The Controversial 1970s
Blaxploitation is a term coined in the early 1970s to refer to black action films that were aimed at black audiences. Featuring African-American actors in lead roles and often having anti-establishment plots, the films were frequently condemned for stereotypical characterization and glorification of violence. Critics of the films saw them as morally bankrupt and as portraying black actors in the most negative way. However, not everyone in the black community agreed as they provided black audiences with cinematic heroes up on the silver screen in a more honest portrayal of urban life unseen in most Hollywood pictures prior to that time.
It is important to note that Blaxploitation arose at a critical juncture for the Hollywood film industry. The 1960s were a turbulent time in American race relations, and the civil rights movement exploded into the national consciousness. As the decade wore on, cries of "Black Power" were heard from the ghettos across America, and it became increasingly difficult for Hollywood studios to ignore black society. While black political activists battled in the courtrooms and the streets for the end of segregation, for voting rights, and for equal rights, black filmmakers and actors began to infiltrate Hollywood.
By the late 1960s, the major Hollywood studios were still reeling from the profound effects of a two-decade old Justice Department lawsuit that involved their profitable theater monopolies. Combined with the insurgence of television, and the drop in audience popularity for "The Musical" the film industry was losing millions of dollars, forcing many to face the distinct prospect of bankruptcy.
The civil rights movement and some bad luck for Hollywood studios would come together at just the right moment and Blaxploitation would be born.
Enter Melvin Van Peebles, the first modern-day folk hero of black cinema. As writer, producer, director, soundtrack composer, and star, he lit the fuse of Blaxploitation in 1971 with his independently financed film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
Shot on a miniscule budget in little more than two weeks, the film and its provocative depiction of a black man fighting the system, and winning, understandably struck a chord with African-American audiences around the country. That the film was "rated X by an all-white jury" only helped the film and by the end of 1971, Sweetback had grossed $10 million, a huge success for the era.
Sweet Sweetback may have been credited with kicking off the genre, but MGM's release of Shaft, a few months later, probably set a more precise blueprint for all the movies that would follow. Making Shaft was a huge gamble for MGM, a once prestigious studio (Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz) that had fallen on incredibly dire times. Taking a risk, they hired Gordon Parks, who had been the first black mainstream Hollywood director with The Learning Tree (1969) to direct Richard Roundtree in the movie that would ultimately rescue MGM from financial ruin and receive an Oscar for Isaac Hayes' enduring score. Shaft provided audiences with a sexy, practically omnipotent hero, in the style of a "Black James Bond", and his precarious balancing act between the white world and the ghetto. Viewers ate it up and the film quickly grossed $12 million.
The success of Sweet Sweetback and Shaft came just as Hollywood fully realized the power of the black ticket-buying public, which accounted for more than thirty percent of the box office in major cities and quickly seized upon the potential profitability of the new formula.
1972 saw the proliferation of Blaxploitation films, most notably the independently produced Super Fly. Directed by Gordon Parks Jr. and aided by the best-selling soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly took living "the life" (a term used to describe an urban existence which revolves around drugs, sex, pimps, gambling and guns) to the extreme by making a cocaine drug dealer (Ron O'neal) its protagonist and center of focus.
Through 1976, an estimated 200 Blaxploitation feature films were produced with the range of stories as varied as mainstream action films. However, action, gratuitous violence, and guns were the underlying element in all of them and most used a black versus white dichotomy as the defining element. Every available genre was plundered in an attempt to re-hash old movie plots and ideas.
There were horror variations (Blacula and Abby), gangster tales (Black Caesar and Book of Numbers), crime melodramas (Cool Breeze and Hit Man), kung-fu fests (Black Belt Jones and Black Samurai), excursions in a sci-fi/zombie vein (Sugar Hill and J.D.'s Revenge), even black westerns (Boss Nigger and Thomasine and Bushrod.)
Notwithstanding, the weaknesses of cliché -ridden, and low budget formula movies themselves, the Blaxploitation era did succeed in creating its own stars. Ex-football players like Jim Brown and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson fit the bill perfectly. It wasn't all macho, misogynistic posturing either. The voluptuous Amazonian figures of Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson led the female charge as a gun totin', revenge seeking, super-mamas who flaunted their sexuality with hard-hitting films like Coffy, Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones.
The one consistent ingredient underneath it all was the brilliant music, which, whether coming from James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes, added an element of depth and sophistication.
Blaxploitation movies proved that black actors possessed a strong box-office appeal and despite many of the films being written, directed, and produced by white Hollywood, black audiences finally saw the recognition African American actors, directors and writers deserved, and fought for, since the early days of silent film.
But, by the mid-1970s a backlash against Blaxploitation began to bloom. The studios received considerable criticism from black pressure groups, including the NAACP, for the negative stereotypes featured in most of the genre's movies that were eroding the positive role models and reinforcing white prejudices about black culture. Audiences had also tired of the industry's cheap, endless re-workings of the crime-action-ghetto formula. Within a year production pretty much stopped dead, ironically putting the black actors and technicians who had fought so hard to get into the movie business back out of work. The boom was over and Blaxploitation's popularity declined as quickly as it rose.
In retrospect, Blaxploitation and the legacy it left behind have been acknowledged as a positive contribution to African American film history. The emergence of young black actors like Eddie Murphy in the early 1980s assisted with the assimilation of black culture into the conventional Hollywood movie. Since then, a succession of black actors and directors (among them Denzel Washington, Samuel L Jackson, Will Smith, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Bill Duke, Robert Townsend, Mario Van Peebles) have succeeded in establishing themselves as big box-office draws, confirming that the achievements of their antecedents like Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree, and Pam Grier were not in vain.
SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG
Melvin Van Peebles' outrageous swan song, along with Shaft (1971) set the path for the blaxploitation features of the 1970s.
Having already directed the cult hit Story of a Three Day Pass (1967) and Watermelon Man (1970) Peebles was already considered controversial and publicity conscious. So with a $500,000 budget tapping into his Watermelon Man salary, along with a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby, and 19 days shooting schedule, he had the audacity to depict, in blasphemous raw cinema, a situation where a black man could stand up to the "The Man". It was hard to distribute with the X rating it received from the Motion Picture Association but quick to draw moviegoers of all color. He emerged as a director with an emphatic style that captured the restless tempo of 1970s ghetto life and changed the whole conception of what a black film character should be. Its unprecedented success proved there was a place for a new kind of black movie. Hollywood was closely watching this newly defined and accepted film concept. The soundtrack, released by Stax, contains Van Peebles' non-stop collage of crazy sounds and funky jams, played by him and a very young Earth, Wind, & Fire.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer 1971
This crossover film along with Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) launched the 1970s explosion of the blaxploitation genre.
Director Gordon Parks, Sr., who was the first black director to helm a Hollywood studio film, The Learning Tree (1969) hired Richard Roundtree to play John Shaft, a rugged and successful private gumshoe in this first of three Shaft films. Made at a cost of $1.5 million, Shaft grossed over $12 million domestically and single-handedly saved MGM from financial ruin. The Isaac Hayes Academy Award winning soundtrack, on the charts for well over one year, was a phenomenon all it's own. Critics both black and white applauded this film. To quote Vincent Canby of the New York Times, "the first good Saturday night movie I've seen in years." The sequels however were no match for the original. Roundtree's career never recovered from the stereotype that created his fame.
THE BUS IS COMING
William Thompson International, 1971
Director Wendell James Franklin holds the distinction of being the first African American to gain membership into the Directors Guild of America.
He launched his career as a stage director on such 1950s live television shows as The Jerry Lewis Show and Queen for a Day. As a director he helmed episodes of The Bill Cosby Show (1969) and McMillan and Wife (1971). The Bus is Coming is his only feature film. Shot by an African-American crew on the streets of Watts in Los Angeles, the film endeavors to show the evils of racism from both ends of the spectrum.
It's title is metaphoric, referring to the "bus of hope" eventually coming to relieve the oppressed black residents of the ghetto.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1972
Having done so well with Shaft (1971) and while preparing the sequels, M.G.M. dusted off the story line for the W.R. Burnett suspense thriller The Asphalt Jungle (1950) to remake in the black action vein. In order to capture the black audience, the film is filled with all of the prerequisites of the new black film genre; a returning Vietnam vet mistreated by white America, criminals with good ulterior motives, a token black police officer in a white precinct, among others. Lead actor Thalmus Rasulala, launched his film career in The Out of Towners (1970) and throughout the 1970s was a fixture in the blaxploitation genre; Blacula (1972), Willie Dynamite (1974), Friday Foster (1975) and Bucktown (1975). He appeared on the TV series What's Happening (1976) and gave his most notable performances in the TV movie, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and as Kunta Kinte's father, in the mini-series Roots (1977).
The music score is by early pioneer soul singer Solomon Burke, who already had fourteen million seller records to his credit. This was his first of two soundtracks in 1972, followed by The Hammer.
Warner Brothers, 1972
Condemned by the black community as a glorification of violence, sex and drugs, Super Fly was the first and most notorious film by director Gordon Parks Jr. It's actually a typical film noir on a classic theme; the hood who must make one last score before he quits the business. Parks, son of Shaft (1971) director Gordon Parks Sr., and one of the few blacks to direct in Hollywood, had a real feeling for the Harlem streets, back alleys and the language of its residents. His brand of visual social realism was almost too authentic and partly the root to the film's controversy. Financially backed by a group of Harlem businessmen, and shot by a mostly black crew, Super Fly was as much a statement against white dominated Hollywood from behind the camera as it was a convincing and seductive depiction of a segment of black ghetto life. Curtis Mayfield's best-selling soundtrack featuring the hit singles "Freddie's Dead" and "Super Fly", rose to the top of the album charts where it remained for 46 weeks selling well over 2,000,000 copies.
American International Pictures, 1972
Jim Brown was a legendary star running back with the Cleveland Browns for nine years (1957 to 1965) for which his exploits on the field earned him a place in the NFL Hall of Fame. After his football career he switched over to acting and appeared in a dozen supporting roles in the late sixties (Dirty Dozen, Riot, 100 Rifles) slowly developing his strong willed and aggressive screen persona. But his well-publicized bad temper both on and off the film set allowed Hollywood to all but blacklist him and his promising career came to a halt.
By 1971, Shaft had been such an influential movie to audience as well as the film companies, that Brown's hell-raising yet charismatic leading man persona worked perfectly with the success formula of fast paced action, violence, and gratuitous nudity. Slaughter and its sequel, Slaughter's Big Rip-off (1973), starring Brown as a tough ex-Green Beret in the "Shaft" mold, was a partially successful attempt to revive his career.
Slaughter's soundtrack features music by Luchi De Jesus, with the theme song by legendary keyboard master Billy Preston.
American International Pictures, 1972
This was the first and the best of the black horror film cycle that would engulf Hollywood for a brief period in the 1970s like Blackenstein (1973), Ganja and Hess (1973), Abby (1974), Sugar Hill (1974) and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1976).
The eternally cool William Marshall, who puts a fresh spin on the age-old legend of the vampire, here condemned to wander Los Angeles decked out in a cape and with an insatiable lust for blood, is a sight to behold even by contemporary standards.
Blacula's love interest, co-star Vonetta McGee, was labeled by the New York Times as "possibly the most beautiful woman currently acting in the movies."
Blacula was a major box office hit, and was followed by a sequel Scream Blacula Scream (1973), and several imitators, but very few films succeeded in replicating the original's ability in combining traditional horror ethics with a blaxploitation twist. The film features a soundtrack by the 21st Century Ltd. and The Hues Corporation.
United Artists, 1972
There are a few giants in the world of blaxploitation and black action films, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, but there is one actor who towers over them all in sheer presence, attitude, and charisma. That man is Fred "The Hammer" Williamson.
A 1960 graduate of Northwestern University in Architectural Engineering, and an outstanding athlete, Willamson went on to play pro football for the San Francisco 49'ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, and Kansas City Chiefs and had the distinction of playing in the Super Bowl One. In 1970 he jumped into acting in small roles (M*A*S*H and Tell Me You Love Me Junie Moon) but his real fame as an action hero came with the explosion of blaxploitation films. The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), Hammer (1972), Black Caesar (1973), Hell Up in Harlem (1974) and others, helped establish the character he would later define; the lone, hip, cigar smoking, rogue waiting to unleash his vengeance. Starting with Boss Nigger (1975), Williamson began writing, directing and/or producing most of the low-budget features in which he starred.
20th Century Fox 1972
Trouble Man is a classic example of what white writers and producers perceive as the black lifestyle. Included are plenty of easy sex, fancy duds, and lots of "jive" language and obscenities for so-called street realism. The breathtaking music however, clearly inspired by Isaac Hayes' Shaft, was Marvin Gaye's only foray into the world of movie soundtracks.
The cast itself has a fine background. Robert Hooks was formerly a member of the noted Negro Ensemble Company of New York, and Paul Winfield had given a fine performance in Sounder (1972). Trouble Man, a standard ode to guns, sex and drugs, was simply another example of the racist beliefs that permeated Hollywood through the years, thus reinforcing stereotypes for no other reason than to make a profit.
The movie was directed by veteran actor Ivan Dixon who's The Spook Who Sat By the Door, the following year, is best remembered as his most controversial due it's black revolutionary theme.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1972
Having successfully updated its 1950 crime melodrama The Asphalt Jungle into a black contemporary story, Cool Breeze (1942) M.G.M. tried again with one of its properties. It took Get Carter (1971) an underworld thriller set in England with Michael Caine and Britt Ekland, and remade it as Hit Man in the seedy underworld of Los Angeles with Bernie Casey and Pam Grier.
Casey, a former football player who put in six seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, was one of the wave of black athletes to invade the screen in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Along with the likes of Ken Norton, Jim Kelly, Rosey Grier, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and even O.J. Simpson, Casey was arguably the most accomplished and dramatic screen presence of the bunch and went on to win Best Actor at the Jamaica Black Film Festival for Maurie (1974).
The film's score is by H.B Barnum, a producer and arranger working with everyone from Frank Sinatra to James Brown to Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Columbia Pictures, 1972
After the enormous success of Shaft (1971), every major studio was leaping into the blaxploitation phenomenon, while independent companies like American International Pictures (AIP) were busy making the genre their own.
Around the same time that ex-football superstar Jim Brown was making his Slaughter films for AIP, Columbia released the similar Black Gunn. Brown, as revenge for killing his politically radical brother embarks on a vendetta to bring down the racist Mob killers. Joining Brown in the cast are several other sports greats including Vida Blue, Bernie Casey, Timothy Brown, Tommy Davis, Gene Washington and Deacon Jones.
FRSCO Productions, 1973
Since American International Pictures had done so well with adapting the Dracula legend to the blaxploitation phenomenon in Blacula (1972), it was no surprise that a companion spin-off of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein might be equally as profitable. The film was originally supposed to be AIP's 100th film, and they planned for it to be the first in a trilogy; Blackenstein, The Fall of the House of Blackenstein, and Blackenstein III. Studio boss Samuel Arkoff was quoted as saying at the time "We plan to devote our full resources to making this hundredth picture particularly outstanding." They eventually cut it loose from their production line-up and sold it off to FRSCO Productions. However, even with the hiring of special effects master Kenneth Strickfadden, who had created the electric effects gadgets for the Boris Karloff classic Frankenstein (1931), the film flopped and the options for the sequels were never picked up.
Universal Pictures, 1973
Based on a novel by Iceberg Slim (a pseudonym for Robert Beck, a one-time Chicago pimp who turned writer while in prison), Trick Baby was Beck's second novel, written just after his famous autobiography, Pimp. It tells the story of a fair-skinned mulatto con nicknamed "White Folks," and his black accomplice "Blue" Howard who use their skill and their color in race related scams to part fools from their money all the while avoiding notoriously corrupt Philadelphia cops and gangsters.
Columbia Pictures, 1973
Wattstax, billed as a "Black Woodstock," was a daylong concert held in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972. Commemorating the 7th anniversary of the historic Watts rebellion of 1965 that set fire to Los Angeles, it also celebrated the positive changes that the black community had instituted since the devastation.
The event was MC'd by a dashiki clad Jesse Jackson and brought together some of the Stax Record label's biggest artists in a combination of soul, gospel and pop. The concert performances were staged by Melvin Van Peebles and included the likes of Albert King, the Bar-Kays, the Staple Singers, Little Milton, Rufus Thomas and a climactic performance by the iconic "Black Moses of Soul" Isaac Hayes. Comedian Richard Pryor punctuated the musical footage with scathing stand-up routines to segue the acts.Director Mel Stuart, for some perspective and allowing audiences to see the broader context in which this concert took place, interspersed footage shot by cinematographer John Alonzo (Sounder, Lady Sings the Blues, Chinatown) from locations around Watts with interviews of its residents about politics, culture and their changing lives.
American International Pictures, 1973
Cult director Larry Cohen's script is loosely modeled on the gangster classic Little Caesar (1930) and provides a true highlight of the blaxploitation genre. A racist cop cripples a black shoeshine boy, who grows up to be Tommy Gibbs, played by Fred Williamson, the Godfather of Harlem. The role had been initially offered to Sammy Davis Jr, who turned Cohen down. The film's appeal is capped by a solid soul music score from James Brown, and highlighted by the harrowing theme song "Down and Out in New York City." Followed the same year by another Williamson vehicle, Hell Up in Harlem. Cohen and Williamson joined together again in 1996 for an interesting attempt at reviving the genre with Original Gangstas.
HARDER THEY COME
New World Pictures, 1973
Reggae star Jimmy Cliff, a newcomer to acting, stars in this hard-hitting social drama as Ivan, a rural Jamaican country boy who comes to the city of Kingston, to make a record. He finds that breaking into the music business is next to impossible. It isn't until he shoots a cop and becomes a violent fugitive from the law that he gets his sought-after notoriety. The Harder They Come is the movie that introduced reggae music and Rastafarian culture to the United States, and was the first truly successful film to come out of Jamaica. The film's score, featuring three songs by Cliff "The Harder They Come", "Many Rivers to Cross" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want", and others by noted reggae musicians Toots and the Maytalls and Desmond Dekker, is still one of the great movie soundtracks of all time.
The Mack (an American variation on the French slang word for pimp -"Maguereau") is one of the better "shot on the cheap" dramas ranking alongside Shaft, Super Fly, Dolemite, and Foxy Brown in the genre's highest echelon. This slice of blaxpIoitation tries to show us the "ins & outs" of the pimp business with writers like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines turning their pasts as pimps, pushers, junkies and cons into popular books like Trick Baby and Street Players. The Mack taps into that vein of exploitation perhaps better than any other feature film. It is an authentic blend of reality and fiction. Most of the players in the movie are real pimps playing themselves filmed at the real Mack Ball, a bizarre version of the Academy Awards with Macks and their girls, in feathers and furs, strolling down a red carpet from their limos. /
Willie Hutch, one of Motown's golden hit makers, penned the soundtrack that is often considered to be the finest of the era.
BOOK OF NUMBERS
Avco Embassy, 1973
Raymond St. Jacques, like Sidney Poitier, was at the forefront of black actors in Hollywood films of the late 1960s. He appeared in The Pawnbroker (1965), Mister Buddwing (1966), The Comedians (1967), The Green Berets (1968), Madigan (1968) and had a recurring role as the character "Solomon King" in the TV Western series Rawhide (1965-1968). Once the blaxploitation genre swept Hollywood, St. Jacques was readily cast in a variety of films showcasing his deep voice and formidable acting talent, including Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Come Back Charleston Blue (1972), Cool Breeze (1972), The Final Comedown (1972), If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1968) and Uptight (1968).
For this, his screen directing debut, St. Jacques chose to film Robert Deane Pharr's novel, a Bonnie and Clyde type "numbers racket" comedy drama in a small Southern town. TV's Miami Vice Philip Michael Thomas co-stars. The soundtrack was performed by blues legends Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
BROTHER ON THE RUN
Southern Star Entertainment, 1973
Terry Carter is "Boots Turner" the brother in question and on the run from "The Man."
No stranger to the spotlight, Carter became one of the first black actors to be regularly featured on network TV when he played "Private Silverman" on Phil Silvers' show Sergeant Bilko (1955) and during much of the 1960s, worked as a newscaster for WBZ-TV in Boston. His other TV roles included "Sergeant Joe Broadhurst" on McCloud (1970) and Battlestar Galactica fans know him as "Colonel Tigh" on the 1978 sci-fi series.
Johnny Pate, the legendary Chicago soul arranger and producer, who teamed up with Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions in the early 1960s, scored the film's soundtrack that features the funky title song sung by Adam Wade. Pate's unique sound, using wah-wah guitars, pulsating percussion, and blaring horn charts, became synonymous with several blaxploitation film scores including Superfly (1972), Shaft in Africa (1973), Bucktown (1975) and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1976).
SWEET JESUS PREACHER MAN
Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1973
Long before gaining national fame as the helicopter pilot T.C. on TV's Magnum P.I. (1980-88), character actor Roger Mosley starred as a streetwise mobster who goes undercover as a Los Angeles ghetto clergyman in Sweet Jesus, Preacher Man.
No stranger to the blaxploitation genre, he appeared in several feature films from the 1972-74 "golden years" including Hit Man (1972), The Mack (1973), and Darktown Strutters (1974) among others. Co star, Marla Gibbs makes her screen debut and is best remembered for her ten-year long role as Florence Johnston on TV's The Jeffersons (1975-85).
American International Pictures, 1973
A year before Death Wish hit the screen, writer/director Jack Hill created this violent tale of a citizen touched by crime who takes the law into her own hands. When it was first released, Coffy was criticized by black intellectuals because of its violence and less than positive images (the familiar round of hoods, pushers, and pimps). Nonetheless, this is the movie that made Pam Grier a B-movie star.
Nurse "Coffy" Coffin (Grier) takes revenge on the pushers responsible for her 11-year old sister's addiction to heroin. Her emancipated bigger than life character and free-spirited attitude toward sex made her a proverbial role model of the 1970s women's lib movement. Ms. Magazine, which put Grier on its cover, saw her as a tough, assertive and non-traditional liberated movie character.
Made for an estimated cost of $500,000 and despite the violence, nudity and social outrage, the film went out to gross over $2,000,000.
Roy Ayers, the R&B bandleader, jazz vibraphonist and prophet of acid jazz, provided the soundtrack.
Warner Bros., 1973
Like many black action films of the 1970s Cleopatra Jones centers on the vigilante efforts by the black community against the drug pushers and dealers. In the role originally slated for writer/producer Max Julien's then-girlfriend Vonetta McGee, Tamara Dobson stars as the undercover narcotics agent Cleo, a jive female James Bond, committed to keeping the ghetto clean and safe. Glamorous, sophisticated and unassuming, Dobson is a delectable comic-strip heroine come true. The fast moving action sequences and its self-righteous black-do-goodism theme proved popular with audiences and spurred a gaudy 1975 sequel; Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.
The film features a score by legendary jazz trombone player and arranger J.J. Johnson, who blends conventional orchestrations with soul, jazz and funk.
General Films, 1973
Directed by blaxploitation magnate Arthur Marks (Friday Foster, Bucktown, J.D.'s Revenge) from a script by Academy Award nominated screenwriter Orville Hampton, Detroit 9000 is notable for the way the film mirrors the social and political unease of its era and for the rare use (in blaxploitation films) of a top billed white co-star, Alex Rocco.
Rocco and Hari Rhodes play detectives on the trail of a group of violent criminals who committed a robbery at a fundraiser for Michigan's first Black gubernatorial candidate.The questions surrounding the political motivations of the robbery were quite timely, coming at the height of the Watergate crisis. And even within all its high-energy action scenes, funky music by the Ed Holland and Lamont Dozier team, slick lingo, gravity-defying Afros and garishly loud suits, the film manages to capture some of the ambiance and hopelessness too common in Detroit inner-city life.
THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR
United Artists, 1973
Possibly the most radical and incendiary of any blaxploitation film of the 1970s, this is a story of aggressive reaction to white oppression. The film was a huge overnight success when released in 1973, but was abruptly taken out of distribution by the FBI claiming it would incite race riots.
A mild-mannered, unassuming social worker (Lawrence Cook) is recruited by the CIA as a token black and proceeds to learn, and later apply, the techniques of urban guerrilla warfare in Chicago. Corrosive and provocative, this adaptation by Sam Greenlee's novel of political unrest, directed by veteran actor and former "Hogan's Heroes" star Ivan Dixon, remains one of the great missing chapters in black political filmmaking.
Jazz pianist and composer Herbie Hancock's soundtrack provides an early representation of his electronic film scoring ability. He would go on to supervise dozens of films including his Academy Award winning work in Round Midnight (1986).
Bercovichy Films 1974
While plenty of skin-flick vets have parlayed their celebrity in the adult entertainment industry into record contracts, it's quite rare for a well-known musician to lend their name to the soundtrack of a pornographic film.
The original movie soundtrack to Lialeh (the Black Deep Throat), performed by Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, is the rare exception that proves the rule. Purdie was, and still is, one of the most revered drummers of 20th-century pop and soul, having played with such notables as Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Gil Scott-Heron, and James Brown, among many, many others. Although he'd already released a handful of solo albums by the time Lialeh was made in 1974, Purdie still viewed scoring this blaxploitation porno as a good opportunity, as it was his first chance to have a screen credit as a writer/producer. The film's ultra-rare soundtrack LP has become a Holy Grail to funk enthusiasts.
Universal Pictures, 1973
Roscoe Orman, a young New York stage actor who later played "Gordon" on the children's television series Sesame Street, stars as the tough flamboyant and fur covered hero in yet another blaxploitation film that sets out to glamorize the black pimp.
One of the most publicized elements of this movie was the death of co-star Diana Sands (The Landlord, 1970, Georgia Georgia, 1972) who succumbed to cancer at the age of 39, three months before its release. Richard Zanuck and David Brown, who shortly afterward collaborated on more rewarding projects, Jaws (1975), The Verdict (1982), Cocoon (1985) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989) among others, produced Willie Dynamite.
Jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson oversaw the musical score of big band funk that features three tracks by singer Martha Reeves.
BLACK BELT JONES
Warner Brothers, 1974
Producers hit paydirt with their Bruce Lee Karate film, Enter the Dragon (1973), which introduced black belt champion Jim Kelly to film audiences. When Lee died in 1973, they turned to martial arts expert Kelly for their next feature, anticipating that mixing the two popular genres of kung fu and black action would only mean greater box office revenues. With the on-screen help of Gloria Hendry, Kelly proved himself very bankable at the box office and an ideal role model for black youth who were more used to identifying with silver-screen gangsters and pimps.
Dennis Coffey, whose work with Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Jackson 5 and David Ruffin made him a prominent session guitarist in Detroit during the 1970s, provides the soundtrack.
American International Pictures, 1974
Sexy fair-skinned actress Marki Bey (who could give Pam Grier a run for her money in the "fine as hell" department) stars as a voluptuous and conjuring priestess in this voodoo tale of revenge. A hybrid of classic black action and supernatural thriller, it was another successful attempt by AIP to combine their dive-in horror flicks within the blaxploitation demands of the inner city audiences of the early 1970s.
Last appearing regularly on the TV show Starsky and Hutch in 1979, Bey seems to have been shelved far too soon in her career by the Hollywood community.
"Six Times Tougher Than Shaft... Six Times Rougher Than Super Fly" read the tagline of this memorable tale of six motorcycle riding Vietnam vets and their plight adjusting to civilian life back home in the ghetto.
Starring a cast of major football players including Gene Washington (San Francisco 49ers), Lem Barney (Detroit Lions), Willie Lanier (Kansas City Chiefs), Carl Eller (Minnesota Vikings), Mercury Morris (Miami Dolphins) and "Mean" Joe Greene (Pittsburgh Steelers) in the days before his famous Coca-Cola commercial.
This was the first of a trio of blaxploitation flicks by director Matt Cimber; Lady Cocoa (1975) and The Candy Tangerine Man (1975).
American International Pictures, 1974
Grier's "important" 1970s movies were rowdy and garish revenge dramas with Pam as a gun-totin', bad talking and aggressive Florence Nightingale of the ghetto, administering to the needs of her oppressed brothers and sisters. She's a dream goddess of the slums floating through a world of blood, guts and gunfire. Foxy Brown was the successful follow to the highly profitable Coffy (1973) and was director Jack Hill's fourth and final film with Grier.
Renowned Motown hit writer Willie Hutch wrote the wah-wah heavy score.
American International Pictures, 1974
There are few artists who have offered a greater influence over the genre of soul music than Isaac Hayes who was present at the birth of the influential Memphis soul sound of Stax-Volt Records in the 1960s and also involved with early developments in disco and rap. From the release of 1971's score from the movie Shaft (that made him the first African-American to win an Academy Award for music), and that same year's Black Moses, Hayes was offered the title role in 1974's Truck Turner, for which he also delivered the soundtrack album. Hayes had never acted before, and only intermittently since, including the role of The Duke of New York in Escape From New York (1981), Hammer in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), Chef in South Park (1997) and several other smaller parts in low-budget efforts.
Effortlessly cool and charismatic with the combination of his baritone voice, shaved head, beard and shades, whenever blaxploitation gets mentioned, it is characters like Hayes' Truck Turner that come immediately to mind.
Warner Brothers, 1974
First there had been Black Jesus (1968), then Black Caesar (1973) and finally this one, Black Samson, another tale of a powerful contemporary urban black hero with near legendary strength. Tall, muscular Rockne Tarkington, with the help of martial arts and a pet lion named Ubu, plays Samson, a well-liked dashiki-clad nightclub owner dedicated to letting folks do their own thing as long as it doesn't involve letting the area become a haven for syndicate drug lords. Tarkington is generally believed to be the first black actor to appear on the Andy Griffith Show and the first to appear in a recurring role in a television series Daktari (1966). He was also the original choice for the part in Bruce Lee's film Enter the Dragon (1973) a role that ended up going to his Melinda (1972) cast-mate, Jim Kelly.
The film co-stars Carol Speed and features a soundtrack from the legendary New Orleans R&B hitmaker Allen Toussaint.
HELL UP IN HARLEM
American International Pictures, 1974
Following the immense box office success of Black Caesar, released in early 1973, American International Pictures insisted writer/director Larry Cohen produce a sequel as quickly as possible.
Even though Fred Williamson was killed in that film, AIP wasn't going to let a dead main character get in the way of making a quick buck. Hell Up in Harlem opens with a different perspective on the finale from the earlier film, this time with Williamson's Tommy Gibbs character recuperating from an attempted assassination.
Motown's legendary singer Edwin Starr handled the Freddie Perren produced soundtrack with the help of Dennis Coffey's guitar and Joe Sample's keyboards.
American International Pictures, 1974
AIP and director William Girdler's low budget effort attempted to grab its fair share of the box office gold and popularity of Warner Brothers' The Exorcist (1973) and the $89,000,000 gross that film generated a year earlier. After raking in over $4,000,000 in the film's first month of release, they were eventually sued for copyright infringement and Abby, a black variation of the same tale, was soon pulled from distribution.
Carol Speed (Abby) who also composed "My Soul Is A Witness" for the film's original musical score, graced ten feature films between 1971 and 1979, including the pimp movie of pimp movies, The Mack (1973), and Rudy Ray Moore's Disco Godfather (1979).
New World Pictures, 1975
Cashing in on the kung-fu craze in the 70's, Playboy Playmate Jeanne Bell stars as bad ass T.N.T. Jackson; "a one mama massacre squad" the publicity ads proclaimed. Filipino director Cirio Santiago and his New World Pictures boss Roger Corman were hoping to follow in the steps of the action films of Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson, whose tough mama movies had proven there was yet another segment of the black movie market to exploit. Bell, as expected, satisfied the male viewers with what may have been the first on screen topless fight scene.
The soundtrack was a rehash of the songs written by Les Baxter for The Big Doll House (1971) and Savage (1973). Baxter composed over 100 film scores, concentrating on horror, teenage musicals and comedies mostly in the '50s and '60s but is best know as being the founder of "exotica."
Bryanston Pictures, 1975
Without doubt, and even by blaxploitation standards, this is one of the most socially irresponsible and violent films of its vintage. Charles Robinson, future star of television's Night Court, leads an inner city "People's Army," a black militant group in Watts, bent on solving the problems of the black ghetto by wiping out the local white gangsters. Rod Perry, best known for his macho title role in The Black Godfather (1974) and as Sgt. Deacon Kay in the television series SWAT, also stars.
American International Pictures, 1975
Pam Grier's final picture on her AIP contract and the one that formally marked the end of her reign as the box office queen of B-movies.
After a series of violent, sexy blaxploitation films like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), Grier turned in this more sedate PG-rated action film with no rambunctious grit or energy. She's far too polite, too middle class and without the personality that kept those earlier films alive. Audiences, satiated with the formula blaxploitation screen violence, were not enthusiastic and the film grossed under $1,000,000. Realizing an image change was crucial and announcing her intention to move on the bigger and less stereotypical film projects, her career and its momentum were temporarily derailed. It wasn't until Jackie Brown (1997) that Pam, as we all knew and loved her, came back.
THE CANDY TANGERINE MAN
Moonstone Entertainment, 1975
Conservative and respectable businessman (John Daniels) lives in the leafy suburbs of Los Angeles with his wife and kids. Unbeknownst to his family or neighbors, he is also the Black Baron, a prominent and smooth-talking Sunset Boulevard pimp who drives a slick yellow and red Rolls Royce. A distilled version of The Mack (1973), it was directed by Matt Cimber who had previously helmed The Black Six (1974). John Daniels would go on to play the well-endowed hairdresser in Black Shampoo (1976).
The soundtrack is by the obscure funk band Smoke.
American International Pictures, 1975
Written by Eric Monte, the creator of the black TV sitcom Good Times (1974-1979) and directed by veteran Michael Schultz (Car Wash, Greased Lightning, Which Way is Up, The Last Dragon), Cooley High was pitched as the black American Graffiti. Critically received, it is a coming of age action comedy that follows the adventures and aspirations of two high school buddies (Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton Jacobs) in Chicago in the early 1960's. Void of the extreme sex and violence requirements of exploitation films, Cooley High was fondly embraced by audiences both black and white. The film's Motown soundtrack featuring The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves, The Temptations, Jr. Walker, and Smokey Robinson, certainly also helped its popularity and domestic box office gross of $2,600,000.
Dimension Pictures, 1975
Rudy Ray Moore might not have reinvented cinema, but he is a pioneer when it comes to comedy. He found his niche in the 1970s with a string of comedy albums that were popular with inner-city audiences and peppered with enough four letter words and sexual innuendo to make Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx blush. He also single-handedly shaped what would become hip-hop music, by performing rap and using rhyme long before current day artists. His breakthrough LP, "Eat Out More Often", (reaching into the top 100 in the Billboard charts) included a popular tale, recited in rhyme, about a mythical urban superstud named Dolemite who could kill women with the power of his lovemaking. Investing money from his LP sales when blaxploitation films became wildly profitable, he brought Dolomite to the screen thus creating the black superman icon and his army of kung-fu fighting hookers. This surprise smash hit spawned a 1976 sequel The Human Tornado and helped float the blaxploitation bubble for a few more years, before it burst in the late 1970s.
American International Pictures, 1974
American International Pictures were known for grinding out prolonged violent confrontations between blacks and whites in an attempt to make a serious point about racism. Bucktown is a prime example in which black heroes stand up to "The Man" and points out that being super-cool and indifferent to crime and inhumanity is equally desirable.
Fred Williamson, icon to the genre, is quoted as saying "I'm not interested in social, uplifting movies. I'm not involved in elevating anyone's social standards through the movie industry." Variety Magazine commented that co-star Pam Grier, "while looking stunning as ever, could set back women's lib at least a decade."
The soundtrack by Johnny Pate is one of several of his efforts in blaxploitation films of the 1970s including Superfly (1972), Shaft in Africa (1973), Brother on the Run (1973) and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1976).
Bryanston Films, 1975
In 1974 animator Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, The Lord of the Rings), teamed up with performers Barry White, Philip Michael Thomas, and Scatman Crothers and a group of black animators to create an unflinching and unapologetic portrayal of life in the Harlem ghetto. Using a mix of live action and animation techniques, Bakshi created a surreal inner city take on The Song of the South, Bre'r Rabbit tales and made no attempts to hide his character's stereotypical origins. Much like Birth of a Nation (1915), it became one of the most controversial films ever made. Picketed by the Congress of Racial Equality (including 20-year old protestor Al Sharpton), at a Museum of Modern Art special screening in New York, Paramount Studios soon withdrew its release after being stung by criticism. Despite the uproar, Bryanston, an independent film company, quickly attached itself and released it to theaters. Bakshi's spoof on the blaxploitation film genre is today considered a cult classic.
American International Pictures, 1975
Based on a Chicago Tribune syndicated comic strip, Friday Foster was a departure from the stereotypical supermama image for which Pam Grier had become popularly known. In an attempt to soften her image and groom her into a more viable and commercial actress, the studio tried to clean up her act.
She turns up here as a magazine photographer with a sophisticated wardrobe, straightened hair and a proper language style that fans of her raunchier and rowdier early films like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) were unfamiliar with.
The rest of the cast is cast made up of veteran actors of the 1970s including Yaphet Kotto, Eartha Kitt, Thalmus Rasulala, Godfrey Cambridge, Carl Weathers, Scatman Crothers and TV's The Love Boat's Ted Lange (playing a pimp).
As it turned out, a cleaned up Grier wasn't a very commercial item and the film barely grossed $1,000,000. Her box-office days as queen of the "two B-flicks a year" was ending and her next screen role wouldn't be until the mainstream auto racing drama Greased Lightning (1977), made with her then-boyfriend Richard Pryor for Warner Brothers.
DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE
Dimension Pictures, 1976
In 1972, under the direction of William Crain, Dracula went blackface in the movie Blacula. Four years later director Crain was at it again, this time revamping the metaphors of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and adding a sepia tint to the familiar classic. An affluent black physician, played by Bernie Casey, becomes the victim of his own experiments, turning himself into a hideous (white) monster who cannot manage to control the instincts to kill the evil that attracts him.
The soundtrack is another in a string of blaxploitation film arrangements by Chicago soul writer and producer Johnny Pate, including Superfly (1972), Shaft in Africa (1973), Brother on the Run (1973), and Bucktown (1975).
MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS
Dimension Pictures / Atlas, 1976
"Dedicated to the veteran who traded his place on the front lines for a place on the unemployment line. Peace is hell."
So reads the postscript to this film, a provocative and timely sentiment shared by many Vietnam vets on their return to the US and echoed by Gordon Staples harrowing theme song; "They sent him home / to dream alone / He won the battle but he lost the war." Not stopping there, the song continues with some advice: "Hold on to your courage / Rise above it all / Don't let your back get pinned against the wall."
Fred Williamson stars and directs under his newly formed Po' Boy Productions in this story on the plight of the Black man who, no matter what his sacrifices for his country, cannot find justice back home.
Dimension Pictures, 1976
The title is a reference to the 1975 Warren Beatty movie, Shampoo, about a hairdresser who does more than just blow-dry his customer's hair. Black Shampoo uses the premise of the previous year's hit to showcase the virility of the Black man in soft core sex scenes, the White mob's attempts to take over his businesses, and the use of gay men as comic relief. John Daniels stars as Mr. Jonathan, the best hairdresser on the Sunset Strip, but is probably best remembered for his role, the previous year, as an aggressive high-living pimp in The Candy Tangerine Man (1975). Co-star, Tanya Boyd, after a string of 1970's potboilers, turned to television, the stage, directing film and since 1994 has portrayed Celeste Perrault on the TV Soap Opera Days of Our Lives.
American International Pictures, 1976
Director Arthur Marks was no stranger to turning out blaxploitation films such as Detroit 9000 (1973), Bucktown (1975), Friday Foster (1975), and The Monkey Hustle (1976). This was his last feature film, a routine variation of the evil spirit possession theme of The Exorcist (1973). Glynn Turman stars as a New Orleans law student hypnotized by a nightclub performer only to find his mind overtaken by the spirit of a murdered 1930s gangster. J.D.'s nemesis is a holy-roller Gospel preacher, played by later-to-be Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. (An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982.)
THE HUMAN TORNADO
Dimension Pictures, 1976
Comedian and laureate of the blaxploitation genre, Rudy Ray Moore returns for a second round of action in this follow-up sequel to his cult hit Dolemite (1975.)
Made up of a series of skits combining classic exploitation situations, Moore's stand-up routines, and martial arts action, political correctness is shown the door in favor of loose morals, hard liquor, and good old-fashioned brawling. Mostly crude and offensive grindhouse fare, from start to finish, the action gives way to Moore's brand of low-budget lunacy. It's Rudy Ray Moore, over the top, in all his glory.
B.J.L.J. International, 1976
Jim Kelly, best known for his co-starring role in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon (1973), stars in this kung-fu action film based on the top selling novel of the same name by Mark Olden. Actor D'Urville Martin, originally slated to direct, was replaced by cult B-film director Al Adamson, who initially intended the role to go to four time 8th Degree black belt champ Ron Van Cleef, but ended up enlisting Jim Kelly instead. Kelly, an accomplished karate master, good looking, agile and with the perfect afro had previously starred in several blaxploitation films including Three the Hard Way (1974) and Black Belt Jones (1974).
Warner Bros., 1977
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the highly publicized romance between intellectual black activist professor Angela Davis and black militant convict George Jackson struck a national chord. Their courtship, one of only words and feelings, was conducted at arms' length in the prison visiting room while he was serving time in San Quentin for bank robbery. Later she would be tried and acquitted for helping to plan Jackson's breakout attempt during which his younger brother Jonathan and a judge died at the Marin County Courthouse. Jackson himself would later be killed in prison.
Brothers is a fictionalized dramatization that deals loosely with the romance between the two (Bernie Casey and Vonetta McGee) and the brutality of life for a black man in prison.
The music score was composed, arranged and played by Taj Mahal.