Blaxploitation Part 2: The Stars

I feel like when I started writing about blaxploitation, I thought that it would be an “easy” article. I thought I would quickly explain the genre and then go on to highlighting – in something resembling point form – the stars of these films, looking at their careers and seeing what they got up to after the genre faded. But I was surprised by the thoughts and feelings that the writing elicited in me and the “essay” part of the article grew. It grew to such a size that I decided it warranted breaking my thoughts up into two parts, leaving Part 2 to look at these actors and actresses. Let me encourage you, though, to read the first part as it will help set up what we’ll talk about here. Let’s get it on.

Melvin Van Peebles — born 1932 // Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

Melvin was born in Chicago and graduated from university in Ohio with a degree in literature. Not two weeks later, he joined the Air Force and served for over three years. He began first as a novelist and then made short films, learning about the business through trial and error along the way. Never having been properly schooled in filmmaking, he therefore did not know that there were things you “could not do” in film. This freed him to follow his instincts and in the process he broke ground using unusual stylistic elements in several short films.

Moving with his family to Europe, he returned to writing while his short films made the rounds of the art houses. Returning to the States, Peebles first feature-length Hollywood film was 1970’s Watermelon Man about a “casually racist” white man who wakes up black and sees things from a different perspective. After battling with producers of this film, Melvin was determined to make his next movie on his own, free from constraints.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song deserves it’s own post. After pitching the film to major studios, none would touch it and subsequently Melvin Van Peebles wrote, co-produced, scored, edited, directed and starred in the film about a neighbourhood stud who kills two white cops who have beaten a young black man. “Sweetback” takes it on the lam and gets into adventures. Peebles – with a loan from Bill Cosby – proceeds to trot out a movie filled with unsimulated sex, biker gangs, startling montages, jump-cuts and music by a new band called Earth, Wind and Fire. It was made for $150,000, screened in two theatres in the whole country and went on to gross over $15 million. Watch for a young John (“Johnny”) Amos as a biker. And it has to be reported; Peebles contracted an STD while performing some of the more rigorous “stunts” in the film and was successful in obtaining worker’s compensation as, after all, he was “hurt” on the job.

Peebles achieved a “victorious film”, one where blacks could leave the theatre “standing tall”1. It was considered “the first truly revolutionary Black film made”2. Consider that Sweet Sweetback hit theatres while Shaft was still in production, thus here is where “blaxploitation” begins. While Melvin Van Peebles went on to no great cinematic glory, he remains a revered pioneer in the African-American film community. His son, actor/director Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City), made Baadasssss! (2004), a biopic about his father and the making of his landmark film. SEE ALSO: Watermelon Man (1970) and Posse (1993), son Mario’s western in which Melvin appears.

Richard Roundtree — born 1942 // Shaft (1971)

Born in New Rochelle, Richard Roundtree excelled in high school football before graduating and going into modelling. He was then plucked out of nowhere to star as private eye John Shaft in Shaft. The shining light of this sub genre, Shaft was based on the novel of the same name by white man Ernest Tidyman and while the character in the novel is black, it was the producers intent to cast a white man until Roundtree was selected. You could say then that it was a bold choice casting the unknown Roundtree who made up for his inexperience as an actor by handsomeness, strength and presence. And while the film was written and produced by white men it was directed by another notable African-American player in this world.

Photographer, writer, musician, author, poet, composer and film director Gordon Parks (1912-2006) started as a photographer documenting the black experience in Chicago’s ghetto. As a photojournalist, his subjects ranged from fashion to segregation and included portraits of subjects as varied as Malcolm X (Parks was godfather to one of his sons) and Barbara Streisand. His varied and significant life included romantic relationships with Gloria Vanderbilt and Candace Bushnell. The Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and the National Film Registry contain his works.

Parks was able to bring a gritty realism to this film and the character and movie “played a crucial part in the development of African-American advancement in Hollywood3. The debate surrounding blaxploitation finds hearty expression when discussing Shaft; while it could be argued that the film contained stereotypes and negative depictions, it also displayed the truth of the streets and gave visibility to a strong, charismatic, masculine black man who did things his way and was successful in carving out a place for himself in the world. Roundtree and Parks cannot be depicted as simply pawns in white Hollywood.

Roundtree would also appear in Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa but unfortunately could not seem to catch fire outside the turtleneck and leather coat. He appeared in the television mini-series Roots and would later show up in the excellent City Heat (1984) that starred Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. But he doesn’t really have any other notable credits – not that he needs them. He portrayed John Shaft in the 2000 and 2019 film versions of Shaft, playing Samuel L. Jackson’s uncle/father. Roundtree is a cancer survivor; he was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. SEE ALSO: any film with “Shaft” in the title.

Ron O’Neal — 1937-2004 // Super Fly (1972)

Utica’s Ron O’Neal grew up in Cleveland and was a prolific stage actor who moved on to cinema at the dawn of the 1970’s. He got a call from an old Cleveland crony who suggested to Ron that he get involved in a film he had written, an all-black film about a drug dealer. Super Fly was directed by Shaft‘s Gordon Parks and featured a soundtrack from Curtis Mayfield that has become legendary. Parks financed the film with Sig Shore – a white man born in Harlem. O’Neal plays Youngblood Priest, a dealer who is fed up with the life and wants one more big score before retiring. The film is notable for many reasons. Let’s face it; the wardrobe is killer. Mayfield’s music is stellar and the movie has a score almost as good as Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning music for Shaft. Various Harlem businesses contributed financially to the making of the film and therefore benefited from the $4 million it generated at the box office. The crew consisted of almost all non-whites and was the largest such crew to be assembled at the time.

The film, however…is poor. I’m OK with low-budget but Super Fly lacks a certain punch and flow. Give me the soundtrack over the film any day. And, for me, Ron O’Neal has a unique look; he is not majestically handsome like Richard Roundtree before him or Fred Williamson after. And unlike John Shaft, the crime-fighter, Priest is a drug-dealer, a criminal, and therefore this movie becomes a little harder to defend. The Congress for Racial Equality and the NAACP both condemned the film. Manthia Diawara, a Malian theorist and professor in Africana studies, suggested that the film’s depiction of a successful drug dealer highlights the failure of the civil rights movement to provide financial opportunities for blacks. Super Fly‘s plot suggests, said Diawara, that the life of a drug dealer is the best Priest could achieve for himself.

O’Neal returned for a Super Fly sequel that he directed. With his prospects dim in Hollywood, he returned to the stage. Later, he continued making films, none of which were notable. In 1979, he showed up in the Chuck Norris martial arts film A Force of One and also the contemporary classic Red Dawn (1984) and he later had a recurring role on television’s A Different World. In 2004, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, Ron O’Neal passed away, aged 66. SEE ALSO: Super Fly T.N.T. (1973)

Jim Brown — born 1936 // Slaughter (1972)

It is criminal to devote so few words to Jim Brown. The legendary athlete is an NFL Hall of Famer; he is actually in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame as well. A fullback/running back, Jim held many rushing records when he retired and he is still the only man to average over 100 rushing yards per game over his career. A native of St. Simon’s Island in Georgia, Brown transitioned to films in the mid-’60’s appearing in The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra. By the end of the decade, he began to break ground as a leading man in action films and dramas including 100 Rifles in which he had a controversial love scene with Raquel Welch. He also portrayed an ex-football player in The Grasshopper (1970) in which Jacqueline Bisset was cast as his lover before starring in his first true blaxploitation flick.

In Slaughter, Brown plays an ex-Green Beret bent on revenge when his folks are killed. He tracks the culprits down to South America and “befriends” the mobster’s girl, played by Stella Stevens. Yet again, Big Jim beds down a white woman in an explicit scene. Slaughter’s vengeance is satisfied as he kills the mobster, played by Rip Torn, after a car chase. The movie may have been low budget but it benefits from Brown’s charisma, Stella’s well-preserved good looks and some well-choreographed action. Billy Preston provides the excellent theme song and Jim was back for a sequel the following year.

Jim teamed with Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly for my favourite of all blaxploitation films Three the Hard Way (1974) and again in the spaghetti western Take a Hard Ride (1975) but as the genre faded Brown’s movie appearances decreased. He would go on to simply be a living legend, spending time commentating on boxing matches, dealing in business and having his sporting career celebrated. Since 1988, Jim has been giving back through the creation of his Amer-I-can Program. It is a life-skills and motivational program designed to “help enable individuals to meet their academic potential, to conform their behavior to acceptable society standards, and to improve the quality of their lives by equipping them with the critical life management skills to confidently and successfully contribute to society”. SEE ALSO: Take a Hard Ride (1975)

Pam Grier — born 1949 // Coffy (1973)

Born in North Carolina, Pam moved to Los Angeles to work on the switchboard at American-International Pictures and was discovered there by director Jack Hill. After appearing as an extra in the infamous Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), director Hill cast Pam in two “women-in-prison” films, The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). AIP put her under contract and she began a starring run in action pictures in which she became, in Quentin Tarantino’s words, cinema’s first female acton star. She played “big, bold, assertive women”4 in Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). She indeed was the first African-American female to headline an action film and according to Roger Ebert possessed a “beautiful face and astonishing form” but also a “physical life”5 that other attractive actresses lacked.

In Coffy, Grier plays a professional woman – a nurse – and the film uniquely features an anti-drug message. When dealers get Pam’s sister hooked on drugs and she dies of an overdose, Coffy becomes a vigilante and wreaks havoc on the (white) pushers. A reviewer of the time remarked that black audiences could enjoy the sight of Pam beating the white system despite having to leave the theatre and face racism on the outside. It must have been some consolation though to finally see such a film made.

Pam was able to maintain a certain amount of momentum, showing up in Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) and Above the Law (1988) and in a recurring role on TV’s excellent Crime Story. Grier then became the embodiment of super fan Quentin Tarantino’s championing her films of the ’70’s when she starred in his Jackie Brown (1997). The film was an homage to Grier’s career in blaxploitation and her performance as the title character earned her a Golden Globe nomination and is her crowning achievement. Afterwards, Pam found steady work on the big and small screens and also began to collect some honorary doctorates from various universities and she has been nominated for nine NAACP Image Awards.

How tough is Pam Grier? In 1988, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and she was given 18 months to live. Pam wasn’t having it, though, and will turn 72 in May of 2021. SEE ALSO: Jackie Brown (1997).

Fred Williamson — born 1938 // Black Caesar (1973)

Fred was born in Gary, Indiana and, like Jim, excelled in football. During a Pittsburgh Steelers training camp, his aggressive style of play at defensive back earned him the nickname “The Hammer”. He played one season in the NFL with the Steelers before moving to the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL. He became one of the sport’s first self-promoters when he bragged before Super Bowl I that he would demolish Green Bay’s running backs. Unfortunately, during the game Fred had to be taken out after sustaining an injury when his head met the knee of an opposing player. His brief career was halted by injuries. He was signed by the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes but retired before playing a game.

Fred Williamson was one who could be said to have travelled down the path blazed just ahead of him by Jim Brown. Unlike Brown, though, Fred’s career has contained little else except appearances in blaxploitation; although it is notable that he portrayed Dr. Oliver “Spearchucker” Jones in the film version of M*A*S*H (1970). Williamson starred as Tommy Gibbs in Black Caesar and its sequel, Hell Up in Harlem (both ’73). Black Caesar is a retelling of the story of Rico in the 1931 gangster classic Little Caesar. Tommy Gibbs battles with the police as a child and grows up with a thirst to take over and rule the crime on the streets. Gaining possession of a set of ledgers that allow him to blackmail the city’s officials gives him a feeling of immunity.

Black Caesar was initially Sammy Davis, Jr.’s film. Davis wanted to star in the film and he had the script written but, due to trouble with the IRS, he could not afford to participate in the film and it fell into the hands of my man, Samuel Arkoff and his company American-International Pictures. The movie was shot in Harlem and the local criminal element demanded to be paid off or they would disrupt production. The producers invited the gangsters to be involved in the film and some appeared on-screen. This mollified the criminals and they basked in the glow of their new-found celebrity, some even showing up at the movie’s premiere signing autographs.

Big, handsome, charismatic Fred Williamson did not go on to cut a swath through Hollywood but has enjoyed a long career during which he has made many films. Interestingly, Fred transitioned into writing, producing and directing in the mid-Seventies and has continued to produce many movies for the direct-to-DVD market. He also was given the “Tarantino Stamp” when QT cast Fred in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Williamson – a black belt in many disciplines of the martial arts – wisely lives in Palm Springs. SEE ALSO: Bucktown (1975)

Tamara Dobson — 1947-2006 // Cleopatra Jones (1973)

Baltimore’s Tamara Dobson was a 6 foot, 2 inch model who also had a degree in fashion illustration. When Warner Brothers wanted to get in on the blaxploitation action, they tapped Tamara to star in Cleopatra Jones. The film opened at the height of the Black Power movement and at a time when black feminism was prevalent. The film contained a strong, black female character and it also depicted the black community coming together to better their station. There has been much written about the film’s strong display of black feminism and the contrasting depiction of white feminism as shown in the role of Mommy, played by Shelley Winters. I’m way over my head here but it seems that Cleopatra’s black feminism is shown in the much better light as she is at once loving and strongly heroic. Mommy’s brand of white feminism is shown as homophobic and abusive. This, I suppose, falls in line with these films attempting to upset the balance and overthrow the oppression of black characters in film.

Poor Tamara Dobson had something less than a notable film career and her roles as Jones – also in the sequel – are perhaps more culturally significant as opposed to acting achievements. She may be physical but she does lack a certain dynamism and presence. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000. It claimed her six years later and she died in her home town, aged 59. SEE ALSO: Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)

Jim Kelly — 1946-2013 // Black Belt Jones (1974)

Oii! Whoop whoop! Martial artist Jim Kelly was born in Kentucky and excelled in sports at the University of Kentucky. Jim left the school after a coach used a racial slur and he took up karate and soon became one of the most decorated karate artists in the country. He opened his own dojo and trained many celebrities. Amazingly, he was also a professional tennis player.

Kelly then became the first black martial arts movie star and indeed remains the only major one. His first significant role was as Williams in the legendary Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon (1973). The success of this movie lead to Kelly receiving a three-picture deal with Warners who starred him in films that made much of the fact that he was a black karate expert. The first of the three films was the brilliantly titled Black Belt Jones (1974). As the title character, Kelly goes up against the Mafia who want the land on which his old friend’s dojo sits. When Pop (played by Scatman Crothers) won’t give it up, he is killed and his daughter shows up wanting justice. The daughter is played by Gloria Hendry who appeared in many blaxploitation films and was also in the James Bond film much influenced by the genre, Live and Let Die (1973). Kelly and Hendry join forces and do battle with the mob.

Black Belt Jones – directed by Enter the Dragon‘s Robert Clouse – is great fun and benefits from a location shoot on and around the beach in Los Angeles. The soundtrack is stellar and features funky work from guitarist Dennis Coffey. The goofy climax has Kelly vanquishing all comers in great, slow-motion action while Hendry dumps the victims in a garbage truck; all performed in the suds from a car wash gone haywire. Kelly’s style of fighting is fun to watch and his “Oiii!”‘s and “Whoop whoop!”‘s as he beats on guys are delightful to hear.

The “sequel” to Black Belt Jones has as ridiculous a title as the first film’s is cool; Hot Potato. Later, Kelly appeared in lower and lower-budget films with titles like Black Samurai, Death Dimension and Tattoo Connection before fading from the film industry. Kelly was twice-married and also dated fellow blaxploitation actor Rosalind Miles for a time. Jim Kelly died of cancer in San Diego in 2013. He was 67. SEE ALSO: Death Dimension (1978)

  1. Kaufman, Alan; Ortenberg, Neil; Rosset, Barney (eds) (2004) The Outlaw Bible of American Literature. Thunder’s Mouth Press.
  2. Newton, Huey P. (1971) “He Won’t Bleed Me: A Revolutionary Analysis of ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.'”. The Black Panther #6.
  3. Wikipedia. Shaft (1971) film.
  4. Wikipedia. Pam Grier.
  5. Ebert, Roger. – Coffy (1973)

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