A Bluffer's Guide To Blaxploitation

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This week Black Dynamite dons his flared strides and some seriously outlandish suits to take it to the The Man - well, several men, all with guns. With Michael Jai White's urban hero lovably spoofing '70s blaxploitation classics, we've put together a handy guide to turn you cats into masters of the genre in ten superfly steps.

Director: Melvin Van Peebles
Starring: “The Black Community”

Word on the street: The movie often credited with kick-starting blaxploitation, Van Peebles film (he wrote, directed, produced, edited and scored it) follows young stud Sweetback (Van Peebles obviously) who goes on the lam after stomping a couple of cops unconscious, stopping only for sex and violence. It’s a dull narrative but Van Peebles enlivens it with nouvelle vague razzle-dazzle (split-screens, negative) images and political fury — the film is dedicated to 'all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man'. Made outside the studio system, it was a huge hit but more important for the fact that it was made than for the quality of the film, a movie for the black community made (unusually) by a black filmmaker, lighting a way for the likes of Spike Lee, the Hughes brothers in particular and US indie cinema in general.

Betcha didn’t know: Van Peebles contracted gonorrhoea shooting the numerous sex scenes. He successfully applied to the DGA to get workers compensation as he was hurt on the job.

Tagline: "The Film that THE MAN doesn't want you to see!"

Director: Gordon Parks
Starring: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi

Word on the street: This is blaxpoloitation’s blockbuster. Based on Ernest Tidyman’s book, Gordon Parks’ film is tough, lean and hip with Richard Roundtree excelling as the P.I. on the hunt for a missing mobster’s daughter through New York’s mob neighbourhoods. At the time, its importance lay in providing a real black hero on screen. Now it’s more famous for Isaac Hayes’ Oscar winning theme tune (which has turned up in The Simpsons, Scrubs and Father Ted) than the film itself. It spawned two sequels with Roundtree — Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft In Africa — and a TV series plus a 2000 sequel with Samuel L. Jackson as the nephew of Roundtree’s Private Dick.

Betcha didn’t know: Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts is the man who performs the wah wah guitar riff on the theme song. We salute you, sir.

Tagline: "Shaft's his name. Shaft's his game."

Director: Gordon Parks Jr.
Starring: Ron O’Neal, Sheila Frazier, Julius Harris

Word on the street: Financed by two dentists and the director’s dad, Superfly centres on drug pusher Youngblood Priest — so called because he keeps his stash in a crucifix — who plans one big deal to get him out of the life. Criticised for its glorification of drugs (star O’Neal called it a “commercial for cocaine”) the movie has a real feel for its Harlem location and good action sequences. These days, the film is famous for its soundtrack by soul legend Curtis Mayfield and its car, a customised Cadillac Eldorado that gave rise to the idea of a pimpmobile. It was followed by two lesser sequels. Super Fly TNT and The Return Of Superfly.

Betcha didn’t know: The Superfly soundtrack is one of the few soundtracks to out gross the movie it belongs to.*

Tagline: *Never a dude like this one! He's got a plan to stick it to The Man!

Director: Barry Shear
Starring: Yaphet Kotto, Anthony Quinn

Word on the street: A by-the-book black cop (Kotto) is forced to work with racist Italian-American captain (Quinn) to track down the gang who killed five men — three blacks and two Italians — in a Harlem heist. The movie is urgent and brutal with Kotto and Quinn doing good character work between the tough guy bits, With a pioneering use of self-blimped cameras, the film has a compelling rough hewn look but the soundtrack is solid gold, Bobby Womack’s title song becoming a classic, ripped off by QT for the Jackie Brown title and sequence, and by Ridley Scott for American Gangster.

Betcha didn’t know: 110th Street is an informal boundary line that demarcates Harlem

Tagline: “If you steal $300,000 from the mob, it's not robbery. It's suicide.”

Director: William Crain
William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas

Word on the street: Blaxploitation did genres other than crime and this is the most famous horror flick. As you’ll glean from the title, this is a ‘70s take on Dracula as the coffin of an African prince (Marshall) bitten by the Count is transported to LA, unleashing a bloodsucking prince on the city of angels, chiefly fixating on a woman he believes is the reincarnation of his dead wife. This is cheap and tongue-in-cheek, with stage actor Marshall amping up the ham to the max. Blacula spawned only one sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, but a raft of blaxploitation/horror mash-ups including Blackenstein, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, Abby (a redo of The Exorcist) and The House On Skull Mountain

Betcha didn’t know: Blacula was the first film to win a Saturn Award for horror.

Tagline: "His bite was outta sight!"

Director: Jack Starrett
Cast: Tamara Dobson, Bernie Casey, Brenda Sykes

Word on the street: Along with Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson is the high priestess of blaxploitation and this is her best picture. Like Coffy, Cleopatra is a federal agent who wages war on drug pushers but Cleopatra has Bondian gadgets. Tons of fun, also keep ‘em peeled for Antonio Fargas, aka Starsky And Hutch’s Huggy Bear. Followed by a sequel, Cleopatra Jones And The Casino Of Gold, Cleopatra Jones is also the model for Beyonce’s Foxxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers In Goldmember.

Betcha didn’t know: Cleo’s car is a 1973 Corvette Stingray, includes a panel in the roof so her afro doesn’t get squashed.

Tagline: "She's 'Ten Miles of Bad Road' For Every Hood in Town". Or "6 feet 2" and all of it Dynamite!"

Director: Jack Hill
Starring: Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert DoQui

Word on the street: Designed as a cheapo riposte to Cleopatra Jones, Coffy established Pam Grier as the iconic female star of blaxploitation. She plays a nurse by day and a vigilante by night who wages war against the criminals who ensnared her sister with drug abuse. Director Jack Hill throws in the kitchen sink — crooked cops! Comedy violence! Lesbians! — but the show belongs to Grier, sassy, sexy and deadly, hiding weapons in her 'fro. Such a success, Grier and Hill reunited for the inferior Foxy Brown (If You Don’t Treat Her Nice, She’ll Put You On Ice!) which was released just nine months later.

Betcha didn’t know: The home of Italian mobster Vitroni (Allan Arbus) actually belonged to cowboy Roy Rogers.

Tagline: "They call her Coffy and she'll cream you!" Or "The Baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad that ever hit town!" Or "She had a body men would die for - and a lot of them did!"

Director: Cirio H. Santiago
Starring: Jeannie Bell, Chiquito, Stan Shaw

Word on the street: Starring Jeannie Bell, this mixes blaxploitation plots with chop socky action as martial artist Diana Jackson (you can call her T.N.T.) goes down to Chinatown after her brother is killed by ruthless drug dealers. It was the worst film Roger Ebert saw that year but still remains a fun addition to the blaxploitation gallery of tough gals.

Betcha didn’t know: *In the Philippines, it is known as Dynamite Wong and TNT Jackson

Tagline: "She's A One Mama Massacre Squad!"

Director: Larry Cohen
Starring: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, Art Lund

Word on the Street:* A blaxploitation redo of Little Caesar, this charts the rise from shoeshine boy to crime lord of Tommy Gibbs, taking over the underworld from the whites for the benefit of the blacks. Full of great James Brown tunes, great action and a hard-as-nails central performance by Fred Williamson, this is a strong gangster picture in its own right. A sequel, Hell Up In Harlem, followed a year later. The film is immortalised in the Public Enemy song Burn Hollywoood Burn.

Betcha didn’t know: Larry Cohen originally wrote the lead role for Sammy Davis Jr.

Tagline: "Hail Caesar, Godfather of Harlem...The Cat with the .45-Caliber Claws!"

Director: Sidney Poitier
Cast: Bill Cosby, Sidney Poiter

Word on the street: This has a sky-high concept. Two blue collar workers get embroiled in a nightclub robbery, where one of them (Poitier) has their wallet stolen. When it transpires that the stolen wallet contains a winning lottery ticket, Poitier and Cosby go on an urban odyssey to reclaim their wealth. It’s a fun, lighthearted romp — Harry Belafonte hams it up as a Brando-esque Don — enlivened by the chemistry of the two leads, the Pegg and Frost of their day. Followed by two spiritual sequels Let’s Do It Again and A Piece Of The Action (Cosby and Poitier play different characters), Will Smith bought the rights to a remake that has yet to materialise.

Betcha didn’t know: NBC commissioned a pilot for a sitcom spin-off starring Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles) and Adam Wade. The pilot didn’t sell.

Tagline: "They get funny when you mess with their money"