Every February, African Americans and the nation alike, take the month to reflect upon the history of Black people in these United States. From the beginnings of slavery to the election of the first African American president, Black people have made many strides along the way and have certainly made their mark in the annals of American history.
In recognition, this is Part Three in OurWeekly’s four-part series on the 15 most pivotal aspects of Black History.
8. Blaxploitation Films
Once upon a time in Hollywood, films starring Black performers dominated the silver screen. The turbulent 1960s gave way to a more vocal Black community in the 1970s and independent filmmakers heeded the call: Soon stories about Blacks and told by Blacks were appearing on the silver screen.
In 1971, two significant films got the ball rolling. Variety credits ‘‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” written, directed and starring Melvin Van Peebles, as the independent film that started it all. However, others believe that “Shaft,” also released in 1971 and directed by Gordon Parks, deserves that honor. The difference, however, was “Shaft” was not an independent film but was released by MGM Studios.
Regardless of this debate, Blacks added something else to the Black film movement—Black music. In the beginning of the trend, Earth, Wind and Fire produced the soundtrack for “Sweetback,” and Isaac Hayes won an Oscar for the soundtrack for “Shaft.” Black music with its mixture of funk, soul, jazz and distinctive rhythms set a new standard of film sound that thrives to this day.
Suddenly, it seemed a flurry of films starring Black actors and actresses flooded the theaters. They ranged from action thrillers, revenge flicks, comedies, musicals, to releases about thug life, drug wars, pimps, prostitutes, political corruption, martial arts, even horror flicks and slave tales. Many theaters had long lines of Blacks waiting to see the latest flicks such as “Superfly” (1972), “Three the Hard Way” (1974), “Sparkle” (1976), “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), and “Willie Dynamite” (1974), just to name a few.
In the midst of all this action, Black women were thrust into the limelight. From bone-crushing karate kicks, to gun toting, sharp shooting sistahs, nothing seemed to be too hard for them to do. The unforgettable “Cleopatra Jones” (1973) starring Tamara Dobson, is a case in point and Carol Speed shook us to the core in “Abby” (1974).
And no one can deny that actress Pam Grier and her tough-as-nails characters, Foxy Brown, Coffy, and Friday Foster left a lasting impression on film audiences.
Years after the demise of Blaxploitation films, Grier continued to work in such movies as Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Blaxploitation films, “Jackie Brown” (1997).
Former pro-athletes became stars, Fred Williamson, Bernie Casey and Jim Brown took down the man and both had healthy careers in Hollywood. Martial artist Jim Kelly let Black folks know we could do Karate too. And who would have guessed that a former Ebony Fashion Fair male model, Richard Roundtree would turn out to be the coolest Black man on the planet … I’m talking about Shaft, John Shaft. Can you dig it?