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?
This promise was short-lived, however, since Pryor was never able to capture the energy that had typified his performances before he went mainstream. The R-rated Pryor of the '70s seemed to give way to a more gentrified PG version in the '80s, now that he had made the transition to mainstream Hollywood. By the time Pryor was going mainstream, the genre known as blaxploitation had gone dark.
The Rebirth of a Genre
Ultimately, the merits of blaxploitation would be judged by the way future generations responded to the genre. Would blaxploitation live a second life, or was it doomed to be swept away in the ash pile of '70s history?
Well, by the late '80s, rappers began appropriating the personas of various blaxploitation characters and sampling dialogue from famous scenes in their music. With a strong boost from hip-hop, the celebrated sound tracks of the blaxploitation era would start to be sampled regularly and then re-released on compact disc.
By the early '90s, a new generation of black filmmakers would be referencing the blaxploitation era with films like New Jack City (1991) and Dead Presidents (1995), telling their own contemporary urban cinematic tales. Quentin Tarantino, Hollywood's most celebrated new auteur from the '90s, would devote significant screen time to various blaxploitation themes in films like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and, especially, his homage to the era, Jackie Brown (1997), which starred blaxploitation's looming female icon, Pam Grier.
Blaxploitation has been so significant over the years that it birthed a second genre, one we might call the blaxploitation parody. Beginning with Keenen Ivory Wayan's I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), and on to Undercover Brother (2002) and, most recently, Black Dynamite (2009), the comedy to be mined from blaxploitation's over-the-top style and off-the-chain attitude continues to produce laughs long after the original era has passed.
Some of the best examples of blaxploitation influence can be found in films like John Singleton's remake of Shaft (2000) and in Mario Van Peebles' Baadasssss! (2004), a film that dramatizes his father Melvin's efforts in making Sweetback.
Passing the torch from one generation to the next allowed blaxploitation to live on long past what many thought was its expiration date. Though many want to dismiss blaxploitation, for all its strengths and flaws, this body of work still represents one of the most sustained periods of black cinematic production in Hollywood history. In 1971, few imagined that we would be talking about Sweetback and the era it influenced 40 years hence, but here we are, still reppin'. I suspect that someone will be doing the same 40 years from now. Can you dig it?
Todd Boyd, PhD is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture, and professor of critical studies, in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He is the author of The Notorious Ph.D.'s Guide to the Super Fly '70s; his blog is Notorious Ph.D.