- Posted by Carl Lyon
- On June 25, 2015
- 0 Comments
Here at CONtv we know that there are so many areas of fandom and so few hours in the day. In order to help you decide if a specific genre, sub-genre, artist, or hobby is worth the investment of your time, we present CONtv 101. A series of “introductory level courses”, CONtv 101 is NOT your typical “best of” list. The purpose of each course is to provide you with a strong, basic understanding of each topic through a carefully selected syllabus.
Course Description: Born in the 1970’s, Blaxploitation is perhaps the one film genre that can be considered truly American. America’s history of slavery and the tail end of the civil rights movement led to the creation and proliferation of the genre in the 1970s, which featured anti-establishment black heroes fighting against authoritarian whites and any others who would try to stifle them, usually set to a bass-heavy, funk soundtrack. Many of the films, ironically, were written and directed by whites, including the decade-prolific Larry Cohen (Q the Winged Serpent, It Lives), but many standout entries were black productions through-and-through. The materials for this course are by no means comprehensive, as the decade saw dozens of films spanning several subgenres, so independent study is encouraged…you jive turkeys.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
Released in 1971, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is considered by many to be the progenitor of the Blaxploitation genre. Directed by and starring Melvin van Peebles (father of actor Mario van Peebles, who himself played a small role), Sweet Sweetback showed Hollywood that “militant black cinema” could be profitable with its tale of a young male sex worker forced to make a run for the Mexican border from the police who framed him for a murder he didn’t commit. The film made a staggering $15.2 million at the box office (off of a $150,000 budget), which led to Hollywood attempting to recreate its success. While not considered a true “exploitation film,” it’s nonetheless required viewing for its influence, as well as its Earth, Wind & Fire soundtrack.
“Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” It’s a question asked by Isaac Hayes that everyone knows the answer to: Shaft, more appropriately John Shaft, a private detective played by Richard Roundtree. Shaft is hired by a mobster to find his kidnapped daughter, putting him at odds with the police as well as the Italian mob, and tensions threaten to boil over into a full-blown race war. While Shaft may be a more “heroic” character than many of his contemporaries, his actions still skirt the establishment, keeping the film firmly in the genre. It was followed by two sequels, a short-lived TV series, and a sequel/reboot starring Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft’s nephew.
One of the first Blaxploitation/horror hybrids, Blacula paved the way for movies like Sugar Hill and Abby to deliver frights with funk. William Marshall plays Prince Mamuwalde, an African prince bitten by Dracula himself and left to starve in a casket for 200 years. He is revived in 1970’s Los Angeles by a mincing pair of gay interior decorators (the movie isn’t that progressive), which introduces him to Tina, a woman who may be the reincarnation of his former wife. Despite its more horrific tone, it presents all of the thematic elements present in the genre: a black hero who has to overcome oppression by whites who want to do nothing more than see him destroyed, a theme which takes on a strange duality given the fact that Blacula is a vampire. It was followed by a sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream! which featured Pam Grier as a voodoo priestess, but the original (and its amazing soundtrack by Gene Page and Al Simms) is the required viewing for the course.
One of the most infamous Blaxploitation films, Dolemite is the bawdy brainchild of raunchy renaissance man Rudy Ray Moore, who wrote and starred in the D’Urville Martin-directed vehicle. Moore plays Dolemite, a pimp framed for crimes he didn’t commit (the pimping was overlooked, I suppose) by his rival Willie Greene and corrupt cops. He’s sprung by his associate Queen B and the warden, who put Dolemite and his army of Karate-trained prostitutes on a collision course with Greene for revenge. Dolemite earns its notoriety almost completely due to Moore’s portrayal of the pugnacious pimp, who speaks in filthy rhyming couplets and elaborate insults, calling his foes colorful terms like “no-business, born insecure junkyard motherfucker,” while fighting the Man with kung-fu fury.
A modern homage to the genre, Black Dynamite pays tribute to Blaxploitation while skewering its tropes. Michael Jai White (The Dark Knight, Spawn) plays the title role as he hunts for his brother’s killer, falling smack-dab in the middle of a conspiracy that involves kung fu, crooked politicians, and Anaconda Malt Liquor. Its over-the-top absurdity makes for some lighter viewing than some of the heavier fare in the course, giving an easier-to-digest take on the genre.
Extra Credit: choose any one of the films from the following actors, as their contributions are numerous.
Pam Grier (Black Mama White Mama, Coffy, Foxy Brown)
Fred Williamson (Hammer, Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem)
Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones, Three the Hard Way, Black Samurai)