Movies catering to black audiences were nothing new by the early 1970s. In the days of racial segregation, a black or “separate cinema” flourished in the United States from the Teens to the 1950s, producing a plethora of movies with all-black casts.
In the early 1970s, amidst the slogans of black pride and black power, the “blaxploitation” movie emerged from mainstream Hollywood. The name is derived from two words: “black” and “exploitation,” with black characters and predominantly black themes carrying the production.
Here are ten classic blaxploitation movies that no fan of this genre should ever miss. Right on, brother, and keep on truckin’…
Shaft (MGM, 1971)
Shaft hit movie theaters like a ghetto blaster on July 2, 1971. Richard Roundtree plays the title character – that’s Shaft, John Shaft – a self-described “spade detective” who is hired by Harlem gangster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) to retrieve his kidnapped daughter from the clutches of the Italian Mafia. Roundtree is in top form as one of Hollywood’s hippest private eyes ever, with Mr. Isaac Hayes delivering the soulful, butt-kicking “Theme from Shaft.” Sing it, Isaac: “They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother…/Shut Your Mouth!/I’m talkin’ ’bout Shaft/Then we can dig it!”
- Academy Award nominations: Best Original Music Score (Hayes), Best Original Song (Hayes, won)
- Great Richard Roundtree line (in reply to Lawrence Pressman, who asks where the hell he’s going): “To get laid, where the hell are you going?”
- Director: Gordon Parks
- Sequels: Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), Shaft in Africa (1973)
- On DVD: Shaft (Warner, 2000)
Blacula (American International Pictures, 1972)
William Marshall plays Prince Mamuwalde, “Dracula’s Soul Brother” who awakens in modern-day Los Angeles where he samples both the nightlife and the local human cuisine. Marshall is a riot as the charming, debonair 18th century vampire-about-town who sees in young Tina (Vonetta McGee) the reincarnation of his long-dead wife. Charles Macaulay plays a racist Count Dracula, with Denise Nicholas, Thalmus Rasulala and Gordon Pinsent in amusing support.
- Great William Marshall line: “Please forgive me. I must depart now. I have indeed had a rare pleasure.”
- Director: William Crain
- Sequel: Scream Blacula Scream (1973)
- On DVD: Blacula (MGM, 2004)
Super Fly (Warner Bros., 1972)
Ron O’Neal cops the starring role as Youngblood Priest, a black cocaine dealer and martial arts practitioner who plans one more big score before he quits the rackets. His “business plan” centers on making a quick one million dollars while sticking it to The Man. But Priest’s friends, fellow drug dealers and a corrupt deputy police commissioner have a different agenda, with Priest fighting for his life on the mean streets of Harlem and the Big Apple. Carl Lee, Sheila Frazer, Julius Harris and Charles McGregor are along for the pimp ride – in Priest’s 1971 customized Cadillac Eldorado, no less. The incomparable Curtis Mayfield delivers the film’s classic music score, including the songs “Super Fly” and “Freddy’s Dead.”
- Great Ron O’Neal line: “With my record I can’t even work civil service or join the damn army. If I quit now, then I took all this chance for nothing and I go back to being nothing. Working some jive job for chump change day after day. Well if that’s all I’m supposed to do then they gonna have to kill me ’cause that ain’t enough.”
- Director: Gordon Parks Jr.
- Sequels: Super Fly T.N.T. (1973), The Return of Super Fly (1990)
- On DVD: Super Fly (Warner, 2004)
Black Caesar (American International Pictures, 1973)
Former pro football player Fred “The Hammer” Williamson plays Tommy Gibbs, a poor ghetto kid who aspires to one day head the rackets in Harlem. In order to prove himself, Gibbs becomes a paid hitman for the white Mob, earning his stripes and eventually his own turf. The Godfather of Soul – Mr. James “I Feel Good” Brown – performs the songs “Down and Out in New York City,” “Mama’s Dead” and “The Boss.” Williamson, who no doubt made Hollywood’s best-dressed list for 1973, is pure dynamite as the ruthless Harlem gangster, with Gloria Hendry, Art Lund and D’Urville Martin in support.
- Great Fred Williamson line (spoken at his mother’s funeral): “I gave her everything she wanted, Rufus, but she still wasn’t ever happy.”
- Director: Larry Cohen
- Sequel: Hell Up in Harlem (1973)
- On DVD: Black Caesar (Warner, 2001)
Cleopatra Jones (Warner Bros., 1973)
Tamara Dobson stars as Cleopatra Jones, a fashion conscious, tough-as-nails special government agent out to put the big hurt on international drug traffickers. When Jones destroys a Turkish poppy field, she incurs the wrath of drug maven Mommy (Shelley Winters), who eventually authorizes a hit on the super G-woman. Tamara Dobson is one kick-ass you-go-girl in this black actioner, standing over six-feet tall, sporting a huge afro and tooling around town in her sleek, midnight black Corvette with blaring tape deck. Bernie Casey, Brenda Sykes, Antonio Fargas and Dan Frazer are in solid support. Have you met this Miss Jones?
- Great Antonio Fargas line as Doodlebug Simkins: “Hair’s like a woman. You treat it good and it treats you good. Ain’t that right, honey? You hear what I’m saying? Yeah, you got to hold it, caress it and love it. And if your hair gets out of line you take a scissor and say, ‘Hair I’m going to cut you.’”
- Director: Jack Starrett
- Sequel: Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)
- On DVD: Cleopatra Jones (Warner, 1999)
Cotton Comes to Harlem (United Artists, 1970)
Chester Himes’ 1965 novel comes to life in this crime drama starring Godfrey Cambridge as Gravedigger Jones and Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson, two NYPD detectives tasked with investigating the shady Reverend Deke O’Malley (Calvin Lockhart) and his Back to Africa movement. Harlem sizzles in this picture, replete with sex, wild car chases, shootouts and the hunt for an elusive bale of cotton containing the hidden cash. Redd Foxx plays a junk dealer and Judy Pace appears as the Reverend O’Malley’s seductive main squeeze who makes a fool out of a white cop, talking him out of his clothes and cajoling him into putting a paper bag over his head while she makes her escape.
- Great Raymond St. Jacques line: ”What the hell do the attorney general, the State Department, or even the President of the United States know about one goddamn thing that’s going on up here in Harlem?”
- Director: Ossie Davis
- Sequel: Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972)
- On DVD: Cotton Comes to Harlem (Warner, 2001)
Slaughter (American International Pictures, 1972)
Ex-NFL great Jim Brown has the title role, playing a former Green Beret captain who seeks revenge for the car bombing murder of his parents by the Mob. Coerced into helping the federal government, Slaughter (no first name given) takes his vendetta to South America where he hopes to take out the two remaining crime bosses. There’s plenty of action in this one, with Stella Stevens, Rip Torn, Cameron Mitchell and Don Gordon along for the bloody descent into mayhem.
- Great Don Gordon line as Harry: “You’re really far out, you know that? I mean we go out to that house and let them know we are lookin’ to get killed, and all of a sudden your sittin’ on top of the world like your King Shit! Man, you’re weird Slaughter, I mean goddammit, you’re just weird!”
- Director: Jack Starrett
- Sequel: Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973)
- On DVD: Slaughter (MGM, 2001)
Black Belt Jones (Warner Bros., 1974)
Super cool Jim Kelly plays the title character, a martial arts expert who defends old Pop Byrd (Scatman Crothers) when the Mob moves in on his karate emporium in the ‘hood. After Pop is accidentally killed by the gangsters, Black Belt Jones springs into action, delivering monster chops and high kicks as he fends off the invading goombahs and their lackeys. Gloria Hendry, Eric Laneuville, Alan Weeks and Malik Carter appear in support. “He clobbers the mob,” the movie’s tagline declares of Mr. Jones. And that he does…
- Great Malik Carter line as the black hood Pinky: “Choose money over honey? Shiiiiit. Man, you can pull out my groin, just gimme that coin! Man, I’d rather be dead than not have any bread! Pinky’s mama didn’t raise no fool!”
- Director: Robert Clouse
- Sequel: Black Belt Jones 2 (1978)
- On DVD: Urban Action Collection: 4 Film Favorites – Three the Hard Way (1974), Black Belt Jones (1974), Hot Potato (1976), Black Samson (1974) (Warner, 2010)
Coffy (American International Pictures, 1973)
Sexy mama Pam Grier plays the title character, an L.A. nurse who becomes a one-woman vigilante force after her younger sister becomes hospitalized after injecting contaminated heroin. Grier kicks some serious butt in this picture, employing both charm and brute force as she takes it to the pimping drug dealers and mafioso. Booker Bradshaw, Robert DoQui, William Elliott, Alan Arbus and Sid Haig join in the festivities, along with a 1972 Corvette and a ghetto-cruising 1961 Cadillac Fleetwood, the latter driven by DoQui as the rancid pimp King George. “They call her Coffy and she’ll cream you!” the promo material promises. Believe it, baby…
- Great Pam Grier line: “So, you wanna play with knives, huh? Well you picked the wrong player!”
- Director: Jack Hill
- On DVD: Coffy (Warner, 2001)
Bucktown (American International Pictures, 1975)
Fred Williamson plays Duke Johnson, who has journeyed south to swinging Bucktown to bury his brother and settle his estate. Duke reopens his late brother’s nightclub The Alabama, where he is soon pressured by the local law enforcement crackers to pay protection money. When Duke refuses to pony up, things get rough, with Duke bringing in his own boys to help him in his battle against the corrupt rednecks. Pam Grier plays Williamson’s gal pal Aretha (she goes nude in one scene), with Thalmus Rasulala, Tony King and Bernie Hamilton also in the mix.
- Great Fred Williamson line: “Damn, brother, you have become one violent dude.”
- Director: Arthur Marks
- On DVD: Bucktown (Tofhe/MGM, 2003)
Ten More Blaxploitation Movie Favorites
- Foxy Brown (1974)
- Trouble Man (1972)
- Cooley High (1975)
- The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972)
- Three the Hard Way (1974)
- Willie Dynamite (1974)
- Friday Foster (1975)
- That Man Bolt (1973)
- Truck Turner (1974)
- Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976)
And no, we haven’t forgotten Blackenstein (1973), Black Mama, White Mama (1972) or The Black Gestapo (1975), either – dude.
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