Birth of a
The Black Hero Who
In the beginning, there was "Sweetback." As Melvin Van Peebles
explains in "Baadasssss Cinema," Isaac Julien's definitive new
documentary about the history of blaxploitation films, the idea for
"Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" rose up in him out of a
long-festering sense of frustration over what he was seeing on the
"The cause I had," Mr. Van Peebles proclaims between puffs
on a cigar just slightly smaller than a Louisville Slugger, "was
giving black folks a sense of self that had been stolen from us. And
that's how I made `Sweetback.' "
The film, about a pimp who stays one step ahead of a racist gang of
cops, opened first in Detroit, on March 31, 1971, at the Grand Circus
Theater, then two days later at the Coronet Theater in Atlanta — the
only theaters in the country that would show it. At the time, there were
no black-owned theater chains. Also, the Motion Picture Association of
America had given the film an "X" rating, which meant that
most theater chains wouldn't book it, primarily because most newspapers
wouldn't sell advertising space to an X-rated film.
However, once Mr. Van Peebles discovered that the ratings committee
was made up entirely of white men, he immediately began marketing the
film as "Rated `X' by an All-White Jury."
Those first audiences probably didn't know that they were watching a
movie that would launch countless imitations, spark a revolution in the
motion-picture business, and open the floor for a cultural debate that
rages to this day.
But that's what happened, and in his documentary, Mr. Julien traces
the development of the genre, using archival footage and interviews with
directors, actors, critics and academics (including Elvis Mitchell, a
film critic for The New York Times). The film, which has its premiere on
the Independent Film Channel on Wednesday, kicks off a month-long blaxploitation festival on IFC. It will include three of the major
blaxploitation films of the 1970's:
"Sweetback" was shot in only 19 days with a crew of veteran
porno filmmakers and a shoestring budget of $500,000 — $50,000 of
which came from Bill Cosby. But it quickly became one of the
highest-grossing independent films ever made.
Julian Bond, chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., remembers watching the movie
at the Coronet Theater. "It was just like, `Wow!' " Mr. Bond
said in a telephone interview. "You'd just never seen anything like
it before. You'd never seen sex like that. You'd never seen a black guy
beat up the police and get away."
What happened after that, Mr. Van Peebles said, was simple economics:
"When Hollywood saw these huge returns from `Sweetback,' they
became aware that there was an enormous black audience that could be
Mr. Julien, a writer, artist and social critic, says the IFC
documentary grew directly out of a course he taught at Harvard called
"Black Film as Genre? Blaxploitation Cinema to Quentin
Tarantino." In his research, he said, he realized that there was a
story to be told.
As a teenager growing up in London's East End in the 70's, Mr. Julien
said, the first film he ever saw in a theater was
Jones. And the other blaxploitation films —
and anything with the actress Pam Grier — were
formative experiences for him. But, he said, "my critical
examination of these films didn't begin, really, until I began doing the
research for my course."
The timing of the documentary couldn't be more
perfect. The genre's influence can be seen everywhere in pop music and
film, in movies like
The Ladies Man,
Austin Powers in Goldmember. But in the 70's, to many
audiences, black and white, these movies were troubling, especially
because Sweetback and so many of the other heroes were pimps and drug
"Some of us want only the best depiction, that is the upright,
the triumphant, law-abiding hero," said Mr. Bond. "And at that
time, films that glamorized dope dealers and women with low bodices
didn't conform to what we thought our image ought to be."
But, Mr. Bond said, the movies stirred something in audiences.
"If you were sitting in the theater with a group of people, then
you understood that they had enormous popular appeal," he said.
"I guess in some ways it's like rap music today, and rhythm and
blues years ago."
For Fred Williamson, the professional football player who starred in
several of the films, it was all about heroes. "Black society
needed these films," he said in an interview. "The blacks in
most movies were still porters and bus boys. There were no black
equivalents to the characters played by Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey
Bogart and Jimmy Cagney."
These heroes were vastly different from the figures that Sidney
Poitier played in 1960's films like
Lilies of the Field or
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." "Most black people were
tired of the noble Negro," said Ed Guerrero, a professor of
Afro-American studies at New York University who is also interviewed in
the documentary. "These films represented the first time that black
people really got on the screen more or less on their own terms."
The success of "Sweetback" made Hollywood aware
of the enormous black audience, in much the same way that the success of
Easy Rider had made Hollywood aware of the youth audience.
But in the documentary, Mr. Van Peebles claims that when Hollywood
produced its knock-offs of his film, it also suppressed the political
content, added caricature, and "blaxploitation" was born.
"Did my film get the whole thing started? Yes," Mr. Van
Peebles asserts. "But it doesn't really belong in there with the
In October 1972, Newsweek ran a cover story on the new black movie
boom, claiming that "talented black actors, directors and writers
were suddenly plucked out of studio back rooms, modeling agencies and
ghetto theaters, and turned loose on new black projects."
The article even suggested that the black films were paying off so
much better than their white counterparts, that the new black cinema
deserved credit for keeping Hollywood from possible extinction. While
this may have been a slight exaggeration of the facts, it is true that
by the end of 1971, one out of every four films in production was
designed to appeal to the black audience.
And it's also true that the original "Shaft" went through
preproduction as a film with a white director and a white cast, then was
quickly retooled for a black cast, with Richard Roundtree in the lead, a
black director, Gordon Parks, and a hot-buttered soul score by Isaac
Hayes. The film grossed $12 million and rescued MGM at a time when the
studio had literally pawned Judy Garland's ruby slippers to stay in
Mr. Williamson, who starred in
Hell Up in Harlem and
"Black Caesar," among other films, questions whether the
movies of the blaxploitation period are "black films" in the
same sense that, say, the movies of Spike Lee are.
"First of all," he said, "the movies were being
financed by whites, so once the whites were in control, then they also
controlled the subject matter. It is up to the actors themselves to
portray the characters that they want to portray and the things that
they want to see done."
Even at the height of their appeal, the movies usually followed a
simple and predictable formula, with warring drug dealers and corrupt
white cops. The one consistent ingredient underneath it all was the
brilliant music, which, whether coming from James Brown or Marvin Gaye
or Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes, added an element of depth and
The blaxploitation era came to an end for precisely
the same reason it started: money. Instead of diversifying and
developing their audience, the studios kept churning out the same film
over and over.
was followed by
Big Score! and
Shaft in Africa.
gave birth to
Slaughter's Big Rip-Off, and eventually it was the audience
that started to feel ripped off.
"In the end, the films of the blaxploitation era didn't make
that much money for black people," Mr. Guerrero explains in the
documentary. "Ultimately, it was just a moment, an interlude."
When the party was over, the morning after was grim for those who had
relied on the industry to make a living.
"It was a vicious time," recalls the actress Gloria Hendry
in perhaps the documentary's most poignant moment. "When you start
falling, you put your hands out and try to hold onto anything you can.
And I was grabbing, but I couldn't get a hold of anything. There was
nothing. Black films saved Hollywood, and when they were through with
us, they dropped us. The door slammed."
Source: The New York Times Company 2002
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* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the
rosy picture of race embodied in Barack
Obama's political success and Oprah
Winfrey's financial success, legal
scholar Alexander argues vigorously and
persuasively that [w]e have not ended
racial caste in America; we have merely
redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial
segregation has been replaced by mass
incarceration as a system of social
control (More African Americans are
under correctional control today... than
were enslaved in 1850). Alexander
reviews American racial history from the
colonies to the Clinton administration,
delineating its transformation into the
war on drugs. She offers an acute
analysis of the effect of this mass
incarceration upon former inmates who
will be discriminated against, legally,
for the rest of their lives, denied
employment, housing, education, and
public benefits. Most provocatively, she
reveals how both the move toward
colorblindness and affirmative action
may blur our vision of injustice: most
Americans know and don't know the truth
about mass incarceration—but her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
* * * *
Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late
1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of
Carter G. Woodson and
Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as
well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations
were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early
essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish
medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an
historical context for understanding 20th-century
creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone
writers, such as Cuban
Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist,
Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the
significance of Negritude in Latin America. This
collaborative text set the tone for later
conferences in which writers and scholars worked
together to promote, disseminate, and critique the
literature of Spanish-speaking people of African
descent. . . .
Cited by a
literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the
field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which
most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
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update 30 November 2011