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Quote of the Day: “An independent filmmaker’s only hope of survival is to do something the mainstream studios can not or will not do”—Roger Corman, Hollywood’s king of B movies.
Let’s start by explaining what a pimpmobile was. If you take a look at the ‘70s films listed in this post, you’re going to see a lot of them, rolling jukeboxes cruising the ghetto streets of south Chicago, south-central Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and above all, New York City’s Harlem, for many years the unofficial capital of Black America. A pimpmobile was a big luxury car, usually a Cadillac Eldorado or Lincoln Continental, tricked out with garish accessories that boasted of money to burn. It was the ride par excellence of the urban criminal class, with no attempt to remain inconspicuous. On the contrary, it was as conspicuous as the Batmobile. It bragged to the world: I’m the king of the city. Nobody can stop me. Not white society, not the law, not my enemies in the streets. No one. That’s what the era of ‘70s Blaxploitation movies was all about—a young man’s fantasy of women, riches, limitless power, and revenge.
By 1978 or so, other than a couple of stragglers and late wannabees, they were gone, over. But their violent, hoes-and-playaz themes and style have endured and echoed for almost half a century, in thousands of record albums and music videos.
These films seemed to come out of nowhere at the turn of the decade, but they didn’t. For a dozen years, Americans were becoming accustomed to racial dramas, at first warm and positive ones like A Raisin in the Sun and Lilies of the Field. They often starred, as you’ve already noticed, Sidney Poitier, who back then had a unique stature almost unimaginable today: America’s Official Negro Hero. Mind you, the civil rights movement helped get work for other actors, among them Brock Peters, Diana Sands, young comedians Bill Cosby, Nipsey Russell, and Godfrey Cambridge, and a married couple, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.
It was Davis who unintentionally set a new Black wave of films into motion when Sam Goldwyn Jr. hired him to direct Cotton Comes to Harlem. Though a mainstream movie, not a Blaxploitation film—the term didn’t exist yet—the 1970 box-office success of Cotton proved to Hollywood that “race” movies didn’t have to be integrated; they could be jet black and still be a money-making hit. The few whites in Cotton Comes to Harlem were clueless officials, doofus-y cops, and hissable villains. The formula was repeated the following year with MGM’s Shaft, launching a franchise. The ads for Shaft bragged, “Bolder than Bond. Cooler than Bullitt.”—big boasts in 1971.
Independently made and released films had broken what amounted to studio monopoly and were booked by more and more theaters. Hollywood’s always-striving lower rung producers sensed an opportunity in low-low budget Black action movies.
A couple of other things happening at the same time converged. Movies in general had become much more violent once censorship was relaxed in the ‘60s. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969) stand out, but there were hundreds of others. Cop movies took the longtime place of Westerns. Gangster movies captured the imagination of the culture after The Godfather opened in early 1972. Martial arts movies—“Kung Fu fighting”—became all the rage. And the racial rage of that political era completed the combustible elements of Blaxploitation, the very name a sardonic play on “sexploitation,” another, slightly earlier cinematic phenomenon of the era.
They lit the fuse. The dry kindling that was waiting for them were thousands of smaller, single-screen old movie theaters, many of them in now-abandoned parts of American cities. They’d been struggling since TV took over. A few lucky ones became revival houses that showed old movies and foreign films. Far more became porno theaters, in a time a decade before home videotape. And many more specialized in Black action. As many whites left the slums after WWII (my family among them), theaters in newly ghettoized urban neighborhoods adjusted to the necessity of pleasing a new clientele.
By 1972, the product was ready. There were Black actors of the ‘60s ready to take Hollywood’s traditional, uncertain, highly reversible climb to the director’s chair in the ‘70s, as Ossie Davis had done. Ivan Dixon of Hogan’s Heroes helmed Trouble Man, one of the first films called Blaxploitation even in its time. Blacula made its own claim on Bram Stoker’s timeless story. Shaft director Gordon Parks was a famous photographer who’d made a few documentary films in 16mm. By contrast, his son Gordon Parks Jr. had no screen credits when he made Superfly (1972), destined to become, if anything, even more influential than his father’s film the year before. Many Blaxploitation movies at least paid lip service to Black history, the struggle to get somewhere in life. Superfly didn’t bother much with philosophy; it was straight-up glorification of a life of crime.
This is roughly where your humble narrator entered the picture: offscreen, as a newly minted movie projectionist. My very first shift was at the Melba, a long-gone 600-seat theater in the Bronx. It had been built as part of a neighborhood improvement scheme when the neighborhood was Jewish; 50 years later, it was showing Sugar Hill on a double bill with Scream, Blacula, Scream. This was a somewhat different kind of movie than those I’d recently studied at the NYU film school, with different, very direct lessons about the kind of responses a sharp filmmaker could draw out of an audience.
The projector lamp often went out, resulting in a screamingly violent audience until light could be restored. The theater manager, himself Black, refused to spend the few dollars to buy repair parts. He cackled uproariously, “We promised them the black motion picture experience, now didn’t we?” Indeed, we did. I didn’t stay long at the Melba. Something about life expectancy.
I moved my job downtown to 42nd Street. Sure, drunks still occasionally fired guns at the soundproof projection booth windows there, trying to knock off the light beam, and mobs still tried to hammer down the iron door to the booth. But the burly ushers had tire irons and crowbars, to use on the mobs, not the doors. On balance, it was a safer, altogether more normal environment than the central Bronx. Paid better, too. Think of 42nd Street in its heyday, in modern terms, as a 14-plex on two sides of a single block. But no 14-plex in today’s world has or had more than 19,000 available seats.
Times Square and 42nd Street became the instant capital of the brief Blaxploitation era, mostly because Harlem and the newly Black parts of Brooklyn didn’t have anywhere near enough screens to compete. 42nd and 34th Streets were sites of major bus and train connections. In that era, there were many servicemen of every shade of color hanging out at the movies just killing time for a few hours. Contrary to public belief, most 42nd Street movies were no different from the ones you saw elsewhere, but cheaper, and part of a double bill, long after that ended in most other theaters. You’d see two cop thrillers, say The New Centurions with Sudden Impact, or two lesbian melodramas, Fraulein Doktor with The Fox. Of those 14 screens on “The Street,” only two were showing porno. Okay, three when Flesh Gordon was in town.
Black Eye was better than the run-of-the-mill Blaxploitation films of the day, and for maybe the first time Hollywood realized what a screen presence Fred Williamson had. As an actor, he wasn’t the black John Gielgud, no, but he was at least the black Roger Moore, polished, handsome, and sharp, much more believable than Richard Roundtree’s Shaft.
The plot was also much more like a classic noir detective story than like other Blaxploitation films, head and shoulders above routine stuff like The Mack, Hell Up in Harlem, or Cleopatra Jones. The movie was photographed with unusual skill for a relatively low budget studio film. I suspect this was being groomed as a crossover, a film that could transcend a Blaxploitation label for at least modest mainstream success. That quest for crossover appeal to whites didn’t catch on quite yet, but it would soon.
Trick Baby was a relatively serious story that tried to ride the blaxploitation wave. Despite the fact that it has the streetwise pedigree of coming from an Iceberg Slim novel, or maybe because of it, Trick Baby doesn’t have much of the crude-but-effective slam-bang action, or the uninhibited earthy humor of its contemporaries, the real blaxploitation films. Superficially it has the authentic look of The Mack or Truck Turner, with its dirty streets, pimpmobiles, and mafia-ridden cops, but it comes across as a woodenly acted, low rent biracial version of The Sting set in Philadelphia. The “old” black guy more or less looks the part, though the actor was only 42 at the time, but his Iceberg Slim dialog is so stilted and literary that he might as well be Baby Stewie in Family Guy.
Michael Schulz isn’t the blackest-sounding name, but he made Cooley High, a cheerful blatant ripoff of American Graffiti, and his next picture was Hollywood backed, a true crossover at last: Car Wash, an engaging workplace comedy whose Black cast did not peddle cocaine or fire guns. By now, the music business and the movie business were agreed: Black movies could sell records, plenty of them. Motown became a respected partner to the studios.
The earliest Blaxploitation films were mostly made with white directors and crew members. The only Blacks were in front of the camera. Thank God It’s Friday reversed that formula; Blacks and whites clowned it up on screen, with a great deal of black control behind the scenes. By now, things had changed. In 1977, Esquire magazine ran a feature called “Why Blacks Aren’t Scary Anymore.”
In the decades since, Blacks came to regard the films of the Blaxploitation days with a mixture of affection and embarrassment, not unlike the way my family regards the Irish movie gangsters and East Side Kids of the Depression.
As another symbol of the end of the era, Harlem radio station WBLS, which once angrily billed itself as the “World Black Liberation Station” recast itself in a smoother, more seductive mode to take advantage of lucrative multiracial advertising revenue. Now it was called the “World’s Best-Looking Sound.”
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