Sunday, June 13, 2010


The NAACP gave up trying to persuade Hollywood to cast more African-Americans in films and television shows in 1963 and resorted to legal measures and economic sanctions. Consequently, blacks began to appear in both major and minor roles in greater numbers. Actor Sidney Poitier emerged in the late 1960s as the first truly popular African-American actor and qualified as an example of "the model
integrationist hero." By the 1970s, African-Americans had turned up not only in ghetto-themed movies but also every other film genre and television show. Meanwhile, the discrimination that black actresses encountered simply mirrored the shortage of roles white actresses had contended with in Hollywood since time immemorial. Former Cleveland Browns football star Jim Brown rose to prominence in the wake of Sidney
Poitier as the new African-American hero. Poitier and Brown served as precursors for Blaxploitation.

Eventually, the pendulum swung from one extreme with the racist depiction of blacks as subservient Sambo characters before the 1960s to the newest extreme with blacks portrayed as Superspades in what later constituted a cinematic phenomenon called Blaxploitation. Essentially, the golden age of Blaxploitation movies occurred between 1970 and 1975 and these movie targeted primarily black audiences. Blaxploitation heroes and heroines displayed a social and political consciousness, and they were not confined to single roles. They were cast as private eyes,
policemen, vigilantes, troubleshooters, pimps, etc. In each instance, these characters worked within the system, but they did so as they saw fit and sought to improve the African-American community. Not surprisingly, blaxploitation heroes often clashed with whites, but they refused to depict whites in strictly monolithic terms. Good whites and bad whites jockeyed for prominence in the films. Although one NAACP official described blaxploitation as just "another form of cultural genocide," African-American audiences flocked to see them. Blaxploitation movies knew no boundaries and encompassed comedies, musicals, westerns, coming-of-age dramas, slave plantation films, and horror movies.

Director Ossie Davis' urban crime thriller "Cotton Comes to Harlem" (1970), about two African-American N.Y.P.D. cops, Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge), based on the Chester Himes novel, paved the way for the movement. When the film premiered, critics did not categorize Cotton as blaxploitation. Interestingly, the term "black exploitation" first appeared in print in the August 16, 1972, issue of the show business newspaper "Variety" when the NAACP Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch president, Junius Griffin, coined the term in a speech about the derogatory impact of the genre on African-Americans. Later, black exploitation was abbreviated as blaxploitation. The two films that historians have classified as "germinal" were independent filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles' "Sweet
Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (1971) and mainstream director Gordon Parks' "Shaft" (1971). Peebles's film supplemented the content of Davis' film with sex and violence, and Sweetback's success with black audiences triggered the blaxploitation craze, one of the most profitable in cinematic history. Major Hollywood film studios rushed similar films into production. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer followed Sweetback's
success with their private eye thriller "Shaft" (1971) starring model-turned-actor Richard Roundtree as the equivalent of Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade gumshoe character in "The Maltese Falcon." Some critics complained that movies like Shaft simply substituted blacks in roles that were traditionally played by whites. Initially, MGM thought about of rewriting the African-American lead in Shaft, based on Ernst
Tidyman's novel as a Caucasian.

As a detective movie, Shaft observed all the conventions of the genre. The action opens with the trench coat-clad protagonist wearing out shoe leather in Manhattan to the tune of Isaac Hayes' iconic, Oscar-winning theme music. The lyrics provide a thumbnail sketch of the hero's persona. Private detective John Shaft lives up to those lyrics as "the cat who won't cop out when there's danger all about." At this point in the action, Shaft makes his rounds and checks in with his people and learns that some people are looking for him. Mind you, not only are some hoods looking for our protagonist, but also the N.Y.P.D., in the person of Lieutenant Vic Androzzi, is looking for Shaft. Androzzi has been hearing some bad things and wants to check up with Shaft of what's happening. Meanwtime,an infamous Harlem crime lord, Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), loosely based on real-life criminal Bumpy Johnson, hires Shaft to locate his missing daughter Marcy. Shaft goes out looking for an old friend who has gotten into the revolution frame of mind, Ben Buford and he finds him at Amsterdam, 710. The villains stage a raid on Ben's building and only Shaft and Ben survive a massacre. Eventually, Shaft discovers that the Italian mafia has abducted her and he assembles a motley crew of black militants called The La Mumbas to help him rescue Marcy. Ben Buford (Christopher St. John of "For Love of Ivy")is the man in charge of The La Mumbas who helps Shaft out during the rescue in a blazing, shoot'em up finale in the last scene. Shaft and Buford have a face-to-face confrontation when the latter accuses the former of being a "Judas." The success of Shaft spawned two sequels "Shaft's Big Score" (1972) and "Shaft in Africa" (1973) and later a short-lived television series. Many blaxploitation movies gained notoriety for negative portrayals of African-Americans trapped in the ghettos that resorted to crime and
vice to triumph over their hostile surroundings and oppressive white