Blaxploitation’s Baadasssss History

When Melvin Van Peebles released his X-rated, hyper-political Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971, few thought that it would spark a movie revolution. So what happened?

"Super Fly," "Coffy" and "Shaft"

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The film was directed by Gordon Parks, a true Renaissance man if ever there was one. Parks was an acclaimed photographer for Vogue and Life magazines, an author and a filmmaker even before he directed Shaft. He would go on to write novels, compose classical music and choreograph ballet, in addition to directing the sequel to Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score!, in 1972.

As with Sweetback, the sound track for Shaft would be an integral part of the film’s identity, with Isaac Hayes going on to win best original song for “Theme From Shaft” at the 1972 Academy Awards, after a noted performance at that year’s Oscars, wearing an unforgettable vest of chains over his bare chest. At the time, Hayes was only the third African American, after Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier, to win an Academy Award. Parks’ direction and Hayes’ score combined to create a truly spectacular opening scene in which Shaft walks through New York City like the soulful conquering hero and erstwhile man about town that he is.

Tryin’ to Get Over

The third component of the triple threat that made blaxploitation a reality was the 1972 release of the independently produced, Warner Bros.-distributed Super Fly, a film directed by Parks’ son Gordon Parks Jr. Here the militancy of Sweetback and the swag of Shaft found its place in the character of Youngblood Priest, a Harlem cocaine dealer in an especially tricked-out “hog” (Cadillac El Dorado), who is intent on making one last deal before getting out of the game on top.

If it were only that easy! Supplemented by Curtis Mayfield’s brilliant Greek chorus of a sound track, Super Fly forwarded a conscious existential dilemma that would showcase the dope dealer’s plight in truly political terms. Yet despite the film’s slept-on progressive politics, many came away simply absorbed in the ghetto-fabulous display of cars, clothes and cash.

Instead of prompting people to get out of the life as Priest had done, Super Fly often had the reverse effect, here serving as something of a recruiting tool for aspiring hustlers. Soon after Super Fly hit theaters, urban cats were donning perms and wearing coke spoons around their necks like their cinematic hero Priest. The lifestyle proved irresistible to many, and Hollywood was now ready to serve this newfound audience, much as Priest served his customers.

It was around this time that Junius Griffin, former film publicist and head of the Hollywood branch of the NAACP, would be credited with coining the controversial phrase “black exploitation” to describe these new cinematic offerings. In a polemic for the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in May 1973, Griffin writes, “We must tell black and white movie producers that the transformation from the stereotyped Step n’ Fetchit to super nigger on screen is just another form of cultural genocide.” He goes on to say, “We must insist that our children are not constantly exposed to a steady diet of so-called black movies that glorify black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters, and super males with vast physical powers but no cognitive skills.”

Pimpin’ the Genre

Though the debates about the cultural merits of these films would continue unabated, more and more blaxploitation films would start to be released at a much faster clip. There would be subgenres of the larger genre. Following the popularity of Iceberg Slim’s street novella Pimp, the silver screen would showcase pimp classics like The Mack (1973), Willie Dynamite (1974) and The Candy Tangerine Man (1975).