More often than not, when someone mentions Blaxploitation they are met with nervous skepticism, or overeager curiosity, but few really understand how the release of these movies symbolizes something deeply rooted, and yet emergent, about our American culture. It is probably important to note that Blaxploitation is an American filmic genre, coming out of the volatile 1970’s, and is in constant conversation with previous decades suffused with ethnic conflict and general distrust.
On the face of it, Blaxploitation is a portmanteau of Black exploitation, and is the most cynical, disrespectful, and most crude class of films to have ever been made. In reality, Blaxploitation is an effort in self-empowerment and diverse representation, and an indiscriminate perspective of the real, everyday exploitation of Black folks. No matter which side you fall on, you’ve already realized something important about this controversial genre: it is a symptom of racial disunity, with injurious intent upon “civil discourse”.
I spoke briefly about Blaxploitation in my article Opinion: Read Your Movies as it related to films which are “representative of a transition in the American civic conscience”. In that article I tried to explain how films are extensions—reflections—of the cultural zeitgeist; they are created by the culture, and in turn serve to help create the next culture to come. Perhaps more than any other filmic genre, Blaxploitation is socially created: preying upon fears and stereotypes of Blacks and Whites with the express purpose of making the raw truth of African-American life visible. This is important as film is a visual medium, and Blaxploitation is less interested in the factual truth about the systemic oppression of African-Americans as it is with the aesthetic, conceptual, and/or mythological truth.
As the brilliant critic Thomas Cripps said in describing Shaft, Blaxploitation “deeply touched Black urban youth with its specific references to their way of life… an aesthetique du cool gave it both identity and an advertising angle”. This can be a double-edged sword: as some representations are going to be more useful, maybe more truthful, than others. But just as I suggested in my other article: it is tautologically true to say that not all media will be indicative of the best in that field. Some Blaxploitation is as bad as everyone says, having been written or produced by self-satisfied Whites with an unhealthy interest in seeing African-Americans subjectified, as it were. While others are fun, yet poignant, flicks made possible by disenfranchised Black youths, who view their parent’s generation as a part of an overly accommodating establishment.
At the time of the introduction of Blaxploitation there was a discreet difference between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. As Jesse A. Rhines explains in his book Black Film, White Money, near the end of the 60’s White film-goers had a sympathy for the Civil Rights Movement which “allowed Blacks to direct Hollywood films and to play heroic nonthreatening roles on screen”, whereas in the 70’s “The Black Power movement allowed Blacks to strike out at whites and to celebrate cultural traits distinct from those of white America”. In a way, this “injurious” discourse, which sought to distance Black America from White, served as a kind of antibody: by using identity politics in a way similar to White supremacists, and splashing it across the screen in bold terms, African-Americans could finally start to heal again. But all that could not be achieved without a serious attempt at distinguishing one Black movement from another.
In the 70’s, when Blaxploitation hit the screens with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Superfly, America was coming out of a complex moment in its history. In the 60’s, the Civil Rights Movement saw the end of Jim Crow and the successes of integration, but also endured the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Things had improved for Black folks somewhat, which allowed the creation of amazing Civil Rights era films such as In the Heat of the Night and To Kill a Mockingbird, but the end of the 60’s was a horrible punctuation to an already arduous decade. This, in conjunction with a rapidly fading film industry, was the impetus for the development of Blaxploitation. Today, we see some of the same issues. During the Obama presidency unemployment among African-Americans dropped steadily, while labor force participation increased. Since 2007 the number of Black-owned businesses have increased by over 34% despite the massive economic crash around the same time. Moreover, Moonlight won an Oscar and Black Panther opened to massive success at the box office, all the while discriminatory policies which heavily targeted Black communities were beginning to come to an end (See: Stop and Frisk/drug laws in New York). And yet, in a similar fashion to the rise of Blaxploitation in the 70’s, unarmed African-Americans are brazenly killed by thuggish police officers in the street and the executive branch harbors gleeful bigots and xenophobes. Would it surprise you then, after all that you now know, if I told you that Blaxploitation was making a serious come-back?Remakes of famous Blaxploitation films like Foxy Brown and Shaft are being produced while the 2018 version of Superfly released to mixed reviews. Even something as brilliant and evocative as Sorry to Bother You borrows a great deal of its irreverence and style from the genre. Perhaps nothing is more indicative of this revivified trend than Spike Lee’s new “joint”, BlacKkKlansman. In it John David Washington plays a rookie African-American detective in Colorado who elicits the help of a fellow (Jewish) detective, played by Adam Driver, in order to take down the local KKK and it’s leader, and former presidential hopeful, David Duke. While the film is based on a true story, it is unlikely to follow in such realistic terms. Like with all films about historical events and marginalized people, past mixes with the present, and fact is heightened by fantasy. With themes of disenfranchisement, unity, and poetic justice, Lee’s new film is poised to introduce a new era of Blaxploitation: one which takes the underlying fundamentals of White supremacy, and challenges them in an inventive, uniquely cinematic, fashion.