I never liked the word- Blaxploitation. I always thought it was invented to disrespect the movies that came out during that time. Look back at the body of movies that came out during that time and compare them to the images of Black people in the decades preceding it, and you can see how it was almost revolutionary. We went from being just maids and servants and slaves to where we were the heroes and villains of the movie. Some of the most creative Black minds tried different things during that time and brought their differing visions to the people. Not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera – writing, directing, and musical talents.
So, this week, we’re going to celebrate Blaxploitation Movies.
Blaxploitation or blacksploitation is a film genre that emerged in the United States in the 1970s. It is considered an ethnic subgenre of the general category of exploitation films. Blaxploitation films were originally made specifically for an urban black audience, although the genre’s audience appeal soon broadened across racial and ethnic lines. The term itself is a portmanteau of the words “black” and “exploitation,” following upon the briefly-common usage “sexploitation” for porn-inflected films, and was coined in the early 1970s by the Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) head, and ex-film publicist Junius Griffin. Blaxploitation films were the first to regularly feature soundtracks of funk and soul music as well as primarily black casts. Variety credited Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, released in 1971, with the invention of the blaxploitation genre while others argue that the Hollywood-financed film Shaft, also released in 1971, is closer to being a blaxploitation piece and thus is more likely to have begun the trend.
Stereotypes[edit source | edit]
The genre’s role in exploring and shaping race relations in the US has been controversial. While some held that the Blaxploitation trend was a token of black empowerment, the movies were accused by others of perpetuating common white stereotypes about black people. As a result, many called for the end of the genre. The NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and National Urban League joined together to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Through their influence, during the late 1970s, they contributed to the demise of the genre.
Blaxploitation films such as Mandingo (1975) provided mainstream Hollywood producers, in this case Dino De Laurentiis, a cinematic way to depict plantation slavery, with all of its brutal, historical and ongoing racial contradictions and controversies, including sex, miscegenation, rebellion and so on. In addition, the story world depicts the plantation as one of the main origins of boxing as a sport in the U.S. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new wave of acclaimed black filmmakers focused on black urban life in their movies, particularly Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, among others. These films made use of elements of Blaxploitation, but also incorporated implicit criticism of the genre’s glorification of stereotypical “criminal” behavior.
Two of my favorites, including Ossie Davis’ directorial debut: Cotton Comes to Harlem…along with its sequel, Come Back Charleston Blue.
Cotton Comes to Harlem is a 1970 blaxploitation film co-written and directed by Ossie Davis and starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, and Redd Foxx: it is based on Chester Himes’ novel of the same name. The opening theme, “Ain’t Now But It’s Gonna Be” was written by Ossie Davis and performed by Melba Moore.
Reverend Deke O’Malley (Calvin Lockhart) arrives to fanfare at a rally in Harlem. Meanwhile, two Harlem detectives, Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and “Coffin” Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) catch a pickpocket, Early Riser, among the crowd and run him off. The Reverend is selling shares in a Back-to-Africa movement ship to be called The Black Beauty. Uncle Budd (Redd Foxx) doesn’t have the $100 minimum down payment, but the Reverend accepts his $20 for a share. Some men from the District Attorney’s office arrive and ask the Reverend to come downtown. The Reverend agrees to leave as several masked gunman jump out a meat truck and begin shooting. They steal $87,000 in cash from the back of an armored car. The Reverend and two assistants chase the meat truck in the armored car; the detectives chase them both in their car. A bale of cotton falls out of the during the chase. The detectives lose them avoiding some youngsters in the street. Riser is hit by the meat truck while fleeing a pickpocketing attempt, which causes the truck and armored car to crash.
The detectives go to the Reverend’s girlfriend, Iris Brown (Judy Pace). Iris is roughed up by Ed, but she won’t talk. Patrolman Jarema arrives and says Lt., Anderson wants the detectives at the crash site. They tell Jarema to stay and watch Iris. Ed recognizes Early Riser’s corpse at the crash site as Gravedigger finds raw cotton in the meat truck. The detectives leave to find Lo Boy (Cleavon Little), Riser’s junkie partner, who tells them he saw Barry Waterfield run away from the crash, chased by white men wearing masks. Digger wants to know how Lo Boy knows they were white if they were masked. “They run white, dammit,” Lo Boy says.
Iris tricks Jarema and gets away. She meets Billie, who is practicing at the Apollo Theater, and Barry, her boyfriend. The Reverend is hiding out with Mrs. Mabel Hill, the wife of one of the people killed during the robbery. Mrs. Hill tells the Reverend she overheard two white officers discussing a reward for a bale of cotton. Mrs. Hill tries to kiss the Reverend just as Iris enters, starting a fight. Iris bashes Mabel over the head. The Reverend knocks Iris unconscious, and leaves through the window as someone begins pounding at the door.
Gravedigger demands that Caspar Brown, a number runner, take him to his Italian mafia boss. They meet Ed at a Chinese restaurant with an Italian mafioso. The mafioso claims he had nothing to do with the robbery, as $87,000 isn’t enough money to be worth angering the whole black community.
Uncle Budd has found the bale of cotton and sells it for $25 to Abe Goodman, a junk dealer. A “white man” (J.D. Cannon) comes by Budd’s place looking to buy a bale. Barry is with Budd and scares the white man off. Barry meets the Reverend in a pool hall and tells the Reverend where the bale of cotton is as Digger and Ed watch them from outside. At the junkyard, the Reverend and company search for the cotton as the detectives watch from above. As Ed sneaks down, the masked robbers arrive. A gun fight begins, leaving 6 dead. The Reverend and the remaining robbers flee. Goodman is summoned to be questioned by the police. Goodman says that Budd sold him a bale of cotton, but bought it back later for $30.
The Reverend returns, and the police arrest him. Iris is already in custody, and she has already told the police that the men from the D.A.’s office were fake; that the Reverend would use his trip downtown as cover to disappear with the cash; and that the robbery foiled his plans. Iris has told the police the Reverend hit Mabel. A patrolman informs the detectives and Anderson that Uncle Budd “has been found.” However the next scene shows the police at the junk yard – which is by the river – where they discuss the need to dredge it for Budd’s body, indicating they don’t know where Budd is. They nevertheless discuss Budd’s brutal murder.
A minor riot begins to erupt outside the police station, but the detectives promise to recover the missing money and send everyone home. An attorney arrives with a court order to release the Reverend. As the Reverend exits the jail, some men convince the Reverend to leave with them instead, as they know the Reverend is looking for a “white man” and “a bale of cotton.” The detectives decide they need bait to catch O’Malley again. Iris escapes from jail, heads back to the theater to find the Reverend tied up by Calhoun, the “white man.” Calhoun believes the Reverend has double crossed him and has the money. A sound alerts Calhoun that someone has followed Iris. Two henchman investigate the sounds with Calhoun. Iris threatens the Reverend with a broken glass bottle, but he convinces her to reach into his coat pocket.
Upstairs, the detectives have captured and gagged Calhoun’s henchmen. They shoot at Calhoun, who charges back downstairs. The detectives only find a smiling Iris wearing a new engagement ring. Digger quickly discovers a secret panel in the room and pursues the two men. Iris finds a gun in the room, takes it, and leaves. At the police station, Bryce realizes that the detectives aided Iris’s escape and sends Jarema after them.
At the Apollo, Billie performs on stage atop the bale during a production of Cotton Comes to Harlem. Iris watches from the crowd as Calhoun and the Reverend go on stage after the bale. The Reverend betrays Calhoun, telling the crowd Calhoun stole the money. The crowd attacks Calhoun, but Digger saves and handcuffs him. The Reverend goes after the bale in the prop room, but Ed is waiting for him. Ed beats the Reverend until Iris enters and shoots at Ed. Digger and Jarema surprise Iris and handcuff her. The Reverend runs to the stage and addresses the crowd. Bloody and disoriented, he attacks the children who are on stage to get their microphone. The crowd abandons him as he pleads for them not to leave him.
Back at the police station, Jarema can’t find the money in the bale. Ed and Digger threaten to replace the mafioso with “black capitalists” like Caspar unless he replaces the money, which Anderson then finds in the bale. Jarema insists the money must have been planted after his search, perhaps by Ed and Digger.
Ed and Digger laugh over a postcard from Uncle Budd, who is alive. Budd has retired to Africa with the original $87,000, surrounded by beautiful, and mostly naked, women.
Broadway star Ossie Davis’s rollicking first film, adapted from Chester Himes’s 1965 novel, was shot in Harlem during the spring of 1969, with extensive neighborhood participation and an almost entirely black cast headed by Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge (both playing cops) with Calvin Lockhart stealing the movie as their nemesis, a bogus preacher.
Come Back Charleston Blue is a 1972 film starring Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques, loosely based on Chester Himes’ novel The Heat’s On. It is a sequel to the 1970 film Cotton Comes to Harlem.
Coffin Ed Johnson & Gravedigger Jones are confounded by a string of strange murders in the neighborhood of Harlem, New York. The murders themselves aren’t nearly as bizarre as the calling card left by the murderer: a blue steel straight razor. Legend has it that this was the calling card of Charleston Blue, a vigilante who tried to rid the neighborhood of all criminal elements using a straight razor. Blue, having disappeared years ago after he went after Dutch Schultz (with his trusty straight razor) was considered dead by all except his girlfriend, who kept his razors locked away until his “come back.”
Soon after the murders began it is discovered that the razors were missing and all evidence points to Joe Painter, a local photographer, who has begun dating Carol, the beloved niece of mafia errand boy, Caspar Brown. Joe and Brown are at odds over Caspar’s refusal to help Joe kick the mafia out of the neighborhood, so Joe enlists the help of a group of brothers and the spirit of Charleston Blue. However, Coffin Ed Johnson & Gravedigger Jones discover that Joe’s plan doesn’t seem to be exactly what he claimed it was.
All tracks written by Donny Hathaway except “Little Ghetto Boy” (Earl DuRouen / Edward Howard) and “Come Back Charleston Blue” (Al Cleveland / Donny Hathaway / Quincy Jones).
Another good one set in Harlem was Across 110th Street
Across 110th Street is a 1972 American crime drama film starring Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, and Anthony Franciosa, and directed by Barry Shear. Commonly associated with the blaxploitation genre at the time, it has received considerable critical praise from writer Greil Marcus and others for surpassing the limitations of that genre.
This film is set in Harlem, of which 110th Street is an informal boundary line.
By-the-book African-American Lieutenant William Pope (Kotto) has to work with crude, racist but streetwise Italian-American Captain Frank Mattelli (Quinn) in the NYPD’s 27th precinct. They are looking for three black men who slaughtered seven men—three black gangsters and two Italian gangsters, as well as two patrol officers—in the robbery of $300,000 from a Mafia-owned Harlem policy bank. Mafia lieutenant Nick D’Salvio (Franciosa) and his two henchmen are also after the hoods.
In one of many violent scenes, D’Salvio finds getaway driver Henry J. Jackson (Antonio Fargas) and brutalizes him in a Harlem whorehouse.
The movie was filmed on location in Harlem, New York. The film is also notable as being the first feature film to use a self-blimped camera (the Arriflex 35BL) for sync sound; the much-reduced size of the camera allowed the production to not only use more hand-held shots and smaller locations than normal, but also record usable sound at the same time – an endeavor not previously possible under those circumstances.