The 1970s saw a memorable moment in motion picture history when blaxploitation came into the limelight an amalgamation of the words, ‘black’ and ‘exploitation’. This was coined especially for the ethnic genre of the more generalized ‘exploitation’ films with black people as primary casts. These films were mostly set around the poor neighbourhoods of the northeast and west coast.
It phenomenally reshaped the race relations in the United States of America, although it was a manifestation of black empowerment, creeping controversies accused them of promoting stereotypes. Hence, after almost a decade long controversy, it died down, but not before leaving its mark in mainstream Hollywood.
Beginning & Progress
Around and before the 1970s, black citizens were stereotyped as train porters, shoe-shine boys and waitresses. This perceived notion was broken by the emergence of ‘blaxploitation’ into motion pictures. The character of the black detective, Dr. Shaft in the movie ‘Shaft’ played a prominent role in the dissolution of these stereotypes. Following the popularity of the movie, films with other genres also started featuring black characters and hence, an era was born.
Mostly set in the poor neighbourhoods, it mostly dealt with slavery. Several subtypes of the genre include crime, martial arts, horror, comedy, drama and musical. These movies were the first to feature funk and soul jazz soundtracks which were complex to a varying degree and quite unpopular in the 1970s. Blaxploitation had influenced filmmakers of other genre to include stereotypical blaxploitation characters in their movies.
The brief yet highly influential era of blaxploitation began with the movie ‘Shaft’. The movie revolves around a black detective John Shaft as he hunts for the kidnapped child. This was commercially a big success and also well received by the critics. Numerous sequels followed and the third sequel was in the year 2000, featuring Samuel L Jackson as Shaft’s nephew.
Blaxploitation horror movies formed a subgenre around the 1970s, ‘Blacula’ being one such hysterical movie which inspired filmmakers to make other blaxploitation horrors like Blackenstein and Dr. Hyde. Blacula was extremely successful at the box office. It is about an African prince who is turned into a vampire by Dracula on his visit to Transylvania. This was the movie to win the first ever Saturn award for best horror movie.
Boss Nigger, came up as the second sequel to ‘The Legend of Nigger Charlie’. It deals with two bounty hunters, Boss Nigger along with Amos are in the process of hunting a fugitive through town, with boss Nigger ending as the sheriff. This movie was extremely popular among critics as well.
Movies like Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown marked a new step forward with the presence of a black heroine in action cinema, replacing the age old traditional white male as the lead. They pictured African American tough and sexy divas living on their own terms, a movie was well received and appreciated by the critics.
Mandingo, a film based on the novel by Kyle Onstott, tackles slavery and emphasizes on a black slave’s view on that of a white citizen. Though not popular among critics, the movie was well received at the box office.
End of Blaxploitation Era
Dazzling movies featuring highly stylized black actors in lead roles began a different trend in Hollywood. Although these movies aimed at changing the general perception of a black citizen in America, they also were accused of stereotyping white characters. Under the influence of organizations such as the Congress of Racial equality and the National Association for the advancement of coloured people, blaxploitation was denounced and ended. However, the influence that it had on the cinema back still continues to inspire filmmakers.