Growing up in Blaxploitation
Many people don’t know what the word “Blaxploitation” means let alone what its significance is in pop culture, race culture, and film culture.
According to Wikipedia: Blaxploitation or blacksploitation is an ethnic subgenre of the exploitation film, emerging in the United States during the early 1970s.
This film genre receives a lot of praise and criticism for many reasons. The films themselves were often all poc cast and scored by funk or soul music. The outfits were of the times from bell bottoms to sequins button down shirts. So far so good, right? An all poc film genre with very few supporting characters! Sounds good from the surface and even applicable to today’s movie industry which lacks a lot of diversity. But the exploitation part of the word “Blaxploitation” leads us all to wonder if we are watching empowerment, detriment, or both…
Back when these films where being made not many if any all black casted movies where being developed or produced. I imagine scripts weren’t even being read half the time if it introduced a strong black lead. And what do you do when you’re not being represented or allowed a seat at the table? You go and change that! Blaxploitation came out of a time of very recent historical oppression in America at the peak of cultural/racial/sexual liberation. In a way the whole world had been flipped upside down.
These films may have been low budget and the scripts a little loose but they were still pretty good movies. The only problems I could find with them were quite obvious. The female characters were always overly sexualized sometimes to the point where it felt degrading. Stereotypes where constantly played upon but to the defense of the time and the genre I know that was intentional. I guess it just makes you squirm a little bit in your seat watching a film with so much obvious internal racism and sexism while currently living in a day and age where that shit wouldn’t fly.
I had the rare privilege of being around a lot of Blaxploitation actors/actresses and projects they were involved in. My father produced the “Black Dynamite” cartoon that just came out in recent years. It was based off of the original Blaxploitation film “Black Dynamite”. And I couldn’t help but ask questions. All the things I had learned up to that point about racism, classism, feminism, and sexism was now in jeopardy thanks to Pootie Tang and Coffy.
There are a lot of sex workers in the film “Black Dynamite”. I mean a lot! And I felt uneasy about why my dad would work on a project that portrayed women this way. I would question why these black women were all in the sex industry. Were we not employable anywhere else? And my dad explained to me that when these films were being made black women were seen as not attractive in society. (Which is slowly changing but still very present) Our women had just stopped perming their hair and started/joined the black power movement. While hearing this I obviously thought he was just avoiding the question because I didn’t see what any of that had to do with a women owning a brothel and walking around in her undies while everyone else was dressed. Then with some thought and more time spent explaining I understood what the films were doing. Sexualizing black women and their bodies changed people’s minds about what was considered beautiful. And while I was focused on the appearance and occupation of these women I completely overlooked the fact that in a ton of Blaxploitation films women played lead roles with more speaking parts than men at times. I mean like where do they do that at? We still have trouble giving equal screen time and speaking parts in mainstream media!
And eventhough I had come to appreciate some aspects of the genre I still had to push for more concrete answers on why the sex worker profession and I was unexpectedly met with a question. But this time I didn’t go to my dad instead I went to the lead actress Kim Whitley who played the owner and operator of the whore house in the film and in the animated show. I asked her quite frankly “Why do you wanna play a hoe?”
She responded “What’s wrong with being a hoe?” And of course my very young mind went to the most obvious thing which is that I was taught that sex is off limits, not allowed, and dirty. So if having sex with one person is barley acceptable then having sex with multiple people for money must be the absolute worst. All these stigmas already present in the mind of a child only a couple years shy of 16. That much damage had been done by my school, media, and the internet. Ms.Whitley took the time and gave me a lesson in sex ed and compassion. Basically to sum it all up I got a whole speech on the history of sexual liberation for white women vs. black women and why stereotypes and stigmas placed on sex workers are unfair and unintelligent. That conversation changed me as a person and made me better.
These films I slowly began to learn are much deeper and much more complex then they may appear. Often times mirroring or magnifying bigger issues.
Black men and women being portrayed in films super heros and masters of martial arts. Paying homage to the The Black Panthers by showing strong black people protecting their communities. Taking hits and jabs at the offensive way poc were and sometimes still are represented in media by embracing the micro/macroaggressions and making them seem badass and desirable…GENIUS! This by no means was accidental. These films mean to make you uncomfortable and also they mean to make you laugh, cry, and explore the narratives.
Being in an animation studio with the people who were in the movies emitted the same feeling/energy I’m sure was present back when the first films were being made. I saw a cast and crew of all different poc, genders, and sexualities. Everybody cracked “borderline offensive” jokes and no hard feelings where ever felt. I was in an open and honest environment that supported healthy conversations about race, history, religion, and a love for anime. Watching black men and women working together in an industry with so few of us was a gift I received almost 3 decades after this genre began.
That’s how I know that everything that is in Blaxploitation comes from a good place. You might have to do some digging to find it at times but it does. It’s very unapologetic and loud, you can’t force it to be something it’s not. Which is a metaphor in itself because we don’t have to be docile, minuscule, evil, uneducated, undesirable, or white washed to be on the big screen. We can be anything we want to be even in a time that wouldn’t allow us that right…we found a way.