A portmanteau combination of Black and Exploitation, Blaxploitation refers to low-budget films with African-American leads made for African-American audiences. Following on from the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the genre emerged in the more militant climate of the early 1970s via a trinity of key films: Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Gordon Parks Sr’s Shaft and Gordon Parks Jr’s Super Fly.
With this mini-season we move beyond these comparatively easy to see entries to demonstrate the diversity of films made and marketed under the Blaxploitation label, ranging from the thoughtful, arty Ganja & Hess to the so-bad-it’s-good Disco Godfather.
Though criticised at the time for predominantly representing African-Americans as pushers, pimps and prostitutes, Blaxploitation films also provided an antidote to the anodyne, non-threatening, de-sexualised characters associated with the likes of Sidney Poitier in the previous decade.
They have also proved to have a lasting impact, paving the way for later African-American performers to become part of the Hollywood mainstream and to be cast in leading roles in films made for largely non-black audiences. Or, to put it another way, without Blaxploitation a Will Smith would likely have found his roles limited to those that were intrinsically black, such as Ali, with a white actor being cast as the lead in an I am Legend or a Wild Wild West.
Cotton Comes to Harlem
Ossie Davis | USA | 1970 | 97 minutes
Adapted by Spike Lee regular Ossie Davis from the novel by Chester Himes, this black buddy cop movie is notable as both one of the earliest Blaxploitation hits and for its early incorporation of a distinctively African-American humour.
The plot sees Harlem detectives ‘Gravedigger’ Jones and ‘Coffin’ Ed Johnson investigating the suspicious theft of $87,000 from religious conman Reverend Deke O’Malley, who had been running a Back to Africa scam on poor African-American families.
A sequel, Come Back, Charleston Blue, followed two years later, but failed to match its predecessor’s impact.
George Armitage | USA | 1972 | 90 minutes
Familiar with Get Carter? Not a lot of people know this but… Hit Man is an adaptation of the same source novel, Ted Lewis’s Jack’s Return Home to an African-American context. Former pro-footballer Bernie Casey plays the Carter character, Pam Grier his deceased brother’s ex.
Ganja & Hess
Bill Gunn | USA | 1973 | 110 minutes
Though chosen as one of the ten best American films of the decade at Cannes in 1973 Ganja & Hess suffered from an exploitative marketing campaign and the excision of over half an hour of material by the distributors on its initial US release. Now thankfully restored to its original length, it emerges as a genuine oddity, being part horror film and part exploration of African mythology. Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead stars an an archaeologist who becomes a vampire after his assistant, played by director Gunn, stabs him with an ancient cursed dagger.
Soul Vengeance/Welcome Home Brother Charles
Jamaa Fanaka | USA | 1975 | 91 minutes
Having been subjected to medical experiments whilst in prison, the titular Brother goes after vengeance upon the white men who framed him. This includes seducing their women and murdering whitey by a mysterious means – one whose eventual revelation is simply jaw-dropping.
Let’s just say Blacksnake, or Black Mamba…
Director Jamaa Fanaka was one of the members of the LA Rebellion, a group of UCLA educated African-American filmmakers who sought to move beyond the clichés of earlier Blaxploitation cinema.
Doctor Black, Mr Hyde/The Watts Monster
William Crain | USA | 1976 | 87 minutes
Blaxploitation saw a number of classic horror narratives and tropes being reworked with an African-American angle. In this imaginative take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Jekyll becomes Dr Black, an African-American scientist suffering from a rare liver disease. Unfortunately the cure he develops transforms him into a prostitute-killing albino – i.e. white-coded – vampire…
J Robert Wagoner | USA | 1979 | 93 minutes
A successful Chitlin’ Circuit comedian, Rudy Ray Moore moved into film in the mid-1970s with Dolemite introducing the titular character, a fast-talking, martial-arts, irresistible to the ladies, pimp who was imprisoned on trumped-up charges by the man. Always keen to cash in on a trend, Moore here plays the titular Disco Godfather, an ex-policeman who is now the MC at the trendy disco Blueberry Hill. When his nephew freaks out on PCP, the Disco Godfather determines to bring the pushers to justice.