Blaxploitation is as misunderstood and unfairly dismissed a sub-genre as Spaghetti Westerns are. It’s not all pimps, pushers and prostitutes. There were also street-level heroes as colorful as any in the old Pulps. In addition some of the most watchable blaxploitation flicks featured cathartic scenes of African-Americans blowing away Democrats of the Ku Klux Klan and genocidal neo-Nazis plus – decades before Django Unchained – a few Westerns showed former slaves turned gunslingers shooting down actual slave-owners and slave-traders.
Balladeer’s Blog has examined several categories:
BLAXPLOITATION FILMS THAT DESERVE A CLOSER LOOK
Comment: From Pulpish action epics to political satire to black biker films to tastelessly explicit looks at the hardcore ugliness of the Atlantic slave trade, these films boldly went where no mainstream movies of the time period dared to go.
Examples: Superfly, a neglected gangster classic … The Spook Who Sat by the Door, about a successful armed black uprising … The Brotherhood of Death, featuring black Vietnam vets fighting the Klan … Mister Deathman, with a black James Bond in Apartheid-era South Africa.
Top Film On List: Darktown Strutters, an in-your-face satire on race, politics and consumerism presented in a style that seems equal parts Richard Pryor and South Park.
BLAXPLOITATION HORROR FILMS
Comment: As ridiculous as some of the titles and premises were, there were critics praising these films when they were released. In some circles they were viewed as movies that “daringly inserted African-American figures into traditionally white stories.”
Examples: Blacula, in which Dracula turns an African Prince into a vampire … Dr Black and Mr Hyde, about a brilliant black doctor whose serum periodically turns him into a violent white madman … Disco Exorcist, in which a housewife is possessed by a Yoruban demon and must be exorcised … The Zombies of Sugar Hill, which features the heroine “Sugar” Hill using a horde of undead plantation slaves to battle the Mafia.
Top Film On List: Blackenstein, which featured an African-American soldier who lost both arms and both legs in Vietnam being transformed into a black version of Frankenstein’s Monster.
PAM GRIER’S FINEST
Comment: Ebony magazine called her The Mocha Mogul of Hollywood in the 1970’s. Forget her Women in Prison potboilers and her supporting roles in other films, Pam Grier was at her best portraying butt-kicking Pulp heroines on the big screen.
Examples: Coffy, in which Pam is a nurse by day but by night becomes “Mystique” a vixen who blows away drug pushers … Sheba, Baby, starring Pam as private investigator Sheba Shayne who takes down gangsters who are leaning on an old flame … Friday Foster, as Pam plays the title comic strip character: a photo-journalist tangling with an organization of White Supremacists.
Top Film On List: Foxy Brown, with Pam starring as the title figure. Foxy is out for revenge on the white gangster lovebirds who killed the man she loves. Along the way she also topples some of the politicians on the gangsters’ payroll.
BLAXPLOITATION’S LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN
Examples: Cleopatra Jones, starring Tamara Dobson as the title character, a DEA agent who foiled drug dealers from the poppy fields of the Middle East to downtown Los Angeles … TNT Jackson, about a black martial arts mistress who trails her brother’s killers to the Philippines, where she gets her revenge … Black Lolita, in which a feisty femme fatale brings down a gangster called Big Buddha … Velvet Smooth, about a female private investigator in the middle of a gang war.
Top Film On List: Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, the sequel which found our heroine in Hong Kong taking on the Dragon Lady (Stella Stevens) who ran her drug operation out of the title gambling establishment.
Comment: Unlike so many other Westerns these films did not ignore the obvious racial tensions in the post-Civil War West, nor did they gloss over them with just a surface examination. These films let things get uncomfortable … very uncomfortable.
Examples: The Legend of Nigger Charley, in which a former slave becomes a gunslinger and uses his shooting skills for frontier justice … Take a Hard Ride, the DEFINITIVE hybrid of Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation, with Italo-Western staple Lee Van Cleef along for the ride … Boss Nigger, about a hard-assed black ranch foreman … Posse, featuring black veterans of the Spanish-American War taking on crooked Army officers and Klansmen.
Top Film On List: The Soul of Nigger Charley, the action-packed sequel which finds the title gunslinger clashing with ex-Confederate soldiers who are rounding up freed blacks out west with the intention of selling them into slavery in Emperor Maximillian’s Mexico.
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