Nowadays, blaxploitation movies conjure up a mixed memory of flash fashion, great music, cheap sets and even cheaper dialogue. In among the leopard- skin pimpmobiles, wide-brimmed hats and crushed velvet flares, garish gun-toting posters blazoned come-on lines like " 'Black Caesar' - the cat with .45 calibre claws", or "Watch out for 'Coffy'. She'll cream you. She's got drive and that ain't jive." As for the actual dialogue, you didn't know whether to laugh or sigh when a film like The Legend of Nigger Charley opened with the alarm call, "Somebody warn the West. Nigger Charley ain't runnin' no more," or whether to peek through your hands when the presence of black sex siren Pam Grier was announced in Foxy Brown with the uncool couplet, "A pinch of sugar and a kiss of spice. And for an ace she keeps a cold steel .38 in a nice warm place." Yet, at the beginning of the blaxploitation cycle in 1971, the message was very different. Then, an unknown film made with a miniscule budget began with the bald statement, "Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of The Man."
Melvin Van Peebles's third film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, is almost unknown in Britain - largely because it never gained foreign distribution. But Donald Bogle, who is curating the season of "Blaxploitation" movies that starts today at the National Film Theatre, describes Van Peebles's film as "an uncompromising, totally independent trail-blazer that heralded a new kind of black cinema, made its auteur a folk hero and inspired a later generation of African-American movie- makers". He also says that the film is "an open declaration of war on white America".
Van Peebles himself explains why: "At that time, no kind of hero - let alone a black one - could defy the law and get away with it. But I had that idea and I wanted to turn it into a film for a black audience." The idea centred on Sweetback, a laconic, laid-back sex performer, played by Van Peebles, who "fights back" after he witnesses two corrupt white cops beating up on a black kid. Once he has wasted the two "honkies" - with their own handcuffs - the film follows its outlaw-hero through the back alleys of Los Angeles into a series of sexual escapades and escape sequences until Sweetback flees over the Mexican border leaving behind the legend - "A BAADASSSSS NIGGER IS COMING BACK TO COLLECT SOME DUES".
A young black American audience lapped it up, spending $10m to see the film in its first year of distribution. But the New York Times was outraged by what it called "an absolutely mindless and dirty political exploitation film". More importantly, even before the film was made, Van Peebles's studio at Columbia also lent themselves to alarm. "They wanted to disassociate themselves as rapidly and as far as possible," Van Peebles remembers. "When I showed the script to my agent he left me, saying, 'I can't be associated with anything like this.' "
For a director who replies to the question, "How did you get to the top?" with "Nobody let me in at the bottom", a refusal from Hollywood amounted to an incentive. Starting out under the pretense of making a porn movie "over the weekend", Van Peebles avoided union rules, leveraged equipment and lab processing with a nudge and a chuckle that "this little movie will pacify my sweetie", and then shot Sweetback over a gruelling 19 day- and-night schedule. And when only two cinemas would show the resulting film, the director went out to black churches, schools and community halls - "anything to get a black audience". He wrote a hit tune so that he could get on to black radio shows and after the Motion Picture Association of America slapped an "X" on Sweetback - which meant that no newspaper would advertise or review it - Van Peebles had posters put up that were stamped across with "Rated 'X' by an all-White Jury".
"In the best sense of the word," says Donald Bogle, "Van Peebles is the director as hustler, and I think that's what made him a hero for the later generation of African-American film-makers like Spike Lee. They learnt from Van Peebles how to encourage controversy, then to get good press coverage from that in order to reach as wide an audience as possible."
Understandably, Van Peebles baulks at the term "blaxploitation". "Nobody exploited me," he insists. "When Sweetback became a huge success, Hollywood began to make imitations." He then reveals: "Originally, Shaft, which was the first one, was going to be played by a white guy. So when they saw that black movies could become big business, Hollywood simply turned John Shaft into a black guy, added a few 'motherfucks' and then brought the movie out."
If Van Peebles believes that his message was "diluted" by blaxploitation, the director of Shaft is equally insistent that he "wasn't trying to make a message movie. I wanted to make a good solid thriller." Certainly, Gordon Parks Sr had the credentials not only to deliver a solid movie for his studio at MGM, but also to direct a film that would remain true to its roots in the streets of New York. A distinguished photographer who established his reputation at Life magazine with his pictures of black militants, Parks adapted his widely praised autobiographical novel The Learning Tree for Warner Bros in 1963, and when he converted the script into a film six years later, he became the first black man to direct a major American movie.
Shaft's success in 1971 pulled MGM back from the brink of bankruptcy; and, perhaps inspired by that example, Gordon Parks's son, Gordon Jr, directed the third big money maker of the blaxploitation cycle - Superfly. With its tale of a coke-snorting dealer putting one over on "The Man" and boasting such lines as "8-track stereo, colour TV in every room and half a piece of dope every day. That's the American Dream," Superfly became an instant cult movie, grossing $11m within two months of its release.
Undoubtedly today the film would be criticised for its myopic attitude towards drugs, and, at the time, it provoked an attack from the NAACP on "so-called black movies that glorify black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters and super males". Even Gordon Parks Sr was hesitant about his son's film, albeit for different reasons.
"When my son came to me with the script," he recalls, "he only had $400,000 - which would have been gone in about a week. So I told him, 'don't do it'. Then he came to me for more money and I wrote out a cheque. After its success, though, I decided not to give my son any more advice."
Soon, however, the positive ability to hustle a budget, to think on one's feet and surround a black film-hero within an ethnic atmosphere would be lost. By 1973, most blaxploitation films were being made on a shoestring by white directors. And the black film crews - which Gordon Parks and his son had fought so hard to retain on Shaft and Superfly - would also be replaced by whites. As a result, the cycle lost its original fans. "The black audience," says Donald Bogle, "frequently felt that they were seeing the same film again and again. The Legend of Nigger Charley, The Soul of Nigger Charley, then Boss Nigger; Shaft, then Shaft in Africa and Shaft's Big Score. They were turned out by the yard and most of them looked as though they could have been shot in someone's back yard."
But Bogle still believes that for all their "pop simplicity" blaxploitation movies did reflect "a need to redress old wrongs and to articulate black feelings about race and racism". But after blaxploitation petered out in 1975, he points out, "the industry was not prepared to give black audiences another set of images, icons and characters to respond to or select from". For that sensibility, black - and white - audiences would have to wait for 15 years and the arrival of Spike Lee with the African-American film explosion. But without the example set by blaxploitation, the wait could have been even longer.
The "Blaxploitation" season starts today at the National Film Theatre, London SE1. To 31 August. Booking: 0171-928 3232Reuse content