Blaxploitation is an ethnic subgenre of the exploitation film that emerged in the United States during the early 1970s. The term, a portmanteau of the words "black" and "exploitation", was coined in August 1972 by Junius Griffin, the president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood NAACP branch. He claimed the genre was "proliferating offenses" to the black community in its perpetuation of stereotypical characters often involved in crime. The genre does rank among the first after the race films in the 1940s and 1960s in which black characters and communities are the protagonists and subjects of film and television, rather than sidekicks, antagonists or victims of brutality. The genre's inception coincides with the rethinking of race relations in the 1970s.
Blaxploitation films were originally aimed at an urban African-American audience but the genre's audience appeal soon broadened across racial and ethnic lines. Hollywood realized the potential profit of expanding the audiences of blaxploitation films.
Variety credited Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and the less radical, Hollywood-financed film Shaft (both released in 1971) with the invention of the blaxploitation genre; Cotton Comes to Harlem was released before either of those pictures. Blaxploitation films were also the first to feature soundtracks of funk and soul music.
[S]upercharged, bad-talking, highly romanticized melodramas about Harlem superstuds, the pimps, the private eyes and the pushers who more or less singlehandedly make whitey's corrupt world safe for black pimping, black private-eyeing and black pushing.
Blaxploitation films set in the Northeast or West Coast mainly take place in poor urban neighborhoods. Pejorative terms for white characters, such as "cracker" and "honky," are commonly used. Blaxploitation films set in the South often deal with slavery and miscegenation. The genre's films are often bold in their statements and use violence, sex, drug trafficking and other shocking qualities to provoke the audience. The films usually portray black protagonists overcoming "The Man" or emblems of the white majority that oppresses the black community.
Blaxploitation includes several subtypes, including crime (Foxy Brown), action/martial arts (Three the Hard Way), westerns (Boss Nigger), horror (Abby, Blacula), prison (Penitentiary), comedy (Uptown Saturday Night), nostalgia (Five on the Black Hand Side), coming-of-age (Cooley High/Cornbread, Earl and Me), and musical (Sparkle).
Following the example set by Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, many blaxploitation films feature funk and soul jazz soundtracks with heavy bass, funky beats and wah-wah guitars. These soundtracks are notable for complexity that was not common to the radio-friendly funk tracks of the 1970s. They also often feature a rich orchestration which included flutes and violins.
Following the popularity of these films in the 1970s, movies within other genres began to feature black characters with stereotypical blaxploitation characteristics, such as the Harlem underworld characters in the James Bond film Live and Let Die (1973), Jim Kelly's character in Enter the Dragon (1973) and Fred Williamson's character in The Inglorious Bastards (1978).
Afeni Shakur claimed that every aspect of culture (including cinema) in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by the Black Power movement. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was one of the first films to incorporate black power ideology and permit black actors to be the stars of their own narratives, rather than being relegated to the typical roles available to them (such as the "mammy" figure and other low-status characters). Films such as Shaft brought the black experience to film in a new way, allowing black political and social issues that had been ignored in cinema to be explored. Shaft and its protagonist, John Shaft, brought African American culture to the mainstream world. Sweetback and Shaft were both influenced by the black power movement, containing Marxist themes, solidarity and social consciousness alongside the genre-typical images of sex and violence.
Knowing that film could bring about social and cultural change, the Black Power movement seized the genre to highlight black socioeconomic struggles in the 1970s; many such films contained black heroes who were able to overcome the institutional oppression of African American culture and history. Later films such as Super Fly softened the rhetoric of black power, encouraging resistance within the capitalist system rather than a radical transformation of society. Super Fly still embraced the black nationalist movement in its argument that black and white authority cannot coexist easily.
The genre's role in exploring and shaping race relations in the United States has been controversial. Some held that the blaxploitation trend was a token of black empowerment but others accused the movies of perpetuating common white stereotypes about black people. As a result, many called for the end of the genre. The NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and National Urban League joined to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation. Their influence in the late 1970s contributed to the genre's demise. Literary critic Addison Gayle wrote in 1974, "The best example of this kind of nihilism / irresponsibility are the Black films; here is freedom pushed to its most ridiculous limits; here are writers and actors who claim that freedom for the artist entails exploitation of the very people to whom they owe their artistic existence."
Films such as Super Fly and The Mack received intense criticism not only for the stereotype of the protagonist (generalizing pimps as representative of all African-American men, in this case) but for portraying all black communities as hotbeds for drugs and crime.
Blaxploitation films such as Mandingo (1975) provided mainstream Hollywood producers, in this case Dino De Laurentiis, a cinematic way to depict plantation slavery with all of its brutal, historical and racial contradictions and controversies, including sex, miscegenation, rebellion. The story world also depicts the plantation as one of the main origins of boxing as a sport in the U.S.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new wave of acclaimed black film makers, particularly Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing), John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), and Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society) focused on black urban life in their movies. These directors made use of blaxploitation elements while incorporating implicit criticism of the genre's glorification of stereotypical "criminal" behavior.
Alongside accusations of exploiting stereotypes, the NAACP also criticized the blaxploitation genre of exploiting the black community and culture of America, by creating films for a profit that those communities would never see, despite being the vastly misrepresented main focus of many blaxploitation film plots. Many film professionals still believe that there is no truly equal "Black Hollywood" as evidenced by the "Oscars So White" scandal in 2015 that caused uproar when no black actors were nominated for "Best Actor" Oscar Awards.
Slavesploitation, a subgenre of blaxploitation in literature and film, flourished briefly in the late 1960s and 1970s. As its name suggests, the genre is characterized by sensationalistic depictions of slavery.
Abrams, arguing that Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) finds its historical roots in the slavesploitation genre, observes that slavesploitation films are characterized by "crassly exploitative representations of oppressed slave protagonists".
One early antecedent of the genre is Slaves (1969), which Gaines notes was "not 'slavesploitation' in the vein of later films", but which nonetheless featured graphic depictions of beatings and sexual violence against slaves. Novotny argues that Blacula (1972), although it does not depict slavery directly, is historically linked to the slavesploitation subgenre.
By far the best-known and best-studied exemplar of slavesploitation is Mandingo, a 1957 novel which was adapted into a 1961 play and a 1975 film. Indeed, Mandingo was so well known that a contemporary reviewer of Die the Long Day, a 1972 novel by Orlando Patterson, called it an example of the "Mandingo genre". The film, panned on its release, has been subject to widely divergent critical assessments. Robin Wood, for instance, argued in 1998 that it is the "greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood, certainly prior to Spike Lee and in some respects still".
Blaxploitation films have had an enormous and complicated influence on American cinema. Filmmaker and exploitation film fan Quentin Tarantino, for example, has made numerous references to the blaxploitation genre in his films. An early blaxploitation tribute can be seen in the character of "Lite," played by Sy Richardson, in Repo Man (1984). Richardson later wrote Posse (1993), which is a kind of blaxploitation Western.
Some of the later, blaxploitation-influenced movies such as Jackie Brown (1997), Undercover Brother (2002), Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), and Django Unchained (2012) feature pop culture nods to the genre. The parody Undercover Brother, for example, stars Eddie Griffin as an afro-topped agent for a clandestine organization satirically known as the "B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D.". Likewise, Austin Powers in Goldmember co-stars Beyoncé Knowles as the Tamara Dobson/Pam Grier-inspired heroine, Foxxy Cleopatra. In the 1977 parody film The Kentucky Fried Movie, a mock trailer for Cleopatra Schwartz depicts another Grier-like action star married to a rabbi. In a famous scene in Reservoir Dogs, the protagonists discuss Get Christie Love!, a mid-1970s blaxploitation television series. In the catalytic scene of True Romance, the characters watch the movie The Mack.
John Singleton's Shaft (2000), starring Samuel L. Jackson, is a modern-day interpretation of a classic blaxploitation film. The 1997 film Hoodlum starring Laurence Fishburne portrays a fictional account of black mobster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson and recasts gangster blaxploitation with a 1930s twist. In 2004, Mario Van Peebles released Baadasssss!, about the making of his father Melvin's movie (with Mario playing Melvin). 2007's American Gangster, based on the true story of heroin dealer Frank Lucas, takes place in the early 1970s in Harlem and has many elements similar in style to blaxploitation films, specifically its prominent featuring of the song "Across 110th Street".
Blaxploitation films have profoundly impacted contemporary hip-hop culture. Several prominent hip hop artists, including Snoop Dogg, Big Daddy Kane, Ice-T, Slick Rick, and Too Short, have adopted the no-nonsense pimp persona popularized first by ex-pimp Iceberg Slim's 1967 book Pimp and subsequently by films such as Super Fly, The Mack, and Willie Dynamite. In fact, many hip-hop artists have paid tribute to pimping within their lyrics (most notably 50 Cent's hit single "P.I.M.P.") and have openly embraced the pimp image in their music videos, which include entourages of scantily-clad women, flashy jewelry (known as "bling"), and luxury Cadillacs (referred to as "pimpmobiles"). The most famous scene of The Mack, featuring the "Annual Players Ball", has become an often-referenced pop culture icon—most recently by Chappelle's Show, where it was parodied as the "Playa Hater's Ball". The genre's overseas influence extends to artists such as Norway's hip-hop duo Madcon.
In Michael Chabon's novel Telegraph Avenue, set in 2004, two characters are former blaxploitation stars.
In 1980, opera director Peter Sellars (not to be confused with actor Peter Sellers) produced and directed a staging of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni in the manner of a blaxploitation film, set in contemporary Spanish Harlem, with African-American singers portraying the anti-heroes as street-thugs, killing by gunshot rather than with a sword, using recreational drugs, and partying almost naked. It was later released on commercial video and can be seen on YouTube.
A 2016 video game, Mafia III, is set in the year 1968 and revolves around Lincoln Clay, a mixed-race African American orphan raised by "black mob". After the murder of his surrogate family at the hands of the Italian mafia, Lincoln Clay seeks vengeance on those who took away the only thing that mattered to him.
The notoriety of the blaxploitation genre has led to many parodies. The earliest attempts to mock the genre, Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin and Rudy Ray Moore's Dolemite, date back to the genre's heyday in 1975.
Coonskin was intended to deconstruct racial stereotypes, from early minstrel show stereotypes to more recent stereotypes found in blaxploitation film itself. The work stimulated great controversy even before its release when the Congress of Racial Equality challenged it. Even though distribution was handed to a smaller distributor who advertised it as an exploitation film, it soon developed a cult following with black viewers.
Dolemite, less serious in tone and produced as a spoof, centers around a sexually active black pimp played by Rudy Ray Moore, who based the film on his stand-up comedy act. A sequel, The Human Tornado, followed.
Later spoofs parodying the blaxploitation genre include I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Pootie Tang, Undercover Brother, Black Dynamite, and The Hebrew Hammer, which featured a Jewish protagonist and was jokingly referred to by its director as a "Jewsploitation" film.
Robert Townsend's comedy Hollywood Shuffle features a young black actor who is tempted to take part in a white-produced blaxploitation film.
The satirical book Our Dumb Century features an article from the 1970s entitled "Congress Passes Anti-Blaxploitation Act: Pimps, Players Subject to Heavy Fines".
FOX's network television comedy, "MADtv", has frequently spoofed the Rudy Ray Moore-created franchise Dolemite, with a series of sketches performed by comic actor Aries Spears, in the role of "The Son of Dolemite". Other sketches include the characters "Funkenstein", "Dr. Funkenstein" and more recently Condoleezza Rice as a blaxploitation superhero. A recurring theme in these sketches is the inexperience of the cast and crew in the blaxploitation era, with emphasis on ridiculous scripting and shoddy acting, sets, costumes, and editing. The sketches are testaments to the poor production quality of the films, with obvious boom mike appearances and intentionally poor cuts and continuity.
Another of FOX's network television comedies, "Martin" starring Martin Lawrence, frequently references the blaxploitation genre. In the Season Three episode "All The Players Came", when Martin organizes a "Player's Ball" charity event to save a local theater, several stars of the blaxploitation era, such as Rudy Ray Moore, Antonio Fargas, Dick Anthony Williams and Pam Grier all make cameo appearances. In one scene, Martin, in character as aging pimp "Jerome", refers to Pam Grier as "Sheba, Baby" in reference to her 1975 blaxploitation feature film of the same name.
In the movie Leprechaun in the Hood, a character played by Ice-T pulls a baseball bat from his Afro. This scene alludes to a similar scene in Foxy Brown, in which Pam Grier hides a small semi-automatic pistol in her Afro.
Adult Swim's Aqua Teen Hunger Force series has a recurring character called "Boxy Brown" - a play on Foxy Brown. An imaginary friend of Meatwad, Boxy Brown is a cardboard box with a crudely drawn face with a French cut that dons an afro. Whenever Boxy speaks, '70s funk music, typical of blaxploitation films, plays in the background. The cardboard box also has a confrontational attitude and dialect similar to many heroes of this film genre.
Some of the TVs found in the action video game Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne feature a Blaxploitation-themed parody of the original Max Payne game called Dick Justice, after its main character. Dick behaves much like the original Max Payne (down to the "constipated" grimace and metaphorical speech) but wears an afro and mustache and speaks in Ebonics.
Duck King, a fictional character created for the video game series Fatal Fury, is a prime example of foreign black stereotypes.
The sub-cult movie short Gayniggers from Outer Space is a blaxploitation-like science fiction oddity directed by Danish filmmaker, DJ, and singer Morten Lindberg.
Jefferson Twilight, a character in The Venture Bros., is a parody of the comic-book character Blade (a black, half human, half-vampire vampire hunter), as well as a blaxploitation reference. He has an afro, sideburns, and a mustache. He carries swords, dresses in stylish 1970s clothing, and says that he hunts "Blaculas". He looks and sounds like Samuel L. Jackson.
The intro credits of Beavis and Butt-Head Do America feature a blaxploitation-style theme sung by Isaac Hayes.
A scene from the Season 9 episode of The Simpsons, Simpson Tide", shows Homer Simpson watching "Exploitation Theatre." A voice-over announces the fake movie titles such as "The Blunch Black of Blotre Blame."
Family Guy has parodied blaxploitation numerous times using fake movie titles such as "Black to the Future" (Back to the Future) and "Love Blactually" (Love Actually). These parodies occasionally feature a stereotyped black version of Peter Griffin.
Martha Southgate's 2005 novel Third Girl from the Left is set in Hollywood during the era of blaxploitation films and references many blaxploitation films and stars such as Pam Grier and Coffy.
Main article: List of blaxploitation films