August 99: Shut Yo' Mouf'
The Blaxploitation Film Era

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Part 2 of a series by Chris Norton

So what exactly is a blaxploitation film? Despite popular opinion, there is no pure example of blaxploitation. The range of stories is as varied as mainstream action films; however, action is an underlying element in all of them. Violence and guns appear in all blaxploitation films. What differentiates them from mainstream action films is, obviously, the predominance of black characters in the narratives. Most blaxploitation films also use a "good/black versus evil/white allegory" (Guerrero) that often equates whiteness with criminality and deviant sexuality. This black versus white dichotomy was the defining element of Sweetback. Guerrero explains, "The film tells the story of a 'bad nigger' who challenges the oppressive white system and wins, thus articulating the main feature of the Blaxploitation formula." Shaft's white evil comes in the form of the mafia who kidnaps a black gangster's daughter. Both Cleopatra Jones films have white lesbian drug lords as their chief antagonists. Other elements of the blaxploitation formula include the glorification of drugs, especially cocaine, and living "the life."

The cover of the October 23, 1972 issue of Newsweek features the face of John Shaft with the headline, "Black Movies: Renaissance Or Rip-off?" The accompanying article states, "In an industry that has recently been little more than 200 films a year, fully one-fourth of those now in the planning stage are black" (Michener). However, this black movie boom was not the result of blacks gaining control in the white controlled film industry. As Donald Bogle points out: "What became most disturbing was that while these movies appeared to be black (in concept, in outlook, in feel) and while they were feverishly promoted and advertised as such, they actually were no such thing. Many of the new black-oriented films were written, directed, and produced by whites. Worse, many of the new movies were often shot on shoestring budgets, were badly directed, and were technically poor. The film industry hoped simply to make money by indeed exploiting an audience need."

This fact was not lost on black audiences. Criticism of the films from both black and white sources increased sharply after Super Fly and continued until the end of the boom-- around 1975. As quickly as blaxploitation rose, production of the films fell off. "Another factor that contributed directly to the demise of Blaxploitation," according to Guerrero, "was Hollywood's perception, near the end of 1973, that black audiences were tiring of the industry's cheap, endless reworking of the crime-action-ghetto Blaxploitation formula. Accordingly, the film industry realized that it did not need an exclusively black vehicle to draw the large black audiences that had saved it from financial disaster. This important point was underscored when surveys showed that as much as 35% of the audience for the mega-hits The Godfather and The Exorcist were black."

What is evident in both Cleopatra Jones and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold-which came toward the end of the blaxplotation era-is that due to the heightened criticism of blaxploitation, the films' sex and glorification of drugs had been toned down. Both Cleopatra films lack the graphic sex scenes that marked movies such as Super Fly and Shaft. There is also none of the glorification of drugs as found in Super Fly. In fact, as a sort of counterpoint to Super Fly's montage of casual cocaine use, Cleopatra Jones shows a prolonged scene where Cleopatra and her boyfriend watch a man going through severe withdrawal symptoms.

Even though blaxploitation came to a sudden death in the mid-1970s, the films really never truly committed their spirits to the great beyond. Their influence carried on through the 1980s, occasionally being parodied (I'm Gonna Get You Sucka), and finally spawning another cycle, the hood movie, with such examples as New Jack City and Boyz 'N the Hood.

With a resurgence in popularity today, blaxploitation retrospectives--such as the film Original Gangstas, which attempted to resurrect the careers of blaxploitation stars Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and others-- spring up frequently.

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.

 

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