|Richard Roundtree as Shaft.|
The mainstream success of Blaxploitation pictures like Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Shaft (1971) spawned dozens of urban action films from 1971 to 1976. Richard Roundtree, who exuded cool as John Shaft in three films, became the genre's first star, but others quickly followed: former football player Fred Williamson; feisty Pam Grier; and, to a lesser degree, Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones), karate champion Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones), and Bernie Casey (Hit Man).
The majority of Blaxploitation films were aimed to simply entertain. They were, after all, "exploitation films," defined in The Film Encyclopedia as movies "made with little or no attention to quality or artistic merit but with an eye to a quick profit, usually via high-pressure sales and promotion techniques emphasizing some sensational aspect of the product." Still, the Blaxploitation genre made a lasting impact on the film industry by spotlighting African American actors, indirectly promoting female empowerment, and producing memorable film soundtracks.
|Williamson in Black Caesar.|
|Pam Grier as Foxy Brown.|
When The Washington Times compiled a list of the Top 10 Female Action Stars earlier this year, Pam Grier ranked #9. Except for Linda Hamilton in Terminator (1991) and Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979), every other actress listed is from a film made in 2001 or later. Thus, Grier was breaking ground for female action stars that wouldn't be plowed for two more decades--an impressive achievement.
Blaxploitation films also broke ground with urban soundtracks composed by well-known musicians such as Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and James Brown. Hayes scored a No. 1 Billboard hit with "Theme from Shaft," which also earned an Academy Award for Best Song. His Shaft soundtrack was so popular that Hayes was cast in the lead role in his own Blaxploitation film, Truck Turner (he also composed its soundtrack). Still, music critics generally regard Curtis Mayfield's Superfly soundtrack as the best for a Blaxploitation film. In fact, the success of Mayfield's No. 4 single, "Freddie's Dead"--which was released before Superfly--may have contributed to the film's success. James Brown's soundtrack for Black Caesar is considered one of his strongest albums.
|William Marshall in Blacula.|
This month, the Classic Film & TV Cafe pays homage to the Blaxploitation films--the African American urban action films of the 1970s. Yes, they were violent exploitation films and lasted for just a few years. Yet, they remain an important part of American cinema history and warrant a closer look.