10 great blaxploitation films (2023)

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Like American society in the early 1970s, the country's film industry was going through its own period of upheaval, turbulence and uncertainty about the future. The collapse of the old Hollywood studio system, the rise of independent filmmakers, producers and distributors, and changing audience demographics heralded a new era in filmmaking.

One subgenre that emerged was blaxploitation cinema. Emerging from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and aimed squarely at young African Americans living in the city, this was the first true explosion of American cinema dominated by, for and about communities of color.

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With its prime years of production between 1972 and 1975, blaxploitation cinema was a contradictory, contradictory, and controversial beast that both broke and reinforced stereotypes of “blackness,” reflecting and exaggerating life on the streets and in the ghettos, despite its Crossover appeal, with white audiences, alienated as many viewers, critics, and activist groups as it attracted. Blaxploitation's often regressive portrayal of African-American women and its numerous anti-hero pimps and drug dealers were elements that drew criticism from all quarters.

On the bright side, African-American music, fashion, celebrities, social issues, and political views became regular sights and sounds on the big screen as a wave of films capitalized on the unexpected box-office success of Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972), among Directed by Gordon Parks Srand Jr. crime films, revisionist westerns, horror films, family dramas, and buddy comedies all received the blaxploitation treatment, in which language was caustic and profane, female nudity was common, and violence was employed in increasingly graphic detail.

Employing well-known former soccer players such as Jim Brown and Fred Williamson for the screen and music stars such as Isaac Hayes, Bobby Womack and Curtis Mayfield to provide film music helped ensure that African American audiences could rely on stars they could identify with distinctive sound that perfectly complemented the on-screen action. The music, in particular, lent itself to the feel of blaxploitation films, with even the insignificant, memorable entries in the canon usually backed by attention-grabbing funk/soulscore.

(Video) Top 10 Blaxploitation Movies

Major blaxploitation films, often shot on location in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles or Detroit, were contemporary dramas that spoke directly to local audiences then and now provide invaluable documentation of these cities in the early 1970s.

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Pushers, pimps, prostitutes, and gangsters on the one hand, and workers, private idiots, army veterans, and detectives on the other, all types of characters portrayed in blaxploitation films shared a common enemy: white America. Decades of racial discrimination, police brutality, poverty, and limited opportunities for self-improvement gave rise to the Black Power movement, and blaxploitation films have rightly been a direct expression of anger and a celebration of Black American culture in all its diverse forms.

The subgenre soon fell into the repetition trap and may have burned brightly, but it died out too quickly as many of its stars transitioned to mainstream work and the themes, sounds, and styles were absorbed into the broader body of American cinema. However, for that relatively brief time in the 1970s, blaxploitation was a major player, forever changing the way African Americans were portrayed on screen. Here are 10 of the best blaxploitation movies for your viewing pleasure.

Sweet Sweetbacks Baad Assss Song (1971)

Directed by: Melvin Van Peebles

Reminiscent of avant-garde art house cinema and the subgenre it helped establish, Melvin Van Peebles' action thriller Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song is a deeply personal and truly independent film. Partly financed, directed, written, produced, edited, voiced by Van Peebles and starring Van Peebles, this gem of a film was both technically experimental and thematically provocative.

Featuring split-screen and double-exposure photography, jump cuts, montage sequences, and a non-linear narrative structure, Van Peebles' third film is technically daring despite its lo-fi production values. Telling the story of stud farm Sweetback - a sex show worker on the run from the law - Sweet Sweetback's controversial imagery, (allegedly) non-simulated sex scenes and confrontational narration earned it an X-rating on release. As a formally radical film, it is a seminal component of Afro-American cinema.

Axis (1971)

Regie: Gordon Parks

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If you ask a casual film buff to name a blaxploitation film, the most likely answer is Shaft. With box office receipts of $13 million on a budget of £500,000, this early entry into the genre is also one of his most successful.

Smooth and tough as he is successful and manly, Richard Roundtree's macho private eye John Shaft was ultimately a wish-fulfilling vision of "blackness" funded by the studio's Caucasian moneymen. However, the first-time casting of a black actor in the lead role of a major studio film marked a long-awaited turning point for African Americans in Hollywood. Shaft proved so successful that it spawned three sequels, the last starring Samuel L. Jackson in 2000.

Superfliege (1972)

Regie: Gordon Parks Jr.


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Another of Blaxploitation's big financial and influential hits, Super Fly, briefly knocked Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather from the top of the US box office. Set to the fantastic and now iconic soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, RonONEEal's elegant drug dealer, Youngblood Priest, hatches a risky but lucrative plan to sell a massive load of cocaine and reap enough rewards to go out of business for good.

Presented as a likable and almost heroic character, Super Fly's main character proved a controversial creation. But despite voices like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who expressed concern about the film, Gordon Parks Jr.'s comedy crime drama grossed $6.2 million from a production cost of just $500,000.

Trickbaby (1972)

Directed by: Larry Yust

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Slightly overlooked when talking about blaxploitation films, Larry Yust's adaptation of Iceberg Slim's 1967 novel Trick Baby is a hilarious crime drama with touches of melancholy due to its pessimistic climax.

Caucasian actor Kiel Martin plays the "White Folks" con artist - known by the derogatory term "Trickbaby" because he was born to an African-American prostitute who became pregnant by a white client - alongside Mel Stewart as his older mentor "Blue." . Howard. A tale of ever-diminishing circles, the narrative sees the dedicated couple attempt to outmaneuver the Mafia, a rogue detective and his "Brands" as they attempt to pull off their greatest heist of all time. Trick Baby's noir tale comes to a suitably tragic end in the fact that for some, the streets were actually nasty.

Coffy (1973)

Directors: Jack Hill

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The third of four collaborations between exploitation filmmaker Jack Hill and the now iconic Pam Grier, Coffy was the film that crowned the North Carolina-born actor as the undisputed queen of Blax exploitation. Written and directed by Hill, Coffy tells the violent, action-packed and vengeful tale of sister "Coffy" Coffin of Grier. After her younger sister falls victim to heroin addiction, Coffy's life outside of work leads her to bring justice to the inner-city drug dealers who allowed her brother's caustic habit to take hold.

Notable for its early portrayal of a strong, independent African-American female lead and a staunch (and then unfashionable) anti-drug message, Hill's film was a fundamental and influential entry into the blaxploitation canon.

Ganja&Hess (1973)

Director: Bill Gunn

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An experimental oddity that went down like a storm at the Cannes Film Festival but died at the box office, Bill Gunn's ganja&Hess is an odd hybrid of the blaxploitation and horror genres. The self-penned short story starred Night of the Living Dead lead actor Duane Jones in his only other significant role as Dr. Hess green.


Hess, a wealthy anthropologist studying ancient blood drinkers, is turned into a vampire after being stabbed with a cursed dagger and subsequently seduces his new lover Ganja (Marlene Clark) into joining him as an immortal. Gory, sexually explicit and full of fantasy/dream sequences, ganja&Hess has garnered a cult following over the years and is considered the best blaxploitation horror-themed film.

Three the Hard Way (1974)

Regie: Gordon Parks Jr.

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What's better than a blaxploitation action movie starring Jim Kelly, Fred Williamson, or Jim Brown? One featuring all three leads, of course, and Gordon Parks Jr first nailed it in the fast-paced, stunt-packed Three the Hard Way.

AltNFLPlayers Brown and Williamson star as music producer Jimmy Lait and businessman Jagger Daniels, respectively, who along with Kelly's martial arts expert Mister Keyes attempt to thwart a plan by white supremacists to poison the African American population. Written as role models to emulate, Lait, Daniels and Keyes are traditionally more heroic and respectably successful central protagonists than drug lord Youngblood Priest in Parks Jr.'s previous film Super Fly. Three the Hard Way is a bizarre and fun adventure for all serious action film fans.

The Education of Sonny Carson (1974)

Directed by Michael Campus

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Truth is the order of the day in Michael Campus' poignant and poignant adaptation of the 1972 autobiography of the same name by community leader and civil rights activist Robert 'Sonny' Carson Retelling of Carson's tumultuous early life. Juvenile delinquency, police brutality, gang culture, poverty, discrimination, and the impact of drug use on African American communities are the harsh elements that have shaped Carson's contradictory and sometimes controversial life.

Like The Mack from Campus the year before, rigid social commentary is highlighted to high impact in a film that reflects the socially, ethically and morally unacceptable conditions many African Americans were experiencing at the time.

Raccoon (1975)

Regie: Ralph Bakshi

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It's a sure sign that when a particular cinematic trend reaches its saturation point, it begins to be satirized, and that's exactly what happened with 1975's blaxploitation. A surprisingly sordid and violent mix of live-action and animation, part fairy tale, part crime drama, Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin fearlessly holds a mirror up to the racial and lifestyle stereotypes that have permeated along the way.

Denounced as a racist by the Congress of Racial Equality, Coonskin is indeed an intelligent, funny, and moving deconstruction of not only the derogatory stereotype of African Americans, but of poor rural Caucasians, Italian Americans, and homosexuals, among many others. Showcasing the acting and vocal talents of Scat Man Crothers, Barry White and Charles Gordone, Coonskin is rated by its director as the best of his own films.

(Video) Top 20 Blaxploitation Films

Prison (1979)

Regie: Jamaa Fanaka

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While blaxploitation's heyday was long gone by the time Jamaa Fanaka Penitentiary saw the light of day, it's one of the subgenre's most memorable entries. Fanaka hated his films, which also include Emma Mae (1974) and Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975), which were branded with the blaxploitation label, but they were always marketed as such, much to his chagrin.

A hard-hitting hybrid of prison drama and boxing film, Penitentiary stars Leon Isaac Kennedy as "Two Sweet," an African-American drifter wrongly arrested for murder. The prison's illegal underground boxing club, organized and run by a white jailer, is a poignant political reminder that for a significant period of American history, black Americans were once nothing more than the "property" of their owners and white oppressors.

10 great blaxploitation films (11)

10 great blaxploitation films (12)

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