By : Sharanya Ramesh
Picture a wah wah guitar, tight hi hat rhythms, glamourized black heroes and a funk theme to go along. What you have in front of you was the basic plot line of movies that fell into the genre called blaxploitation which basically was a word created that combined two words, black and exploitation that was coined in the early 1970s by the Los Angeles NAACP head, and ex-film publicist, Junius Griffin.
Heard of Shaft? The Oscar award winning movie of the much too suave black detective called John Shaft is one of the major examples of blaxploitation. Starring Richard Roundtree, this movie had a gross revenue of over 13 million dollars and a soundtrack that lasted decades after the audience had finished applauding. Or Sparkle, the musical that also fell under this theme? The movie that inspired characters for the Oscar award winning movie Dreamgirls, hit its home run in this genre too.
What makes this genre so exclusive is the sheer use of stereotypic characters that string together a story or a song that manages to capture audience’s worldwide. However this genre no longer reigns in the world of cinema or theatre. After many conflicts and clashing of ideas and themes, this category of cinema and creativity died down and now lives as only as a witness to many great movies that ran at its inception from 1971 onwards.
What interests me most about this genre however are some of the titles given to movies and their adaptations from originals to fit into this genre. Let me give you a few examples i.e. Blackenstein (no prizes for guessing which movie this was an adaptation of), Dr.Black, Mr.Hyde (The names just keep on getting more creative) and ofcourse one of my favourites, Blacula, starring William H. Marshall.
Blaxploitation might have come and gone, but the role it played in movies is definitely worth mentioning for the simple reason that everyone can identify with it because invariably everyone has seen it.
The notoriety of the genre has led to a number of parodies, some of them humorous, others satirical. The earliest attempts to mock the genre, Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin and Rudy Ray Moore's Dolemite, were both made during the heyday of the genre, in 1975. The satirical film Coonskin was intended to deconstruct racial stereotypes ranging from early minstrel show stereotypes to more recent stereotypes found in Blaxploitation films of the era. However, the work encountered a large amount of controversy before its release when it was challenged by the Congress of Racial Equality, and its distribution was handed to a smaller distributor who then advertised it as an exploitation film. However, it developed a cult followinng with black viewers. Dolemite was less serious in tone and produced as a spoof. Dolemite centered around a sexually active black pimp played by Moore, who based the film on his stand-up comedy act. The film was followed by a sequel, The Human Tornado.
Blaxploitation as a term and as a genre was one of the most creative and interesting phenomena's in Hollywood cinema and music, and will continue to be so for all movie buffs and fanatics. In recent times however, this phenomena has died out for obvious reasons. However, to me, this phenomena was very interesting and even though it has died down, it still fascinates me how such a concept grew so highly in terms of its popularity and style.