Can You Dig It?: The Culture and Importance of Blaxploitation Films
“Am I Black enough for you?” Reverend Deke O’Mailey shouts to a crowd in Harlem. “Are you Black enough to hear me?” he asks back. It’s a moniker that becomes a self referential joke throughout the Blaxploitation movie Cotton Comes to Harlem, as other characters ask each other in response to their handling of situations, “Was that Black enough for you?”
The phrase is also a great way to embody the attitude of a generation of movies that Cotton Comes to Harlem helped kick start. Released in 1975, it was just five years after the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the United States was still struggling with systemic racism (it still is) and Cotton comes to theaters with a rambunctious sense of humor, violence, and cultural identity.
The term exploitation often carries a negative connotation, and rightfully so. In the context of movies as genres, the term exploitation is something different. Here the term refers to the aspect of spectacle that is being exploited to attract audiences to see these movies.
Sexploitation films obviously use sex, while nunsploitation movies are about nuns. Blaxploitation movies were then a genre of films that focused on Black culture in the United States during the 70s.
Cotton tells the story of two Black detectives, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed, whose beat covers Harlem when a Black community leader named Reverend Deke O’Mailey becomes embroiled in a scam selling fake trips to Africa that involves the smuggling of the scammed money out of Harlem in a bail of unprocessed cotton.
The bail of cotton gets lost when the truck transporting it is carjacked and winds up mysteriously on the street in Harlem. “Now what would bail of cotton be doing in Harlem?” a character named Mable asks. The symbolic importance in the question becomes even more apparent when she follows up with, “Don’t you think I’ve enough sense to know there’s no such thing as a bail of cotton in Harlem?”
Comedy and action go hand in hand in Cotton, which is on display in an opening chase sequence that shows Looney Toons style antics as cars whiz around a junkie wandering into the street to pick up his stash, and an elderly woman has her skirt cut from behind, to rob her hidden purse, as she’s distracted by another person claiming to paint her portrait.
Sharp, violent action interrupts the comedy, but all of this is swirling around larger, social issues. Cotton is a movie about two Black detectives, sharply dressed in black and white suits, investigating crimes in a Black community. What’s interesting here is a trope that will come to define and be compared to other Blaxpoitation films that will follow; the criminals are of the community, exploiting the community and therefore must be exposed and dealt with by the community.
Based on modern pop culture iconography, one may typically associate Blaxploitation films with bell-bottoms, afros, and smooth talkin’ bad mutha-(Shut your mouth!*), but I’m just talking about Shaft.
When looking at Blaxploitation films in the context of what is now referred to as a genre we can see a historical cultural significance that comes from a place and time that transcends both because of its universal truths of freedom, expression, and community.
Popular iconic representations of Blaxploitation films may come in the form of Shaft and Superfly, a private detective and a pimp respectively, but when we examine less popular works, we can see the genre has to offer a variety of complex issues about race, racism and stigma of cultural identity.
Early movies of the genre like Superfly and Shaft were financed and distributed by major studios, but those movies would go on to inspire the genre to take on an independent approach to financing and making films about Black people, by Black people.