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What are Blaxploitation Films?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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Blaxploitation films are a genre of film that reached its height of popularity in the 1970s in America. Targeting an African-American audience, these movies used a mostly black cast and featured stories set in urban America. Most often, blaxploitation films had a low budget focused on marketing campaigns, and featured soul and funk music soundtracks. The term blaxploitation is a combination of the words “black” and “exploitation.” In Hollywood, exploitation films are low budget movies that rely on catchy elements, such as gore, violence or sexual content, to attract an audience.

The first blaxploitation film to receive wide media attention was Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. This 1971 film focused on a black man’s escape from white police officers after escaping from custody. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song featured many themes that would become mainstays of the genre, including the effects of oppression on the black population and the dangerous world of drugs, militant groups and gangs. The film proved unexpectedly popular and is often considered responsible for launching the blaxploitation genre.

Probably the most famous film of the blaxploitation films is 1971’s classic action movie, Shaft. Featuring Richard Roundtree as detective John Shaft, the film enters a world of urban life punctuated by violence and gangs. The soundtrack, largely by musician Isaac Hayes, featured the famous “Theme from Shaft,“ which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1972.

Despite the appeal of a film genre directed at a typically underrepresented minority, blaxploitation films were met with swift criticism. In their depiction of the African-American world, the films focused heavily on the dark undercurrents of society and promoted many incorrect stereotypes about black people. Organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought against the films, considering them both racist and detrimental to efforts toward equality.

Regardless of the criticism, blaxploitation films were instrumental in developing the voice of black filmmakers in Hollywood. Modern filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton have capitalized on the success of films made specifically for African American audiences to create movies that are relevant and important to both the film world and the real world. Despite the cheesy and somewhat gratuitous nature of many of the early blaxploitation films, they were undoubtedly vital in the creation of a more balanced and diverse film landscape.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Musical Expert. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By chivebasil — On Sep 18, 2011

I know a lot of people who are completely dismissive of blaxploitation films believing them to be little more than 2 hour jokes. I think this is shortsighted and it overlooks a lot of what is unique about the films from this genre.

The balxploitation films offer an amazing portrait of America at a specific place and time. Sure they may have featured outsized characters in ridiculous situations, but they are also a remarkable record of the styles, speech, dreams and fears of black Americans in the 70s and 80s.

And as far as the quality goes, sure some of these movies are kind of silly, but they are not any more silly that the low budget films made by any director in any genre of any races. And every culture and sub group wants to see itself reflected in tough fast talking heroes. The roots of blaxploitation films are obvious. Every culture wants to see itself on screen kicking a little butt.

By jmc88 — On Sep 17, 2011

@Izzy78 - After seeing Jackie Brown I was more interested in finding blaxploitation films to watch, as this film was seen as a tribute to them.

I watched a film called Black Dynamite and was a parody of the blaxlpoitation films. Although this film does give the 21st century a taste of the blaxploitation genre the best way to fully understand the genre is to view the original films from the 1970's and study the stereotypes associated with the premise of the film's plot. The stereotypes associated with the plot are an integral part of the exploitation aspect of the film and are the driving point in it becoming more than just a normal movie.

By Izzy78 — On Sep 17, 2011

@anon139102 - The first film that comes to mind that I would suggest that concerns blaxploitation would be the original version of the movie Shaft starring Richard Roundtree. This movie portrays the stereotypes associated with a strong, black, character that is thrown into a power role and is a defining motion picture in the exploitation genre.

Another movie that I would suggest is Quentin Tarantio's 1997 film Jackie Brown. This film is considered a tribute to blaxploitation films and even has a former blaxlpoitation actress in the title role, who is played by Pam Grier. This movie concerns crime, which is a major element of a blaxploitation film and would serve as an example of a heavily financed, Hollywood version of the blaxploitation genre of film and how it is perceived in the film industry a couple decades after the films were made.

By anon139102 — On Jan 03, 2011

I want to teach a college level course about blaxpliotion. What movies and/or books would you suggest?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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