Blaxploitation filmmaking

Authored by: Harry M. Benshoff

The Routledge Companion to Cult Cinema

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  November  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138950276
eBook ISBN: 9781315668819
Adobe ISBN:




The controversial term “blaxploitation filmmaking” refers to hundreds of motion pictures made in the United States circa the early 1970s that featured proud and defiant African American protagonists. Some of the better known blaxploitation titles include Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), The Mack (1973), The Black Godfather (1974), and Coffy (1975). The term blaxploitation is a portmanteau word combining “black” and “exploitation,” and most blaxploitation films do fit a loose definition of exploitation filmmaking in that they were often raw and cheaply made films containing plenty of sex and violence. (The origins of the term itself – around the controversy caused by Super Fly in 1972 – is explored in Koven 2010: 9–13.) Blaxploitation films were also exploitative in the sense that they exploited a new era of African American rebellion, social consciousness, and cultural presence. Other critics and historians have suggested that the films literally exploit the black community, in that many of them feature what some critics deem to be “negative” images of African Americans, such as pimps, gangsters, and prostitutes. And of course much of the money made from these films flowed back into white Hollywood. So while blaxploitation films were popular with many younger and urban African American audiences, other middle class critics – perhaps most famously black psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint (1974) – decried the films for portraying blacks as “violent criminal sexy savages.”

 Add to shortlist  Cite

Blaxploitation filmmaking

The controversial term “blaxploitation filmmaking” refers to hundreds of motion pictures made in the United States circa the early 1970s that featured proud and defiant African American protagonists. Some of the better known blaxploitation titles include Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), The Mack (1973), The Black Godfather (1974), and Coffy (1975). The term blaxploitation is a portmanteau word combining “black” and “exploitation,” and most blaxploitation films do fit a loose definition of exploitation filmmaking in that they were often raw and cheaply made films containing plenty of sex and violence. (The origins of the term itself – around the controversy caused by Super Fly in 1972 – is explored in Koven 2010: 9–13.) Blaxploitation films were also exploitative in the sense that they exploited a new era of African American rebellion, social consciousness, and cultural presence. Other critics and historians have suggested that the films literally exploit the black community, in that many of them feature what some critics deem to be “negative” images of African Americans, such as pimps, gangsters, and prostitutes. And of course much of the money made from these films flowed back into white Hollywood. So while blaxploitation films were popular with many younger and urban African American audiences, other middle class critics – perhaps most famously black psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint (1974) – decried the films for portraying blacks as “violent criminal sexy savages.”

In truth, many of the films do depict angry, violent, and/or sexually adventurous protagonists (both intra- and interracially), images antithetical to those found in earlier Hollywood films dealing with African Americans and African American issues, such as the social problem films of the late 1940s (Pinky, Lost Boundaries, Intruder in the Dust [all 1949]) or the soft-peddled, de-sexed Sidney Poitier vehicles of the mid-1960s (Lilies of the Field [1963], A Patch of Blue [1965], Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner [1967]). As Josiah Howard puts it, Poitier’s films “never adequately addressed or displayed the frustration, disappointment and/or out-and-out anger that was so much a part of the 1960s African-American experience” (2008: 9). It may easily be argued that these earlier films were made to appeal to white audiences; conversely, blaxploitation films represent the first time that Hollywood it put its fantasy-creating machinery to work for the black spectator. Blaxploitation filmmaking allowed for a range of more fully realized African American characters in triumphant narratives that often celebrated violent retribution against (more or less explicit) white supremacy. Black audiences enjoying blaxploitation films got to see black protagonists “kick whitey’s ass” – and get away with it – for the first time in American film history. Arguably, this vicarious thrill is at the heart of the filmic phenomenon.

Some critics and film historians refer to blaxploitation as genre. I would like to argue against that view, chiefly for the primary reason that blaxploitation filmmaking contains (or exploits) many different genres. Although many of the best known films are gangster or crime dramas set in urban milieus like those mentioned above, there are also blaxploitation westerns (Buck and the Preacher [1972], Adios Amigos [1976]), blaxploitation horror films (Blacula [1972], Sugar Hill [1974]), blaxploitation musicals (Sparkle [1976], Car Wash [1976]), and even more “respectable” blaxploitation comedy-dramas like Claudine (1974) and Cooley High (1975). Furthermore, blaxploitation films contain elements common to other exploitation genres of the era, including women-in-prison films, kung-fu movies, biker films, revenge thrillers, and even late-period spaghetti westerns as in a film like Take a Hard Ride (1975). Therefore, instead of thinking about blaxploitation filmmaking as a genre in and of itself (with a stable iconography and consistent thematic meanings), it is perhaps more productive to consider it a filmic movement. Unlike genres, which tend to exist across decades, cinematic movements are circumscribed by – arising within and then declining within – a specific historical era. For example, the French New Wave (itself containing many different types of genre films) is usually understood as a movement of films reflective of post-World War II French culture, including intellectual trends such as existentialism and cinephilia, and made possible via financial opportunities afforded by the French government (all of which allowed young cinephiles like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard to make their first feature films). Similarly, blaxploitation films arise and decline within a specific era due to contiguous social issues (the rise of Black Nationalism, the violent rhetoric of the Black Power movement and actual racial violence in the streets), industrial contexts (the scrapping of the Hollywood Production Code, a desperate try-anything approach in a floundering film business facing years of audience apathy and near-bankruptcy), and even distribution-exhibition contexts (as white audiences fled to the suburbs, large urban theaters built in previous eras realized the need to target black audiences). Approaching blaxploitation filmmaking as a historically contextual movement allows critics and historians to see it as a complex and highly diverse set of films (which it is), whereas calling it a genre perhaps suggests a consistent (and simplistic) unity.

Contra Ed Guerrero (in his otherwise superlative overview of the phenomenon), blaxploitation filmmaking is comprised of far more than “sixty or so Hollywood films” (1993: 69). Although some blaxploitation films were distributed by major Hollywood studios (MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount), many more were distributed by minor outlets like American International Pictures (AIP), Dimension, and New World Pictures. Still others were independently produced and distributed outside the usual Hollywood channels; as such, some blaxploitation films have big budgets and glossy production values, while others are strictly bargain-basement fare. Some blaxploitation films were written and directed by African American filmmakers (Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Bill Gunn), while others were written and directed by white men who also worked in other exploitation genres (Jack Hill, Al Adamson, Larry Cohen). While it is tempting to argue that blaxploitation films made by African Americans tend to contain a harsher critique of white supremacy than those made by their white counterparts (or those made by major Hollywood studios), one should resist that reductive temptation. Many if not most blaxploitation films contain both racist and anti-racist themes and imagery, as well as problematic depictions of class, gender, and sexuality. I have argued elsewhere that blaxploitation films need to be examined on an individual basis and against the generic norms with which they engage (Benshoff 2000). At their best, blaxploitation films critique police corruption and brutality, dramatize black activism, showcase and celebrate black culture (especially music and fashion), and foreground the structural ills of the ghetto like poverty, crime, and drugs. At their worst, blaxploitation films re-circulate offensive stereotypes such as the Brutal Black Buck (Bogle 2016: 209–221), and make light or even mockery of serious social issues. Doubtless this is part of their ongoing camp and cult appeal – delight in their often crude excesses, as well as nostalgia for a less “politically correct” era, all combined with a taste for bad, schlocky “paracinema.” (For more on the politics of paracinema and “retrosploitation,” see Sconce [1995], and Church [2015].) Indeed, approaching blaxploitation as a movement (rather than a genre) allows our current interest in it to be understood as one particular form of retrosploitation: blaxploitation films originally existed in the early 1970s, faded from memory in the 1980s, only to be re-discovered by cultists (and cult filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino) in the 1990s.

Ed Guerrero (1993) suggests the high point of blaxploitation occurs with the production and reception of three key films: Melvin Van Peebles independent hit Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and the Hollywood hits Shaft (MGM) and Super Fly (Warner Bros.). Each film contains a swaggering macho black protagonist who is defiant, violent, street-smart, and hypersexualized (hence Bogle’s assertion that these films recirculate the black buck stereotype). However, that type of black male character had been increasingly appearing in films prior to the release of Sweet Sweetback, as in the (albeit supporting character) roles played by ex-football film star Jim Brown in films like The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968) and 100 Rifles (1969). (As blaxploitation filmmaking hit its peak around 1972–1973, Brown would be joined onscreen by other athletes-turned-actors including Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, and Rosie Grier.) Similarly, Blaxploitation’s giddily violent retributive aesthetic is definitely sounded at least a year before Sweet Sweetback in The Liberation of L. B. Jones (1970) when Yaphet Kotto, playing a black activist, tosses a white racist cop into a hay baling machine. Other films from the late 1960s explore racial issues in America from various hip or edgy perspectives. Putney Swope (1969) was a satire about a black man who takes over a white advertising agency. Melvin Van Peebles directed the Columbia Pictures release Watermelon Man (1970), a comedy about a white man who wakes up one day to discover he has become black. Other films written and/or directed by black men in these years include the nostalgic and autobiographical The Learning Tree (1969, written and directed by Gordon Parks) and Ossie Davis’s crowd-pleasing buddy action-comedy Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), based on the novel by Chester Himes. All of these films contributed to the blaxploitation aesthetic in various ways, several years before the term was coined.

However, for most film historians, it was the phenomenal independent success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971 that truly defined the blaxploitation aesthetic. Melvin Van Peebles’s “one man show” – he is credited as its star, producer, director, writer, editor, and even wrote some of its music – cost a half a million dollars to make and reaped ten million dollars in its first year of release (Guerrero 1993:86). Huey Newton, the leader of the Black Panthers, called it “the first truly revolutionary Black film made” (quoted in Guerrero 1993: 87). Formally, the film is almost avant-garde in its visual style (jump cuts, superimpositions, split screens, flares, vibrant color solarization) while its narrative is fairly minimalist. At the start of the film Sweetback (Van Peebles) is working in a bordello performing in a live sex show; his boss sends him off with two cops who are looking to show their superiors that they have a suspect in custody for an unrelated crime (any black suspect will do). When the two cops arrest and then brutally beat a black activist named Mu-Mu, Sweetback snaps and murders them both. For the rest of the film Sweetback runs in a picaresque manner south to the Mexican border, encountering assorted gamblers, pimps, corrupt preachers, whores, migrant farm workers, and more. He saves himself from a white motorcycle gang by sexually satisfying their female leader and rapes a woman at knife point at a hippy be-in (to evade police). Eventually Sweetback makes it to Mexico alive, after killing three hound dogs freed to hunt him down, and a superimposed title ends the film: “A Baadasssss Nigger is Coming to Collect Some Dues.” Simultaneously raw and sophisticated, sexually provocative and defiant, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song arguably created the blaxploitation “formula” that would endure for several years: a violent sexually charged black man takes on a corrupt racist society and triumphs against it. (It should be noted that critiques of Sweetback’s sexist sexual politics were first sounded upon its original release [Bennett 1971] and have continued to the present day.)

Two of the best known blaxploitation films, Shaft and Super Fly, are Hollywood iterations of the Sweet Sweetback formula, and both were equally successful at the box office: Shaft cost a little over one million dollars and made 11 million in its first year. Similarly, Super Fly cost a half of a million dollars and made 12 million in its first year (Guerrero 1993: 92, 95). Importantly, both films were directed by black men, Gordon Parks Sr. and Gordon Parks Jr., respectively; they were also scored by popular black musicians. Isaac Hayes won an Oscar for his “Theme from Shaft,” while Curtis Mayfield’s soulful score for Super Fly out-grossed the film itself. Being Hollywood films, Shaft and Super Fly contain less of the raw anguish and X-rated sexuality of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. They are also more generically formulaic. Shaft is a police drama starring Richard Roundtree as the titular detective John Shaft, while Super Fly is a gangster film about a charismatic drug dealer played by Ron O’Neal. Both films gave immediate rise to sequels, including Shaft’s Big Score (1972), the globe-hopping James Bond-inspired Shaft in Africa (1973), seven Shaft TV movies (1973), and Super Fly TNT (1973). Everyone inside Hollywood (and on its fringes) wanted a piece of the action, and 1973 proved to be blaxploitation’s “banner year … judging by the numbers of films released” (Howard 2008: 13). It was also the year the industry had to answer its fiercest critics: middle class African American civil rights groups.

As mentioned at the start of this entry, not everyone found blaxploitation films harmless, “empowering” action-oriented entertainment. As early as 1972, Junius Griffin, head of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, said in a Newsweek interview that “We must insist that our children are not exposed to a diet of so-called black movies that glorify black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters and super males with vast physical prowess but no cognitive skills” (quoted in Howard 2008: 12). Griffin was joined by other civil right activists including Jesse Jackson, black industry professionals like Tony Brown, and psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint in denouncing what they felt were blaxploitation films’ degrading depictions of women and violent, hypersexualized, criminal men. The Coalition Against Blaxploitation (CAB) was briefly formed at this moment in time, headed by Junius Griffin and comprised of representatives from civil rights groups like the NAACP, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). One of CAB’s goals was to rate films based on their “negative” versus “positive” images of black people (Howard 2008: 13). Today we recognize that one viewer’s positive image may be another’s viewer’s negative one, and vice versa: is Blacula the story of an avenging crusader or an evil monster? That methodological error aside, CAB was quickly undone by the voices of the many actors, writers, directors, and musicians working in blaxploitation films, filmmakers who wanted the work and who were earning a good living from it. Soon the protests quieted, and the movement began to diversify generically, before eventually withering away by the end of the decade.

Two new trends exemplify the blaxploitation films made between 1973 and 1976: the casting of women as strong black avenger figures, and the increased presence of martial arts. (Kung fu films like Enter the Dragon [1973] were almost as successful in urban theatres as were blaxploitation films.) Both trends may have been industry attempts to placate groups like CAB, by placing women in the formerly male avenger role, and moving away from gangster-style gun violence. However, both attempts were a bit disingenuous – in that martial arts fighting only theatricalizes and prolongs scenes of violence and that blaxploitation’s new female action stars (most notably Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson) were exploited by the entertainment industry as much for their sex appeal as for their acting abilities. Dobson had been a fashion model and Grier had won beauty contests that first brought her to Hollywood, where she appeared as a supporting character in a string of low budget women-in prison films for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures such as The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), and The Arena (1973). Pam Grier’s breakthrough came when she moved to AIP and starred in the vigilante action film Coffy (1973, written and directed by Jack Hill). The film was a huge hit and followed by the nearly identical and just as popular Foxy Brown (1974, also written and directed by Jack Hill). In both films Grier’s character is out for revenge against corrupt white gangsters (who have killed her sister in Coffy and her boyfriend in Foxy Brown.) In both films the villains are organized criminals who run drugs and prostitution rings, their various depraved minions, and the white powers structures that tacitly enable them; in defeating these empires Coffy/Foxy uses her sexuality, her wits, and all sorts of weapons, from shotguns, to automobiles, to razor blades, and even a coat hanger. Foxy Brown ends memorably when Foxy presents the female gangster Miss Katherine with a Mason jar containing Miss Katherine’s lover’s genitals.

Pam Grier starred in two more similar blaxploitation vehicles for AIP, Friday Foster and Sheba Baby (both 1975), but each produced diminishing returns at the box office. Like many of the male blaxploitation stars of the 1970s, Grier was not in much demand in 1980s Hollywood, and found only sporadic work in supporting character parts. She returned to some degree of prominence during the 1990s with the revival of interest in blaxploitation filmmaking. She played small character parts in Mario (son of Melvin) Van Peebles’s black western Posse (1993), and in the Tim Burton retrosploitation science fiction film Mars Attacks! (1993). She played the female lead in the retro-blaxploitation action film Original Gangstas (1996), along with fellow blaxploitation stars Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree, and Ron O’Neal. Most notably, her 1997 starring vehicle Jackie Brown, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, was a homage to her star persona in films like Coffy and Foxy Brown.

The other female blaxploitation star who arose in the mid-1970s was former model Tamara Dobson, who starred as a very fashionable secret agent in Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975), both released by Warner Bros. Both films show the encroaching influence of kung fu on blaxploitation filmmaking in these years – Cleopatra practices martial arts, has two black karate experts as her sidekicks, and in the second film travels to Hong Kong to rescue two male secret agents. Intriguingly, in both films Cleopatra’s arch opponent is a white lesbian gangster, played by Shelley Winters in the former and Stella Stevens in the latter. In more recent years, feminist and queer film theorists have found much of interest in blaxploitation’s representation of women and sexual minorities. Studies by Yvonne D. Sims (2006) and Mia Mask (2009) explore the intersectionality of race and gender in black female action films and in the films of Pam Grier in particular. In another important piece, Joe Wlodarz (2004) explored the ramifications of “Queer Blaxploitation,” noting that the films’ frequent queer characters work to unsettle (as well as uphold) dominant notions of black masculinity. On a basic level, much of this research underlines the fact that B and exploitation films often contain non-dominant images of women and sexual minorities, whether they be Grier and Dobson’s violent (albeit sexualized) avengers, or the interracial gay couples found in Blacula and the Redd Foxx vehicle Norman … Is That You? (1976). It might also be worth noting that black women were portrayed as violent avengers almost twenty years before white women were in films like Thelma and Louise (1991). Is this perhaps because within the racist imaginary black women are figured as closer to the animalistic physical body than the pure spirituality associated white women? Whatever the complex reasons, it is safe to say that twenty-first-century scholars will continue to find blaxploitation filmmaking a rich medium within which to explore historical constructions of race, gender, sexuality, class, as well as the broader contours of American film history. Films that were once dismissed as trash by white and black critics alike continue to constitute a rich a field of study for contemporary scholars.

Case studies: Two late-period independent blaxploitation films

Written, directed and produced by three white men (George Armitage, William Witney, and Gene [brother-of-Roger] Corman) for New World Pictures, Darktown Strutters (1975, aka Get Down and Boogie) exemplifies the more depoliticized and potentially offensive trends found in some blaxploitation films. Ostensibly a comedy about an outlandishly garbed female biker gang and their corresponding partners in a male biker gang, the film centers on Syreena (Trina Parks) who is searching the city for her missing mother, Cinderella (Frances Nealy). Her search eventually leads her to a corrupt white BBQ rib magnate named Commander Louisville Cross (costumed like Kentucky Fried Chicken spokesman Colonel Sanders), who lives on a plantation estate complete with cotton fields and a watermelon patch. With his KKK henchmen, Cross plans to use black women’s bodies to help clone prominent black citizens, turning them into slaves instead of community organizers. Within this barely disguised allegory for the holocaust of slavery, the film attempts to wring comedy out of the sort of shtick AIP loaded into its beach party movies ten years earlier: whacky characters and costumes, impromptu music-and-dance numbers and pie-fight set pieces, kooky sound effects and Spike Jones-style music, and fast-motion car chases with Keystone-like cops (one of whom is played by AIP stalwart Dick Miller). It also contains a black face minstrel show, jokes about rape, jokes about abortion, jokes about lynching, jokes about black kids selling drugs, and jokes based on black men being drug addicts, thieves, pimps, welfare dependents, shoeshine boys, sexual disease carriers, and gorillas. In one particularly tone-deaf vignette, a white policeman applies black face and dons a dress in order to catch a “white female rapist on the loose [who] preys on black male faggots”; he is immediately shot to death by the white policemen whose “ghetto alert map” and “nigger alarm” has indicated his presence in the station.

Yes, the film also satirizes its white police officers, but how funny any of these jokes would have been to audiences in 1975 (or today) remains open to investigation. With Cross himself climactically dressed as a pig and the KKK treated like rejects from Eric Von Zipper’s gang in any number of Beach Party movies (1963–1966), the film is an attempt to be a hip “insult everyone” scattershot comedy. But given the way it stereotypes black men, laughs about violence directed at queers of color, and jokingly represents black women’s bodies (mis)used by the white power establishment – Cross’s organization drugs and rapes black women and its cloning device is figured as a huge mechanical black woman named Annie – it ultimately trivializes serious issues of racial and sexual exploitation. The film may have been part of the trend to have black women take center stage in blaxploitation films, but in this case Syreena’s story fails to overcome the white male biases within which it is figured.

Abar, The First Black Superman (1977, aka In Your Face) is a very different type of blaxploitation film. From Mirror Releasing, Abar was the only film ever written and produced by James Smalley, and the only film ever directed by Frank Packard. (I could not locate any information on the race or industrial context/s of these men.) However, unlike Darktown Strutters, Abar appears to be much more a labor of love (literally), liberally invoking the speeches, images, and philosophies of Martin Luther King throughout its running time. To some extent, it recalls both the aesthetic limitations and the earnest Christianity of Spencer Williams’s 1940s “race movies.” The plot concerns kindly black Dr. Kincade (J. Walter Smith), who develops a serum that can turn a human being into a superhuman, but that plot is almost secondary to the film’s depiction of the racist hatred faced by Dr. Kincade, his wife, and their children when they move into a white middle class suburb in Southern California. The film offers no sugar coated version of this abuse: the Kincades receive verbal taunts from the neighbors (who first mistake Dr. Kincade and his wife for a butler and maid), endure vandalism, threats of harm towards them and their relatives, a dead and gutted cat hung on their front porch, attempts by their local home owner’s association to buy them out of their new home, and even murder when a city official deliberately runs down and kills the Kincade’s son.

The Kincades reluctantly accept the help and protection of Abar (Tobar Mayo) and the Black Front of Unity, his activist group from South Central Los Angeles. Abar’s voice speaks the grievances of the ghetto (visualized in a powerful location-shot montage sequence), while also critiquing corrupt black politicians, racist white policemen, and even Dr. Kincade’s decision to flee from the ghetto into a white middle class neighborhood (ostensibly so he can finish his scientific research). Both Dr. Kincade and Abar embody Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violent social change: despite the terror his family is subjected to, Dr. Kincade explains to his children that racists are “people with broken minds and broken hearts.” When Abar finally drinks the potion that makes him invincible, he sees a vision of Jesus Christ, and develops newfound psychic powers – which he explains as an awakening in his mind of an “ancient wisdom” of “Divine origin.” He begins to redress both black and white crimes not with violence, but through transformation. In the climactic sequence, Abar appears in a blue suit, red shirt, and a tie adorned with white crosses; via his newfound powers, he makes black on black crime in the ghetto reverse itself and turns a street corner of drinking/gambling/pot-smoking youths into college graduates. With a sort of Divine wind that would not be out of place in any Biblical epic, Abar visits curses of snakes, rats, and bees on the Kincades’ middle class neighbors, who quickly realize the error of their ways. One of the most racist housewives even admits that her hatred stems from the fact that she herself is a black woman passing for white, and the film ends with yet more words from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.


As the blaxploitation era was winding to a close, Rudy Ray Moore, a comedian who became famous performing on the “Chitlin Circuit” of African American theatres and nightclubs, produced and starred in Generation International Pictures Disco Godfather (1979, aka Avenging Disco Godfather). Moore’s films (which also include Dolemite [1975] and Petey Wheatstraw [1977]) were generally based on his rapping, signifying, bigger-than-life stage routines, and his “Disco Godfather” Tucker fills that bill quite nicely: Tucker is a flamboyant ex-cop and nightclub owner determined to take down the gangsters pushing PCP (“angel dust,” and/or “wack”) to the kids in his community. As such, Disco Godfather is a compendium of common blaxploitation tropes: outlandish fashions, night club scenes with music and dancing (even a “roller boogie”), a plot about drugs in the ghetto, black activists, corrupt policemen and politicians, kung fu fighting, and even monstrous demons (visualized as the bad trips of the drug addicts). But by 1979, the formula had gotten stale, and Hollywood insiders as well as independents were shying away from making blaxploitation films. Compared to the 1970s, the film industry of the 1980s mostly turned its back on black films, black themes, and in many cases black filmmakers. Only with the mid-decade success of Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985) and the rise of Spike Lee (beginning with She’s Gotta Have It [1986]) would black participation in American filmmaking once again start to rise, albeit slowly.

Ed Guerrero argues that blaxploitation audiences paid Hollywood a lot of money when the industry needed it most, during the financially lean years of the late 1960s and early 1970s (1993: 105). However, he also notes that black audiences were equally interested in the decade’s nostalgic Hollywood blockbusters (films like The Godfather [1972], Jaws [1975), Rocky [1976], and Star Wars [1977]), films that were quickly defining the “New Hollywood.” The majors no longer needed to cater to black audiences, and independent exploitation filmmakers found new genres to exploit, such as the slasher film. The relative flop of the big-budget musical The Wiz (1978) may have also soured Hollywood on black movies of any size. Despite the presence of black stars like Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Lena Horne, The Wiz was a dreary affair directed by gritty urban realist Sidney Lumet – a man who had never directed a musical before. What were they expecting? Still, blaxploitation filmmaking gave work and exposure to many African American actors, writers, directors, and musicians during the brief years that it flourished. The movement produced a wide range highly diverse films, many of which are still waiting to be discovered by cultists and scholars alike.


Bennett, Lerone . 1971. “The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland,” Ebony, 26 (September): 106–116.
Benshoff, Harry . 2000. “Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?,” Cinema Journal, 39.2 (Winter): 31–50.
Bogle, Donald . 2016/1973. Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films, Fifth Edition. New York: Bloomsbury.
Church, David . 2015. Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video and Exploitation Film Fandom. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Guerrero, Ed. 1993. “Chapter Three: The Rise and Fall of Blaxploitation,” in Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press: 69–111.
Howard, Josiah . 2008. Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide. Surrey, England: FAB Press.
Koven, Mikel J. 2010. Blaxploitation Films. Harpenden: Kamera Books, 2010.
Mask, Mia . 2009. Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Poussaint, Alvin F. 1974. “Cheap Thrills That Degrade Blacks,” Psychology Today, 7 (February): 22–26.
Sconce, Jeffrey . 1995. “‘Trashing’ the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style,” Screen, 36.4: 371–393.
Sims, Yvonne D. 2006. Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Wlodarz, Joe . 2004. “Beyond the Black Macho: Queer Blaxploitation,” Velvet Light Trap, 53 (Spring): 10–25.
Search for more...
Back to top

Use of cookies on this website

We are using cookies to provide statistics that help us give you the best experience of our site. You can find out more in our Privacy Policy. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.