Cotton Comes to Harlem was the movie that launched the vigorous and sanguine spirit of the 1970's. It starred Ossie Davis as one of two black detectives. Although it has been criticized for retaining the stereotypical buffoonery of the past, it d epicted the characters using humor to outwit other white characters. More importantly, it paved the way for the blaxploitation explosion that occurred between 1970 and 1975. Blaxploitation movies essentially attempted to present the black experience thro ugh super-sly super-sexy ghetto heroes. Even though they presented new and potentially positive images of blacks, they failed to properly represent the aesthetic values of black culture. This failure can be attributed to the social context in which the movies were created, the domination of stereotypical paradigms created by the movies and the attempt to present the African American experience within a white, cinematic framework.
The 1960's proved to be a more aggressive period for African Americans. Although the Civil Rights movement significantly changed the black community, so did the Black Nationalist movements that included groups such as the Black Panthers and figures su ch as Malcolm X. By the time the 1970's rolled around many blacks became dissatisfied with the representation of blacks in the media, particularly in the movies. Many egan to reject the passive approach racism and prejudice and turned towards nationalis m and other forms of rebellion. The movies made during the 60's which had stars such as Sidney Poitier, inexplicitely suggested that it was plausible for blacks to be accepted in white society.1 Sydney Poitier did have a positive influence on society, however, the conceptions presented in his films did not represent the reality of most in the black community during the late sixties and early the seventies. Essentially, blaxploitation films arose from the need of the black community to see f ilms that reflected their reality. Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Badaaass Song proves to be the definitive blaxploitation flick. It defined the genre.2 Peebles' controversial "ghetto epic" depicted a sly and confident black man who reigned triumphant over the w hite world. At one point, after seeing two white police beat up a black boy, the protagonist, Sweet, proceeds to crack their heads open with handcuffs. The audacity that the character had was appealing to the black audience because in reality, black peop le would not have gotten away with such behavior. Even more exciting was the fact that Sweetback took on the white establishment (through violent means) and won. This characterization remains one of the unique elements of blaxpliotation films. The heroes were either everyday joes- people who would normally be condemned in society because they were also pimps, drug dealers, pushers, informers and prostitutes. The black audience could relate to these characters not because the community consisted only of t hese people, but these characters reflected a more realistic depiction of life. More importantly, these anti-heroes were beating an unjust system, a feat that was near impossible in reality. When Van Peebles' movie produced unexpected successful results , Hollywood decided to jump on the blaxpolitation bandwagon.
After seeing the success of Sweet Sweetback's Badaaass Song, Hollywood also decided to make blaxploitation films. The movie Shaftfared extremely well with audiences and grossed 12 million dollars.3 The industry began to shoo t as many movies as it could. The films were of low quality and shot on low budgets because the main purpose was to make money. Thus, the movies became formulaic and stale. The plot consisted of either a private detective who took on the mob or a drug de aler who became king of the pimps.4 They also portrayed a super-sly black "buck" or "stud" that had an overactive sex drive and fought the establishment between his escapades between the sheets. Along with this new characterization of the b lack man, can a new one for black woman.
Actresses such as Pam Grier who starred in Foxy Brownand Coffy portrayed a superwoman type character in her movies. She was tough, yet "loose" and would not take any "stuff" from anyone. These movies starring women were also formulaic. U sually, the woman would get revenge for the wrong done to someone dear to her. Naturally, she had to go undercover as prostitute to execute her plan, which entailed providing sexual favors to her enemy in order to get close enough to move in for the kill . With shallow plots and stereotypical characters it was implicit that blaxploitation films were not created for the sake of art or to provide the black community with a voice within the movie industry. So the question then becomes why was there so much support for these stereotypical and negative movies? During the 70's blacks were starving to see some kind of reflection of themselves on the screen that they could relate to. Hollywood took advantage of this hunger and capitalized on it.5 Finally, there was a constant flow on black actors and actresses on the screen. Nevertheless, the depiction of these characters only served to create more stereotypes. The more movies produced, the more money made so white directors applied the same fo rmulas to all of the movies to make as many movies as they could. The political and capitalistic contexts heavily influenced these movies thus producing images that greatly mis-represented blacks. The more movies made, the stronger the stereotypical parad igms used to represent blacks became.
The proliferation of blacks onto the movie screen in the 1970's replaced the stereotypical paradigms of the past with new ones. The black "audience's need for assertive black characters in which they saw a reflection of themselves was paralleled by a new set of stereotypes which merely served to reinforce previously held prejudices."6 Once Hollywood discovered they could cash in on the blaxploitation rush, new stereotypical paradigms were formed as more movies were produced. During the 1 960's, the image of blacks in the movies had greatly progressed from the 40's and 50's yet there were still dominating paradigms that represented blacks in stereotypical ways. Sydney Poitier is good example of this. Around the mid 60's the black was man was represented as being asexual, docile at times and not very aggressive.
In contrast to this, the new black man represented in the blaxploitation movies was very sexual and aggressive to the point where that became a defining factor of his character. The black man was portrayed either as a pimp/pusher/drug dealer or as a h yper-sexual buck and usually he was both. He was not completely committed to anything political but he could clean up the Ghetto and take on the establishment at anytime. Priest in Superfly was portrayed as the romanticized pimp, while in Sha ft, Richard Roundtree's character was the oversexed detective who besides cleaning up the ghetto and taking on the establishment, was cheating on his wife. The portrayal is similar to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.7 The only differ ence was that in the blaxploitation movies, the dark ominous figure progressed from monster to great ghetto hero. This new characterization also added a violent element to the black man's persona. The black male characters fought violence with violence. They did not sit idly by and turn other cheek. They hit right back and just as hard. Yet once again, these characteristics became the definitive generalizations and representations of black men in the movies. Along with this conception of black manhoo d, came the degradation of the black woman.
Most of the women in the blaxploitation films were reduced down to insignificant prostitutes or curvaceous women who flaunted all they had. Even while the movie's main characters were women, they were still objectified and reduced down to loose, sexu al and insatiable "hot mamas".8 In movies like Shaft and Superfly, the purpose of the women characters was to supply the men with various sexual interludes throughout the movie. In contrast, movies like Foxy Brown and Coffy created the statuesque black woman who would not take "bull" from anyone and at the same time, was willing and able to drop her skirt at the drop of a hat. The characterizations of black women in these films greatly restricted the characters po tential for growth because they always had to use their bodies to get what they wanted. Whereas the men had sex purely for the purpose of pleasure, the women were expected to do perform for the men; almost suggesting that their bodies were all they had to offer. In fact more then anything in Foxy Brown and Coffy, the focus is more on sex appeal and the vulumptious physical attributes of Pam Grier's characters rather than her fighting crime or avenging a one dear to her. The incessant displ ay of nudity often reinforced these ideas of the "slutty" black woman who was ready and even anxious for sex. If anything, some of the male characters did grapple with politics, their political needs and the pressure to sell out. The women do not have th is problem. All they did was get revenge and or engage in some sexual activity with a man. Thus, objectifying the black woman essentially rendered her useless.
One of the biggest criticisms of blaxploitation is the glamorization of characters that are pimps, drug dealers or prostitutes. This ghetto glamorization elevated these lifestyles and only reinforced negative stereotypes about black people and the bla ck community.9 Superfly focused on a drug dealer who sold dope to whites and took on the mob and won. Although he ponderred getting out of the drug business all together, he was still attached to his "drug money" and possessions obtai ned using that money. It is true that these figures were part of the black community in the 70's. The problem, however, arises when the characters become the only visible elements that make up the black community. These movies presented the images to so ciety as if they summed up the complete black experience and community. A pimp is not the most honorable figure yet there was a particular significance that the role had within the black community. Films like Superfly glorified the presence of pi mps but did not explain their connection or significance to the community. Like wise, most of the films failed in explaining why these characters behaved the way they did.9 The white directors didn't care who these characters were and were not worried about putting them into context but rather, they just wanted to make some kind of film that would bring in as much money as possible. Thus, these new stereotypes prevented any of the movies within the blaxploitation genre from focusing on cul tural aesthetics of the black culture and values. Quality was sacrificed for quantity.
Blaxpoitation films attempted to reflect the black experience within a white cinematic framework. The glamorization of the Ghetto, the funky music and plethora of black actors actresses gave blaxploitation the look and feel of a black movie presumably written and directed by a black person. However, this was often not the case. White directors made most of the movies. These directors took the framework of the white detective/action movies and attempted to apply the black experience to it. This was th e reason why the films appealed to whites also. Despite the fact that the films were centered on black people, the tale was familiar to the white audience so they were not completely alienated from it. The movies played on the black audience's need for a heroic figure without satisfying those needs in realistic terms. 11 For example, in Shaft, Richard Roundtree played a detective. It was essentially a "standard white tale enlivened by a black sensibility."12 These mo vies used sensationalism and exaggeration to transform these white tales into black ones. The result of the exaggeration and sensationalism was the articulation of stereotypes that were far from depicting the true black experience or values. The blaxploit ation flicks (with the exception of the few black directors and writers) are really a representation of the white perception the black community. Thus, the misconceptions and generalizations made by white society infiltrated these films. Working within this framework makes it impossible to create an honest reflection of the black community.
Blaxploitation films are a significant part of the cinematic history. They reflected some historical progress that blacks have made in the US. They helped to make the seventies a very prominent time for blacks. However, its use of sensationalism and e xaggeration proved to do more harm than good. The artistic aspects of the black exerience and culture were completely lost. Through these mis-representations, the image of blacks was redefined with new stereotypes and generalizations. Although we can lo ok back and enjoy some of the better qualities that exist within the movies, African Americans continue to struggle with the burden of these images today.
Footnotes - coming soon
This paper was written by JoAnne Allen.