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The Birth and Demise of the 'Blaxploitation' Genre

In the early '70s, young black urban audiences found a sense of liberation in tough, defiant characters like Shaft.


With the release of the "Shaft" remake today, there's bound to be another blast of nostalgia for the so-called "blaxploitation" genre of the early '70s.

Keenen Ivory Wayans' "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!" (1988) sent it up affectionately, never forgetting its ridiculous limitations. Quentin Tarantino's strangely convoluted "Jackie Brown" (1997)--"Coffy" meets Elmore Leonard--reminded us of it again. And several home-video entrepreneurs have been reviving many of the more than 40, mostly studio movies that qualify under the blaxploitation label. Check out the special blaxploitation shelves in some of the independent video stores.

But before the new "Shaft" makes us all fondly recall the brief era of supercool Superflys, we might pause and take a look at what we're celebrating. Black images in American films have usually been reflections of the history of race relations in this country. For a brief period (basically 1971-73), some studios jumped on a cynical fast-buck bandwagon to grab a young urban black audience for the first time.

Flashback: winter 1971. Downtown movie theaters in several major cities are experiencing a box-office bonanza with a black, low-budget indie outrageously entitled "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." Everywhere it plays the houses are sold out and the lines are around the block.

For more than a year, urban movie theaters have been closing down "for remodeling" or for good. The pattern of Hollywood's distribution has changed radically. Studios are going through one of those periodic recessions and feature production has been cut back. The big-budget, reserved-seat event pictures, so popular in the '60s--from "Lawrence of Arabia" to "Funny Girl" to "2001"--are now considered bad investments. And, most of all, studios have altered first-run distribution, having moved away from downtown exclusive releases to multiple bookings in new "twin cinemas" in middle-class neighborhood shopping malls. Downtown theaters have begun to cater to a mostly black audience, at least in heavily black cities--thus far to diminishing returns.

Hollywood had begun to acknowledge black themes by the mid-'60s, and there were an increasing number of visible black actors, including superstar Sidney Poitier. But the output of black-content pictures of the era's last few years yielded little success. Poitier's "The Lost Man" (1969), a remake of Irish rebellion-themed "Odd Man Out"; "Tick, Tick, Tick" (1970), an "In the Heat of the Night"-style thriller with action hero Jim Brown; and the movie of the Broadway hit "The Great White Hope" (1970), with original lead James Earl Jones as boxing champ Jack Johnson, among others, were all flops.

Nor did the movies show any special popularity among black audiences. Indeed, there never seemed to be much of a black demographic for Hollywood. And then out of nowhere, "Sweet Sweetback" arrived.

Its creator, Melvin Van Peebles, was no novice. He had done a critically acclaimed French interracial love story, "The Story of a Three Day Pass" (1968), and a flawed but outrageous "race change" comedy for Columbia, "Watermelon Man" (1970). "Sweetback," however, was a radical departure, made on a shoestring with money he raised himself promising some backers a porno film, which the opening resembles. With a schlock distributor called Cinemation (whom he later sued), he promoted his movie--about a pimp who blows away two white racist cops and runs for his life--exclusively to urban black audiences. He created a campaign including ads that not only sold the films as pro-black, but as anti-white. He even embraced the MPAA's X rating. "This is the movie the Man doesn't want you to see. Rated X by an all-white jury!"

"Sweetback" initially attracted few whites. Its huge grosses were exclusively black. And, to that young, urban audience the picture was an event, generating the kind of repeat business that would be unknown to Hollywood first-runs until "Star Wars."

Discovering a New Source of Business

"Sweetback" was a gold mine, a franchise, an entree to a new source of business. MGM already had "Shaft" in production in New York during "Sweetback's" run. Based on a slight novel about a black private eye by white author-scriptwriter Ernest Tidyman, it was given to the renowned black photographer-turned-director Gordon Parks for "authenticity."

John Shaft, P.I., was a stand-up guy from a genre of stand-up guys. Newcomer Richard Roundtree had a winning smile and a lot of charm, and his new take on an action hero had much to do with the film's success. Unlike the virtually silent Sweetback, Shaft was outspoken, especially to the cops, traditional nemeses to all private investigators and urban blacks. Yet he could gain the confidence of the only nonracist guy on the force and work with him in a private alliance.

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