Melvin Van Peebles: Then
As the writer, producer, director and star of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), a film about a black man fleeing the law, Van Peebles is considered the godfather of the blaxploitation genre.
Melvin Van Peebles: Now
At 78, Van Peebles is still hard at work. He's been the subject of two films: his son Mario Van Peebles' 2004 film Baadasssss! about the making of the 1971 classic, and 2005's How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It). Most recently, the New Yorker completed a film, Confessions of a Ex-Doofus-Itchy Footed Mutha, which was screened at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival; published a graphic novel by the same name; and staged a musical version of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
Ron O'Neal: Then
Super Fly is synonymous with blaxploitation — and O'Neal's Youngblood Priest, the hipper-than-hip drug dealer who longs to go straight, was a quintessential figure in a genre known for its over-the-top characters.
Ron O'Neal: After
He might be forever known as Youngblood Priest, but O'Neal held several notable roles after the blaxploitation era came to an end. In 1982 he was a regular on the series Bring 'Em Back Alive, and he co-starred as Cuban Officer Colonel Bella in 1984's Red Dawn. Later he would have small roles as Synclaire's father on Living Single and Whitley Gilbert's dad on A Different World. Sadly, O'Neal died of pancreatic cancer in 2004 — on the same day Super Fly came out on DVD in the U.S.
Antonio Fargas: Then
The go-to supporting actor of blaxploitation, Fargas appeared in Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown, Across 110th Street and Shaft.
Antonio Fargas: Now
Fargas had an active career in blaxploitation flicks, but he's best known for a role he landed in the mid-'70s — Huggy Bear on the TV show Starsky and Hutch. He hasn't stopped since. The 64-year-old has had a steady career of cameos and guest appearances and was a recurring character on Everybody Hates Chris.
Yaphet Kotto: Then
The Cameroonian-American actor made a name for himself in mainstream movies such as The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968 and the 1973 James Bond movie Live and Let Die. But he earned his blaxploitation cred in Across 110th Street and Truck Turner with Isaac Hayes.
Yaphet Kotto: Now
Kotto went on to appear in a number of films, including 1979's Alien, and he played Lt. Al Giardello on the critically acclaimed TV drama Homicide: Life on the Street.
Bill Cosby: Then
He was a buttoned-up 1960s agent in I Spy, a successful stand-up comedian, a Tonight Show guest host and the star of an eponymous TV show before blaxploitation films even came into existence. Nevertheless, he was a prominent figure of the era, secretly helping to finance Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and starring in the 1974 star-studded comedy Uptown Saturday Night, a lighthearted answer to violent blaxploitation dramas, as well as Let's Do It Again (1975) and A Piece of the Action (1977).
Bill Cosby: Now
And the rest is history. Bill Cosby went on to become Bill Cosby, the man responsible for Heathcliff Huxtable. He's also known for being a prominent philanthropist and, in more recent years, an outspoken critic of some segments of the black community.
Vonetta McGee: Then
The leading lady of blaxploitation, McGee made movies that are on the must-watch list for any student of 1970s black films — Hammer, Blacula, Melinda and Shaft in Africa, in which she plays an emir's daughter and the love interest of Richard Roundtree's Shaft.
Vonetta McGee: After
McGee continued to act in movies and held recurring roles in several 1980s TV shows, most notably Cagney & Lacey and L.A. Law. Black August (2007), starring Gary Dourdan, is the last film McGee appeared in before she died of cardiac arrest in 2010.
Billy Dee Williams: Then
A popular leading man opposite Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and Mahogany (1975), Williams also starred in lesser-known flicks like 1973's Hit! and 1972's The Final Comedown (aka Blast). The titles alone are blaxploitation all the way!
Billy Dee Williams: Now
Although he did some prominent work in the 1970s, it was his jobs in the 1980s that put him on the map, from his 1980 role in Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back to a recurring job on Dynasty to, of course, his infamous Colt 45 ads. Williams still appears on TV and in film; in 2011, he guest-starred on USA's White Collar.
Sidney Poitier: Then
The acclaimed actor — in 1963 he was the first black man to win the best actor Oscar, for Lilies of the Field — earned his blaxploitation cred with 1974's Uptown Saturday Night, which he directed and co-starred in with his friends Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte. He also directed and starred in Let's Do It Again and A Piece of the Action.
Sidney Poitier: Now
Poitier would go on to direct several more films, including the 1980 Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder hit, Stir Crazy. One of our most respected living actors, he earned an honorary Oscar for his contributions to American film in 2001 and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. The Bahamian-American actor currently serves as the Bahamas' ambassador to Japan.
Curtis Mayfield: Then
A successful R&B singer in the 1960s, Mayfield reached superstardom with his sound track for the movie Super Fly. Rife with social commentary and criticism of the film's characters, the album might as well be the sound track for the entire blaxploitation era. He also wrote and produced the sound track for 1974's Claudine, the vocals of which were performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and for the 1976 film Sparkle, with Aretha Franklin on vocals.
Curtis Mayfield: After
In 1990 Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down in an onstage accident. While he couldn't play the guitar, he continued to write, produce and sing. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, shortly before his death.
Jimmie Walker: Then
Best known for his hammy character J.J. Evans on Good Times, Walker also appeared with his TV dad, John Amos, in the Cosby-Poitier buddy flick Let's Do It Again.
Jimmie Walker: Now
When Good Times ended in '79, Walker went back to his stand-up comedy roots and has been a fixture on TV, with cameos on such shows as The Love Boat, Cagney & Lacey, Scrubs and Everybody Hates Chris. An outspoken conservative, Walker is famously chummy with Republican commentator Ann Coulter.
Judy Pace: Then
Pace's big break was the role of Vickie Fletcher on the 1960s prime-time soap Peyton Place, but she also starred in the Ossie Davis-directed blaxploitation film Cotton Comes to Harlem, based on a Chester Himes novel.
Judy Pace: Now
Like many popular black actors of the '70s, Pace would land guest spot after guest spot on popular TV shows in the '80s and '90s. She met baseball player Curt Flood on an episode of The Dating Game, and they were married from 1986 until his death in 1997. She most recently appeared alongside Anthony Mackie in the Spike Lee-directed 2004 Showtime movie Sucker Free City.
Richard Roundtree: Then
An icon of the blaxploitation era, Roundtree made waves as the title character in the 1971 flick Shaft, about a badass detective with few scruples. Over the next three years, he would also star in two Shaft sequels — Shaft's Big Score! and Shaft in Africa — as well as a Shaft TV series.
Richard Roundtree: Now
Since his turn as Shaft, Roundtree has had no shortage of work, appearing in a steady stream of films and TV shows — including recurring roles on A Different World, Beauty and the Beast, Roc, Soul Food, Desperate Housewives and Heroes. In 1993 Roundtree was diagnosed with a rare form of male breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. He now speaks out about his experience to raise awareness of the little-known disease.
Jim Kelly: Then
Kelly's niche? Martial arts-themed blaxploitation movies such as Melinda, Black Belt Jones and Three the Hard Way, which were largely inspired by the karate master's appearance in the 1973 Bruce Lee hit Enter the Dragon. Kelly, a middle-weight karate champion who opened his own dojo in L.A. in 1971, also trained his co-star, Calvin Lockhart, for the fight scenes in Melinda.
Jim Kelly: Now
After the martial arts blaxploitation moment passed (nothing lasts forever), Kelly switched back to his first love: sports. The accomplished athlete went on to become a professional player on the senior tennis circuit. He now works as a tennis coach and is still a popular attraction at conventions such as San Diego's annual Comic-Con.
Pam Grier: Then
When you think of blaxploitation movies, you think of Grier — the first lady of the genre and the ultimate '70s sex symbol. The trailer for her 1973 film Coffy, for which she is widely credited as the first African-American female action star, advertises her character as the "baddest one-chick hit squad that ever hit town!" The tagline would prove true for her later iconic films, 1974's Foxy Brown and 1975's Friday Foster and Sheba, Baby.
Pam Grier: Now
With minor TV and film roles in the 1980s and early '90s, Grier might have gone down simply as an answer to a film-trivia question. But then Quentin Tarantino tapped her for his 1997 film Jackie Brown, a hit that paid homage to her blaxploitation roots and spurred the revitalization of her career. Since then, Grier has played recurring roles on Law & Order: SVU and Showtime's The L Word. Last year she released a memoir called Foxy: My Life in Three Acts.
Jim Brown: Then
After his record-setting NFL career ended in the late '60s, Brown reinvented himself as an actor, starring in mainstream films such as The Dirty Dozen and in blaxploitation flicks Three the Hard Way and Take a Hard Ride, with fellow football player-turned-blaxploitation star Fred Williamson.
Jim Brown: Now
Brown has acted in several movies and TV shows, including Keenan Ivory Wayans' 1988 blaxploitation spoof I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. In 2002 Spike Lee directed a documentary about his life called Jim Brown: All American.
Denise Nicholas: Then
While Nicholas was starring in the early-1970s series Room 222, she was also forging a career in blaxploitation, with roles in Blacula (1972) and The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973).
Denise Nicholas: Now
After completing a six-year run on the TV series In the Heat of the Night in 1995, Nicholas enrolled in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. By 2005 her critically acclaimed first novel, Freshwater Road, had hit bookshelves. Nicholas won the 2006 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award for debut fiction and is now at work on her second novel.
Rudy Ray Moore: Then
As the inimitable Dolemite, stand-up comedian Moore amused (and shocked) a generation. The character, a pimp known for his one-liners, is as much a pop-culture reference as John Shaft and Youngblood Priest. Moore followed up his 1975 film the next year with a sequel, The Human Tornado.
Rudy Ray Moore: After
Moore would profit off of the legacy of Dolemite until his death in 2008. His X-rated style made him a hero of the rap community, and he made guest appearances on Big Daddy Kane, 2 Live Crew and Snoop Dogg albums. In 2000 he reprised his role as Dolemite for the first time in 20 years in Big Money Hustlas, a movie created by and starring the Insane Clown Posse.
Isaac Hayes: Then
Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft! And who is the man responsible for the famous Shaft theme song? Isaac Hayes! In addition to writing the well-known song, for which he won an Academy Award (making him the third African American to win an Oscar), Hayes also appeared in front of the camera as the star of the 1974 film Truck Turner.
Isaac Hayes: After
Hayes failed to recapture his music success of the early '70s and turned to acting in the '80s, appearing in Escape From New York (1981), I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). But he recaptured his pop-culture icon status with the critically acclaimed 1995 album Branded and a role as the horny chef on Comedy Central's South Park. The singer-actor, who was also known for his charity work, died of a stroke in 2008.
Gordon Parks: Then
Already an accomplished photographer (American Gothic, Washington, D.C.), author (The Learning Tree) and civil rights activist, Parks turned to film directing in the late 1960s and would direct Shaft in 1971, followed by several other blaxploitation films. He also helped finance Super Fly, which was directed by his son, Gordon Parks Jr.
Gordon Parks: After
Parks continued to write books and make movies, and in 1989 he composed the music for Martin, a ballet based on Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. He died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 93.
Tamara Dobson: Then
The statuesque model-actress, who posed in Vogue before making it in the movies, gave Pam Grier a run for her money in 1973's Cleopatra Jones, about a model-secret agent, and its 1975 sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.
Tamara Dobson: After
Dobson's career suffered after the blaxploitation heyday, and she appeared in few films and TV shows. At one point, there were rumors that a remake of Cleopatra Jones starring Whitney Houston was in the works, but the project never materialized. Dobson died in 2006 of complications from multiple sclerosis and pneumonia.
Max Julien: Then
A classically trained actor, Julien made a name for himself during the blaxploitation era with his star turn as Goldie in 1973's The Mack. He also wrote and co-produced another blaxploitation classic, Cleopatra Jones.
Max Julien: Now
Although his performance as Goldie lives on — his voice is sampled in countless rap songs — Julien left blaxploitation and, for the most part, film behind after Cleopatra Jones, refusing to participate in its sequel. Julien has lived off the radar since, save for a few guest appearances, including a notable role in the 1997 Bill Bellamy comedy How to Be a Player.
Calvin Lockhart: Then
Whether he was playing the shady Rev. Deke O'Mally in Cotton Comes to Harlem or the karate-kicking Frankie J. Parker in Melinda, the Bahamian-born actor was a fixture in popular blaxploitation films.
Calvin Lockhart: After
Lockhart returned to his native Bahamas in the 1990s, directing several stage productions there and starring in the 2007 film Rain. He died in 2007 of a stroke.
William Marshall: Then
Marshall had a delightfully campy turn in 1972's Blacula, about a 1780 African prince who is turned into a vampire after seeking Dracula's help in stopping the slave trade. He's sealed in a coffin until 1972. Shenanigans — and a spate of copycat blaxploitation horror flicks — ensue. Marshall also starred in a 1973 sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream.
William Marshall: After
A classically trained actor, Marshall followed Blacula with several TV roles but is perhaps best known as the King of Cartoons from 1986 to 1991 on the cult classic Pee-Wee's Playhouse. He died in 2003.