What is blaxploitation? Blaxploitation refers to a genre, a film movement, and an important period of cinema history. In this post, we’ll define Blaxploitation, explain the historical context, look at the most important films of the movement, and even take a look at the status of this genre and style in our modern film industry.
What is a blaxploitation film?
First, let’s define Blaxploitation
The term ‘Blaxploitation’ could sound like a negative label if you have never heard of it before but the term is predominantly used with love and admiration for the film movement of the 1970s, though there are some detractors.
If you encounter any other unfamiliar terms throughout this article, our ultimate guide to filmmaking terminology is a great resource for looking them up. Now without further ado, let’s define blaxploitation.
What is Blaxploitation?
Blaxploitation refers primarily to a wave of independently produced genre films of the early 1970s. The name is a portmanteau of ‘black’ and ‘exploitation.’ Blaxploitation films were produced independently and, typically, with extremely low budgets. Black-exploitation films were predominantly made by black crews for black audiences, though more widespread appeal around the world was found. Crime, sex, drugs, and racial tensions were common subjects for Blaxploitation movies.
Under the Black-exploitation umbrella, all major genres of film can be found from action to horror, to musical. The term Blaxploitation is one of many exploitation subgenres that were popular in grindhouse theaters of the ‘70s such as ozsploitation, hixploitation, and teensploitation amongst dozens of others.
What are Blaxploitation films?
- Made by black filmmakers for black audiences
- Independently produced and cheaply made
- Covered the gamut of genres from comedy to horror
The historical context of Blaxploitation
The Blaxploitation movement was born as a genre within the broader grindhouse film era. Grindhouses were theaters that played films that other, “more respectable” theaters would not, often featuring exploitation films and sometimes pornography. As grindhouses grew more popular, especially in large cities like NYC, the number of grindhouse subgenres ballooned to unmanageable sizes. Grindhouse films were often shot fast and cheap and the level of quality fluctuated greatly from production to production.
The genre burst onto the scene with the one-two punch of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft from directors Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks respectively. In the months and years following, there was explosive growth in the number of Blaxploitation movies being made. Dozens of Blaxploitation films were shot concurrently and released quickly one after another throughout the early 1970s.
The demand for Blaxploitation films was high, and a brief golden age was experienced before the rabid interest eventually waned.
Blaxploitation films often explored similar themes of crime, fighting back against “the man,” and black American life and struggles of the time, but the films were not confined by style or genre. Films like Blacula and Ganja and Hess explored the horror genre through the Blaxploitation lens while films like Dolemite infused over-the-top comedy into the crime/action storyline. These were some of the most important films of the Blaxploitation era.
Empowering new voices
Black exploitation might sound like black filmmakers and actors were being exploited, and there is some debate over the matter, but most agree that the movement was a powerful and important one in retrospect. A number of directors emerged during this period and went on to enjoy long-lasting careers after the official end of the era.
Blaxploitation movies were made by black filmmakers with black actors for black audiences. These films provided the first on-screen opportunities for audiences to see black characters presented as the heroes taking down white villains. Detractors of the Blaxploitation genre considered the film movement harmful, mainly for perpetuating and furthering stereotypes.
The NAACP joined forces with the National Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. This organization called for an end to the genre by the late 1970s and was successful in doing so.
A number of Blaxploitation films are available on YouTube for free, including the Pam Grier-led Friday Foster.
Fresh creative voices were able to forge their own platforms for telling the stories they wanted to tell in the way they wanted to tell them. The explosion of these films of the early 1970s established a cinematic voice for a community and a generation that had been severely muzzled in mainstream cinema up to that point.
Modern blaxploitation meaning
While true Blaxploitation cinema is thoroughly rooted in the explosive years of the early 1970s, a number of modern filmmakers continue to carry the torch set ablaze by those early pioneers. The Blaxploitation genre has changed a great deal over the years but modern Blaxploitation films do still find life, mostly by paying homage to the originals of the 1970s.
The novel Jackie Brown was adapted from Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, and featured a white heroine by the name of Jackie Birch.
But Tarantino saw it as an opportunity to tribute the films of old and cast one of the biggest stars of the genre, Pam Grier.
Some of the old Blaxploitation classics are kept alive in the zeitgeist through reboots and remakes, sometimes out of a love for the original, and sometimes out of more cynical, purely-monetary motivations.
Shaft has been rebooted with Samuel L. Jackson, more than once, and Superfly recently received a reboot of its own.
Though it wasn’t a Blaxploitation film itself, the 2019 Netflix-original Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite Is My Name shined a fresh spotlight on the work of a Blaxploitation hero, and introduced new viewers to the iconic character.
Perhaps the best Blaxploitation film made in recent years has been Black Dynamite, a film that serves as both a parody and a love-letter to black exploitation cinema as a whole.
Michael Jai White is at the top of his game in the lead role and the entire film is hilarious from start to finish.
Genre-defining Blaxploitation films
Now that you have an understanding of what Blaxploitation cinema is, it’s the perfect time to familiarize yourself with the best films of the genre. Next up, check out our list of the most important Blaxploitation films that defined the genre and created a cultural phenomenon.