July 99 Feature - Shut Yo’ Mouf’…
The Blaxploitation Film Era

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Part one of a series by Chris Norton

In most discussions on the emergence of blaxploitation, critics point to Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song as the inspiration for the genre. The film featured a completely new image in black film, a protagonist who dismissed assimilation, saw the system as corrupt and chose to fight against it.

As many critics have pointed out, Sweetback arose out of the Black Power movement of the sixties. This militant spirit sprang from "the rising political and social consciousness of black people (taking the form of a broadly expressed black nationalist impulse at the end of the civil rights movement)" (Guerrero).

Sweetback brought the weight of the Black Power movement to the screen as a counterpoint to the constant depiction of white hegemony. Sweetback was almost a completely black production. Writer, director and star Melvin Van Peebles made the film by claiming it was a porn production to escape hiring a union crew. On a budget of $500,000 ($50,000 of which came from Bill Cosby), Van Peebles shot the film in nineteen days with Cinemation picking it up for distribution. By the end of 1971, Sweetback had grossed $10 million, a huge success for the era.

It is important to note that blaxploitation arose at a critical juncture for the Hollywood film industry. In the late 1960s, mainstream Hollywood was in financial peril. The major studios were losing millions of dollars, forcing many studios to face the distinct prospect of bankruptcy. The success of Sweetback came just as Hollywood fully realized the power of the black ticket-buying public, which accounted for more than thirty percent of the box office in major cities. Hollywood quickly seized upon the potential profitability of the Sweetback formula and spawned, what Guerrero calls, "the sons of Sweetback." For this discussion we should also include the "daughters of Sweetback."

1971's Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks, marked the beginning of Hollywood's attempt to cash in on Sweetback's success. Despite its black director and small budget, the film was financed by MGM. Donald Bogle says, "This little picture, which its studio, MGM, thought might make a little money, instead made a mint–some $12 million within a year in North America alone–and single-handedly saved MGM from financial ruin."

Following Shaft's success, 1972 saw the proliferation of blaxploitation films, most notably the independently produced Super Fly, directed by Gordon Parks Jr. Super Fly took living "the life" (a term used to describe an urban existence which revolves around drugs, sex, pimps, gambling and guns) to the extreme by putting the drug dealer, Priest, at its center of focus. Priest's goal is to retire from "the life" by scoring a million dollars of cocaine and retiring on the profits. As has often been pointed out, Priest’s retirement comes at the expense of his black community by flooding one million dollars of cocaine into the streets. In the process, Priest manages to outwit or assault all his white adversaries, including a corrupt police chief.

The success of these films wasn’t lost on anyone in Hollywood. In the four years following Shaft, some 60 films that can be considered blaxploitation were made. Some of these films included:

Black Caesar (starring Fred Williamson)

Hell Up in Harlem;

The Legend of Nigger Charlie (a blaxploitation western)

Boss Nigger; Bucktown;

Super Fly (infamous for its cocaine dealer named Priest and the title song Pusherman by Curtis Mayfield)

Foxy Brown (starring Pam Grier)

Slaughter (starring ex-Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown)

Black Eliminator (kung-fu blaxploitation)

Black Mama, White Mama (a story by Jonathan Demme)

The Mack

Coonskin (an animated dig at the entire cinematic history of black representation) Scream, Blacula, Scream

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (not so much a blaxploitation film as a strongly political cinematic exploration of Black Power), The Black Gestapo, and Willie Dynamite. Cleopatra Jones and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold both came near the end of the boom, in 1973 and 1975, respectively. The star of both Cleopatra films was the six-foot two-inch Tamara Dobson. Dobson and her cohort, Pam Grier, came to embody the female counterparts of Shaft and Sweetback.


Chris Norton received his B.A. in English and Film Studies from Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan and an M.A. from New York University in the Department of Cinema Studies.


Bennett, Tony and Janet Woollacott.

Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero.

New York: Methuen, 1987.

Bogle, Donald.

Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films.

New York: Continuum, 1995.

Bryson, John.

"The New Bond: Shaft in Reverse."

New York Magazine. 25 June 1973: 38-41.

Canby, Vincent.

"Cleopatra Jones and The Casino of Gold." (Review).

New York Times. 12 July 1975, 16:4.

"In Live and Let Die, The Bad Guys Are Black."

New York Times. 15 July 1973,11:1:6.

Greenspun, Roger.

"Live and Let Die." (Review).

New York Times. 28 June 1973, 56:1.

Guerrero, Ed.

Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

James, Darius.

That's Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude.

New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Mebane, Mary F.

"Brother Caring For Brother."

New York Times. 23 September 1973, 11: 13:6.

Michener, Charles.

"Black Movies: Renaissance Or Ripoff?"

Newsweek. 23 October 1972: 74-81.

Reid, Mark A.

Redefining Black Film.

Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.


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