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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn