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.