Ever wonder where famed female rapper Foxy Brown got her name from, or why we say jokingly, "Give me five on the black-hand side?" You can probably find the answer in a black film from the time period dubbed as the "blaxploitation" era of film.
While Sidney Poitier, was making it alright to be an acceptable, middle-class, black man, many felt that it was more to blacks than that. Many felt that maybe blacks could play any and every type of role. Some thought blacks could be heroes, or smooth, sexy, undercover detectives, while others felt they could just depict how things were going down on the streets. From the early 60's until the mid 70's black film as we know it would experience the "blaxploitation" era of black film history. This period also provided us with three people that would change the perspective on black movies and music: Melvin Van Peebles, Pam Grier, and Isaac Hayes.
While the civil rights movement was at a peak, many blacks felt we were being misrepresented on screen. While Sidney Poitier who "acted mostly in problem pictures dealing with racial conflict and was the first African American actor to win an Academy Award (1964) for his passionate performance in Lilies of the Field (1964)," was trying to change blacks image in films, many still felt we were misrepresented. Blacks became tired of the lackluster roles we were given, seeing us submissive to every command by whites, and almost vacant on screen, and decided to produce movies to fit their tastes. This taste became a whole movement/genre of movies. Blacks began to produce films that showed us in powerful and militant manner, while others portrayed the ghetto. We also had movies that showed us getting revenge for once and none other than Melvin Van Peebles brought this to us. When you speak on the topic of "blaxploitation" films, it's almost impossible not to mention Peebles' movie Sweet Sweetback's Badaaass Song. This was a one-of-a-kind film that was financed, produced, written, scored, directed, and arranged by Peebles. Peebles was truly a machine. Peebles worked with Earth, Wind, and Fire on the soundtrack to this movie to produce what would be one of the few gems of this period. Along with blacks rebelling, came the emergence of the do what ever it takes black woman. Women have none other than Pam Grier to thank for that.
Pam Grier a.k.a. the queen of "blaxploitation", played roles that black women were far from accustomed too. With roles like Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown, Grier strived to play the strong black woman, however she fell short of this. Grier played roles showing black women doing whatever it takes to get the job done. While it wasn't Grier's idea for black women to be seen in a bad light, it ended up that way. Grier went nude in some scenes that during those times were seen as low-class or degrading. Some of the things Grier tried to push on us then, is seen today as okay or normal. Was Grier ahead of time, who knows? Famed female rapper Fox Brown has only Grier and her movie Foxy Brown to thank for her name and persona. While Grier was busy turning heads towards and away from the big screen, Isaac Hayes had ears locked into the big screen.
Isaac Hayes, a masterful musician even to this day, created one of the most brilliant and beautiful musical works ever when he created the theme for Shaft. Shaft was a movie based on smooth, sexy, black detective who always got his man. John Shaft was played by Richard Roundtree, who made any viewer convinced that Shaft was the role he was born to play. While Shaft, was one of the few "blaxploitation" films that was actually up to Hollywood standards, it was its theme song that defined its' success. When Hayes produced the theme song for Shaft, he took both the score and movie to unparalleled heights. Hayes eventually won an Oscar for the song and provided yet another gem from the "blaxploitation" era.
While the "blaxploitation" era of film may not have produced the best or most interesting movies in Hollywood, it did introduce us to some of the most influential characters and actors in black film history. The music produced during this period set the platform for black movie soundtracks which can still be heard today. While theme songs for black movies may never touch the beauty of Isaac Hayes Shaft, they may thank the man for ingenuity. The "blaxploitation" may have been seen in a bad light, but we all know we learn from mistake, and the "blaxploitation" era is one mistake to be proud of.
Works Cited Keyser, Lester J., and Andre H. Ruszkowski, The Cinema of Sidney Poitier (Barnes, A.S. 1980) Blaxploitation's Influence on Film and TV. Griffiths, Edward. January 1998 <www.blaxploitation.com >.
"Sidney Poitier." Encyclopedia Britainica. 2000 ed