Is the Blaxploitation Genre Making a Comeback?

I’ve recently noticed a number of upcoming studio projects that feature a black lead who fights criminals with various weapons and a signature style. While this archetype was popular in the 1970s, millennials haven’t really been exposed to these types of stories until now.

black panther
Image courtesy of Marvel Studios: Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa in Black Panther (2018).

In the 70s, major studios needed to get black folks into the theaters. How do you do accomplish this? By creating films centered around them. These studios wanted to exploit the black community for profit and it worked. The blaxploitation genre was booming with films like Shaft (1971), Foxy Brown (1974), Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Coffy (1973). These characters mesmerized audiences and were considered refreshing personas in action movies. Although these types of films received some backlash from audiences for portraying stereotypical black characters, they were the first instances where black actors and communities were seen as heroes in films instead of sidekicks and victims of brutality.

There have been several films released over the years that pay homage to the once popular sub-genre, but they are far and few in between. Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) and Django Unchained (2012) and Scott Sander’s Black Dynamite (2009) are a few modern films that take from the classic blaxploitation formula. These films were critically and financially successful, which could mean that audiences are still interested in these kinds of stories.

Image courtesy of The Tempest: Taraji P. Henson as Mary in Sony’s Proud Mary (2018).

Upcoming films like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018), Babak Najafi’s Proud Mary (2018) and Warner Bros. recently announced Cleopatra Jones remake led me to wonder if we are beginning to see a blaxploitation reemergence and what that means in an era so concerned with representation. These new generation blaxploitation films have the potential to not only be extremely profitable, but culturally significant. Jordan Peele proved this with his hit directorial debut, Get Out (2017), and while this biting satire doesn’t follow the typical blaxploitation formula, I believe its an adequate classification.

get out
Image courtesy of Vulture: Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington in Get Out (2017).

Get Out, a comedy-horror allegory about what happens when a black man goes to meet his white girlfriend’s family, somehow managed to not scare off even the most sensitive viewers, and became one of the most financially and critically successful films of 2017. Due to studios unrelenting need to duplicate every Hollywood success story, I predict that we will be seeing a spike in films written, directed, produced and starring black talent in the upcoming years.

With more black voices dictating how black people are portrayed on screen, who’s to say how closely these films will resemble the ones that came before them, if at all? Whether we like it or not, studios finance these films because of the audience they will attract. That is exploitation. Just because these films aren’t Shaft doesn’t make them any less blaxploitation. In the long run it doesn’t matter, because the set up of some of these disparate films are so aware of their current social climate that they have the potential to change the genre entirely. No matter the case, one thing is for sure, this is only the beginning.

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