Impact of Blaxploitation in Female Lead Action Films
Blaxploitation is a film genre created in the 1970s. The Blaxploitation period is responsible for action films featuring black leads that were aimed towards black audiences. Following the influx of race movies and civil rights movement, there was a demand for black power films to empower the black community. That’s where Blaxploitation came in. Films in the Blaxploitation genre empowered the black community by giving African Americans a sense of representation that many films lacked.
The impact of the Blaxploitation era cannot be overlooked. Films created during the Blaxploitation era helped make African Americans visible and it publicized the experiences and culture of blacks in America. “From acting, directing, screenwriting, and composing, we were present in films like never before.” (Sims 2009) The films created during this time gave black people, men and women, a sense of self and a sense of pride. During this period, black women represented in film was also prominent like never before. Black women were given the same roles with transformative characters that broke the status quo. The women represented in films of the Blaxploitation era broke barriers for women in modern action movies and influenced the storylines of classic action movies with black female leads today.
Melvin Van Peebles ignited the fire of the Blaxploitation era by writing, directing, producing and starring in the 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. This film is about a male prostitute who originally ‘helps’ two white police officers by allowing himself to be taken in for a crime. While on the way to the police station, the officers arrest a Black Panther, Mu-Mu, and beat him for insulting them. In retaliation, Sweetback defends Mu-Mu, brutally beating the two officers and putting them into comas. Aa a result of his crime, Sweetback is on the run and is denied help by his acquaintances. Seeking refuge, Sweetback successfully escapes to Mexico.
For the African American community, Sweetback was a community hero with a happy ending. The narrative Melvin Van Peebles created was one the black community had not seen before: a black man successfully escaping the police. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was a box office success; grossing $10 million with a $500,000 budget.
The Blaxploitation era changed the way black actresses were viewed as a whole. Prior to Blaxploitation, black women were often casted for the role of a “mammy”, “tragic mulatto” character, or a character with a servitude role. “1973 marked the first time that audiences saw African American women in non-servitude roles” (Sims 2009). Notable actresses of the Blaxploitation period include Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson and Vonetta McGee. Gri
It was in 1973 that Pam Grier starred in her first Blaxploitation film, Coffy. Coffy is about a nurse who seeks vengeance on the drug dealers who dealt her sister tainted heroin. After her sister is admitted in the hospital with permanent damage to her mind, Coffy tricks her sisters dealer into thinking she is a prostitute in order to get him alone. After getting the dealer alone, Coffy shoots and kills him. But there’s more to the story. After Coffy and her policeman friend is injured they are both taken to the hospital. Shaken up and recovered, Coffy sets out to find the mobsters that hurt her friend and will stop at nothing to get the information she needs. Threatening and interrogating a prostitute with a broken wine bottle, Coffy finds out about the dealer King George. King George is a dealer who supplies the local dealers. Coffy also finds out about Arturo Vitroni, who is George’s best client. Coffy plots to infiltrate George’s business by becoming one of his prostitutes. Taken in by George, Coffy’s catches the eye of Arturo Vitroni leading him to request to see Coffy one night. Arriving at Vitroni’s place, Coffy attempts to assassinate him but fails and is taken to Howard Brunswick (Coffy’s love interest) after she is identified as his girlfriend. However to her dismay, Brunswick tells Vitroni to kill her. They take her to a desolate area to kill her and dump her body but she distracts them, stabbing one gang member and throwing a brick threw the car window of another, killing him. She then steals a car, drives back to Vitroni’s place and kills everyone in sight. Then lastly, she visits Howard at his beach house, gunning him down for revenge.
Pam Grier starred in Coffy and many other films such as Foxy Brown and Sheba Baby. Being the first African American women to ever star in an action film, she is labeled as the ‘Blaxploitation Queen’ and regarded as a trailblazer for breaking the mold for other women like her. She proved that black actresses could be strong and beautiful and set the tone for her successors.
Along with Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson emerged starring in Cleopatra Jones. Cleopatra Jones is about a undercover special agent, Cleo, played by Tamara Dobson. Cleo is assigned to crack down on drug trafficking in the United States. In the opening scene Cleo is setting fire to a poppy field that belongs to Mommy, a notorious drug lord. As revenge Mommy plans to get the community house for recovering addicts, owned by Cleo’s love interest, raided. Cleo arrest the corrupt police who raided the house, and simultaneously dismantles Mommy’s drug business. In the end Mommy and Cleo take part in an face-off where Cleo throws Mommy over a crane, to her death.
Cleopatra Jones and Coffy walked so that Set It Off could run. Without the creation of Blaxploitation films, Set It Off would not be deemed the classic film that it is today. Set It Off is a 1996 heist action film starring an black all-female lead cast: Queen Latifah as Cleo, Jada Pinkett Smith as Stony, Vivica A. Fox as Frankie, and Kimberly Elise as T.T.. These four ladies play four friends with very real stories. Being paid at a low wage, while being disrespected by their employer Cleo suggest they rob a bank. After Stony loses custody of her son because she cannot afford to take care of him, the four friends now have a serious motivation for the robbery. The women rob the bank but stash the money at their work site. After returning to work the next day, they coincidentally find a new manager and find out their former manager has fled with their money. As a result, Cleo, T.T. and Frankie track their former manager down to demand their money but run into trouble after he pulls a gun on Cleo. In self defense, T.T. kills the manager and Cleo is forced to participate in a lineup by police. With no money, the girls plan to rob a second bank where a shootout begins after a bodyguard shoots and eventually kills T.T. Shortly after the police find Cleo, who leads them on a high speed chase and eventually finds herself surrounded by the police. In one last stand, she exits her car, firing her gun at police before she is killed. Frankie is also found shortly after, but tries to escape is killed by a gunshot to her back. Stony is the only character who survives and is able to escape to Mexico.
Set It Off was the first action film following the Blaxploitation era that featured a group of strong yet feminine black women in lead roles. The story of Set It Off was similar to the Blaxploitation movies with a similar struggle: the characters against society. With a modern twist, Set It Off created a group of black heroes that young women could relate to. Furthermore, with a budget of $9 million, the film was incredibly successful in the box office grossing $41 million, further strengthening the argument that black films (with a female lead cast) can be profitable and successful.
Another movie that is inspired by the trailblazers of the Blaxploitation era is Proud Mary. Played by Taraji P. Henson, Mary is a hitwoman who works for an organized crime family in Boston. While doing her job, she kills a man while his son is home, leaving the boy as an orphan. However, Mary doesn’t move on. A year later, the boy, Danny, is homeless and works for a criminal named Uncle. After chasing his attempted robber, Danny faints in an alley where Mary finds him and takes him to her home. Mary introduces herself to Danny, cooks for him and gives him ‘house rules’ that he doesn’t follow. Then Mary goes to see Uncle to demand he let Danny go. However after threatening Mary, she is forced to kill him and his crew. It is later revealed that Mary does not want to be a hitwoman anymore, and she begs Benny, her boss to let her go. To her dismay he refuses and as a result Danny, shows up to Benny’s office threatening him to let Mary go. Benny then reveals to Danny that Mary is the one who killed his father. Danny leaves in a hurry and moments later Mary arrives to Benny’s office asking to get out, but he still refuses. Mary then kills Benny and goes after Danny, but he is kidnapped by Tom, Benny’s son and is taken to a warehouse. Then in an action sequence, Mary gracefully and effortlessly kills everyone responsible for Danny’s kidnapping and rescues him.
While Proud Mary had a estimated $14 million budget and grossed $21 million, it was a great movie that played homage to the Blaxploitation era and the actresses of Blaxploitation. Despite the varying storylines, Taraji P. Henson character embodied the badass characters of Coffy, Cleo and other Blaxploitation characters. Without the Blaxploitation era, black audiences would not be able to see black women in such transformative roles, such as Proud Mary.
The Blaxploitation era can be revered as one of the most influential periods in black film. The Blaxploitation era is responsible for making the experiences and stories of African Americans public and creating characters the black community could resonate with and be empowered by. Additionally, the Blaxploitation era anabled black women to break the status quo and prove that black actresses could be strong and feminine. The films Coffy, Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown and many others are responsible for the classic film Set It Off which features four black women in lead roles. They are also responsible for the modern day Blaxploitation inspired film Proud Mary starring Taraji P. Henson.
“Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 42, no. 3, June 2009, pp. 584–586. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2009.00696pass:[_]19.x