Groups of people who are usually referred to outside of the main narrative of American history have pleaded for representation and visibility throughout history. From the Indigenous people of the Americas wanting a less barbaric look to Lantinx people wanting to be presented as more than a housemaid, representation has long been something that minorities wanted. One minority of people had their shine but was it all sparkle? The Blaxploitation genre of the 70’s brought Blacks into the overwhelming current of mainstream film. While some, like the actors, directors, and musicians of the time, expressed gratitude for visibility others, like the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, did not agree with, and often publically spoke out against, the portrayal of Blacks that was widely shown in the Blaxploitation genre of film. Even today, the Black community is in constant disarray about the sort of representation that is shown in today’s pop culture. More recent films, according to the NAACP, have the ability to be labeled as Blaxploitation films. The opposing opinions of the Blaxploitation genre and the effect that it has had on today’s Black filmmakers and actors validate as well as invalidate the everlasting result of a genre that brought Black’s to the front of the stage.
In relation to films of the past such as Birth of a Nation (1915), Song of Freedom (1936), and The Defiant Ones (1958), Blacks and others who were pro-representation, peered gratefully at the long-awaited arrival of the display of another part of the country; and by ‘part’ I mean people. The Blaxploitation genre of the 70’s was seen, to many blacks of the time, as the first time that “Black characters [did not serve] as maids or yardmen, but often as relatable middle class Americans” (Jones). The 70’s was the first time in which Blacks were seen as something other than subservient; as powerful, self-aware people with needs, wants and desires, and issues like having to deal with and defeating “the man”. With black main casts, this era couldn’t have been brought on at more appropriate time, the end of the Black Power Era, this genre opened up the eyes of America to a new way of life and as a result of that, a new understanding of this ethnic subculture that had never really had the spot light. Although these films were meant to reach Black audiences, and did, the Blaxploitation genre crossed barriers and other audience, including Whites, lined up to see films like Shaft (1971) and Cool Breeze (1972) (Separate). The Blaxploitation genre also brought film into the music of the time as it was the first to use Funk and Soul music in the films with songs featuring James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Isaac Hayes (Separate). It also created Black stars such as Jim Brown and Fred Williamson and encouraged the upcoming of others like Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and Will Smith, to name a few. The Blaxploitation did more than just bring Blacks to the front, it also allowed them to walk around the shake hands with the audience. By showing running “for us, by us” productions, Blacks were able to step out and show themselves in the way in which they felt was right to be shown. For the most part, people are grateful for this era as they feel it gave Black’s long deserved recognition. While this era has much to be praised for, it also brought a lot of distraught and disarray to the already turbulent black community.
Popular belief asserts that as a result of the Blaxploitation genre, others are not able to see black people as a serious group of people. Black pressure groups such as The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), and the Nation of Islam were a strong opponents of the Blaxploitation genre and is the group who coined the term. They mainly did not like the “negative stereotypes featured in most of the genre’s movies [which were] eroding the positive role models and reinforcing white prejudices about black culture” (Separate). Apparently Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) did not portray blacks the way in which they felt they needed to be portrayed. These groups were not a fan of the violence and racy behavior in the films, mainly from the black women. They felt that as a group of people who have been enslaved and continuously discriminated against, they need a more positive, impactful, and overall “normal” portrayal in films and in the media as a whole as they are still trying to assimilate and be respected by society and a country that struggles to see them as more than slaves and subservient. These groups wanted Blacks to be portrayed in ways that opposed the mainstream stereotypes of them but rather, black filmmakers and actors were creating new and perpetuating stereotypes that these groups have seen as detrimental to the image of blacks. In a 1971 article called “Blacks vs. Shaft” produced by Newsweek, African American’s expressed their disdain for the film and other Blaxploitation films. Clayton Riley, a black film critic of the time said “The new black films portray a fairy tale treatment of black life” (History). Due to most of the films being about the black man and the law and mainly resulting in the black man winning by either violent or legal force, Riley, along with other blacks, felt that this was not a depiction that was worthy of being shown because it was completely false. Another thing that protesters detested was the fact that most of the films “took place in inner cities and focused on drug dealers, pimps, and hit men (History). As a result of the NAACP, CORE, and the Nation of Islam’s public outcry about the films, the genre declined very quickly because the film industry decided they were doing fine before the genre.
Today, black people, and other races, are still faced with numerous stereotypes, discriminations, and false generalizations all the way from news headlines to roles in films. While black filmmakers and actors have penetrated the mainstream of film, there are still filmmakers who build a career off of perpetuating stereotypes for a laugh. Tyler Perry’s company, Georgia Peach, produces countless films about Madea, a Black grandmother who specializes in tough love, beating people with pots, and purposely mispronouncing words. To add, this character is played by a man, Tyler Perry himself thus carrying on the idea of emasculate black women. Some refer to Tyler Perry’s films as modern day Blaxploitation as they explore the lives of bitter black women, cheating black husbands, and kids without fathers. While personally, I know and know off women who are spitting images of those portrayed I Tyler Perry’s films, I also know of kindhearted women and family men who are black and who are also portrayed in Perry’s film. That’s the issue. It’s easier to see the bad then it is to see the good which poses the question, should the bad be taken out? Although there is truth behind every stereotype, is it okay to perpetuate?
Personally, I feel that given the circumstances of the black community, the obstacles overcome through time and the ones that are still faced today, I understand why some people believe that Blaxploitation gives Blacks a bad rap. When arguing against the genre, though, it is often overlooked that these films brought on a call for an alleviation of class relations and many of them concerned this topic; so to argue against the film due to the way in which it approaches a topic rather than its meaning is still detrimental to the group. I feel as though as a group of people Black culture, because of the obstacles, are unique and therefore accurate portrayals, good or bad, should be shown in film. In the 70’s a lot of blacks viewed these films as “authentically black” and found pride within them (Kraszewski) so there must be some weight to what made these people relate to and approve of these film. It is also important to remember that although some Blacks wanted to look better to others, it is important to give some attention to those who do embody a stereotype because they are the basis in which the portrayals are either made on or against. With that said, there has to be a balance of these portrayals to ensure that people don’t begin to believe that this is all there is. On the other hand, as consumers of film and the media everyone should be cognizant of the fact that films can only be so real and learn to analyze rather than absorb. While it is the responsibility of the media to be sensitive and cognizant of the images that they are releasing to the public, it is equally as important for the public to consider and reconsider how an image makes them feel as well as how it effects their outlook of the world. The Blaxploitation era is definitely an era that encourages reflection of not only the reactions of those who were for or opposed it but close examination of those who mindlessly absorbed it and how that changed, if any, race relations.
Visibility and representation is something that many different kinds of people fight for in film and the media. The Blaxploitation genre, although it brought visibility, also brought questionable representation. Although the representation of blacks has become more positive and realistic today, many still argue that in certain mediums there are draw backs. The question that one must pose to self while reflecting on these opinions is how does the remembrance of history in terms of what a group of people has gone through to get to where they are now? On the contrary, one may ask though, why wouldn’t a group of people who have been so cast out not want to join to the mainstream regardless? I believe these are the two questions that were asked by the opponents of Blaxploitation and the ones who were okay with it. I also believe that at one point of another both considered the other. Who’s to say what’s right or wrong?
"“Blacks vs. Shaft”," Newsweek Magazine, August 28,1972, 88.
Jones, L. (2016, Dec). BLAXPLOITATION. The Jacksonville Free Press Retrieved from http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1757275767?accountid=4485. Web. 28 November 2016.
History Engine. “The negative effects of the Blaxploitation movement”. Web. 28 November 2016. https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/5699
Kraszewski, J. (2002). Recontextualizing the historical reception of blaxploitation: Articulations of class, black nationalism, and anxiety in the genre's advertisements. Velvet Light Trap, (50), 48-61. Retrieved from http://login.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1746108704?accountid=4485
Separate Cinema. BLAXPLOTATION: The Controversial 1970s. Web. 28 November 2016. http://www.separatecinema.com/exhibits_blaxploitation.html.
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