by Dan Wilson
In 1971, Melvin van Peebles financed, wrote, directed, and starred in “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song.” He created the film as a response to what he perceived as an inaccurate portrayal of contemporary African American life. The film was a milestone for a number of reasons. It was the first widely released film made entirely with black cast and crew. Its success demonstrated to Hollywood that the African American market segment was a viable one to which films could be marketed. It also marked the birth of the “blaxploitation film.” As a genre, “blaxploitation” refers to films that often present and reinforce negative stereotypes about African Americans. Despite this, however, there was a strong message of black empowerment that was delivered with these films, and they were instant hits with audiences. “A lot of films today are about victims, but most of the films then were about empowerment,” said Pam Grier in an Entertainment Weekly interview. Grier is most noted for her role in “Coffy,” playing a nurse out for revenge against the people who made her sister a junkie. At the time, mainstream cinema’s portrayal of black actors was limited at best. Mostly cast as criminals, there were few opportunities for black actors in mainstream cinema. Melvin van Peebles recognized this phenomenon. In the documentary “Baadasss Cinema” he says that he recognized that Hollywood wasn’t making films for black audiences, so he decided to exploit that untapped market by making a film that addressed issues relevant to African-American audiences. At the time Peebles was working on his film, MGM was in production on “Shaft” starring Richard Roundtree, about a “black, muscular, fine-looking” private eye named John Shaft. In the film, he proves himself a worthy adversary to mobsters and kidnappers and quite a hit with the ladies. When the Isaac Hayes “Theme from Shaft” won an Academy Award, the market viability of blaxploitation films was further validated. Other seminal works include “Truck Turner,” in which a bounty hunter goes on a gunfight-heavy hunt for his target, “Superfly,” which romanticized the life of a drug dealer, Priest, and featured an incredible soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, and “Blacula,” a black version of “Dracula.” By the mid-seventies, though, the genre was on its way out. Black audiences, at first thrilled that movies were finally being created for them, were quickly disillusioned that the black heroes in the films were portrayed as pimps, dealers, and thugs. However, these films opened doors for many black actors to find acceptance in mainstream cinema and helped bring African-American themes and characters into the mainstream. The public’s acknowledgment of these films also paved the way for contemporary African American directors such as Spike Lee (“She’s Gotta Have It”, “Do the Right Thing,” “25th Hour”), John Singleton (“Boyz N the Hood,” “Higher Learning,” and the 2000 remake of “Shaft”), and George Tillman (“Soul Food” and “Men of Honor”). There’s certainly a long way to go, but African Americans in film have made remarkable strides since the early days of blaxploitation cinema. MGM has released a number of films from its Soul Cinema collection. King Library on Locust and King Drive has an excellent selection, and others can be ordered from other library branches. They’re also available at various video stores around town.