A host of 70s blaxploitation reboots are in the pipeline. on why now is the perfect time to welcome back Shaft and Foxy Brown
though these films featured black casts and revolved around themes that resonated with black audiences, many of the creative personnel were white.
By the late 70s, blaxploitation was in decline. The studios had made their money and moved on. There was Richard Pryor, of course, who had become a movie star, and the occasional blaxploitation film, such as Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary in 1979, but, in general, black images on screen had gone from being abundant to almost invisible.
The era still represents one of the most sustained periods of cinema featuring black themes and black performers of any in film history. So why do the films remain relevant? Upon closer inspection, one might ask, is this moment really that different from the 70s? In some ways, the answer is an obvious yes, but in other ways, it appears that what goes around comes around. The original and best …
Richard Roundtree as Shaft and a 1973 poster for Cleopatra Jones
Consider the images of protest and resistance that emerged during Barack Obama’s second term as president and have multiplied since. The image of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem reminds us of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the Mexico City Olympics. The image of the clenched black fists raised by Carlos and Smith and for ever associated with the Black Panthers is now so ubiquitous that it is even available as a dark-skinned emoji on your phone.
But perhaps most analogous between the early 70s and the present is the way in which blaxploitation films then were like the urban precursor to superhero films of today. Although they were set in an urban milieu represented as real, the universe of these films was an especially fictional landscape.
The characters were cool, confident and defiantly anti-establishment, possessing “superpowers” often directly connected to their blackness, which allowed them to see through the “bullshit” of US life. And the moral battles of good v evil with a racial twist, coming in the first decade after the civil rights movement, gave blaxploitation a purpose beyond what was otherwise an elaborate, though enjoyable, fantasy. Black audiences in the 70s awaited the next empowered blaxploitation film the way that modern audiences now anticipate the release of Black Panther. The trailer for this month’s Proud Mary looks as though it is a mashup of both blaxploitation and superhero films.
Part of the enjoyment of watching these films lies in the fact that you are watching something raw and unfinished. But that’s what made it cool; this sense that what Hollywood considered trash, black culture thought of as treasure. It was not the power of Hollywood that made blaxploitation significant, it was the power of the public that transformed the genre into a cultural force.
Today’s film-makers have the opportunity to create better films than those that inspired them. If audiences respond to these films with the same enthusiasm that audiences responded to blaxploitation back in the 70s, then this would indicate a triumphant return.
Todd Boyd holds the Katherine & Frank Price endowed chair for the study of race and popular culture at the USC School of Cinematic Arts