In the early ’70s, blaxploitation upended Hollywood stereotypes
Melvin Van Peebles, director of the controversial ghetto epic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971, gets credit, willing or not, for inaugurating the blaxploitation genre-low-budget action movies aimed at black audiences. This period marked the first time in American film history that Hollywood had welcomed black talent with anything resembling enthusiasm.(…) The blaxploitation era, was brief, running roughly from 1971 to 1975, its impact would range far and wide.Sweet Sweetback introduced the biggest and baddest buck of the bunch. Warts and all, the film is perhaps the closest analogy to the progressive aims of the then-flourishing Black Arts movement. Indeed, it can be argued that because it was written, produced and directed by an American-born African outside of Hollywood, the film is not truly part of the blaxploitation genre, yet it cannot be denied that it shares certain thematic similarities.
Though lambasted by critics when it was released, Sweet Sweetback is now considered a marred masterpiece by some. The fact that a black man met violence with violence, was openly sexual, and triumphed over a corrupt white system was a signal event in film. Yet perhaps its most “revolutionary” aspect is that Sweet Sweetback was an uncompromising effort made outside Hollywood’s stultifying good-old-white-boys’ system, setting an example for future auteurs like Spike Lee and Robert Townsend. The blaxploitation films that followed, such as Superfly (1972), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974) and Friday Foster (1975), were colorful if less successful takeoffs on the superbad ghetto rebel theme.
Coffy, Foxy Brown and Friday Foster (1975) represent the feminization of nihilistic studliness. As noted in Donald Bogle’s compelling interpretation of black film history, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammys and Bucks, Hollywood had for decades marginalized and distorted the portrayal of African women. In film after film, black women were depicted as either stout, obsequiously devoted appendages to flighty white women (e.g. Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind) with no discernible lives of their own, or tragic figures, doomed by their mixed racial heritage (Lena Horne in Stormy Weather). With the arrival of blaxploitation, black women traded in the old stereotypes for a set of new ones. Gone were the girthy, saucer-eyed asexual creatures of yore; the new stars were curvaceous and statuesque women who flaunted their sexuality and took shit from no one.
In her starring roles in Coffy, Foxy Brown and Friday Foster, Pam Grier proved to be the most durable queen of colored B-movies. Unlike her buckish counterparts, Grier’s characters were motivated by high-minded moralism. Running the neighborhood like it was her private domain, Grier’s women feared no man, and were thus interpreted by some as a beacon of proto-feminism.
In the end, it became apparent that U.S. Africans as a group found the limitations of the genre too obvious to ignore; the price for cheering on putative black heroes was simply too high. Almost as suddenly as they arrived, blaxploitation’s supervixens and bucks would soon limp off the set, gone but not forgotten.
By Nicky Baxter