In Telegraph Avenue, Luther Stallings, Archy's dad, was once a star in blaxploitation films that were all the rage in the '70s. Even though the term appears to be a loaded word, blaxploitation movies were actually powerful vehicles of self-identification for many blacks. Understandably this view was not held by all. Many black organizations including the NAACP believed most blaxploitation movies reinforced common white stereotypes about black people.
During the heyday of blaxploitation movies in the early '70s, the civil rights movement was still a nascent thing and black stars - especially leading heroes - were not commonly found on the mainstream Hollywood big screen. Sure there was Sidney Poitier who starred most famously in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, but he was the exception that proved the rule: blacks were not going to become big-budget stars in Hollywood any time soon. Blaxploitation movies were similar to exploitation movies: low-budget films with B-grade actors and a lot of sex and violence. But blaxploitation also embraced many genres including drama, horror and comedy, and, most important, urban black audiences could identify with these movies because they actually reflected their everyday lives. Most Hollywood movies just didn't do this. Luther Stallings, in Telegraph Avenue, might well be the fictional counterpart of Richard Roundtree, the star of the wildly popular Shaft movie series - Shaft, Shaft's Big Score and Shaft in Africa. The movies also spun off a short-lived television series. Years later, in 2000, Samuel Jackson starred in a remake of Shaft but it could be argued that the movie, removed from the '70s, couldn't make quite as much of an impression. As the owner of Scarecrow Video (the largest independent video store in the country) in Seattle put it in a story for the Seattle Times, "People who are into them are curious about the '70s. They get a feeling of what was it was like to be alive in the '70s. A lot of these films capture a cultural aspect back then that you don't read about in the history books."
Another cultural contribution of blaxploitation movies was its music - a brand of funk, jazz and soul that provided much of the backbone for the narratives and became the genre's calling card. This playlist features some great soundtracks from blaxploitation movies
In today's Hollywood, blaxploitation movies have a powerful advocate in director Quentin Tarantino whose many movies are a salute to the genre. (The director too gets a nod from Michael Chabon in Telegraph Avenue). One of the blaxploitation movies' most sexy sirens, Pam Grier, starred in the genre's classics, Foxy Brown and Coffy. Much later in life, when discussing her memoir, she mentioned that blaxploitation movies had a vital role to play in black America. "They had a purpose. It was important for documenting what black people were doing," she said. Years later, it was Quentin Tarantino who had Grier star in Jackie Brown, his most overt nod to the blaxploitation genre.
This YouTube video captures some great scenes from blaxploitation movies:
This article was originally published in September 2012, and has been updated for the
September 2013 paperback release.
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