People are often surprised that one of my favorite eras of film is the Blaxploitation era. Marked by cheaply produced films featuring black casts, soundtracks and urban locations from 1971 to 1976, Blaxploitation films are a guilty pleasure. They are notorious for having bad acting, poor production values and tired story lines, but there is something magnetic about the films. Perhaps it’s the cool characters that are colorful — Think the Mack, Dolemite and Willie Dynamite; super bad — think John Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, Foxxy Brown; they are unapologetically unafraid of the man a.k.a. “Whitey” — think Black Caesar or Super Fly.
The soundtracks alone are bar none some of the greatest ever made — think Isaac Hayes and Shaft, Earth, Wind and Fire and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, James Brown’s Black Caesar and Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly soundtrack. They’re also cool because you get to see great performers like Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams, Lola Falana and Diana Sands grind, trying to make a name for themselves or stay relevant in the film world. Former professional athletes like Jim Brown, Bernie Casey and Fred Williamson are doing the same. Their standout performances in The Mack (1973), The Final Comedown (1972), Black Brigade (1970) and Willie Dynamite (1974) make all the stereotypical characterizations and narratives worthwhile.
Even when the films aren’t “watchable” like Falana’s Lady Cocoa (1975), her on-screen presence is so captivating that you cannot look away from the screen. Think Jim Kelly in Blackbelt Jones (1974) or Diana Sands in Willie Dynamite. Even Morgan Freeman starred in 1973’s Blade as a serial killer pimp. The talent in these films is undeniable — having the opportunity to see Diana Sands in her final role as a prostitute turned social worker in Willie Dynamite before succumbing to cancer. Her performance was dynamic, honorable and classy. Actors that might have been superstars in Hollywood if they had been white, achieved superstardom in this genre of film — think D’Urville Martin, Thalmus Rasulala, Julius Harris, Sheilah Frazier, Gloria Hendry, Antonio Fargas and Dick Anthony Williams.
Say what you will, blaxploitation films are problematic, but their staying power suggests that there is more than meets the eye.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is a media scholar that serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing.