here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure.
“The idea was that these movies were giving voices to people that didn’t have a voice. They became, in a way, figures that were heroic to regular people.”– Todd Boyd, professor, USC School of Cinematic Arts3
But the backlash grew stronger and this was amplified by the decreasing quality of the films as the sub genre rolled on. Blaxploitation simply ran out of steam – and fresh ideas – by the late 1970’s. Which was fine with people like Jesse Jackson who advocated strongly against these movies that seemed to glorify violence and depict African-Americans as drug users and criminals. And he’s got a point. Many of the characters in blaxploitation films are one-dimensional and many other aspects of black life were obviously ignored in these films. But here’s where I begin to decry the use of the broad brush stroke.
To say that not all blacks are dope pushers or private eyes is a point well-taken; but it’s also somewhat insulting. I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but even I know that a movie like Bucktown (1975) does not represent the entirety of the black population of Kansas City. Guess what? I also know that not all Asians are Charlie Chan, not all Germans are submarine commanders and not all whites are dumb, violent, racist crackers. Give me some credit. You telling me that you object to Super Fly‘s depiction of a powerful black drug dealer because “not all blacks are like that” is implying that I am idiotically willing to accept the word of one film and apply what I’ve seen to all members of that race. Trust me to understand that it’s a movie, it’s not the news. There is also a point to be made that blaxploitation films are not science fiction, depicting some unrealistic universe. There were indeed blacks like those found in these films, there were neighbourhoods like that and towns like that and whites like that. There was oppression like that. The depictions in blaxploitation films is just that; a depiction. A small sample size of life, one of many realities. Many were concerned with these depictions and that’s legit; the work of people like Jesse Jackson is more than honourable but there’s something else to consider. They may have objected to depictions in Jim Brown’s films of the mid-Seventies but what about Jim in real life? A strong, trailblazing black man who excelled in so many areas of life and inspired maybe millions of youths, black and otherwise. You tell big Jim you object to his work. Conversely, let’s consider the wholesome and honourable Cliff Huxtable in The Cosby Show and how he relates to the crimes of Bill Cosby. We need to accept the two realities of blaxploitation. In Jim Brown’s case, I don’t feel we can knock him for Slaughter when his career is one of breaking down doors and toppling conventions. And keep in mind that to comprehensively disregard (or use the broad brush stroke on) these films is to comprehensively disregard history and to minimize the achievements of these pioneering innovators. While coalescing my thoughts on this genre, I couldn’t help but keep hearkening back to an excellent mini-doc from Turner Classic Movies on blackface.
Blackface – the archaic practice of whites portraying blacks – depicts a farce, an unrealistic parody of a people. It is difficult to explain and madness to try and defend blackface as there is no way that African-Americans ever benefitted from the practice. Blaxploitation, by comparison, is not bereft of value and is rooted more in truth. Did it present a complete spectrum of the black experience? Absolutely not. Did it contain truths? A measure of reality? Undoubtedly. Blaxploitation contains honesty while blackface does not. Let’s look at some experts to help me make my point.
In the TCM Original Production: Blackface and Hollywood4, film historian and author Donald Bogle says regarding films with depictions of blackface “showing the films does not mean that you’re basically saying it’s alright. You’re just showing the film as it was and as problematic as it may be…I think that people that want to see these films should have the opportunity. It is history“. TCM’s own professor and author Jacqueline Stewart says “you can have conversations with people about these things, too, so that you don’t just consume them in isolation but instead become curious and really studious about understanding where they come from”. And Eric Lott, a professor of English, significantly adds “that’s why we watch movies because we wanna look hard at American life. That’s what it is. And it’s worth contending with”.
Here’s my point; if these highly educated experts can say these things about something as seemingly “bereft of value” as blackface minstrelsy, then certainly we can be allowed to apply them to blaxploitation and to view, assess and appreciate these movies, movies NOT totally bereft of value to the African-American community. Please keep in mind that I am no scholar. I’m nowhere near an expert on race relations or anywhere approaching a cultural anthropologist. This is my fan’s perspective on this genre. If you disagree with me or think I’ve missed some pertinent points, please let me know in the comments. If I’m off the mark I’d like to understand why and I’d like to add to my perspective and my somewhat limited storehouse of knowledge. Because, you see, there’s at least two sides to anything and everything you could possibly discourse on. My problem is that I can always see valid points on both sides of an argument. I’d be a bust on a debating team.
Perhaps we can boil blaxploitation down to revenge. Often the theme of these films was blacks fighting back against “the man” or white society. You could say that they come from the Malcom X School of fighting for equality as opposed to the Martin Luther King School. I understand and agree that there is much to object to in these films, much that is troublesome especially today. But think about it from a real basic place; after years of oppression, blacks in these films were strong, they were making their own way, paying little heed to obstacles. Black characters were reacting with graphic violence to racist action and language levelled at them by bigoted whites. And some viewers may have seen the ship being righted somewhat. While the blaxploitation films weren’t perfect for African-Americans, they were part of a process. They elevated black actors, directors, writers and producers to more respectable positions and highlighted at least a part of the black experience in America. They were part of the evolution from Mammy to T’Challa.
- Rahner, Mark (2004). Despite incendiary name, blaxploitation genre was about empowerment. Seattle Times.
- Bogle, Donald (1973). Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks; an Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Viking Press. pp. 231–266.
- Film is Just Moving Pictures (2020). The History of Blaxploitation. YouTube.
- Turner Classic Movies (2020). TCM Original Production: Blackface and Hollywood – African American Film History. YouTube.
** Maynard, Richard (2000). The Birth and Demise of the ‘Blaxploitation’ Genre. Los Angeles Times.