The funky beat-heavy music starts as soon as the credits begin to roll, and the black
dude in the 'look me over' threads walks through the black 'hood with the hip and the cool
dripping off him. His body language matches the music, a strut with laid back attitude.
It's my street, my 'hood, my music, my kinda people. The name's John Shaft. . . and the
game is movies made for a market Hollywood ignored for decades: Black America.
Chances are many of you first heard of Blaxploitation in 1998, when Quentin Tarantino
introduced you to Jackie Brown, played by Pam Grier - one of the icons of Black American
movies of the 70s; Jackie Brown revisits the genre broadly described as Blaxploitation.
(You'll have noticed that four of the titles in this collection are R rated: there's
occasional drug use, plenty of colourful street language and the action is sometimes
violent - although tame by today's standards; so is most of the sex.)
Grier co-stars with Richard Pryor and Beau Bridges in Greased Lightning (1977) in this
collection, but her best known work was in films like 'Sheba, Baby' and 'Foxy Brown',
(title roles). And then there was Grier playing Lisa in Scream, Blacula, Scream! Yes,
well, as I say, Blaxploitation is not really a genre - it's all the white genres with
black soul added.
"the seminal thriller, Shaft"
Take this collection, ranging from the seminal thriller, Shaft, to the entertaining
caper movie, Let's Do It Again (a softer, funnier black Sting) and the mad son of a gun of
a movie, the off-the-wall I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, which combines action with scenes of
hilarious spoofery. (IGGYS is written by, directed by and stars Keenen Ivory Wayans, with
Isaac Hayes in a supporting role as Hammer the Rib Joint owner.)
Set in 'Any Ghetto, USA', the film opens with the discovery of a body in the street.
The cop tells his superior the guy "O-Geed . . . " That's not a drug overdose -
it's a gold overdose: OG. The dead man's corpse is covered in gold chains and inspires a
running gag I won't spoil here. But gold also pops up throughout the film as a metaphor
for drugs; the film is either insane or brilliant, but I think it's a clever subterfuge
aimed at getting a message across to black kids without alienating them. If I'm wrong, no
harm done; it's just a crazy bit of fun.
The film has many such elements, including a riotously funny sequence involving a
community festival in the ghetto main street, where competitions are held in activities
that the locals are familiar with. Hence there is a race that is borrowed from the egg and
spoon race of more genteel events. Here, the items being carried on the run are stolen tv
sets. The team competition is car stripping.
Then there is the Pimp of the Year Awards . . . and Laurence Fishburne (uncredited) as
a revolutionary leader in a freewheeling tribute to Peter Sellers' Dr Strangelove,
complete with black gloved right hand. . . and the pick up from hell, in which our hero
take a bimbo home with side splitting (and other bodily surprises) consequences.
Throughout this film, the humour is what counts, although the action story gets released
periodically to cause mayhem. But it takes nothing seriously.
Gather a few friends, open the bar and prepare your endorphins for a night on the town
with this - it's a label-defying movie starring black actors.
"the sense of humour links all these movies"
If anything, it is the sense of humour that links all these movies, even those like
Shaft that are genuine thrillers. John Shaft is the smart, sharp shooting, resourceful
private eye who takes on the mob (among others) while looking for a kidnapped girl.
Manhattan is his home turf, but In Africa, Shaft gets a crash course in African customs
and love relations from a princess (Vonetta McGee) when asked by African diplomats at the
UN to investigate a sinister slave trading scam.
Superfly stays firmly on the streets, following Priest (nicknamed after his habit of
carrying his dope in a crucifix) as he tries to set up the big deal so he can quit crime.
But black men aren't the only ones who can tackle danger, kick butt and look funky;
Cleopatra Jones (70s supermodel Tamara Dobson) stands tall - 6' 2" - especially
notable in the Hong Kong setting of Casino of Gold - and manages to vanquish her foes and
doesn't even lose her pink hat. As a special agent fighting drug dealers world wide, In
the self-titled Cleopatra Jones, she meets her nemesis, black leather-clad Mommy, played
with relish by Oscar winning Shelly Winters, whose oddball stooges are Doodlebug, Pickle
In a typical Blaxploitation film, even if the humour is temporarily absent, the
wardrobe never is. Sharp suits, colour-drenched outfits, hats, high heels (sometimes
verrry high heels, very colour saturated) and tailor made suits that Paul Keating would
die for are de rigeur for every significant character.
Super Fly, for example, has a nice white suit and matching shoes and red shirt; Sidney
Poitier and Bill Cosby (in Let's Do It Again) get to wear classy threads in the
preparation for their boxing sting, and, of course, Shaft is a 70s fashion icon.
"maybe you've heard Blaxploitation!"
But the first thing that strikes you with all these titles, is the music: it's as funky
as the humour and the wardrobe, with a cool beat that drives the mood and sets the tone.
As English writer Edward Griffiths notes, "Blaxploitation had an enormous musical
influence on film and television. Many of the police shows of the 1970s and 1980s in
America and abroad had instantly recognisable funk themes and incidental music which,
again, have survived better than the visuals.
"Notable examples include Tom Scott's 'Starsky & Hutch', Pat Williams' superb
jazz-funk crossover 'Streets of San Francisco', 'Charlie's Angels' which Henry Mancini
covered to great success, and the classic US No.1 hit 'Theme from S.W.A.T.' by Rhythm
Heritage. 'Kojak', Quincy Jones' 'Ironside', New Generation's camp classic 'Wonder Woman',
Morton Stevens' 'Hawaii Five-O', Oliver Nelson's 'Six Million Dollar Man' theme, 'Keep
Your Eye On The Sparrow (Baretta's Theme)', Jack Jones' easy listening with wah-wah 'Love
Boat' all exhibited a Blaxploitation influence."
So maybe you've heard Blaxploitation!
"the unique 'metier' of 'the brothers'"
What all these films also have in common is that they portray characters with whom
Black Americans can identify; they walk, talk and joke in the unique 'metier' of 'the
brothers'. But it's equally entertaining for us white trash.