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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Pam Grier’s Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), along with Tamara Dobson’s Cleopatra Jones (1973), would foreground the powerful women of the era, who merged sexuality with an Angela Davis-like consciousness in bringing down all manner of evil. Movies like Blacula (1972); the sequel, Scream Blacula Scream (1973); and J.D.’s Revenge (1976) would link blackness to the horror film, while other titles, like Mandingo (1975) and Drum (1976), would serve as blaxploitation’s revisionist history of slavery.

Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary (1979) took the genre to prison. Blue comedian Rudy Ray Moore turned his bawdy oral toasts into hilarious cinematic gems of the lowest order with films like Dolemite (1975), The Human Tornado (1976) and Petey Wheatstraw (1977).

One of the biggest surprises of the era was the release and subsequent disappearance of Ivan Dixon’s film The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973). The film features a black protagonist who, after being selected for the CIA, learns its methods of covert warfare and then uses those methods to start a revolution in the streets of Chicago.

Originally released as one of the many blaxploitation films of the mid-1970s, The Spook quickly disappeared from theaters, causing many to suspect that government forces had pulled the film from theaters because of its incendiary political nature. After all, there has long been a racist assumption, going back to the days of Jack Johnson’s fight films, that black people were unable to distinguish fact from fiction and could be manipulated into imitating what they saw on-screen.

Fade to Black

Though blaxploitation began as something potentially empowering, the genre, with Hollywood’s mercenary involvement, eventually became a series of repetitive images, devoid of any political substance. Schlock like The Black Six (1973) — starring NFL stars Gene Washington, Mean Joe Greene, Willie Lanier, Mercury Morris, Carl Eller and Lem Barney — which billed itself as “Six times tougher than Shaft! Six times rougher than Super Fly!” was a laughable motorcycle-gang film that could be said to typify the genre at its worst.

At a certain point, blaxploitation films began to decline in both substance and number. Hollywood had regained its footing after some financial struggles in the early part of the decade. With the release of films like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), Hollywood had discovered new revenue streams and no longer needed the chump-change profits that came from making low-budget black movies that had played so well in urban areas.

Richard Pryor, arguably the greatest stand-up comedian of all time, had made several scene-stealing turns in films like The Mack (1973), Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Car Wash (1976). But by the late ’70s, he was a star in his own right, and his move into mainstream movie stardom seemed to signal that black representation in Hollywood was now poised to go to the next level.