The term “blaxploitation” comes from combining the words “black” and “exploit,” much the same as the term “smog” derives from a combination of “smoke” and “fog.”
More specifically, blaxploitation is a film genre that emerged in American theaters in the early ‘70s, depicting the, sometimes rough-and-tumble, African-American lifestyle in an urban, big city setting.
And, yes, this film movement created considerable controversy.
While some condemned blaxploitation films for exploiting blacks for the mere sake of making money at the box office, others applauded the same for empowering African-Americans.
They argued these types of films showed blacks had the skill and determination to survive the bigotry, persecution and prosecution of the status quo white establishment, regardless of what it took: pimping, narcotics trafficking, murder; or, on the other hand, projecting positivity, law enforcement who went after and took out the pimps, drug dealers and murderers.
Though many might not be familiar with it, a film that helped pave the way for blaxploitation was titled, “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song,” which hit the big screen in 1971.
Melvin Van Peebles, the father of Mario Van Peebles, wrote the script and musical score, directed, produced, and starred in this story about a black man raised in a brothel who finds himself at dangerous odds with white police authorities.
If my research is correct, actor-comedian extraordinaire Bill Cosby loaned Van Peebles $50,000 to complete the film. With an overall budget of approximately $150,000, the movie went on to gross more than $4 million at the box office, a huge profit back in 1971.
Legend has it that black power militant Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, praised "Sweet Sweetback’s Baddass Song," and the movie ultimately became mandatory viewing for Black Panther Party members.
As a teenager, I vividly recall going to the theater and watching and thoroughly enjoying legendary blaxploitation films “Shaft” and “Super Fly.”
“Shaft” was about a black, private detective named John Shaft, a tough, street-savvy sort who wanted to do the right thing but had a kick-ass-first and ask-questions-later approach, nonetheless.
Actor Richard Roundtree portrayed Shaft. What some might be unaware of is the late, great Issac Hayes, operating out of Stax Records in Memphis, won the Academy Award for best original song for writing and performing the theme song to “Shaft,” the song titled, aptly enough, “Theme from Shaft.”
“Theme from Shaft” has transcended generation gaps and continues to be regularly played on radio stations across the country. Its funky guitar intro is both unmistakable and original, forever etched in American pop culture as “its own groove.”
“Super Fly” starred Ron O’Neal as “Youngblood Priest,” a tough, black cocaine dealer in New York City who is attempting to get out of the drug business.
More so than anything, the film “Super Fly” is best known for its iconic soundtrack, written and produced by soul singer Curtis Mayfield.
It has been stated “Super Fly” is one of the few movies, ever, to have been outgrossed by its own soundtrack. As is the case with “Theme from Shaft,” the theme song for the movie “Super Fly,” titled “Superfly,” remains a staple on American radio stations.
And what red-blooded male could ever forget curvaceous Pam Grier in “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown?!”
Of course, many blaxploitation films followed, starring gridiron greats Jim Brown and Fred “the Hammer” Williamson, martial arts expert Jim Kelly, and others.
Regarding blaxploitation, what left the deepest impression with me, a white man, is this: The music that accompanied these films served as a Civil Rights catalyst because it allowed a number of ethnicities to cross racial lines that previously had been obstructed by a civil-social-political impasse.
To end this 101 lesson, Cosby is the first black actor to land a lead role in a regular television series, doing so with “I Spy” in 1965.