Big Afros, Big Guns, and Big Cars. The holy trinity of seventies Black cinema affectionately dubbed “Blaxploitation”. The term itself is a portmanteau of the words “black” and “exploitation”. It was originally coined in the early 70s by the Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) head, and ex-film publicist Junius Griffin. The films featured soundtracks dripping with the hottest soul and funk music and predominately Black casts. The genre played an important role in bringing issues of race and justice to the Hollywood big screen. Some white viewers viewed the films as some sort of token of Black empowerment. African-American critics decried the movies as promoting common white stereotypes about Blacks. Regardless of whether or not the films are seen in either of these two lights, the impact both culturally and financially on Hollywood is undeniable.
Many now legendary actors and actresses got their start in this genre. When I think of these films, I think of soundtracks that have yet to be rivaled in terms of their complexity and musical ingenuity. As an African-American male, I rarely remember seeing films that had Black casts or portrayed Black characters in an empowering light. The same racial issues and community issues urban Black residents suffered through daily played out on screen but with often different results. I loved them and always will. It is this thought that lead me to generate my list of the 25 greatest Blaxploitation films. While undoubtedly some will disagree with this list, I compiled this list based on: Soundtrack, Plot Strength, Acting, and overall Funkiness. Please note that this list is not in any sort of order or ranking. I believe all of them have made a valuable contribution in their own right and as such one is no better than the other. Enjoy and Peace, Love, and Souuuuullll!
1) Coffy– Film was produced in 1973 and starred Pam Grier(The all-time sexiest woman to ever grace the big screen!). She stars as a vigilante nurse who fights the drug pushing bad guys who killed her sister with their dope. Soundtrack by the legendary Jazz Icon Roy Ayers.
2) Shaft– Film was produced in 1971. Directed by Gordon Parks starring the ever smooth Richard Roundtree, most are unaware that this film was shot on a $500,000 budget and grossed $13 million dollars. The film saved then struggling MGM from bankruptcy and catapulted the genre into the Hollywood mainstream. Roundtree plays a private detective who travels through Harlem and Italian mob infested neighborhoods to locate the kidnapped daughter of a Black Mob Boss. The soundtrack was done by soul man supreme Isaac Hayes(who won an academy award for best original song ‘Theme from Shaft”). A must have in the collection!
3) Superfly– The 1972 classic film starring Ron O’Neal about a cocaine dealer who desperately wants out of the drug business. Unfortunately, he has to contend with several friends and associates who don’t think this is a good idea. This film has in my opinion the greatest soundtrack ever produced. Curtis Mayfield the soundtrack’s composer has the distinction of making a soundtrack that actually outgrossed the film! The film takes viewers inside the gritty world of the inner city and the horrors of the drug game. A must-see and a must listen! Look for composer Curtis Mayfield’s performance cameo.
4) Black Caesar– 1973 Blaxploitation Gangster film at its best. The film charts the criminal rise of troubled youth Tommy Gibbs(played by Fred Williamson) who joins the New York Mafia and eventually becomes the head of a Black Crime Syndicate in Harlem. As his power and influence grow so do tensions with the Italian Mafia. With a heavy hitting soundtrack led by “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown action film fans can’t miss with this one.
5) Across 110th Street– a 1972 film with a powerhouse cast. The film starred Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, Anthony Franciosa, and Antonio Fargas. The plot centers around Kotto and Quinn(the police) looking for a group of brothas that ripped off $300,000 from a mafia controlled Harlem policy bank. Fantastic acting, great action, and a soundtrack by perennial soul crooner Bobby Womack make this film one of my seventies favorites.
6) Black Belt Jones– This 1974 classic martial arts flick starred the Black community’s answer to Bruce Lee, Mr. Jim Kelly(Kelly also co-starred with Bruce Lee in his much acclaimed film “Enter the Dragon”). Kelly unlike many Hollywood action types was actually a true martial artist. In 1971, he captured the International Middleweight Karate Championship and then promptly opened his own dojo. With his trade mark “Afro” and silky smooth moves Kelly was definitely my martial arts hero. The film also stars legendary entertainer Scatman Crothers. The plot centers around a dojo owned by Crothers that local hooligans want to buy out. After refusing to sell and facing the consequences of that decision, Kelly aka Black Belt Jones comes to the recsue. Gotta love this film for the martial arts action and especially the midnight dojo scene.
7) Blacula– Ok so by the name I figure you know its a take off Dracula right? Well add a little soul and the resounding bass voice of William H. Marshall and you get a great seventies horror flick(not horror by today’s standards). Marshall was an established actor, director, and opera singer whose credits include the original Star Trek Series, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and Broadway productions of Carmen Jones(1944) and Boris Karloff’s understudy in Peter Pan(1950). The film centers around his role as an African prince who is betrayed by Count Dracula and turned into a vampire. He is sealed in a coffin and also bears the weight of losing his wife to Dracula as well. Flash forward a few centuries and his coffin his discovered and so begins the bloody rampage! Dracula with a little bit of swag! I love it!
8) Cleopatra Jones– A 1973 Black Feminist powerhouse of a movie. As much as Pam Grier helped me grow into manhood with her ultra sexiness, Tamara Dobson the 6’2 former Vogue Fashion model turned actress also caught my eye. She was the embodiment of alluring femininity, high fashion, macho strength, and combat skills. And plus she drove a 1973 Black and Silver Corvette Stingray complete with automatic weapons! Really?! man I get tingly just thinking about that. If James Bond was a sister, he’d be Cleopatra Jones. The film makes the list because she represented Black Women with pure class and didn’t have to take off her clothes to do it. Gotta love this film!
9) Dolomite– This 1975 film is possibly one of the most low budget, poorly acted films I have ever seen. Why then is it on the list? Because of the rhythmic beauty of its star and creator Rudy Ray Moore. In the 60s and 70s comedy albums were king and in the black community there was Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Rudy Ray Moore. Known for his explicit stand-up acts, Dolomite was Moore’s alter ego that got transferred to the big screen. Pimps, crooked cops, and and an all female kung fu fighting force are just some of the gems in this film. You ever saw a film so bad it was good? This falls into that category. But let me underscore the pure comedic genius of Rudy Ray Moore. He never got the acclaim that Foxx and Pryor did but absolutely deserves his place among the comedy greats. This is not a film for the kids! Adults only 🙂
10) The Education of Sonny Carson– This 1974 film is very possibly my favorite drama on the list. It is based on the true story/autobiographical book of Mwlina Imiri Abubadika aka Robert “Sonny” Carson. Carson a South Carolina native moved to Brooklyn, NY as a child. He later served in the Korean War in the famed 82nd Airborne division where he claimed a Korean soldier once asked him, “”Why would a black man fight for a country that would not let you drink from the same water fountain in Mississippi?” This question would later become a turning point in his life. Upon his return to civilian life, he was involved with gangs, drugs, and other illegal activities. He eventually would turn from this lifestyle reflecting on his Korean War experience and dedicate his life to community activism. He would join the Congress on Racial Equality(CORE) and by 1967 became the Executive Director of the Brooklyn chapter of CORE. His story is amazing and inspiring and so is the film. Don’t take my word for it though check it out yourself.
11) Man and Boy– This 1972 film marked Bill Cosby’s entrance to the big screen. In a marked departure from other Blaxploitation films, this touching film centers around Cosby and his young son as homesteaders in Arizona. After losing one of their prized horses to theft, Cosby and his son trek across the southwest in pursuit of their horse and the self-respect that the bigoted old west seeks to deny them. While maligned by critics, I think its a heart felt and touching film that warrants its place on the list because of its radical departure from some of the stereotypes presented in film during this time. Also, who doesn’t want to see a young Bill Cosby in a cowboy hat shooting up the bad guys? Also stars Leif Erickson and Yaphet Kotto.
12) Slaughter– Ok sometimes the name says it all. This film lives up to its title. This 1972 action thriller stars the one and only Jim Brown. Hollywood has a habit of trying to “make” tough guys out of actors. Well no one has to make Jim Brown into a tough guy. He is a tough guy, no smiles, ass-kicking good guy. The film is about Brown who plays the title character Slaughter a former Green Beret. Prototype mob plot and revenge flick made better by Jim Brown. If you like good ole fashioned action movies you gotta have this in your collection!
13) The Spook who Sat by the Door– One of the most militant films of the Blaxploitation genre. Based on Sam Greenlee’s novel of the same name, the film centers around the first Black recruit to the CIA(Actor Lawrence Cook) who is there in full token capacity. He is given the job title “Top Secret Reproduction Center Sections Chief” meaning he’s in charge of the copy machine. After going through his tactical training, he begins to question his place and the motives of the agency. So after getting his Rambo training on, he heads back to Chicago and raises and trains his own guerilla army. They intend to spread their revolution beyond the confines of Chicago. The film is both satirical and an attempt to make a serious statement on the Civil Rights and Black Militancy movements of the 60s and 70s. One of my personal favorites here folks.
14) Willie Dynamite– Alright its impossible to make a Blaxploitation list without at least 1 movie about pimping. I thought long and hard about it and narrowed it down to “The Mack” and “Willie Dynamite”. Willie Dynamite won. Though a classic film that has inspired countless rappers, The Mack lacks the flair and capitalist undertones that Willie Dynamite has. This 1974 film stars Roscoe Orman and Diana Sands(in her last movie role). Orman plays a stone cold capitalist driven pimp that is bent on becoming as big as the game will let him. Sands is an ex-hooker turned social worker that tries to get Willie to turn from his pimpin ways. The film was produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown who would later collaborate on the film “The Sting”. A pimp movie with a somewhat different take and twist. Check it out. I couldn’t find a trailer for the film so I’m including a 10 minute clip from the film. Enjoy!
15) Mandingo– This 1975 film stars boxer turned actor Ken Norton and is a tragic twisting tale of violence, sex, betrayal, and revenge. Reviews of the film were mixed with Roger Ebert giving it 0 stars and deriding it as stereotypical and cliche ridden and others enthusiastically embracing it. The movie makes the list because it address issues that are not popular but indeed occurred historically. As a historian, I have done years of research that validate that illicit affairs between slaves and masters or slaves and master’s wives were fairly common place. Though the film does not escape stereotypes, I recommend it and dare say some parts may be hard to watch. Also contains one of my FAVORITE movie lines ever. As a Black man is being lynched his last words were, “This is just as much our land as it yours… and after you hang me…kiss my ass”
16) Sugar Hill- This 1974 cult classic has everything I like in a movie. A hot leading lady, pointless horror, zombies, and an appearance from Zara Cully aka Mama Jefferson from The Jeffersons television series(without her trademark bloody mary’s). The film ties in characters from Voodoo folklore(Baron Samedi the Lord of the Dead) and centers around a voodoo queen who raises a zombie army to fight off the bad guys. According to the film, the zombies are the preserved bodies of slaves brought to the United States from Guinea. This is cheesiness at its best! But hey where else can you get see Mama Jefferson and Mack from “Night Court” together on screen? Grab a cold one, a pizza, and sit back and enjoy this seventies zombie flick.
17) Trouble Man– Marvin Gaye did the soundtrack. I feel like I could stop right there but I’ll give you a little more. This 1972 film starred Robert Hooks as “Mr. T” a hard nosed private detective that takes the law and justice into his own hands. Now a lot of blaxploitation films have detective based characters but what separates this one from the pack is the addition of veteran actor Paul Winfield, a bumping soundtrack, and some classic one liners. Add sexy Paula Kelly to the mix and TV staple Ralph Waite( played John Walton Sr. in “The Waltons” and “Roots” slave ship bad guy Slater) you’ve got a winning recipe. Critics hated it but between seeing some of my favorite actors and hearing Marvin Gaye lace the soundtrack, this film gets it right.
18) JD’s Revenge– This 1976 Horror flick stars the very recognizable veteran actors Glen Turman,and Louis Gossett Jr. Turman plays a straight laced law student who becomes possessed by the spirit of a gangster who was murdered over 30 years prior. Gossett plays a thug turned preacher(who has a tie to Turman’s possessor) who beings to realize that Turman’s character may not be who he seems to be. Great acting, some legitimate gory and scary parts, and a good plot. If you like thrillers/horror films gotta check this one out.
19) Cooley High– Heart warming and a tear jerker. This 1975 film follows two ghetto youths coming of age on the mean streets of Chicago. It stars Glen Turman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and follows the two through several twists of fate, including violent carjacking friends, drugs, failing grades, and girls. I don’t want to give too much of this one away so just check it out. Get the kleenex out you will cry. Also contains the classic song “Its so hard to say goodbye”.
20) Three the Hard Way– A 1974 classic action film. Jim Brown, Jim Kelly, and Fred Williamson! This flick is like a Black version of “The Expendables” except they weren’t old when it was filmed and they are all brothas! Plot goes something like this: white supremacists are trying to exterminate the African-American population by poisoning the water supply. Music by the Impressions! Action, Action, and more Action! Maybe the most action packed flick on the list.
21) Uptown Saturday Night– This 1974 comedy film was directed by Sir Sidney Poitier and starred Poitier and Bill Cosby. It is the first of a trilogy of films that are in my opinion all classics. The characters all have different names in the films but are still considered to be a trilogy. Cosby and Poitier play two blue collar workers who head out to a swank private club one saturday night. While partying it up, the joint gets robbed and everyone is made to strip down to their underwear. They lose everything including Poitier’s wallet. He gets home only to learn that he hit the lottery and the winning ticket is in his wallet! Thus begins the adventure to regain the wallet while dodging and running cons on crooked politicians, fake detectives, hoods, and underworld crime bosses. Excellent script, great acting(Harry Belafonte is also in the film), good music, and hilariously funny! I watch this movie at least once a month religiously!
22) Let’s Do It Again– This 1975 film is the second in the Cosby and Poitier trilogy. This time the duo is attempting to rig a boxing match to raise money for their fraternal lodge. Naturally, this makes them cross paths with gangsters and random bad guys. The film has an all-star cast including: Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, John Amos(Good Times), Calvin Lockhart, Jimmie Walker(Good Times), Ossie Davis(Legend!!!), Lee Chamberlin, and Billy Eckstine. Awesome follow-up to the first film. Again, I watch this at least once a month! Sidenote: I wanted to learn hypnosis after seeing this! Also for the hip hop heads, this film is where the Notorious B.I.G. got his alias “Biggie Smalls” from!
23) A Piece of the Action– The last in the Cosby and Poitier trilogy. The film was released in 1977 and the two star as high class thieves who have never been caught. James Earl Jones plays a detective hot on their trail who has enough evidence to lock both of them up. Instead, he offers to keep quiet if they volunteer at a youth delinquency center. Reluctant at first, the two begin to gain the trust of the kids and enjoy their work until an old figure from their past gives them offer they better not refuse. While not as entertaining as the first two, this movie is still a great family oriented movie. And hey James Earl Jones is in it!
24) The Monkey Hustle– A comedy film all about hustling. Produced in 1976, the film stars Yaphet Kotto and Rudy Ray Moore among others and is set in Chicago. The plotline is to prevent the construction of an expressway through the neighborhood in which all the characters reside. Kotto plays a con-man with some young con-men apprentices who use potentially corrupt connections within the city government to prevent the construction. Very very funny film with an underlying social message. Check it out.
25) Buck and the Preacher– This 1972 film marks Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut. It’s set in the west and focuses on Buck(Poitier) as a Post Civil War trail guide leading groups of former slaves west to homestead. Harry Belafonte co-stars as “The Preacher” who is morally and ethically questionable but must work with Buck to protect a wagon train from bounty hunters. Ruby Dee also plays a part in the film and the soundtrack was composed by jazz great Benny Carter. I love a good western and Harry Belafonte definitely makes this film pop!
Hope you enjoyed the list guys!