Michael Jai White remembers the first time he saw people onscreen who looked like they came from his 'hood. This was in an otherwise forgettable 1976 blaxploitation flick called "The Monkey Hustle" starring Yaphet Kotto and Rudy Ray Moore as street-smart con men trying to stop the Man from demolishing their neighborhood for a freeway project. It may not have been high art, but in its own sneaky way, "The Monkey Hustle" was truly glorious.
"It was just brash, unlike anything I'd ever seen," says White, the co-screenwriter and star of "Black Dynamite," a spoof of '70s-era black action pictures that opens Friday. "I remember these bigger-than-life characters, who reminded me of my uncles, and it was the first time I saw anything familiar in my life on the big screen."
Say what you will about the roughly 150 black action, horror and comedy films that came out between 1971 and 1976, the height of the blaxploitation era: that they were cheaply made, poorly acted, hyper-violent and glorified pimps, prostitutes, criminals and con men -- all those things are true, to a certain extent. But they were also utterly empowering, gobbled up by African American audiences desperate for strong, and recognizable, working-class heroes.
"These films made me feel proud in a way Sidney Poitier didn't; he was detached from the inner-city experience," says Josiah Howard, author of "Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide."
"These people spoke to me because they spoke like me, they looked like me, they had simple dreams like me," Howard says. "I came to these films as a young teen, and I could not believe I was seeing people like me, with big Afros, living in the ghetto. I thought, 'That's my life,' so it was uplifting for me."
"We needed heroes" at the time, agrees Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, who starred in "Black Caesar," "Hell Up in Harlem" and many other black action pictures. "Sidney Poitier was a great actor, but he did not fulfill the void of how some blacks interpreted their impact on society. We needed something to propel the masculinity of the black male, and black women were tired of the Aunt Jemima character. They had the same needs we did."
Before "Shaft," "Superfly," "Slaughter," "Coffy" and "Cleopatra Jones," in fact, Poitier was pretty much the only viable black film star, featured in roles in which he was often the African American version of a straight shooting -- and sexless -- Boy Scout. Then in 1971, along came writer-director Melvin Van Peebles, whose independently produced and distributed "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," about a street hustler on the run from the law, grossed a then-astonishing $4 million (about $21 million in today's dollars).
Right after that, the studio-produced "Shaft" upped the ante with a $12 million gross ($63 million today), which opened the floodgates to scores of films made for black audiences, starring black actors and often written and directed by black talent.
"These were simply films that would appeal to a black audience," says Jack Hill, who directed "Coffy," "Foxy Brown" and other films of the era. "The producers felt if you made a film for a certain budget [usually under $1 million], you were guaranteed to make a profit just from the black audience."
Yet even though they were often made as cheaply produced programmers, the B pictures of their era, blaxploitation films -- the term, a combination of black and exploitation, was coined by Junius Griffin, then head of the Los Angeles NAACP -- also captivated because of their ghetto style, talented casts -- Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier, Rosalind Cash, Paul Winfield, Bernie Casey, Robert Hooks -- and their willingness to take on contemporary social issues.
"They dealt with the universals of the time," Hill says. "The Vietnam War, that it was a racist operation, and the cannon fodder were blacks and Latinos. Also the social concern that there was still a lot of racism in the country, the kind that was not so overt. And of course your universal themes of love, hate, betrayal and revenge, the basic elements of drama, adapted to the black community."
Takin' it to the Man
White, whose film is about an African American superhero -- the Black Dynamite of the title -- tracking down a plot by the Man to quite literally shrink black male sexuality, sees his film as a sort of tip of the hat to that era, a way to declare his "love for the period," although as a comedy, "Black Dynamite" "has fun with films in general," White says. "It's funny to do it as a time capsule and lay in some jokes that are only funny when you're looking at them now. You look at the '70s, is there a more entertaining time? That time period was so alive. It was a great time for black people -- they went from their heads being bowed to being up and strong."
But it was a newfound strength sometimes taken to extremes.