Blaxploitation films, which emerged during the 1970s, have had a major impact on the way that some African-Americans view themselves and those around them. The proliferation of the films throughout the 1970s and early 1980s created a culture that many young African-Americans came to identify with, especially in the hip-hop community. The Blaxploitation films not only provided a new appearance and identity for young males to emulate, but also depicted women in new ways, often less positively than males.
One of the first Blaxploitation films was Shaft, which was released in 1971. Though not the first movie to be considered part of the Blaxploitation genre, it is one of the more popular and well-known films of the genre. For those who don’t know or haven’t seen the film, Shaft is a private investigator who is hired by a black mobster to look for his lost daughter. In the film, Shaft is portrayed as tough, cool, in charge, and someone whose bad side you don’t want to be on.
Shaft is a tough man who doesn’t take anyone’s crap. He is super-aggressive, as well as a very sexual man. Blaxploitation films like Shaft and Super Fly (which I will talk about more in a second) were a significant influence on the hip-hop community.
Priest, the protagonist of Super Fly, is a cool cat. He’s a pimp, though he is portrayed in a rather positive light and is “sticking it to the man”. The tag line of the movie “Super Hood, Super High, Super Dude…Super Fly” embodies an image that can be seen in the way that rappers today try to portray themselves. Many rappers, such as Snoop Lion, portray themselves as pimps and thugs. They elevate these positions and try to make them seem like they are good. This inspiration came from movies like Super Fly and Shaft.
However, the black identity based on black appearance has been a dominant element of the African-American community forever. The Black is Beautiful Movement was a concerted effort to encourage African-Americans themselves to believe that black features are beautiful, to counter the previously negative messages from white-dominated society. The Black is Beautiful Movement was at the heart of The Cotillion: or One Good Bull Is Half the Herd. The Cotillion dealt a lot with the black appearance, with many characters focusing on the appearance of other characters. An example of how important one’s appearance was after Ben Ali dressed up and shaved for dinner with the protagonist Yoruba and her parents. He and Yoruba were walking back when Ben Ali was ignored by a friend of his, who says:
“It’s them skinny skimpy-ass clothes you got on,’ Blackbeard told him, oblivious to Yoruba’s laughter and the staring people. ‘You look like you turning white or something, you look absolutely decadent. I mean, look like you broke into Uncle Jake’s pawnshop or something. And man! What happened to your face? It looks like a naked pussycat,’ he added. ‘I mean, like you tryna pass or something?” (154).
Later Ben Ali says to Yoruba, “It’s the beard bit,’ he said, ‘could just be another copout from our Negritude. If we believe we’re Black and beautiful why should we cover up all that beautiful Black skin?” (155.)
These two quotes help to show that there was a specific look that was black and anything else was trying to pass for white. This emphasis on how the men had to look in order to be black is echoed in the hip-hop community where rappers must be tough thugs or pimps in order to be taken seriously. The personas come from Blaxploitation films like Super Fly and Shaft. Snoop Lion is notorious for rapping about being a pimp, as are many other rappers. Movies like Super Fly take the character of a pimp and turn him into something cool. He is “sticking it to the man”, he has women all around him, and he’s a cool cat. When young African-Americans saw Priest, he was one of the only black characters in movies at the time. They looked up to Priest, Shaft, and similar characters and saw them as role models and guides on what it means to be black.
The extreme violence exhibited by Blaxploitation heroes also resounded with African-American youth. They saw characters that were strong and didn’t take crap from anyone and, on top of that, they often showed up whites. This aggression towards whites, as well as the extreme violence of many males in Blaxploitation films, is also seen in Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door. The protagonist of the novel, Dan Freeman, has a plan to attack whites and he himself is reminiscent of strong characters like Shaft. He sleeps around with different women and is actually a former CIA agent who wants to “hurt whitey”. His aggression and hatred are seen in “Ok, you want to hurt whitey, you want to mess with Mr. Charlie, then stop playing a bunch of punk games. You didn’t do any more damage than a mosquito on an elephant’s ass! …You really want to fuck with whitey, I’ll show you how” (88).
Blaxploitation films stereotyped the black male as someone who is either a pimp/drug pusher or an over-sexualized person and in many of the films he was both. Many of the biggest rappers grew up watching Blaxploitation films and were influenced by them, creating a rap culture that focuses on overly macho, pimp, and thug themes. While Blaxploitation films had views of machismo for males, they had a much different portrayal of women.
While the Blaxploitation films portrayed men as hyper aggressive, sex-crazed men, women were often depicted simply as objects of desire. Many of the women in Blaxploitation films do little more than serve as sex objects, mainly appearing so that they can sleep with male lead characters. Even female lead Blaxploitation films still portrayed the women as loose and very sexual. One of the key differences between the portrayal of men and women in Blaxploitation films is that the men have sex for pleasure, while the women were expected to have sex to get what they wanted.
Even with lead characters like Coffy (in the film of the same name), who didn’t take crap from anyone, she was still willing to drop her skirt in an instant. The women were also sexualized in their appearance, while the men were tough and strong. These leading women still focused on their sex appeal to get what they wanted. They wore revealing outfits and as stated earlier would sleep with any character. And in male lead films, the women did little more than serve as an interlude sex scene.
This portrayal of women is also reflected in several novels where women are put in the background or serve as little more than a body to have sex with. Men’s view of women’s sexuality and how every man needs to sleep with women is evidenced in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, “Most of the time he’ll be working, and so much of his freedom will have to be symbolic. And what will be his or any man’s most easily accessible symbol of freedom? Why, a woman of course. In twenty minutes he can inflate that symbol with all the freedom which he’ll be too busy working to enjoy the rest of the time” (153). This quote shows that for men, their freedom is to have sex with women. In Blaxploitation films, the women are always willing to comply to have sex and that compliance is what is expected of them.
Besides being around just for sex, many female characters do not have a larger role in the films. This is reflected in several novels as well. In The Spook Who Sat by the Door, women do not have a role that is much more than either serving for information or sex. Freeman, who sleeps around with prostitutes throughout the novel, also uses them for information, and when he is through with using them for sex or information, he is done with them. . “No, you better not see me again, unless I get to Washington sometime. Maybe one of these days…” (235). Here he is pushing her away, now finished getting information from her.
In The Cotillion, women do not take large roles in the Black is Beautiful movement and instead are pushed aside or even said to be holding African-Americans back. Ben Ali tells Yoruba that the Cotillion is holding the race back, “The Grand Cotillion and all that other bourgeois bullshit are pulling Black folks in the opposite direction of peoplehood. The Cotillion says: ‘You don’t need no power. You don’t need no peoplehood. You don’t need to be no nation. You going to be integrated you going to be just like white folks (140)”. The way the women are treated, they serve as little more than sex objects for the men and are not seen helping in the movement at all. They are pushed to the side and to the back of the movement and have to let the men take charge.
Blaxploitation films portrayed both men and women in very different lights. The men were totally hyper-aggressive and sexual beasts, while the women, even the toughest ones, had to sleep with men in order to get anything they wanted. These portrayals in the films are still reflected in the hip-hop community today, where women in music videos or even the subject of the song, are often depicted as prostitutes or are shown bikini-clad and dancing around the man. Blaxploitation films showed hip-hop community youth that women were expected to be compliant and willing to have sex, in effect reducing all women to prostitutes. These examples of hyper-aggressive and sexual males, as well as the more compliant, willing, and sexually dependent female counterparts are seen in literature in The Cotillion, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, and Invisible Man.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
Greenlee, Sam. The Spook Who Sat by the Door: A Novel. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1990. Print.
Killens, John Oliver. The Cotillion; Or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd. New York: Trident, 1971. Print.
Super Fly. July 1972. Web. 20 March 2013 . http://lawmovies.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/superfly.jpg
Coffy. June 1973. Web. 13 May 2013. http://longgonebutnotforgotten.wordpress.com/2010/09/11/coffy-posters/
Snoop Lion Reflects on Pimping. 2011.Web.13 May 2013. http://www.divawhispers.com/snoop-dogg-to-star-in-biopic-about-the-pope-of-pimping-fillmore-slim/
Original Super Fly Trailer. YouTube. YouTube, 14 Sept. 2006. Web. 13 May 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmZjD2UWoso>.
Shaft (1971) – Trailer. YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 13 May 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1ga1FgU10E>.
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