Blaxploitation birthday should mark rethink, urges historian
A cultural historian at The University of Manchester says we should change our minds about “blaxploitation” films, exactly 40 years after the term was first coined by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Dr Eithne Quinn says that though films such as Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972) did contain sex, violence and racial stereotypes, what is rarely acknowledged is that they had more black workers on screen and behind the camera than almost any previous mainstream film productions in US history.
The term blaxploitation first appeared, in the wake of Super Fly’s release, as a Junius Griffin quotation in a Hollywood Reporter story called “NAACP Takes Militant Stand on Black Exploitation Films,” on 10 August 1972. Griffin was head of NAACP at the time.
The films, says Dr Quinn, were a major influence on ‘hip hop’ culture, typified by a silver tongued Oakland pimp called Goldie in one of the most popular ever blaxploitation films, The Mack (1973).
They were the first films to deal seriously with black business culture, she says, portraying street hustlers using their grassroots business savvy to make money amidst ghetto poverty and joblessness.
Quentin Tarantino, she adds, was heavily influenced by the genre, reviving the career of Pam Grier, the star of movies such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974).
She is to publish a book on the subject for Columbia University Press.
Dr Quinn, who researches race politics in the film industry, said: “The term blaxploitation was coined by people who were understandably shocked by the portrayals of African Americans on screen, featuring sex and violence, in these 1970s films.
“Blaxploitation may accurately describe some of the trashy films of the genre; but it doesn’t really do justice to the classic early black action films and their multi-racial production teams.
“Treating them all as examples of racial exploitation is too generalised and I think it’s misleading to use this loaded term to describe an incredibly rich moment in black cultural history.
“What hasn’t been sufficiently recognized is that these films opened the doors for aspiring black film workers.
“These were not just low-skill film workers, but writers, directors, actors, musicians, and even in some cases co-producers.
“A remarkable achievement if you realise that this was during a time when there were no black faces, no Hispanic faces, and no female faces for that matter in Hollywood – at least in positions of any clout.”
The NAACP organised protests with other groups forming the Coalition Against Blaxploitation in summer 1972 to shine a light on racial inequality in the film industry.
“‘Blaxploitation’ was a gripping title to describe their protest campaign”, added Dr. Quinn, “and it captured a long, painful history of cultural exploitation of African Americans in the US. But in retrospect, the term ‘blaxploitation’ does give a very one-sided account and the danger is that it puts black people at a disadvantage.”
“These films provided a creative springboard for black stars of today such as P-Diddy, Jay-Z and 50 Cent, who like the characters in many of the films started out as street hustlers using their grassroots savvy to make millions of dollars in the cultural industries.
“Goldie’s rap in The Mack paved the way for likes of Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube who all make use of the old blaxploitation imagery.’ In one track, Ice Cube even asks ‘Who’s the Mack?”
Notes for editors
Dr Quinn is available for interview
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