The 70s genre is set to dominate big screens again with a slew of remakes and reboots. But where will these films fit in contemporary America?
By Todd Boyd | The Guardian | January 11. 2018
If it’s true that the past is prologue, then it’s also fair to say that we live now in an age of remix, remakes and reboots. Everything old is new again in this world of popular culture and social media, where the lines between past and present are constantly blurred if not completely invisible. On Instagram, we celebrate Throwback Thursdays while the daily drama that comes out of the White House often makes it feel as though we are literally being thrown backwards into a past that many naively thought was long gone or perhaps never existed.
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Over the past year there have been several announcements about new film and television projects in the works that come from the era in the 1970s known as blaxploitation. Remakes or reboots have been announced for Shaft at New Line, Super Fly at Sony, Cleopatra Jones at Warners, and Foxy Brown on Hulu, while new Taraji P Henson action thriller Proud Mary looks to have been influenced by the genre as well.
Why so much contemporary interest in a movement from so long ago? The answers lie in several unexpected similarities that have emerged between this previous era and our present moment.
If we rewind to the late 60s and early 70s, we find traditional Hollywood studios were struggling to connect. With black militants, Vietnam, campus protests and the counterculture dominating the conversation in Richard Nixon’s “law and order” America, watching the nightly news often seemed more compelling than paying attention to anything that might have been playing at the local movie theatre.
Hollywood, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so this is where blaxploitation found its lane. The emergence of films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Shaft, Super Fly, Cleopatra Jones, The Mack, Blacula, The Legend of Nigger Charley, Trouble Man and Coffy, all released between 1971 and 1973, offered black audiences characters, themes, music and style that was now consistent with the cultural moment off-screen. The cool, sexual, powerful, conscious, irreverent, nonchalant, quick-witted demeanor of these new ultra-hip films spoke to these audiences in a language that they both understood and enjoyed. At the same time, these low-budget productions produced high profit margins for the struggling studios and for a time urban audiences of colour and studio suits were pleased with the results.
Tamara Dobson as Cleopatra Jones. Photograph: Supplied
In terms of villains, blaxploitation films often featured resolutely evil racist white caricatures, along with comically duplicitous black sycophants eager to sell out the race for their own personal gain. It was the job of the film’s protagonist to expose and eliminate these figures who sought to destroy the community. Thus, blaxploitation films had both a moral purpose and a political mandate. It was in this spirit that audiences embraced these films as opportunities to “talk back”, to “stick it to the man”, while enacting righteous vengeance and speaking truth to power in dialogue that might now sound like a hip-hop diss track. These films were cathartic, funny and uniquely adept at capturing the cultural zeitgeist in a period of a newly free sense of black identity.
Before long, though, the haters would emerge, to rain criticism, contempt and suspicion upon the cinematic parade making its way through the movie houses of black America. The actual term “blaxploitation” emerged as black critics of the films suggested that these intoxicating images were like a racial sugar high, getting black audiences all hopped up on what the Last Poets referred to simply as “party and bullshit”. Further, even though these films featured black casts and revolved around themes that resonated with black audiences, many of the creative personnel behind these films were overwhelmingly white. In time, the phrase “black exploitation” became one word, “blaxploitation”, and before long this was the commonly accepted way to describe a range of films from a variety of different genres that were being lumped together under a moniker that made blackness the central component.
By the late 70s though, as the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s original Make America Great Again era loomed on the horizon, 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.
Though Blaxploitation has always had its critics, the era still represents one of the most sustained periods of cinema featuring black themes and black performers of any in film history. blaxploitation is like a cultural warehouse, a sample factory, and a repository for reboots all rolled into one.
Yet the 1970s were a long time ago, so how do these films remain relevant today? Upon closer inspection, one might ask, is this present moment really that different from the 1970s? In some ways the answer is yes, but in others it appears that what goes around comes around.
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Consider the varied images of protest and resistance that have emerged throughout the culture that were first spotted during the second term of Barack Obama, but have grown substantially since. The contested image of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players, so-called “sons of bitches”, taking a knee during the national anthem that remind us of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the Mexico City Olympics. The clenched black fist once raised by Carlos and Smith and forever associated with the Black Panthers is now to so ubiquitous that it is even available as a dark-skinned emoji on your phone.
Obama’s dignified approach to the US presidency evokes the cinematic image of the iconic Sidney Poitier, the most popular actor in the country before the dawn of the blaxploitation era. Dignity, however, has been replaced by a sort of cultural barbarism wherein coded political slogans, such as Nixon’s “silent majority” and “law and order”, have been appropriated and applied to the present as though we were stuck in a time warp from 45 years ago. Further to the point, current investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election are now compared with Watergate on an almost daily basis.
But perhaps what is 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 today. Though they were set in an urban milieu represented as real, the universe of these films was an especially fictional landscape.
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The characters were cool, confident, physically dominant and defiantly anti-establishment, possessing “superpowers” often directly connected to their blackness, which allowed them to see through the bullshit of American life, while simultaneously using everything available to them in waging war against the evils of white supremacy. Their flashy Eleganza and Flagg Brothers-inspired costumes and extravagantly tricked-out cars could certainly be called futuristic for that time. And the moral battles of good versus evil, with a distinct racial twist in the first decade following the civil rights movement, gave blaxploitation a meaningful purpose beyond what was otherwise an elaborate though enjoyable fantasy. Black audiences in the 1970s awaited the next empowered blaxploitation film the way that contemporary audiences now anticipate the release of Black Panther. The trailer for this month’s Proud Mary looks as though it is a mash-up of both blaxploitation and superhero films.
Yet despite the deep affection that many have for blaxploitation, these films were not regarded as “great cinema”. The limitations of what were often low-budget guerrilla-style films were visible to audiences even back in the 1970s. The appearance of boom mics on screen or people listing their zodiac signs next to their name in the credits were par for the course. Audiences embraced them not in spite of this, but often because of it.
Part of the enjoyment of watching these films lies in the fact that you were watching something raw, unpolished, unsophisticated and, in many cases, unfinished. But that’s what made it cool, this sense that what Hollywood considered trash, black culture considered treasure. It was not the power of Hollywood that made blaxploitation significant, it was the power of the audience, the power of the people that transformed the genre into a cultural force that continues to influence and inspire.
Contemporary film-makers now have the opportunity to create better films than those that inspired them. If contemporary audiences respond to these new films with the same enthusiasm that audiences responded to blaxploitation back in the 70s, then this would indicate an especially triumphant return.
Dr Todd Boyd is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He is the author of numerous, books, articles, and essays, including The Notorious PhD’s Guide to the Super Fly 70s.