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Nothing screams ‘cinematic-rebellion’ louder than the Blaxploitation era of movie making in the 1970s. This was a genre which primarily catered for the black audiences of the day, where the African-American male or female was the dominant force. They turned the tables on society and brought subtle Civil Rights messages. And the hero, anti-hero and sex symbol was the black American.
Although splitting the audiences of the day, some went to worship the creation of new empowerment idols like John Shaft, Cleopatra Jones and Truck Turner. Others saw it though as a stereotypical move, painting people of colour as thieves, drug dealers and violent, in-turn feeding the prejudices already inherent in society.
This genre however did flow into mainstream culture. The 1973 outing of James Bond Live And Let Die incorporated elements of Blaxploitation. So to did Bruce Lee vehicle Enter The Dragon. These examples serve to show just how far the movement went, appealing to an audience overlooked before.
There was one thing which was a common thread running through the movies as obvious as the black empowerment message – the soundtracks. Almost all films of the sub-genre had songs created specifically for them which became important in their own right – sometimes more so than the movie. Artists such as the legendary James Brown, Barry White, The Four Tops and of course Isaac Hayes all contributed music and albums of funk driven soul to backdrop perfectly the movement.
The following are five examples which perfectly promote the ideals of the time-capsule style of Blaxploitation. Although repeated and rebooted in recent times, the remakes lack the originals’ passion and the intent with which they were made.
Super Fly (1972)
“The aim of his role. Was to move a lot of blow” – Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly Soundtrack.
This is the place to start. Blaxploitation at its finest. Super Fly follows the story of a drug-dealer and pimp called Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal), the anti-hero of cool who wants to quit the business after one big payoff. Set in Harlem, New York, the ideal of rising from the underworld resonated with the audiences of the day. As the film follows Priest’s adventures, the late Curtis Mayfield provides one of the greatest soundtracks of the era. Super Fly has all the elements which made the genre what it was, although, remade last year by Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon), it failed to make the same impact as the original.
Across 110th Street (1972)
Set on the dividing line between Harlem and Central Park, Across 110th Street follows African-American cop William Pope (Alien’s Yaphet Kotto) and his partner Italian-American Frank Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) as they try to stop a war between the Italian mafia and black community after a mafia controlled bank is robbed. Cleverly Across 110th Street explores racial tensions, as seen through the eyes of Pope and Mattelli. Both want their own fractions of society to succeed. This excellent tension builder features the memorable song of the same name by Bobby Womack, an excellent movie of 70’s cinema – let alone the Blaxploitation genre.
Foxy Brown (1974)
Blaxploitation meets Sexploitation as the queen of both genres Pam Grier takes on her pivotal role as Foxy Brown. Foxy is a woman who is on the trail of revenge after her boyfriend is murdered by members of a drug gang. To infiltrate the gang, Foxy goes undercover as a prostitute at a modeling agency. To say things get violent is an understatement.
The movie was seized in 1984 in the UK by the ‘Video Nasty’ act. Though subsequently released, this shows how far Foxy Brown pushed the boundaries. It did mark a milestone for the women’s empowerment movement, however, displaying how a black woman can stand up for herself and succeed. Grier later played Jackie Brown, in Quentin Tarantino’s Blaxploitation homage of the same name, which opens with Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street theme.
Trouble Man (1972)
Name checked recently in the Marvel movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier – for the Marvin Gaye soundtrack more so than the movie itself – Trouble Man still stands as major standout of the era. Set in South Central Los Angeles where the character T (Robert Hooks) operates as a community fixer and private investigator, our hero is hired to catch a gang who are ripping off local gambling establishments. Through a series of twists T is framed for a murder and must clear his name while time is running out. A complicated film, Trouble Man at first was unsuccessful, saved from obscurity through that soundtrack. Over time though re-evaluations have put it among the best.
“When you lead your revolution, whitey better be standing still..”- John Shaft
Finishing with the granddaddy of them all, the 1971 Blaxploitation masterpiece Shaft. Again set for a reboot this year featuring its original star, this is the Hollywood injected ground-breaker. Shaft follows the story of Private Detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) who is hired to track down the daughter of a missing criminal Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn). All however is not as straightforward as it seems, and a plot between the police and the underworld comes to light. Of course John Shaft is on hand to stop any escalation on either side. The soundtrack by Isaac Hayes picked up both an Oscar and two Grammy Awards, truly putting the style of Blaxploitation on the map.
Five more worthy of a mention.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
That Man Bolt (1973)
Truck Turner (1974)