Exploring the Development of the Blaxploitation Era and the African American Heroine

There is a great deal to learn from the Blaxploitation Era of the film industry.

Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), widely considered the first film to display signs of Blaxploitation.

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“The only crime I’m guilty of is being a young black woman”

-Foxy Brown

Blaxploitation cinema has been critiqued and argued over since its inception in the 1970s. With the likes of Hattie McDaniel and Pam Grier, Black women were placed into the film industry to fulfill roles that were deemed “necessary” yet have been linked to the perpetuation of damaging stereotypes. Arguments over whether the genre was exploitative (as the name suggests) or whether it benefitted Black actresses continue to be had, but there’s value in revisiting some of the biggest films of the Blaxploitation era with a 21st-century perspective.

From the 1940s onwards, African American actresses were cast in roles that devalued their overall femininity and limited their screen time. The role of the Mammy is well known and steeped in history: hailing from slavery and the Jim Crow Era, she was a propaganda tool used to convince people that Black women were happy being enslaved and loved serving white families. If the Mammy was the role given to African American women in the early 1900s to describe loyalty, then the gun-wielding action heroine of Foxy Brown directly juxtaposes it.

 

‘Foxy Brown’ (1974) Movie Poster

The 1970s saw a shift in the placement of African American women in cinema. Mammies still existed, but Pam Grier as Foxy Brown made the way for a new type of Black woman in film — not a Mammy or Sapphire (Angry Black Woman) but instead an interesting mix of the two: the “Bad Black Woman”, defined by film scholar Cedric Robinson. The only person she served was herself, those she loved, and her community. Grier became the unofficial face of this genre — the Queen of Blaxploitation. Films starring Grier often centered around seeking justice for those who had been wronged, normally by white villains. In 1973’s Foxy Brown, Grier stars as a gun-savvy, fast driving action heroine backed by a jazz-filled soundtrack touting playful lyrics:

“You’re cute and sweet

No, but you don’t play around

No, but please don’t make Foxy mad

Or you’ll find out that the lady is Superbad” 

Foxy Brown tells a tale that reaches for feminist ideology but misses the mark. Yes, Foxy can defend herself, but at what cost? At one point in the film, Foxy infiltrates a “modeling agency” — a front for an escort service where girls are used to keeping the king pin’s workers out of jail through the looking after of judges, congressmen, and other official personnel. Foxy’s “feminism” kicks in when she saves another African American woman and helps her reunite with her child and husband. This has repercussions for Foxy, who is found out as a spy and sold into sexual slavery by the agency. Foxy is subjected to several cases of abuse including being raped and forcefully injected with heroin. But she remains “strong” and well-equipped despite her ordeals, going on to take out the drug syndicate who killed her former lover.

Coffy (1973) Movie Poster

It has been argued that whilst Grier helped kickstart a genre that showcased Black women as being independent and able to handle themselves better than their white counterparts, it cannot be denied that the Blaxploitation era heroine still played into stereotypes: sassy, quick to disrobe, and often solving problems with excessive violence. This was especially relevant as it was during this time that Black people had begun to lobby to further their political, social, and economic rights. Many felt as though characters such as Foxy set them back in terms of being taken seriously in the film industry because of the over-sexualization and casual nature towards drugs and violence.

Yet, it was the Blaxploitation era that catered to Black people during this time. American International Pictures (AIP) was the studio that spearheaded the Blaxploitation era and sought to create films that would not be picked up by mainstream studios. During the 70s, AIP worked with Grier and other African American actors to create Blaxploitation content which was marketed towards Black audiences primarily.

Coffy (1973) Movie Poster

Eventually, this idea of the genre heroine would be taken on by mainstream studios such as 20th Century Fox, who went on to make Alien in 1979, starring Sigourney Weaver as the well developed Ellen Ripley, who was more than just her sex appeal and ability to take care of her own people.

African American women like Grier and Tamara Dobson were the shift that Black cinema desperately needed; they spearheaded a subgenre focused on female action heroines, one which hasn’t been truly replicated since by the community. Whilst there has been a slew of Black-led blockbusters to leave studios in the 21st century, none of them lived up to what the Blaxploitation era attempted to achieve. In 2004, Warner Bros released Catwoman, starring Halle Berry as the titular character; it was a box-office failure with a budget of $100 million that made $82 million back. Critics dubbed it one of the worst films of all time, but it was the highest-grossing female superhero film until Wonder Woman’s release in 2017. This film was Black-led and had all the makings of kicking off a new era for Black heroines, but it was unsuccessful and deviated from existing blueprints.

Proud Mary (2018) Movie Poster

A film that didn’t completely deviate from the Blaxploitation blueprint was 2018’s Proud Mary starring Taraji P. Henson. The film features Henson as a leading lady who goes in gun heavy to protect those who are vulnerable. But this film is different from its 70s predecessors: Mary isn’t using her body as part of her arsenal of weapons. Instead, she relies on firearms to complete her missions. If Proud Mary was hoping to stake its place in the Blaxploitation history books, it fell flat. It touches on the ideas from the 70s but with a modern twist that’s palatable to a 21st-century audience. It doesn’t carry the rawness that contributed to the classics decades earlier — the homages to Blackness via hair, clothing, and music.

Modern-day Black blockbusters have been geared towards prominent male leads if action related, with Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, and Denzel Washington springing to mind. Yet few African American female leads star in action films with the same scope as their male counterparts. The Blaxploitation era, despite its flaws, created significant change for African American actresses, it would be nice to see today’s filmmakers engaging in this style of cinema once more — especially if it’s with a Black team. Just don’t give it to Tyler Perry.

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