Analysis of Blaxploitation Films
In today's culturally diverse, politically correct society, it is
hard to believe that at one time racism was not only accepted as the
norm, but enjoyed for its entertainment value. Individuals of African
descent in North America today take the large, diverse pool of
opportunities offered by the film industry for granted. Much like
Canadian theatre however, there was a time when a black man in any
role, be it servant or slave, was virtually unheard of. It took the
blaxpliotation films of the early nineteen seventies to change the
stereotypical depiction of Black people in American Cinema, as it took
The Farm Story, performed by a small troop of Canadian actors, to
create a Canadian theatre industry. To be more specific, it took the
release of Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, in
1971, to change the tradition view of Black people in American film.
"Porter's tom was the first in a long line of socially acceptable
Good Negro characters. Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded,
flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n'er turn
against their massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous,
selfless, and oh-so-very kind."(Bogle,4)
The early silent period of cinema introduced five basic
archetypes for Black characters: the Tom, the Coon, the Tragic
Mulatto, the Mammy, and finally, the Brutal Black Buck. America's
first Black character found manifestation as the aforementioned Uncle
Tom in Edwin S. Porter's, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was released in
1903. "The paradox was that in actuality Tom wasn't Black at all.
Instead he was portrayed by a nameless, slightly overweight actor made
up in blackface."(Boggle, 4) This was a common practice developed by
the theater, and carried over, as were many of the acting techniques,
to silent film. Tom's presence, and the appearance of the four negro
archetypes which were to follow, served the same purpose: "to
entertain by stressing negro inferiority."(Boggle, 4)
Although having no positive effect on the status of Black people
in America socially, the tom character opened the door for Black
actors in cinema. Sam Lucas became the first black man to be cast in
a leading role as a tom, and in 1927, Universal Pictures signed James
B. Lowe, a handsome black actor, for the lead role in the Universal
Pictures production of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Lowe was chosen to play the
part because film director Harry Pollard, a former blackface actor,
believed he "fit in with the realistic demands of the times"(Bogle, 6)
Tom was to be followed by the coon, although he remained the
cinematic negro character favorite. Where tom was an endearing
character, the coon provided audiences an object of amusement. Two
variants of the coon soon emerged: the pickaninny and the uncle
ramus.(Bogle, 7) The Pickanny was the first coon type to appear in
"Generally, he was a harmless, little screwball creation whose
eyes popped, whose hair stood on end with the least excitement, and
whose antics were pleasant and diverting."(Bogle, 7)
The Pickaninny provided audiences with an amusing diversion, and
soon found his way into the hearts of the mass audience. Next to
debut was the pure coon, 'a no-account nigger', whose unreliable,
crazy, lazy nature was good for nothing but eating and causing
trouble. This character found its pinnacle of success in Rastus, a
good-for-nothing negro featured in a series of films released between
1910 and 1911. The final coon brother would emerge as the eager to
please metaphoric cousin to the tom. Quaint, and naïve, the Uncle
Ramus character distinguished himself through his comic
In general, the cinematic coon was used to indicate the Black
man's contentment with his submissive position in society. Also
emerging around this time period is the tragic mulatto: a negro light
enough to pass for white, who must fight against the negro taint to
either rise above his colour, or fall victim to it.
Mammy, a character closely related to the comic coon, was the
next to emerge. Headstrong and abundantly female, Mammy debuted
around 1914. The Mammy role would be perfected by Hattie McDaniel in
the 1930's. From the mammy roles emerged the Aunt Jemima, a male or
female character who had a bit more tact and were, for the most part,
sweet and congenial.
The final archetype emerged in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a
Nation (1915). Depicting life before and after the civil war, all
four archetypes are present in this film. It depicts renegade negroes
who overpower the good-hearted, white southerners and impart on a path
of lechery, vulgarity and crime. The ultimate goal of these wild
beast-men is sexual dominance of the pure, innocent white women. At
the films conclusion, the white men of the 'invisible empire' ride in
to save the day and restore white supremacy in the South. Proudly
discriminating, D. W. Griffith, touted as one of the fore-fathers of
cinema, uses his film mastery to show audiences what happens when
'slaves get uppity'.
The five archetypes would rule in black cinema for the next 50
years. Although Black films did emerge, it was for the most part
produced by white production companies for a black audiences. Black
Independent production companies such as the Ebony Motion Picture
Company began to emerge in the 20's, but the stereotypes and subject
matter stayed the same. A common theme of social climbing, the
ultimate goal of the negro being suburban living, dominating Black
theatres.(Cham, 20) Throughout the 30's and 40's the gangster films
rose to the fore, usually depicting gun-totting, slick-talking negros,
entent on making it big. Despite the presence of Black independent
filmmakers such as George Randall, African American issues were
The 50's and 60's brought social unrest and the Civil Rights
Movement brought a need for films with a stronger message. The
archetypes of the 20's and thirties were no longer acceptable, and the
few Hollywood "race films" (which usually starred Sidney Poitier),
were no longer adequate. "Hollywood was still unable to discern or
depict the full spectrum of Black American life and culture."(Cham,
21) In 1971, Black film experienced an epiphany. It came in the form
of a low-budget, badly made French film by the name of Sweet
Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. It was created almost entirely by one
Black man- Melvin Van Peebles. This marked a radical change in Black
cinema. "In 1971, Melvin van Peebles dropped a bomb. Sweet Sweetback's
Baadasssss Song was not polite. It raged, it screamed, it provoked.
It's reverberations were felt throughout the country. In the Black
community it was both hailed and denounced for it's sexual rawness,
its macho hero, and its depiction of the community as downpressed and
in need of rescue."(Diawara, 118)
Van Peebles film sparked an explosion of what would become known
as blaxploitation films. What Sweet Sweetback Baadassss Song did was
interpret Black Stereotypes differently. He, and other Black
directors of the time, took the Black Buck, Coon, and Mammy
stereotypes of the era before and modernized them. 'Mammy' lost
weight and grew an afro, becoming the ultra-stylish diva which was
personified best by actress Pam Grier. The Black Buck emerged
dominant, ready to fight his historical oppressors.
Blaxploitation films acted as a cleansing process, through which
black films were eventually able to accurately depict the African
American experience. Directors such as Spike Lee and Jon Singleton
were able to create 'race films' which confronted the serious urban
issues of the time, without using old stereotypes. It is important
to note, however, that Sweet Sweetback is not considered a
blaxpoitation film, as it is too artistic to be considered such.
Rather, Melvin Van Peebles first film was the catalyst for the
cleansing blast. "The Farm story" marked a point in time- before it
there was no Canadian identity in theatre, after it there was. In the
same fashion, Melvin Van Peebles' movie marked the moment when African
Americans reclaimed their identity. They were no longer content with
the cinematic roles offered to them, and so they began to create their
own. Although blaxploitation films were later commercialized, their
intent and result stayed consistent, and have created the
ethno-conscious cinema industry we find today.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. New York:
Viking Press, 1973.
Cham, Mye B. Blackframes. Cambridge: The Mit Press, 1988.
Cripps, Thomas. Making Movies Black. New York: Oxford University
Diawara, Manthia. Black American Cinema. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Lead, Daniel J. From Sambo to Superspade. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Morton, Jim. Am I Black Enough for You? Blaxploitation. 20 Sept.
1998. 22 Nov. 1998.
http://www.popvoid.com/pages/blax/blax(1-10).html Patterson, Lindsay.
Black Films and Film-Makers. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1975.
Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black
Films. New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press Inc., 1977.