Help or Hindrance? Blaxploitation and the Black Community
By Adquanita Curtis
So I was chilling at the house, letting Spotify take me on a lil shuffle journey when the theme song from Car Wash (not Uncle Snoops version, the original from 1976) came on. As I bopped I started thinking about the Blaxploitation Movement... so, in my Calhoun Tubbs voice, I wrote a blog about it. Like to read it? Here ya go!
Members of the Black community have endured a long and rather complicated history in the American film industry. Some of the first images of African-American women and men were relegated to demeaning stereotypical roles such as the Tragic Mulatta, Jezebel, Mandingo, and the most commonly used, Mammy. In the early days of the 20th century, films portrayed a wistful and idealized perception of life in the antebellum South. Because you know, white folk was holding on hella tight to the memories of the Civil War... so for them these images served as a means of creating some measure of reconciliation between the North and South by glorifying the image of the Old South and its “Lost Cause.” In an effort to hold on to days past, Black characters were more often than not portrayed as inept, child-like, extremely sexual, and criminal.
However, things began to change around the 1970s when opportunities opened up, giving African-American actors and filmmakers, across all mediums, the chance to partake in a wider range of cinematic roles and genres. Such as comedy, romance, action, and horror (yeah, we like this stuff too), which presented Black audiences with new and complex representations of their community. This was high-key due to a new genre of film known as blaxploitation (Google it!). The blaxploitation genre first appeared in American cinema during the early part of the ‘70s, and although the characters in these films created a new brand of stereotypes, such as pimps, hustlers, crackheads, and ya neighborhood hoe (wait, am I allowed to say that? Imma grown-up I say what I want, ha!), Black people, along with our communities, were now being portrayed as the heroes of our own stories.
Don't get it twisted though, the primary function of blaxploitation films seems to have been to confront the “older“ stereotypes of African-Americans as servants, victims or criminals by picturing them instead as “avengers.” Which ultimately allowed for a dramatic change in the way African-Americans were represented in mainstream films. The homie Ed Guerrero thought the initial success of blaxploitation films was due to the 1969–1971 film industry recession, which mounted pressure for more multi-dimensional Black cinematic representations.
Fun fact, Shaft (1971) is NOT a blaxploitation film since it was financed and produced by a major studio. Buuuuut, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (also 1971) IS. The latter is also the first film of the genre to introduce Black audiences to the new ways in which “Blackness” could be represented in conventional films. Sweeback did this by featuring African-American characters who are self-sufficient and empowered. The blaxploitation film genre in many ways reflected the successes of the Civil Rights movement and the attitudes of the Black Power movement.
Black filmmakers, actors and crew members jumped at the opportunity to work on blaxploitation productions as it gave them a chance to do what they love. Granted the job offers weren’t flowing in at the same pace as those of their white counterparts, but they were flowing in, and at exceptional rates. As we (and by we I mean white and non-Black people) have come to learn, films targeted primarily to Black audiences can be financially successful. They can be even more financially successful, aesthetically prestigious, and more culturally influential if they cross over to non-Black audiences as well, Black Panther (2018) anyone, which is what most blaxploitation films did. The studios, all white owned of course, took full advantage of this new wave of film, and began turning exploitation films out left and right as they saw they were able to turn a huge profit. Shaft cost 500k to make and grossed over 12 million, so these white owned studios continued to secure the bag for several years.
The era of blaxploitation films began to crumble around 1972 when a group of Black filmmakers–even though they too secured the bag off these films– teamed up with civil rights groups and formed the Black Artists Alliance (BAA), in objection to this new form of celluloid stereotyping. In an effort to combat the genre and ensure its demise, the BAA resorted to taking out advertisements condemning the gratuitous violence, sex, and negative portrayal of Blacks. Although many young Black moviegoers found a sense of emancipation in tough, defiant characters like Shaft, there were just as many claims stating he, along with Sweetback and Super Fly, were no closer to Black reality than Stepin Fetchit–a Black actor from the ‘30s famous for regularly portraying Uncle Tom and coon type characters.
With that said, I genuinely believe the goal of the blaxploitation movement was to rebuild the image of African-Americans within modern film, however, unfortunately it failed to do so. It instead created a new set of negative images and stereotypes for the non-Black population to label the Black community. What are some of these new labels, you ask?
The Magical Negro - the late Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile or Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance.
The Black Best Friend – Dion in Clueless or Viola Davis in Eat Pray Love.
Thug – Denzel Washington–who won an Oscar for his role-in Training Day.
The Angry Black/Brash Woman – Pick any reality show on TV today, starring a predominantly Black cast, and you’ll find this chick within the first five minutes.
And last, but not least...
The Domestic – The Help, anyone?
Most, if not all of these stereotypes can be seen in, well, every Tyler Perry joint ever made. TP is known for overusing and highlighting negative stereotypes and images of Blacks in his works, both film and television. And look, I respect his hustle, and the empire he’s built... I do not, however, respect the way in which he continually puts members of the Black community on display as loud, court jester-like, crime and drug afflicted human beings. And like, some of his stuff is cute or whatever, but Black filmmakers have to be careful when displaying a particular stereotype as it can lead non-Black viewers to misread said stereotype... which in turn can increase racist–or other prejudice–perceptions of those being stereotyped.
What we, as a filmmaking community, need to do instead is focus on creating images that are progressive and truly transform the culture we live in. Though entertaining, films/TV teaches us so much, through language and images it introduces us to worlds and themes we may not necessarily be aware of or have easy access to. More than ever before, and especially with recent mega-hits like Lovecraft Country (HBO), Girls Trip (2017), Insecure (HBO) and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018), Black filmmakers must take into account that it’s no longer enough to simply create from a decolonized perspective. And I know it's unfair, but we must also teach audiences, Black and non-Black, a new way of looking so that the work of Black filmmakers, and images of the Black community can be fully appreciated.
As Car Wash loops around for the last time, I can’t help but wonder where we'd be today had the Blaxploitation Movement chose to show thriving neighborhoods, businesspeople, intact family units, and doctors, instead of jive talking, crime committing pimps and hoes. Would it have taken as long as it did for the Black image to reach its current status of complete and complex, beautiful, educated, and loving human beings had Shaft been a seasoned FBI agent. Or Super Fly an honest and legit judge? I guess we’ll never know.