Celebrate “Black History Month” With Empowered “Blaxploitation” Cinema!
Black History Month is an important celebration of black achievement. That said, “blaxploitation cinema” doesn’t come up as much as it should in the discussion – but this “Cult Movie Monday” is ready to correct that!
“Blaxploitation” cinema was an important genre of exploitation film in the early 1970s. As wikipedia notes:
“the genre does rank among the first in which black characters and communities are the heroes and subjects of film and television, rather than sidekicks, villains, or victims of brutality. The genre’s inception coincides with the rethinking of race relations in the 1970s.”
Here’s a look at the genre, and some of the groundbreaking films that gave lead roles to men and women!
It all began with one of the most legendary Actors of our time:
The Iconic Sidney Poitier!
In 1958, Sidney Poitier starred with Tony Curtis in the critically acclaimed film “The Defiant Ones” as convicts who escape while chained together. Each received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor – with Poitier’s being the first EVER for a black actor!
In 1964, Poitier won the Academy Award for Best Actor for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, and also received critical acclaim for “A Raisin in the Sun” and “A Patch Of Blue.”
Sidney Poitier continued his incredible string of films with three massive hits in 1967: “To Sir, With Love”, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” and the Oscar-winning Best Picture “In The Heat Of The Night.”
This film was at the forefront of a “revolution” in cinema…check out this book that looked at the dramatic change in Hollywood in 1967 through the five films nominated for Best Picture:
By the end of the decade, Poitier came under criticism for his choice of roles, which some felt were too subservient – but as he noted, he was the only major actor of African descent being cast in leading roles in the American film industry, at that time.
That was all about to change thanks to one incendiary film!
“Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song” was a revolutionary film written, directed and starring Melvin Van Peebles – as the film noted in the opening credits:
The tagline of the film said it all:
“You bled my mamma, you bled my pappa, but you WON’T bleed me.”
The film tore into the issues of police brutality in a way never seen before – and as Peebles noted, it wasn’t appreciated – note the lower left box in this poster:
“Rated ‘X’ By An All-White Jury!”
Peebles is “The Godfather of Blaxploitation”, willing to take on Hollywood in order to tell his story his way.
The film’s underlying message of black empowerment was at a time of great civil unrest in the country, and the “rated X by an all-white jury!” was a provocative statement to put on the poster – while it seems a lifetime ago, this major battle was only 48 years ago!
You can click here for more trivia about this important film, and the trailer as well!
From there, the floodgates were open!
As you can see, empowered black men were now starring in huge box office hits, all showcasing the black experience…and it wasn’t just men:
Yes, empowered women were kicking ass as well, especially Pam Grier, who starred in film such as “Foxy Brown”, “Coffy”, and, in a funny turn of events, a female version of Poitier’s “Defiant Ones”, albeit with a more exploitative bent:
These films are a blast to watch – especially Greir, who is magnetic onscreen – you can find out more about her films by clicking here:
Over the next few years, there were a number of great blaxploitation films released:
Perhaps one of the greatest stars of that time was Jim Kelly, who exploded on the scene in Bruce Lee’s iconic “Enter The Dragon”:
Kelly went on to star in a number of his own action thrillers…sadly, he died a few years ago, but you can see his greatest hits by clicking here:
Finally, Eddie Murphy just paid homage to one of the greatest blaxploitation stars as well:
Murphy’s latest film “Dolemite Is My Name” told the story of one of the most unlikely blaxploitation stars, Rudy Ray Moore:
Murphy’s bio-pic is a love letter to blaxploitation – and one man who made himself a star against all odds – see more about Dolemite by clicking here:
As these films became more popular and entered the mainstream, they attracted more Actors as well:
Back to Poitier: even he loosened up his onscreen persona in the 70’s and starred in the blaxploitation-adjacent comedy “Uptown Saturday Night” – and it was just reported that Kevin Hart is remaking it.
There are so many classic blaxploitation films from that era – check them all out!
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