October marked the beginning of the UK’s 29th annual Black History Month, a month dedicated to celebrating the achievements and contributions of the Black community in all spheres of art, politics, history and science. In the world of film, Black History Month is an opportunity for Black artists and audiences to perhaps look to the future of Black visibility in Hollywood with movements like #Oscarssowhite, and for white people to educate ourselves on how Black filmmakers and artists have radically shaped the industry. Only last month, film fans were reminded why something like Black History Month is so important, when director Tim Burton, asked about the lack of racial diversity in his films, responded with “Things either call for things or they don’t”. Burton cites the fact that he could watch Blaxploitation movies as a child without calling for more white people in them as proof of his laudable “colour blindness”; but what constitutes a ‘Blaxploitation’ movie, and how have they shaped Black film today?
To understand how Blaxploitation arose as a genre, it’s important to recognise how Black actors first historically featured in ‘mainstream’ cinema. Through the 1910s and 20s, Black characters were predominantly played by white actors in blackface, a doubly harmful phenomenon in that it robbed Black actors of roles while simultaneously attempting to ridicule them with racist stereotypes. The first major breakthrough came in 1942, when the NAACP met with Hollywood executives and demanded to see more opportunities for Black filmmakers and artists, beyond the roles of assistants and on-screen maids and criminals. The civil rights movement further opened up opportunities for Black artists in Hollywood and eventually, the Blaxploitation sub-genre became hugely popular in the 1970s.
Blaxploitation is a sub-genre of the wider genre of exploitation film, which seeks to maximise box office profits by targeting very specific audience markets. Black directors Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles are generally accredited with the invention of the Blaxploitation film, with their respective 1971 movies Shaft, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which became required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party. Tropes of the genre included predominantly Black casts, anti-establishment themes, and notable funk and soul jazz soundtracks.
Blaxploitation’s main problem was perhaps that is was too ahead of its time; or, more accurately, that white Americans were stuck too firmly in the past. Hollywood producers were still almost exclusively white, and so these films aimed at Black audiences were full of racial stereotypes; Shaft is ‘the black private that’s a sex machine to all the chicks’, while Foxy Brown in the 1974 film of the same title is intensely sexualized, with the opening credits showing the detective in her underwear as the camera actually zooms to a close-up of her breasts. Richard Fleischer’s widely derided film Mandingo exploited the history of enslaved people of colour in the US with its plot of romanticized rape and pornographic inclusion of ‘mandingo’ fighting. For the last half century, the Blaxploitation genre has controversially split critics and audiences alike, as the question remains as to whether the representation of Black characters on screen needed to come at the cost of the aestheticisation of Black suffering, and the hyper-sexualisation of Black bodies. At the end of the decade, the Coalition Against Blaxploitation was formed with a mind to ending the perpetuation of harmful Black stereotypes in film, and subsequently the genre came to an end.
Despite the intervention of the Coalition, Blaxploitation arguably still arises in areas of modern filmmaking. Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 hit Django Unchained, for example, seemingly profits from the exploitation of Black trauma in its treatment of slavery, with its cartoonish violence and bizarre one-liners. The now viral video of Tarantino’s interview on Black Entertainment Television, in which he attempts to speak in African America Vernacular English, seems to speak volumes about his shameless appropriation of Black culture and history. Thankfully, directors like Steve McQueen have found ways to bring narratives of African American enslavement to Hollywood with significantly more care and nuance.
Clearly then, Burton’s proud statement that he never demanded for larger white representation in Blaxploitation films is utterly absurd, and misses the point entirely. Blaxploitation promised empowerment and visibility to Black people in Hollywood, but came at the price of their reduction to cheap stereotypes. In other words, Black audiences were allowed to see other Black people on screen, as long as they were still being viewed through a two-dimensional white lens. Even today, forty years on, Hollywood is still guilty of mainly casting Black actors within the slave/criminal binary. For a renowned and much admired director like Burton to shrug off his exclusion of Black actors is not only extremely disappointing, but it is representative of the racism that still reeks from much ‘mainstream’ cinema; a sad reminder that Hollywood has a lot of work to do in giving Black artists the platform they deserve
Image: Marion S. Trikosko; Wikamedia Commons