Blaxploitation: What is progress?

Melvin Van Peebles as Sweet Sweetback

Melvin Van Peebles as Sweet Sweetback

by Adebayo (Ade) Abney,  August 2011

We’ve come a very long way in terms of blacks in film. I am proud to say that today I can gracefully walk over to my local theatre and have the option of seeing about one or if I’m lucky two films that star at least one black person. Which may sound miniscule compared to the alternative but it’s a step in the right way and I definitely believe that we have the “blaxploitation” period in part to thank for this.

The Blaxploitation period love it or hate it you must admit that it made for some significant changes in terms of roles presented to blacks. Blacks were typecast into saying things like “jive turkey,” “skinny,” “let’s split,” “what chu talkin’ ’bout?,” “amooth pad,” “stick it to the man,” and of course “jive sucka.” But on a much more important level blacks became heroes and not just maids and hoodlums but actual role models. Never before were blacks being shown as heroes in action and we can thank the Blaxploitation period for making it possible.

Characters like Shaft, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, Sweet Sweetback and dare I say Superfly helped to bring about change in that now black viewers can have a sense of empowerment never seen before. In this empowerment brought an idea that would change the film industry forever “BLACK FILMS CAN MAKE MONEY” and so they did Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song grossed over $4 million (on a budget of $500,000) and Shaft made $13 million (on a budget of $500,000) those being just two examples of how those films created great profit for their investors.

Blaxploitation helped to revolutionize not only how blacks work in film but what we were able to do off the screen. Take for example again Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Melvin Van Peebles produced, directed, scored, wrote and starred in the film. He was also able to get support from Bill Cosby to help create the picture about 50,000 dollars in support which mind you is substantial on a budget of $500,000. Not only did he get funding for the film but he got much respect from members in other parts of the black community namely Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party who made it  required that any new incoming members of the panther party had to view the movie.

I say all of this to say that although you may not like the language or maybe even some of the roles given to blacks in the seventies. You must admit that that period was necessary to get us to where we are now. Where now a black man can play an old black woman on screen and be able to garner 90 million off a 17 million dollar budget. Now if that isn’t progress I don’t know what is.

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