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Blaxploitation Movies & African American actors in the 1970s

Updated on July 26, 2013

African Americans in Cinema

Prior to the 1970s and the Blaxploitation movie phenomenon, African Americans were primarily relegated to stereotypical acting roles, such as servants and hired help. A few stars emerged, such as Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), but for the most part, black actors could only aspire to minor roles in mainstream films.

Nonetheless, following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s some doors began to open. Government programs to raise cultural awareness created roles for black actors in documentaries and towards the end of the 1960s TV shows began to cast black actors in major roles. But shows like Mission Impossible, Star Trek and The Mod Squad remained exceptions. At the same time, pioneering independent filmmakers began to cast Black actors in lead roles in feature films.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead is an all-time classic horror film. It's noteworthy for its gore and its classic storyline, but also for its casting of a Black man as a resourceful and self-reliant hero. Director George Romero has said that the script didn't call for an African American, but actor Dwayne Jones was perfect for the part.

Independently financed and made for just $100,000, a leading role in a film like Night of the Living Dead is representative of the best possible opportunity an African American could reasonably aspire to before the 1970s. Against all the odds, this film became a smashing success and in addition to being a classic zombie film, the interaction between Jones and the other characters can't be evaluated without considering the racial aspect and therefore contributes to it being a classic statement on American society in the late 1960s.

Blaxploitation Movies

With the 1970s and the increasing freedom and social mobility afforded to African Americans, a new generation of black filmmakers emerged. Their films depicted the black urban lifestyle that was familiar to them and a new genre was born - Blaxploitation.

Initially made for black audiences, Blaxploitation films often dealt with urban crime, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes. But they were soon so successful that many of them crossed over into the mainstream. Shaft (1971) with its soundtrack by Isaac Hayes won a Grammy Award for Best Original Score and the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Actors like Fred Williamson and Pam Grier (Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown) became two of the stars of the genre and the influence of Blaxploitation films such as Foxy Brown, Mandingo and Shaft on directors like Quentin Tarrantino is a testimony to the level of success that they achieved.

Get Christie Love! (1974)

Tereza Graves stars as Christie Love, the first black woman on a big city police force. She quickly proves her worth by helping to smash a drug ring. The movie was the pilot for the short lived TV show Get Christie Love!. Tereza Graves was a regular on the hit TV series Laugh In. The movie has become a cultural reference of sorts as it was referred to in the movies Reservoir Dogs and Austin Powers: Goldmember.

Five (1971)

Documentary on the careers of five African American artists. Importantly, each of the artists discusses their work within the social context of the early 1970s, along with the challenges and inspiration that it presents them with. Black filmmakers who invented the Blaxploitation genre were similarly influenced by these social forces.

Black Brigade (1970)

Also known as Carter's Army, this made for TV movie was Produced by Aaron Spelling (the Mod Squad) who was hoping for another multi-racial hit TV show. The story concerns an African American unit with a white commander that must take a Nazi held dam during World War 2. In spite of racial tensions, they manage to succeed. The TV show never got off the ground, but the movie features many of the first stars of African American cinema (Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams, Rosey Grier) in some of their earliest roles.

The Guy From Harlem (1976)

This low-budget film is loosely based on the story of Shaft. A private detective fights crime on the streets of Harlem and Miami while trying to steer clear of a white dude called "Big Daddy".

Joshua (1976)

Blaxploitation pioneer Fred Willamson wrote the screenplay for Joshua (aka Joshua the Black Rider) and also stars as a black Cavalryman who returns home from the Civil War only to find his mother murdered and her employer's wife kidnapped. He sets out on the trail of the bad guys to get revenge.

Tarrantino's Django Unchained may set the standard for future black gunslingers, but Williamson's Joshua was one of the first.


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      7 years ago

      At the time though it would not have been called Blaxploitation. Pretty good docu. And even earlier Race Films or Separate Cinema is good as well.


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