Analysis of Blaxploitation Films

 

In today's culturally diverse, politically correct society, it is 
hard to believe that at one time racism was not only accepted as the 
norm, but enjoyed for its entertainment value. Individuals of African 
descent in North America today take the large, diverse pool of 
opportunities offered by the film industry for granted. Much like 
Canadian theatre however, there was a time when a black man in any 
role, be it servant or slave, was virtually unheard of. It took the 
blaxpliotation films of the early nineteen seventies to change the 
stereotypical depiction of Black people in American Cinema, as it took 
The Farm Story, performed by a small troop of Canadian actors, to 
create a Canadian theatre industry. To be more specific, it took the 
release of Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, in 
1971, to change the tradition view of Black people in American film.

 "Porter's tom was the first in a long line of socially acceptable 
Good Negro characters. Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, 
flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n'er turn 
against their massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, 
selfless, and oh-so-very kind."(Bogle,4)

 The early silent period of cinema introduced five basic 
archetypes for Black characters: the Tom, the Coon, the Tragic 
Mulatto, the Mammy, and finally, the Brutal Black Buck. America's 
first Black character found manifestation as the aforementioned Uncle 
Tom in Edwin S. Porter's, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was released in 
1903. "The paradox was that in actuality Tom wasn't Black at all. 
Instead he was portrayed by a nameless, slightly overweight actor made 
up in blackface."(Boggle, 4) This was a common practice developed by 
the theater, and carried over, as were many of the acting techniques, 
to silent film. Tom's presence, and the appearance of the four negro 
archetypes which were to follow, served the same purpose: "to 
entertain by stressing negro inferiority."(Boggle, 4) 

 Although having no positive effect on the status of Black people 
in America socially, the tom character opened the door for Black 
actors in cinema. Sam Lucas became the first black man to be cast in 
a leading role as a tom, and in 1927, Universal Pictures signed James 
B. Lowe, a handsome black actor, for the lead role in the Universal 
Pictures production of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Lowe was chosen to play the 
part because film director Harry Pollard, a former blackface actor, 
believed he "fit in with the realistic demands of the times"(Bogle, 6) 

 Tom was to be followed by the coon, although he remained the 
cinematic negro character favorite. Where tom was an endearing 
character, the coon provided audiences an object of amusement. Two 
variants of the coon soon emerged: the pickaninny and the uncle 
ramus.(Bogle, 7) The Pickanny was the first coon type to appear in 
cinemas.

 "Generally, he was a harmless, little screwball creation whose 
eyes popped, whose hair stood on end with the least excitement, and 
whose antics were pleasant and diverting."(Bogle, 7)

 The Pickaninny provided audiences with an amusing diversion, and 
soon found his way into the hearts of the mass audience. Next to 
debut was the pure coon, 'a no-account nigger', whose unreliable, 
crazy, lazy nature was good for nothing but eating and causing 
trouble. This character found its pinnacle of success in Rastus, a 
good-for-nothing negro featured in a series of films released between 
1910 and 1911. The final coon brother would emerge as the eager to 
please metaphoric cousin to the tom. Quaint, and naïve, the Uncle 
Ramus character distinguished himself through his comic 
philosophizing.(Bogle,8)

 In general, the cinematic coon was used to indicate the Black 
man's contentment with his submissive position in society. Also 
emerging around this time period is the tragic mulatto: a negro light 
enough to pass for white, who must fight against the negro taint to 
either rise above his colour, or fall victim to it.

 Mammy, a character closely related to the comic coon, was the 
next to emerge. Headstrong and abundantly female, Mammy debuted 
around 1914. The Mammy role would be perfected by Hattie McDaniel in 
the 1930's. From the mammy roles emerged the Aunt Jemima, a male or 
female character who had a bit more tact and were, for the most part, 
sweet and congenial.

 The final archetype emerged in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a 
Nation (1915). Depicting life before and after the civil war, all 
four archetypes are present in this film. It depicts renegade negroes 
who overpower the good-hearted, white southerners and impart on a path 
of lechery, vulgarity and crime. The ultimate goal of these wild 
beast-men is sexual dominance of the pure, innocent white women. At 
the films conclusion, the white men of the 'invisible empire' ride in 
to save the day and restore white supremacy in the South. Proudly 
discriminating, D. W. Griffith, touted as one of the fore-fathers of 
cinema, uses his film mastery to show audiences what happens when 
'slaves get uppity'.

 The five archetypes would rule in black cinema for the next 50 
years. Although Black films did emerge, it was for the most part 
produced by white production companies for a black audiences. Black 
Independent production companies such as the Ebony Motion Picture 
Company began to emerge in the 20's, but the stereotypes and subject 
matter stayed the same. A common theme of social climbing, the 
ultimate goal of the negro being suburban living, dominating Black 
theatres.(Cham, 20) Throughout the 30's and 40's the gangster films 
rose to the fore, usually depicting gun-totting, slick-talking negros, 
entent on making it big. Despite the presence of Black independent 
filmmakers such as George Randall, African American issues were 
essentially ignored.

 The 50's and 60's brought social unrest and the Civil Rights 
Movement brought a need for films with a stronger message. The 
archetypes of the 20's and thirties were no longer acceptable, and the 
few Hollywood "race films" (which usually starred Sidney Poitier), 
were no longer adequate. "Hollywood was still unable to discern or 
depict the full spectrum of Black American life and culture."(Cham, 
21) In 1971, Black film experienced an epiphany. It came in the form 
of a low-budget, badly made French film by the name of Sweet 
Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. It was created almost entirely by one 
Black man- Melvin Van Peebles. This marked a radical change in Black 
cinema. "In 1971, Melvin van Peebles dropped a bomb. Sweet Sweetback's 
Baadasssss Song was not polite. It raged, it screamed, it provoked. 
It's reverberations were felt throughout the country. In the Black 
community it was both hailed and denounced for it's sexual rawness, 
its macho hero, and its depiction of the community as downpressed and 
in need of rescue."(Diawara, 118)

 Van Peebles film sparked an explosion of what would become known 
as blaxploitation films. What Sweet Sweetback Baadassss Song did was 
interpret Black Stereotypes differently. He, and other Black 
directors of the time, took the Black Buck, Coon, and Mammy 
stereotypes of the era before and modernized them. 'Mammy' lost 
weight and grew an afro, becoming the ultra-stylish diva which was 
personified best by actress Pam Grier. The Black Buck emerged 
dominant, ready to fight his historical oppressors.

 Blaxploitation films acted as a cleansing process, through which 
black films were eventually able to accurately depict the African 
American experience. Directors such as Spike Lee and Jon Singleton 
were able to create 'race films' which confronted the serious urban 
issues of the time, without using old stereotypes. It is important 
to note, however, that Sweet Sweetback is not considered a 
blaxpoitation film, as it is too artistic to be considered such. 
Rather, Melvin Van Peebles first film was the catalyst for the 
cleansing blast. "The Farm story" marked a point in time- before it 
there was no Canadian identity in theatre, after it there was. In the 
same fashion, Melvin Van Peebles' movie marked the moment when African 
Americans reclaimed their identity. They were no longer content with 
the cinematic roles offered to them, and so they began to create their 
own. Although blaxploitation films were later commercialized, their 
intent and result stayed consistent, and have created the 
ethno-conscious cinema industry we find today. 

Bibliography

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. New York: 
Viking Press, 1973. 

Cham, Mye B. Blackframes. Cambridge: The Mit Press, 1988. 

Cripps, Thomas. Making Movies Black. New York: Oxford University 
Press, 1993.

Diawara, Manthia. Black American Cinema. New York: Routledge, 1993. 

Lead, Daniel J. From Sambo to Superspade. Boston: Houghton Mifflin 
R>Company, 1976.

Morton, Jim. Am I Black Enough for You? Blaxploitation. 20 Sept. 
1998. 22 Nov. 1998.

http://www.popvoid.com/pages/blax/blax(1-10).html Patterson, Lindsay. 
Black Films and Film-Makers. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1975. 

Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black 
Fil