Week 6: Blaxploitation and its Cinematic Respondents

Today’s class saw a slight shift in focus, to the development of African-American filmmaking in the 1970s. The overwhelming majority of the films we’ve looked at thus far in the class were made by white males. This, of course, is still the case in today’s Hollywood, experimental, and independent cinema.

It is also important to remember that up until the 1970s, there were no mainstream African-American film directors, and very, very few African-American film stars, with the notable exception of Sidney Poitier, whose career we discussed.

Robert Sklar:

In the period around 1970, when debates over race and gender had become fully articulated not only in words but in social action, it was as if there existed two completely different discourses, one in society, the other in movies. Against the vividness of social actuality the movies were in no position to interpose, and any mediating was up to the moviegoer.

More specifically, we considered the rise and fall of the Blaxploitation genre, and various cinematic responses to that genre. In doing so, we looked at how the cultural and industry conditions of the 1970s opened up the potentiality for an independent black cinema, and once again look at the relationship between independent and mainstream modes of filmmaking. Some of the questions that guided our discussion:

What constitutes a “black” film? Does it merely include an African American director or actors, or must the plot center on the African American community and cultural themes?

How has African American filmmaking been marginalized? Why does it continue to be? Is this a function of the industry, the audience, or both?

What are the potentials for, and limits to, film as a political tool? As a revolutionary platform? As a conscious raising one?

How is African American masculinity depicted in these films? What is the relationship of the individual to the larger community in these films? What is the tension between integration and separation in these films? How does the representation of marginalized or underrepresented communities rebut or confirm the putative universality of film?

This week, we read Howard Zinn’s account of the civil rights movement in order to help contextualize the social and political currents that shape what we’ll see on screen today. One of the recurrent themes in Zinn’s essay is the question of how best to resist an oppressive regime—violently, or non-violently? By assimilating, or by asserting difference?

Ed Guerrero cites three factors that led to the rise of Blaxploitation:

These concoctions were marketed to a basically inner-city, black youth audience in anticipatlon of substantial box office profits. The guiding argument of my discussion is that the Blaxploitation genre emerged out of the dialectal interactions of three broad, overdetermining conditions of possibility. The first and most obvious to observers of the late 1960s scene is that these films were made possible by the rising political and social consciousness of black people (taking the form of a broadly expressed black nationalist impulses at the end of the civil rights movement), which translated into a large black audience thirsting to see their full humanity depicted on the commercial cinema screen. This surge in African American identity politics also led to an outspoken, critical dissatisfaction with Hollywood’s persistent degradation of African Americans in films among black leaders, entertainers, and intellectuals. Ultimately, the mounting pressure of these conditions coincided with the near economic collapse of the film industry at the end of the 1960s. In turn, this forced Hollywood to respond to the rising expectations of African Americans by making black-oriented features in order to solve the film industry’s political and financial problems.


Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971)

We paid special attention to Van Peebles’ methods of independent production (he wrote, produced, directed, edited, and starred in the film) and disruptive formal strategies (optical printing, jump cuts, split screens, sound/music); the depiction of Sweetback’s hyper-libidinal masculinity; and the film’s depictions of the black community.

Also, here’s one of the many Occupy Wall Street videos that have appropriated Van Peebles’ “Love, That’s America,” from his film, Watermelon Man (1970):

Then we took a look at Poitier’s response to Blaxploitation, Uptown Saturday Night (Sidney Poitier, 1974):

…as well as Charles Burnett’s low-budget lost classic about life in Watts, Killer of Sheep (1971):

…and we concluded with Richard Pryor‘s seminal, autobiographical, and decidedly raunchy (as well as being the first theatrically released stand-up film) Live in Concert (1979):

As a bonus, here’s Pryor in 1977 as America’s “First Black President,” from his short-lived Richard Pryor Show:




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