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Seminar Paper, 2014
27 Pages, Grade: 1,3
2 What is Blaxploitation?
2.1 The Blaxploitation Formula
2.2 The Blaxploitation Wave
3 Historical and Socio-Cultural Background
3.1 The African American Image in Film Before 1970
3.2 The Civil Rights Movement and a New African American Attitude
3.3 The Conditions for the Rise and Fall of Blaxploitation
4 The Portrayal of African Americanism in Blaxploitation
4.1 Shaft! – Background and Plot
4.2 Shaft! – Analysis
4.2.1 Plot Analysis
4.2.2 Film Analysis
4.3 Women in Blaxploitation
5 Evaluation of the Impact of Blaxploitation on the Image of African Americans
5.1 Black Film – Before, Then, Afterwards
5.2 Revolutionary or Counterproductive?
“Who is the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? […] Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?” (Shaft)
The person Isaac Hayes is asking for in these introductory lyrics is Shaft from the same-titled movie. Already in these few lines, the audience can be sure of the film genre they are going to have a look at then – It is Blaxploitation!
Throughout the history of film, African Americans struggled to establish a realistic cinematic representation of themselves without stereotyping, exaggerated clichés or even the mere display of black suppression and humiliation. While some of these points can be argued about in the genre of Blaxploitation, at least the latter two should not be true in it. Here we see a black hero who seems to be as sovereign as no African American in literature or film did ever before.
In this paper, it is my objective to examine the characterization of black Americans in Blaxploitation movies to evaluate its influence on the image of African Americans. Not only the cinematic image is to be questioned in this concern, but also the real impression these movies gave to their viewers which also had an impact on the real life, social experience. Thereby, we can differentiate between the black image it produced for blacks, and the impression it left on the white spectators. For this purpose, I will firstly explain the phenomenon of Blaxploitation, its content and structure and name some examples. After that, the historical and social background of this genre is to be analyzed in order to explain how it could emerge and why it vanished as quickly as it came into existence. The depiction of African Americans in film before the 1970s is as important for further comprehension as is the rising political consciousness in the 1960s United States of America which found expression in the Civil Rights Movement.
After I have shown the background knowledge concerning Blaxploitation, the description of the image of black people depicted in these movies will follow by analyzing the film “Shaft” and collecting other significant characteristics of this illustration in the genre in general, using the literature on this topic. The analysis will be divided into a plot analysis and a film analysis, whereby the plot will show characteristics which are visible by a mere reflection of the storyline and setting. The film analysis afterwards will have to find said aspects in selected scenes from the movie itself. As the most appropriate books for the paper’s intention, I chose “Framing Blackness” by Ed Guerrero and “Black and White Media” by Karen Ross. Another interesting work, which suits as an informal guide to various Blaxploitation films, is the book “That’s Blaxploitation!” by Darius James. Furthermore, the role and portrayal of women in these films is to be observed concerning the books by Ross and Guerrero and the analysis of “Shaft”.
On this basis, I want to consider in the end whether the genre of Blaxploitation had a more positive or negative impact on the cinematic and real image of African Americans, whereas this conclusion will presumably not be a simple statement of good or bad. Moreover, it is to be seen whether and how it influenced the social life of American black citizens and the future cinematic illustration of African Americanism.
The relevancy of the examination and evaluation of the influence of this genre finds its source in the very different reception of these films among African American themselves. In the time of the boom of Blaxploitation, and of course until today, these movies had and have been controversial for all its audience.
Blaxploitation is the term used to describe movies made roughly between 1969 and 1974 which were cheaply produced and followed the “exploitation” patterns with a black cast. The concept of exploitation includes the aim to produce a filmic work at low financial costs and achieve a disproportionate earning by setting it in a sensational topic and context. Hollywood supported the financial success of the Blaxploitation wave immensely because it meant a huge economic outcome (Ross 18). Its target group was mostly the inner-city black youth audience (Guerrero 69), which strongly reacted to the wave’s impulse and the genre’s crucial core: The “aggressive black hero who beats the system and ends up with the money and the woman.” (Ross 18). This essential core could be formulated as a recipe which was transferred to a lot of other works and resulted in the anticipated financial success of the exploitation scheme. The so-called Blaxploitation formula appealed to the black audience in a high manner and so the cinemas filled with little effort. The formula itself is broken down by Guerrero most adequately:
“[The Blaxploitation formula] usually consists of a pimp, gangster, or their baleful female counterparts, violently acting out a revenge or retribution motif against corrupt whites in the romanticized confines of the ghetto or inner city.” (94)
The protagonist does not obligatorily have to be a pimp or gangster living a foremost illegal life. At least he (or she) is always a tough guy or female who powerfully pursues his or her goals and is not afraid to use, at least, semi-legal methods. But nevertheless, the audience watches an image of what is perceived as personified ghetto life. So, apart from the ‘blackness factor’, these movies follow the simple, traditional violent-action-hero of Hollywood, like the James Bond series. But on the other side, it was the first real opportunity for African American filmmakers to portray their communities in full, bright colors, even when most often supervised by the white Hollywood production elite. Melvin Van Peebles, who created the first and ground-setting work of the genre – “Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song” (in the following: SSAS), articulated his intentions by saying that he wanted a “victorious film” which encouraged its black audience to leave the theaters proudly and giving the feeling that “they’d had it” (Guerrero 88). So the film should wake a proud black consciousness of identity with an illustration of black power and the celebration of African American community and inner-city life. On the other side however, critics stated that the genre only used more subtle ways of stereotyping to exploit the display of superficial blackness for entertainment purposes (Ross 62, 63).
Another important feature of Blaxploitation is the excessive display on sexuality. The male hero’s masculinity is not only expressed by his aggression, but also by his ability to please every woman he wants to. This is to be seen as the reaction to the long time of desexualization of African American in film which then compensated with exaggerated force.
As already mentioned, the first great success of this type of films, which as well started the popularity boom of it, was SSBS in 1971. It shows a black man brought up in a Los Angeles inner-city brothel entertaining people with live sex shows. One night he flees from the police, which suspects him falsely of murder on a black man, to present him as a scapegoat and release him afterwards. The protagonist then leads a montage of his escape from the police through the ghettoes of Los Angeles dealing with the ‘typical’ black life there, including drug-dealers, prostitutes and various kinds of criminal activities carried out by blacks. On his way he has to seduce but also rape black and white women, as well fight different racial gangs and the police. In the end, he escapes to Mexico and the movie fades out not without a notice of revenge. The movie surrogates a sovereign African American, who cherishes but also fights the constituents of his community life, enforces his own perception of right and wrong, and wins the battle against the suppressive, white establishment. Thus, many members of the black community felt empowered as well as a notion of hope for the success of African American revolt against the inequality of their real life, social America. SSBS was followed by a flood of imitations, which simply followed the set formula naming “Superfly” and “Shaft” as the most successful and significant. But also references to film or literacy classics had been transformed into the black setting so that Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” became “Blacula” or further interpretations like “Black Jesus”, “Black Caesar” or the “Black Godfather” were created. For the black heroine the most noticeable works are to mention “Cleopatra Jones” and “Foxy Brown” which will be elaborated on in section 4.4. One interpretation of this transfer on the classics could be that African Americans should get the feeling that their ‘culture’ mattered and could also apply to some of the world's big and culturally important works.
The demand for this cheaply produced form of black relevancy resulted in the production of 91 movies between 1970 and 1973 which can be classified as Blaxploitation of which 47 followed the rule of the Blaxploitation formula (Guerrero 95). Observing such a dimension of nearly 100 films in only three years for one genre, the term exploitation receives certain clarity.
Before and around the time of World War II, the depiction of African Americans in the American film was still characterized by old stereotypes. In the 1940 classic “Gone With the Wind”, they are shown in the motif of the “faithful servant and happy black folks.” (Ross 14). This portrayal of African Americans as the servant of a white person, but on the other hand side their peaceful and satisfied attitude was what Ross declares as a justification of years of slavery and the superiority of white people, while the suppressed blacks took no offence by that and left the white audience in a feeling of innocence (14). Besides, African American actors even had to be painted darker and adopt ‘standard’ black behavior to really illustrate the black stereotype that was commonly expected by a white audience in those days (Ross 14). While some actors refused to play such humiliating roles, others pragmatically took the chance of earning one hundred times the money of a job by acting it (Ross 15). Nevertheless, one could argue that the black image underwent an improvement in film since World War I, when African American lost a commonly used depiction as villain or dangerous, evil threat by compromising it with the ridiculous and foolish minstrel figure. Otherwise the part of the African American in a movie would be characterized as naïve and friendly Uncle Tom. Also to avoid sexual stereotyping, a lot of black roles got desexualized around mid-nineteenth century, so that a sensual black person in film would be clearly irritating (Guerrero 62).
After World War II, the significant black acting talent, Sidney Poitier, emerged as a main black character in many movies. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he played the African American as a more intelligent human than before, and the black image gained dignity, but also fell into a stereotype of the black saint who sacrifices himself for whites and blacks out of religious conviction. Ross describes this image as more graceful than before but still as quiet and powerless in contrast to his white fellowship for which he is willing to give his life. Hence, the African American image improved, but always stayed underneath the superiority of the white man (16). Cripps comes to the conclusion that, also in his leading roles, Poitier furthermore played white characters in black skin instead of an authentic African American (Ross 17). In the time of the Civil Rights Movement, African American then were portrayed in a more heroic fashion for pacification reasons, as Ross implies. These roles illustrated blacks as savior, but never really let them have institutional power (17). A rising popularity of black ex-athletes beginning acting careers led to the image of the macho African American man who is depicted as manly and desirable, but still not sexual available and always under control of a white superior (Guerrero 78). There were also authentically characterized African Americans, as the screening of black-written literature promised financial success. However, Ross states that the depiction of blackness ended in a general ambiguity of victim and problem (18). On the one hand side, blacks had to be agreed to have been suppressed by long periods of inequality in the USA because of the then current pressure by the Civil Rights Movement. On the other side, a realistic presentation of African Americanism usually resulted in a pitiful but non-sympathetic image of impoverished and criminal black communities, which more had the notion of “looking upon” than “feeling with” them.
In conclusion, the image of the African American in film right before 1970 consisted of a desexualized, quiet, intelligent but powerless person. He or she is either lucky enough to experience the leadership of a white man, or suffers from the poor conditions in the black community.
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement demanded racial equality and an empowerment of racial minorities. While most middle-class and intellectual African Americans fought for a peaceful and civilized move towards racial equality by a certain willingness of assimilation, if the opportunity would be given to them, other organized groups formed with the intention to violently realize their rights if necessary. The image of the quiet, black saint lost its function of appeasement as Watts states in “Framing Blackness” that the perceived majority of African American saw themselves as “opposite […] of what Negroes said Negroes were” (qtd. in Guerrero 89). This means that while the intellectual leaders of the equality movement propagated the black identity of a peaceful, upright person on the same level as the white majority, the lower-class African Americans demanded a push of black power and a certain degree of recompense. The most extreme form of this urge was illustrated in form of militant groups like the Black Panther movement. The urge to empower the black identity mostly among lower-class African Americans then partly resulted in the popularity of the Blaxploitation concept which functioned as a fictional compensation platform.
Guerrero elaborates the three main reasons for the emergence of Blaxploitation: Firstly, he states the rising political and social consciousness of African Americans partly in form of strong nationalistic impulses. Secondly, there must have been a big wave of critical dissatisfaction with Hollywood’s degradation of blacks in film especially among black leaders, entertainers, and intellectuals, but also among the lower-class African-Americans. And thirdly, Hollywood was in a financial crisis in the late 1960s, which pushed the film industry to find a new economical source (69-71). Another condition enabling the realization of Blaxploitation was the loosening of obscenity laws by the Supreme Court, which led to a popular tolerance towards explicit sex, violence and graphic language in movies (Guerrero 94).
The first reason has been already introduced by the chapter before: The demand in the black audience for a black hero, who is ready to fight for his rights violently, rose and the implementation of the lower-class African American’s resentment in these movies then satisfied many spectators with its aggressive display of black power. This urge and the demand of a change of the common degrading illustration of African Americans in film led to the boom of the Blaxploitation formula. The promise of financial success caused the film production company MGM to change the script of “Shaft” on short notice, which was originally written for a white protagonist and mostly white audience. Because of the high demand, they simply changed it to a black cast and context and it became one of the most successful Blaxploitation movies (Guerrero 91).
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