Can You Dig It? Black in vogue

The blaxploitation films of the Seventies became bywords for crass stereotyping. But a new book argues that the movies were essential in highlighting African-American issues. Ian Burrell reports

Reel off the names of the starring roles from the early days of African-American cinema and it's not difficult to see why some have dubbed the genre "Blaxploitation". Let's see, there was Willie Dynamite, John Shaft, Black Caesar and Nigger Charley. The women were Cleopatra or Coffy or Foxy Brown. These characters were hot and sexy, flirting with danger and always fully-loaded.

It was, complained activists from groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a way of making money by perpetuating stereotypes about black America.

But that view is being challenged by a new project which reevaluates a movie phenomenon which all-too-briefly lit up the American movie industry for around seven years until the mid-Seventies. Can You Dig It? The Music and Politics of Black Action Films 1969-1975 combines a 96-page reappraisal of the often-maligned movie genre with a double CD of highlights from their soundtracks, many of them classic tracks from the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and James Brown that, unlike the films they accompanied, have enjoyed lasting critical acclaim.

Stuart Baker, the author of the book, believes the term blaxploitation has led to this school of cinema being unfairly stigmatised and ignored. "The combination of the words black and exploitation had a negative connotation that turned people off," he says. "But the more I watched them, the more I realised they were amazing."

The "blaxploitation" criticism from the NAACP and a writer in Vogue magazine was "misjudged", Baker claims. "The black characters in these films are nearly always strong, the bad guys are usually white bad guys, and the resolution of the narrative in most of the films is frequently moral."

Yes, the movies often glamorised the street hustle of pimps and prostitutes but these films "were the first time African-American themes were being expressed in the cinema," he says. And they did it with humour, sass and camp style. Posters for 1972's Super Fly showed the lead character and drug dealer, Youngblood Priest (played by Ron O'Neal), dressed in matching pink hat, rollneck sweater and long coat, clutching a handgun and standing before a shining whip. "Never a dude like this one!" ran the slogan, "He's got a plan to stick it to The Man!" Pimp culture, also seen in The Mack (1973) and Willie Dynamite (1974), had been popularised by the African-American novelists Chester Himes and Iceberg Slim (a former Chicago villain) who had depicted ghetto street life in print.

The most famous blaxploitation movie is 1971's Shaft, which was directed by Gordon Parks senior, who had previously worked as a staffer for Life magazine and as the first African-American photographer to shoot for Vogue. Starring Richard Roundtree as private eye John Shaft, it kick started the entire genre and inspired two follow-up films (including Shaft in Africa, which was billed as "The Brother Man in the Motherland"), a television series and an Oscar-winning soundtrack by the late Isaac Hayes. "Who's the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft!" goes a lyric in the title track by Hayes, who also auditioned for the lead role.

Known to a younger generation as the sonorous voice of South Park's Chef, Hayes fancied himself as an actor. When he missed out on the Shaft role he went on to star in Three Tough Guys, playing a framed ex-cop, and he played another lead as the pistol-toting, bounty-hunting bail bondsman Truck Turner in the film of the same name (1974). He wrote the soundtracks to both films for the legendary Memphis-based soul record label Stax. It was the Stax house band, Booker T and the MGs, who made the music for the 1968 genre-defining film Up Tight!, made in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Detroit's Motown label also defined the sound of the black action movie, with Marvin Gaye writing the music to 1972's Trouble Man, Edwin Starr for Hell Up in Harlem (1973) and Willie Hutch for the same year's The Mack.

The music has fared better than the movies. Bobby Womack's classic ode to Harlem life, "Across 110th Street", is far more well-known than the 1972 movie of warring black and Italian gangsters that it was made to promote as part of a United Artists soundtrack he wrote with J J Johnson. The same goes for Curtis Mayfield's Warner Brothers soundtrack for Super Fly, a film in which the late Mayfield makes an appearance, singing on stage.

To Baker, the music of the black action movies was especially powerful when the soul artists of the day worked with the orchestra musicians of the film studios. "Isaac Hayes arranging the orchestras in Shaft was a new experience. He would say, 'I don't need you to read notes, this is what I want you to play.'"

As for the impact of the characters, Roundtree's John Shaft was groundbreaking, says Baker. "He was a James Bond strong man but this was a new representation of a black man in American cinema; he was single-minded and sexually uninhibited and could speak to both black and white people without feeling he had to doff his cap."

More controversial was actor Fred Williamson, a former American football star with the Oakland Raiders, who reinvented himself in the role of Nigger Charley, a character based in the Deep South of the 1850s prior to the abolition of slavery. This work manages "to bring to the big screen all the bigotry and inhumanity of slavery in America's history in a hip, knowing, entertaining and funny manner," writes Baker, who says Williamson enjoyed watching white studio bosses squirm as they said the word "nigger".

The most famous of the female black actors of the period was Pam Grier, best known as the star of Coffy and then Foxy Brown, which prompted Quentin Tarantino to cast her as the lead in his own take on the genre, Jackie Brown. "Pam Grier's characters are out of this world in terms of empowered women," says Baker. "She was a huge star whose career was effectively halted in the mid-Seventies when the studios stopped making these films."

The American film studios had originally branched out into black action movies as part of a strategy to find new audiences. In the process they gave opportunities not just to actors and musicians but to technicians and directors such as Gordon Parks senior, Gordon Parks junior (who made Super Fly) Ivan Dixon and Melvin Van Peebles.

"Then in the mid-Seventies came blockbusters such as Star Wars and Jaws and the studios forgot the minority markets and followed the money," says Baker. "Genres come in and out of fashion but this was about the rise of African-American cinema, the actors, directors and crews. It all kind of got dismantled."

If anything, this was a genre that was never exploited enough.

'Can You Dig It? The Music and Politics of Black Action Films 1968-1975' is released on Soul Jazz records on 12 October