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The So-Called Fall of Blaxploitation

From: The Velvet Light Trap
Number 64, Fall 2009
pp. 90-91 | 10.1353/vlt.0.0055

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What was clear by 1976 wasn't so much the "fall" of blaxploitation as its "falling away," a controlled demolition precipitated by a dialectical turn on several fronts-cultural, critical, political-but mostly determined by film industry economics. In the material order of things industry finance had already mapped it out. But one must also consider things in the broader historical-cultural frame: protesting students were gunned down at Kent and Mississippi state colleges; the Vietnam War ended in a stunning defeat; work boots and surplus army fatigue jackets were replaced by platform shoes and velvet Edwardian waistcoats; social message soul music was replaced by "shake your booty" disco; the black power Afro was replaced by the flowing Super Fly coiffure. By middecade black people had shifted from the collective "we" of black rebellion and "equal rights" to the economic self-interest of the "equal opportunity" "me." The sixties (1967 through 1976) were definitely over, and the Reaganite "greed is good" eighties were just over the social-material horizon, a few years away.

Certainly, by the midseventies the black cinema interlude (in Hollywood's parlance, a short term for quick profit, subgenre cycle), universally known as blaxploitation, had reached its zenith in terms of popularity and number of films. From there, blaxploitation went brain dead and was subsequently euthanized. The cultural-critical turn came for blacks early on, in late 1972, as things once admired and celebrated turned into their opposites. "Type" soured and turned into "stereotype." The hit releases of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft in 1971 launched blaxploitation. Melvin Van Peebles with Sweetback provided the rebellious inspiration and a business model. Van Peebles demonstrated that there was a huge, insurgent African American audience thirsting to see winning, heroic black images on the big screen and that through "guerilla financing" and increased control over distribution and exhibition a brother could actually walk away with what he called the "fuck you money," that is, a substantial profit. Additionally, Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks, filled in the rudimentary brush strokes of the blaxploitation formula. John Shaft is a macho black detective, with black and white girlfriends throughout New York City, who negotiates between the black and white Mafias, and worlds, to heroically solve everybody's problems in spectacular action-adventure style by the end of the flick. And as commonly noted about blaxploitation films, the music was at least as good or even better than the film's visuals and narrative. Written by Isaac Hayes, Shaft's score went astronomically platinum, so popular that it was being played at half-time during nationally televised football games.

In a subtly converse way, Super Fly (1972), directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., further refined the formula, resulting in hit box-office profits. Made for $500,000, the film grossed $11 million in its first two months of exhibition. So the tale goes, kingpin dope dealer Priest, addictively snorting coke and increasingly disillusioned, wants out of "the life." He accomplishes this by running one last "fantastic number," outsmarting "the Man" and exiting the gangster world with a "cool million" in cash. For visual and sonic style, the film was an aesthetic blaxploitation marker. Priest rolled through NYC in a tricked-out Cadillac El Dorado, sporting wardrobe (hovering somewhere between pimp and gangster) that was worthy of Louis XIV in terms of sartorial display projecting political street power. Plus, the Super Fly soundtrack, written and performed by Curtis Mayfield, was absolutely socially relevant and went mega-hit platinum. It remains a much-sampled and honored classic album to this day. "I'm yo Mama. I'm yo Daddy. I'm that nigga in the alley. I'm the pusherman."

Yet all things must turn. Consequently, a rush of forty or so cheap imitations and variations on the blaxploitation theme quickly followed Super Fly's success, with titles like Trick Baby, Black Caesar, and The Mack in 1973 and Black Godfather, Willie Dynamite, The Take, and Foxy Brown in 1974. Prototype quickly stumbled into stereotype and stale formula, and critical blowback from black activists, intellectuals, and political organizations was intense. The Reverend Jesse Jackson called for a boycott of theaters trafficking in the "vulgarity, violence...

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