Black Representation in Film Part II
The most influential piece of wisdom I received from my parents as a child did not come to me as a statement of advice, but rather in the form of a cautious, knowing threat delivered in the warmest, loving tone. “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far” is a semblance of the mantra, now publicized in the media spotlight from-- who I have seen personally--the strong and gracefully intelligent FLOTUS Michelle Obama, even though I myself would argue that number being diluted for the sake of including men. I don’t think to include a cisgender male in that category fully encapsulates the capacity in which Black women and members of the LGBTQ+ have to work in a patriarchal society, but I digress.
The point I am trying to get across is that the foundation to the many forms of this statement has been known to be a contextual birthright-- in many communities of color--long before 2015, and whether we appealed for this or not has been one of the few privileges we’ve known of in this country. I say privilege, because in order to want social/individual change and fight opposition as the oppressed, one must adopt a certain level of unforeseen work ethic. And if our *untold* history has taught us anything, it’s certain that this rite of passage has and will continue to serve its purpose.
I believe every parent wants their child to do better, and when I think of my own I try to empathize with the presumed acts of humility they endured for the hope of their sacrifice being a slight triumph in the name of progression. They are the heroes to whom I look up to, but they are not who I aspire to be; my admiration comes in the form of becoming better, in every aspect, and by using their own triumphs, tribulations and loving, loaded warnings as a stepping stone towards transcendence.
The same mindset should be applied to the significance of the Blaxploitation era in cinema. The late 1960s/early 70s was a crucial time in our *untold* history, a period that saw both great political and social progress through the sacrifices made from activists of the Black Power/Civil Rights Movement. Nothing was attained easily, and by the time the new decade rolled over, a lot of the more prominent figures within the community had been done away with from the opposition, the arguably most well-known example being the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. This information was typically imparted to myself and other fellow students during my time within the public school system on February 27th--wherein the next day--a period was put on the entirety of Black progression as if that was where it had ended.
The work put in for certain freedoms to be had at the time were neither wasted nor neglected. Black people in all parts of the world continued to affirm their identities--on an even larger scale-- through fashion, sports, and media representation. The opposition to showing pride in oneself would be no different however; in fact, the very first “Blaxploitation” film--the one that made 100x its budget--was self-financed and met with many pre-production issues.
The positives that came out of this movie however resulted in an entire era of cinema made by Black artists that commemorated the phrase “Black is beautiful” across the entire country. This was the very first time we could be the stars of our own narratives, rather than the typical typecaste of stereotypical roles available to Black actors.
I don’t particularly enjoy the usage of “Blaxploitation” when referring to the earliest films of this era, or really just in general considering where the term derives from. Perhaps because it all happened so quickly, from the financial success of these movies to the subsequent utilization of the aesthetic from Hollywood, that the rhetoric surrounding the quality and content of these films produced-- over the span of an entire decade-- have been generalized and grouped together. That is not to say that the earliest films are not just as problematic as the last, but the sheer intentions of what was once seen as innovative and socially constructive were completely warped as soon as they became exploitation films.
Non-constructive critiques of the era focus on its intense portrayal of the violence, death, and degradation of a community rather than the historical context behind the character’s worlds like the widespread violence in Coffy’s neighborhood, the subsequent frustration of feeling hopeless as a Black Woman and the intimate perspective it presented forth. It ignored the significance of John Shaft’s story, bringing Black political and social issues to local theaters across the country and into the homes of all ethnicities. We’ve diminished and parodied Leroy Sweet Sweetback’s story, never once mentioning the same orphan’s tragic circumstance after being raped by a prostitute as a young man.
These are some of the very real circumstances “Blaxploitation” addresses. Its original purpose was to humanize Black lives and was utterly essential in the reconstruction of Black identity. I have to refer back to “Part I” of this article in which I mention the struggle I had as a child identifying with anyone I saw on screen, and I immediately think of my father doing the same at his age. This might have been the very first time he saw an image of himself that was not casted for comedy, submissiveness, or in some way emasculated throughout the hero’s journey.
An entire generation grew up with a confidence and reassurance that might have never been reached without these films; these god-like heroes were unlike anything anyone had seen before whose intrinsic nature I imagine served as a conceptual destination in the psyche of many young Black boys. But as I’ve learned time and time again, too much of anything can be disastrous and even have the opposite effect of what it set out to do in the first place. Though commendable, the financial commodity from these early films would give justification for an oversimplified, sexist, and homophobic Hollywood template that forces us to move away from this time.
I am certain that, in today’s time, it will not take long to think of a franchise with seven or more unnecessary films in their portfolio whose latter progenies are but a thematic glimmer of its original patriarch. Something people might not realize about this industry is once something works, regardless of what it is, that something will continue to have a platform until it has run its course...which typically means when it can no longer make money. And once the ball is rolling, there’s really no stopping it. So: the popularity and success of a movie that had made !100x! its budget? The toxic themes of hypermasculinity presented in one film wrote the rest of the stories themselves, and for an entire decade would not only return to the same archetype but also for harmful stereotypical roles of Black women and members of the LGBTQ+.
Here is where the term “Blaxploitation” comes into play.I don’t know much about who gave birth to the name--but as certain as I am over the Native American consultation for the term “Redsploitation”(and the entirety of the genre to be honest)--whether or not we claimed the neologism, I’m sure we did not have much say over the matter.
Exploitation films were any that attempted to succeed financially by exploiting current trends, niche genres, or lurid content. In the case of “Blaxploitation”, that meant the same “vengeful Black woman” character, the hostile relationship between Black men, women, the LGBTQ+, and the constant return to the signifying power of the black male body to establish dominance. Famous films with Black women leads overshadowed the collective representation of women and were carelessly treated the same as with a Black man vs his White-male antagonist , unconsciously pinning women against one another; the oppressed versus the oppressed. Eventually, these roles became caricatures of themselves and produced some of the more damaging, satirical falsehoods of the modern Black individual.
There are enough critics in the world who will use “Blaxploitation” to demean Black artistry, something that will both never be my intention and hope to ever come across as doing, but enough time has passed for us to see this time for what it was. We do not have the privilege to fall back on any hero archetype of our pasts, but rather grow from them. The former heroes of the “Blaxploitation” era are the product of centuries of repressed anger, pain and contextual melancholy; they have served their purpose and are in need of healing. We must honor them for doing so, recognize their historical significance, then hold them accountable and correct the flaws in which they perpetuated.
As a Black man, viewing the imperfect past and current representations of my image, I have to ask myself, “Where do we go from here?” Our stories have transcended, the times have changed, and I refuse to believe--just as with our entire community’s representation-- an image of our most intellectual and compassionate selves have been reached. Perhaps in order to do so, we will have to work more than just “twice as hard"--and that’s fine. It is a mindset others should wrap their heads around while also realizing many members from our own community have been doing just that. Imagine what could be done if we channeled all of our energy together; imagine where we could be.