Among other things, the popularity of the movies made it clear that Black moviegoers — not so much the upper class — were hungry to see Black faces on the big screen.
It’s wasn’t that Black movies had not been made before, but they were few and far between.
It should be noted, too, that the “Black movie explosion” happened at a time when the movie industry was facing financial challenges. In that sense the new Black movies were “right on time.”
It has even been said that those movies “saved Hollywood.” That is probably a bit of a stretch, but the movies, with their nearly 100 percent Black audiences, brought in money that was much needed.
Trouble is, most of the films came up short with regard to quality. Studios wanted to make a lot of money, but were not generally willing to invest the amount of money it would take to make quality movies.
Very often the movies were stereotypical, but this time Black people were usually “the good guys” and they were ready and eager to “stick it to the man.” The films were also violent more often than not, and made Black neighborhoods look particularly bad. Moreover, many of the movies were corny, all the more so in retrospect.
Because these movies were exploiting “urban Black audiences,” the term “Blaxploitation” was coined. Most researchers trace the start of the phenomenon to a 1971 film produced, directed, written and scored by Melvin Van Peebles, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song.”
It must also be pointed out that for whatever the Blaxploitation movies lacked, for a few years they provided work for an array of talented Black actors and actresses.
That would include Raymond St. Jacques, Richard Roundtree, Rosalind Cash, Robert Hooks, Max Julien, Judy Pace, Calvin Lockhart, Vonetta McGee, Ron O’Neal, Tamara Dobson, Paul Winfield, Yaphet Kotto and the queen of the genre, Pam Grier (“Foxy Brown,” “Coffy”).
They also presented film scoring opportunities for such outstanding artists as Isaac Hayes (“Shaft,” for which he won an Academy Award) and Curtis Mayfield (“Superfly”).
A number of athletes also made forays into acting during those years, most notably Jim Brown and Fred Williamson.
More than a few of the Blaxploitation movies had some artistic merit, but more did not. Even some of the titles were embarrassing: “The Legend of N***r Charley,” “Black Mama, White Mama,” “Willie Dynamite,” “Black Caesar” “Trick Baby,” “Blacula,” etc.
Indeed, at one point the NAACP, the Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came together to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. The organization was instrumental
in speeding up the demise of movies of this type.
The imagery of certain movies, such as “The Mack” and “Superfly,” was incorporated into and still prevails in gangsta rap.
Some of the movies that came out during that period were not Blaxploitation, such as “Lady Sings the Blues,” starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, and “Sounder,” feauring Cicely Tyson, Kevin Hooks and Paul Winfield.
Tyson and Ross received Best Actress Oscar nominations.
Motown’s motto was, “We don’t make Black movies, we make movies with Black stars.”
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