It’s not uncommon — or irrational — to compare our current political and social climate with the late 60s and early 70s. And that comparison can be made in Hollywood as well.
Over the past year, there have been multiple announcements that some of the most well-known films from the Blaxploitation era will be remade. Remakes of Shaft, Superfly, and Foxy Brown will all be released in the coming years. Despite being made forty years ago, these films continue to inspire filmmakers to this day. And while Blaxploitation films have become cult classics, some critics felt these films didn’t necessarily portray African Americans in a positive light.
Blaxploitation films were low-budget productions released in the early 70s that featured African American protagonists “sticking it to the man,” fighting against white racist villains. Despite being made with small budgets, these movies all made film studios trying to relate to audiences in the middle of the Black Power movement a lot of money. Blaxploitation films, which also featured soundtracks by legends such as Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, and Marvin Gaye, came to typify black coolness in that era.
Tama Hamilton-Wray, a professor at Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities and independent filmmaker, joins Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson to speak about the legacy of Blaxploitation films and what the current fascination with revisiting films tells us about where we are culturally and politically.
Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song from 1971, directed by Melvin Van Peebles, was one of the first movies to be labeled “blaxploitation” and was very successful.
“Hollywood took notice. They understood now that there was this neglected audience in the urban areas in particular and young blacks,” says Hamilton-Wray. “The next few films that started to emerge…were actually made by black filmmakers.
“However, like other movements in the past with black filmmaking, Hollywood kind of usurped it. White producers, white writers, white directors began to make the films. There’s where you get this turn into what becomes blaxploitation.”
Click on the audio player above for the full conversation.