Can You Dig It?: The Culture and Importance of Blaxploitation Films
One such independent filmmaker was Melvin Van Peebles, who made the 1971 movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Initial production money was put up entirely by Peebles himself, even though he had a distribution deal with Columbia Pictures.
Sweet Sweetback opens with: “This film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the man.”, and tells the story of a boy raised in a brothel who gets hassled by two white cops and decides to fight back. After beating the cops unconscious, Sweetback takes flight on a journey across Los Angeles that’s accompanied by a gospel-like, slave song as the soundtrack that narrates his flight from the law.
The Mack, released in 1973, takes a similar approach to the genre as Superfly by telling a complex cautionary tale about a man who wants to be the greatest pimp, or Mack, there is. After having enough of “the man” and spending time in prison, Goldie decides he’s going to have his by being the best at pimping, which ultimately means subjugating and exploiting humans, and particularly, humans of his own community.
The complexity in The Mack lies in its approach to how one goes about helping themselves and their community. Goldie at first wants to give back to the community by showing up in his expensive car and handing out cash to the children who ask to sit in his car. He acts like he cares about the women his using, but ultimately Goldie succumbs to the evils of such dealings as everyone around him, from the mafia that wants to control him, to the cops who want a take of his action, come crashing down on him.
Goldie fights for his freedom, the freedom he original sought by subjugating his community, and has to give it up to survive. He pays his ultimate price and has to find a new way, all while his brother, a community activist tells him he was just a part of the problem.
While Goldie learns a lesson about exploiting his own community for personal gain, he doesn’t learn a specific lesson about exploiting women. In 1974, actress Pam Grier starred in the title role Foxy Brown. Grier plays Foxy, the girlfriend of an undercover police agent who’s trying to take down a crime syndicate when he’s gunned down.
Foxy decides to finish the job herself when she learns her own brother turned in her boyfriend. But Foxy, despite being tough and game for revenge, learns quickly that it’s not as easy as she assumed and has to fight against the man to save her community from drugs.
Foxy Brown provides a man’s view of a feminist take on what was in 1974, an established genre of action films about social issues in the Black community. After all, Foxy’s agency is derived from being the girlfriend of someone else important. She turns the tables on her male attackers, and as protagonist champions as hero, which would spur its own slate of exploitation films starring Pam Grier, mostly as an ass-kicking hero, righting a wrong, or pulling some scam.
Not all Blaxploitation films were centered on action spectacle. Independent filmmaker, Rudy Ray Moore crafted his own brand of comedy spoofs that featured social commentary, sexploitation, and kung-fu. His breakthrough Dolemite might be his most famous, usually because of references in rap lyrics like those of Snoop Dog, but Petey Wheatstraw might be his most entertaining.
Petey Wheatstraw came out in 1977 and tells the absurd story of the title character, who after being born already a grown boy is taken in by a kung-fu master, but decides he’d rather be a comedian. Petey is gunned down at a funeral and after dying is offered the chance at resurrection and revenge if he marries the devil’s daughter.
Petey agrees and the devil gives him a cane with special powers, but instead of immediately seeking revenge, Petey uses his cane to help people in his community. Again, we see the genre defined by its association to giving a voice to a community.
In sharp commentary, Petey features many scenes of Black people eating watermelons, or watermelons just being featured in scenery, a known stereotype for the Black community, until later in the movie when Petey discovers a bomb in the place he’s at and disposes of it by throwing into a truck selling watermelons. After the truck explodes, no more watermelons are featured for the rest of the movie.
Accompanied by great scores, popular Black musicians during this era lent their many talents to making these movies memorable in the pop culture spectrum beyond just film. Curtis Mayfield (Superfly, Short Eyes), Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man), and Isaac Hayes (Shaft, Truck Turner) are but a few whose scores transcend their onscreen presence and have made for some of the best R&B, pop music of the last half of the twentieth century.
The influence of Blaxploitation can be seen today through people like Tyler Perry, who runs his own studio that employs Black people to make movies about Black people. In light of what’s available today, there’s a whole treasure trove of movies that were made between 1970 and the early 80s that embody an overall purpose of giving a marginalized group their own voice in a pop culture setting of art and entertainment.
* Editor’s note