Courtesy of Warner Bros/Photofest.
What do you get when you combine Hollywood, African American actors, gritty urban settings, sex, and a whole lot of action? Some would call it a recipe for box office success, but since the early 1970s, most people have known this filmmaking formula by the name "Blaxploitation." Blaxploitation cinema, as we will discover, occupies a fascinating place in the landscape of American pop culture. At once vilified and glorified by different facets of the African American community, the films of this genre provide an extended meditation on the impact of racial divisions that persist even now.
Many scholars of film have identified Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) as one of the first Blaxploitation movies, and the action film surely has all of the hallmarks of the genre: an African American cast, a realistic urban setting, and protagonists acting outside of the law. These elements combined to make Cotton something of a novelty at the time of its release and contributed to its success with audiences. Scores of similar films followed, including 1972's genre masterpiece Super Fly. The film's plot is perhaps less important than the attitude and the image that star Ron O'Neal projected in the principal role of Youngblood Priest. Here was an African American man with power, undeniable swagger, a cool car, even a desire to put his drug-dealing ways behind him and do something greater with his life. Financed and produced entirely by African Americans, accompanied by a now-classic soul soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, and the source of much controversy regarding the role of film in the African American community, Super Fly may have been Blaxploitation cinema's high-water mark.