EDITORIAL: Blaxploitation was far from exploitation

Dec 9, 2022 | Editorial

Pimps, drug dealers and prostitutes. A rejection of the clean-cut Sidney Poitier’s brand of the “good” Black man — Blaxploitation was a cry to be heard and what a sound it made.

Born from the need to be represented and nurtured to counter the popular pigeon-holing of Blackness, Blaxploitation burst onto the scene during the 1970s, marketed to a Black audience.

Contrary to the assumptions that one would have from its name, Blaxploitation was largely Black produced with directors such as Melvin Van Peebles and D’Urville Martin leading voices in the genre.

A large chunk of the movies were independently produced and received most of their distribution from American International Pictures (AIP), an independent studio known for its edgy genre-pushing releases.

Blaxploitation films tapped into a vein of society that none in the mainstream were quite hitting — it was raw and unafraid to be so. Audiences across America from across races responded with immense success.

Films such as Shaft and Superfly were genre-defining yet produced for less than a million dollars, going on to gross 13 and 30 million dollars respectively at the box office.

Utilizing comedy, action and documentaries, the genre was expansive and layered in its presentation.

Even horror.

Blacula, released in 1972 follows the tale of an African prince who visits Count Dracula in Transylvania, seeking support in ending the slave trade only to be turned into a vampire. The film became a cult classic and opened the door for the horror subgenre of Blaxploitation to be born.

Pam Grier, one of the most recognizable and iconic actors to come out of the genre, starred in countless hits in the era, none more important than her turn as the titular character in Foxy Brown, released in 1974.

The movie by famed director Jack Hill follows Grier’s character on her one-woman revenge tour to avenge the killing of her boyfriend by a rogue brothel keeper with ties to government officials.

The film is often cited as an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s juggernaut Kill Bill series and was a pioneer in the female-led action genre. It showed a strong, independent Black woman as the titular character and an unapologetic Foxy Brown was a sight many had never seen before and one that many still haven’t seen in today’s cinema.

In a time where the struggle for Black actors to find roles as protagonists was alive and well, outside of the token Black character with a heart of gold akin to the character Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) in Gone With The Wind.

One of the great critiques of Blaxploitation films is the promotion of toxic images that some say damage the seriousness of the Black struggle, the genre’s perceived elevation of over-sexualization, glorifying crime and stereotypes.

Yet, these points miss the nuanced conversations that these films were trying to tackle. Blaxploitation was expanding the definition of what it meant to be Black in America, and even through these edgy films, it presented Black people interacting within a world never before shown on a screen.

It was never going to have all the answers, in fact, it rarely presented all the questions, but it spoke of a conversation that Hollywood was uncomfortable having.

Pimps, gangsters and drug dealers were not Superman or Cliff Huxtable but unfortunately they were still real. Blaxploitation presented these characters, not as caricatures far removed from everyday people, but as victims of class structure, hundreds of years of racism and even masculinity. They were not to be ignored.

Blaxploitation, much like the plight of African American struggle, was not pretty, far from a cookie-cutter happily after. It wasn’t an example to follow, it simply told a story. A reaction to an angry and hurt Black America.

It was a Black America that was reeling from the pain of prevalent leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King’s assassinations. A militant sentiment was growing as movements such as the Black Panthers became prevalent.

Blaxploitation confronted white America ruthlessly — all with a camera lens. It was honest, it was over the top and even crude. But it blew the door open for a cinema that was never digested by the mainstream.

Now, representation has taken a different approach. Films continue to star Black actors and be written and directed by Black creators, but they’re no longer attached to this complex of potentially exploiting a beautiful culture. It’s now about representing a community that deserves to be recognized alongside the rest of the world.