Blaxploitation was a cultural film explosion. Between 1970 and 1980, there were over 200 films released by major and independent studios which touted major black characters and themes demonstrating they had enough of "The Man." Blaxploitation films crossed all movie genre borders. There were dramas, comedies, spaghetti westerns, cops and robbers, shoot 'em ups, love and horror stories.
Before 1970 blacks were perceived as train porters, waitresses and shoe-shine boys. All of that changed in 1971 with Melvin Van Peebles' groundbreaking film, Sweetback's Baadassss Song. Sweetback was the first "commercially successful" black-theme film that showed a black man coming out on top over the white establishment.
Today, both film scholars and students can't talk about cutting edge contemporary black directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton, Bill Duke and Reginald Hudlin without paying homage to Van Peebles.
And if Van Peebles is the forerunner to black theme pictures, Gordon Park's Shaft ('71) underlined, punctuated and ushered in the genre. Shaft screamed, "Hey everybody, blacks can be tough action heroes like Eastwood, Connery and Bronson."
Black heroes were needed in the '70s because the media was busy portraying blacks as revolutionaries and militants. Shaft, and other films that followed like Across 110th Street ("73), showed that blacks are tall, dark and handsome. It was blaxploitation that turned Fred Willamson, Pam Grier, Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree into icons long before Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Denzel Washington and Ice-T ever thought about taking a screen test.
The term blaxploitation both helped and killed the genre. While many blaxploitation films were box office successes, they also fueled the public's perception of blacks as cold-hearted heroes, gangsters, drug dealers, pimps and thugs. Black actors were being exploited by playing these roles. During the '70s and '80s Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood were playing the same type of characters, but it took film critics 30 years to finally ask, "Shouldn't the Eastwood and Bronson films be called "white exploitation?"
There were films like The Mack ('73) and Superfly ('72) which romanticized drug use and guns. However, there were also tender films like The Leaning Tree ('69) and comedies like A Piece Of The Action ('77) that were painted by the same negative Blaxploitation brush.
Many of the so called blaxploitation films are available on tape and should be revisited by film lovers and those interested in exploring the genre. A good starting place is Pulp Fiction's director Quentin Tarantino's homage to the blaxploitation genre, Jackie Brown ('98) starring Pam Grier.