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Black Exploitation in Film

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This essay will look at two main points on representation, in a pre-determined ten-minute clip of Shaft, firstly cultural representation which in this case is focused on the emergence of the Blaxploitation (Black-exploitation) genre. Then the representation of women and how their gender status affects the film’s narrative, and characters and how the film portrayed both points. 971 found the emergence of successful Afro-American film producers such as Gordon Parks (1912-2006) with Shaft (1971) and Melvin Van Peebles with his earlier release of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), between them ushering the start of a new film genre, Blaxploitation.

With Shaft being “amongst the twenty highest grossing films of the year with retails of $6. 1 million, and was accompanied by an award winning soundtrack, best selling soundtrack. (William L & Hammond M. Contemporary American Cinema, p. 188).

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Although African-American film producers had a lot of input in the earlier Blaxploitation genre, later production had less input and it also led to the demise of the genre by the end of the 1970s.

Cultural representation Shaft defies previous ‘black cinema’, with black protagonist being the good guy, with a less politically originated militant black figure, like those in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971).

Shaft is contradiction in its cultural representation as it debunks earlier ‘Black cinema’ film by not having the lead protagonist as militant, angry individual out to get the white man as was a popular depiction of previous black characters. Instead “The hero may well be a powerful masculine presence, however, the image of militant Black man has gone. ” (Hayward S (2006) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, p. 48). With the emergence of such movements as the Black Panthers in the 1960s it was hard not to draw from these powerful men in black history with their fierce ideologies and pride.

Though the character Shaft has a reputation that is later ‘exploited’ in later films of the genre, it does not have the excess that often leads to it giving a spoofed story. Drawing from racial stereotypes. The core contradiction is that the film still holds to heavy racial stereotypes, for instance the use of the ‘Italian’ mobster or the seedy, over-weight white detective and Shaft himself being overly confident harking back to the slightly left-wing attitudes of the Panthers.

But rather carries it off with the nonchalant attitude of ‘sticking it to the man’ by being non-conformist in his attitude to life and is more of a maverick to avoid falling into the political hole. With the fact that he is an independent self-styled private investigator (PI), showing that he is separate from working from the white man, in this case the police force and the mafia, to get what he needs. In this and unlike previous depictions of black characters, he is working with the white man, instead of being in conflict with them.

Idioms and supremacy. Despite working alongside both, again the racial factor manifests itself with antagonising phrases between Shaft and the mafia member in the café/restaurant, which is instigated by the mafia member. Shaft’s riposte is similarly insulting but delivered in a nonchalant manner in such a way as to roil the mafia member. Though this goes back and forth the situation is tempered from getting out of hand by their location and the presence of the waitress serving them.

The switch in power between the two men remains in flux as it goes back and forth with cultural idioms being used as casual obscenities and the inflection from the Mafioso that he is superior to Shaft by starting the conversation by calling Shaft ‘nigga’. It is Shafts lack of response to his derogatory manner that deflates the Mafioso. Female Representation Submissive white woman? With the introduction of the waitress and her negligent behaviour, it is the first instance in the predetermined clip that has a female character.

Ironically it happens to be a white female serving a black man (Shaft), from the scene it could be argued that white women in the decade were still seen as submissive within the gender roles. Although this wouldn’t have been noted, merely considered as a normal situation, aside from this and that she is merely a bored waitress, negligible towards her job and her customers. It is the stereotyping again that is obvious with it being herself who unwittingly defuses potential hostilities between the two men, as women are often considered to be able to both insight and defuse violent situations as a gender stereotype.

With “gender stereotypes in this country have remained largely stable since the early 1970s” (Weiten W & Lloyd M A (2006) Phycology applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century, p. 305), American audience of any cultural background would not have noticed these slight nuances in the narrative. What is the significance of a black female hostage? A notable point in Shaft is the fact the hostage is a young black woman, as opposed to it being a young white female. So while it still holds to the whole ‘damsel in distress’ cliché, that stereotype is normally taken by a vulnerable white female with Hollywood studios.

The empowered black heroine. Although still playing the role of the meek female character, the connotation of her being black is enough to speak volumes to her cultural value in the film, which could be argued that it gave rise to the proud, empowered black heroine in other Blaxploitation movies, such as Foxy Brown (1974) and Cleopatra Jones (1973) with Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson becoming familiar actress’. But this in itself is simply semiotics, as black women in the 1970s were very empowered themselves unlike the archetypical white American female, who was still considered to still have the role of being acquiescent in contrast.

Contrasting women and their roles in the film’s narrative. Both women in the film are still portrayed in a passive light, though both have empowering connotations. The waitress with her inadvertent pacification of Shaft and the Mafioso, though there is a possibility to see it that she is not being nonchalant, but rather superior to Shaft purely on skin colour and only bothering to respond with any energy after she is left a tip. Then there is the hostage having enough inherent cultural hold on Shaft for him to risk his life, if this was the case it would only make it as farcical as everything that the film was trying not to be.

Although it would not have been any different if it been an archetypical Hollywood production, with a predominately white leading cast and gallant, melodramatic music instead of funk or soul in its place. Which of was one of the criteria’s that made Blaxploitation movies, with Shaft being one of the films that “cemented the use of funky music in blaxploitation films” (Lawrence N (2008) Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s: Blackness and Genre, p. 55).

Cultural analysis aside, neither of the female characters in the clip had any direct influence in the film, although it could be seen as more circumlocutory, as Shaft was willing to risk his life for the young hostage which gives her that status of having power. But in the earlier conversation in the clip with the detective, it is made apparent that Shaft has little or no regard for white women and has a reputation for sleeping around. Conclusion

The phrase Blaxploitation was allegedly coined by Junius Griffin in the early 1970s, the ex-film publicist and head of the NAACP (Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), (Ebert, Roger (2004-06-11). “Review of Baadasssss! ”. Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 04/01/2007). But it has been argued that Hollywood financed Shaft is closer to being a Blaxploitation film, although Variety Magazine credited Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song with starting the genre and trend.

Either way both films were aimed for young black urban audience, but eventually transcended ethnic and cultural lines. Due to a lot of criticism from the industry, the genre later became unpopular with claims that it glorified sex, violence, criminal behavior and overtly exploited white stereotypes of black people. There are different views on when the blaxploitation era ended, though most will agree it was “around 1976, but its influence continues. ”(Lambert C (2003) The Blaxploitation Era, HarvardMagazine. om). The main question to be asked is how much influence did Gordon Parks . Jnr really had in the making of Shaft, was it his portrayal of black America or was he swayed by the studios thinking of cashing in on a trend? I don’t believe this is what was Parks intended, I believe the film clip puts black people more on a level after the civil rights movements of the previous decade by not having the whole aspect of the Black Panther attitude towards life and avoided the political front.

It is more like the Parks was making Shaft a recusant figure with an echo to the scenes of poverty Parks witnessed and with its natural successor, violence from frustration of society. Making this more a focus of American society rather than being a solely black issue, due the fact that America history of upheaval over the previous decades had left the country socially fragile if not a little unstable and with the late 1960s and 70s had many movements and calls from more equality in gender and cultural circles in general.

As Gordon Parks himself spent the best part of 20yrs photographing these changes and was well travelled enough to know the differences over the country and the struggles he documented and experienced. With this knowledge he challenges preconception of stereotypes, as opposed to encouraging those preconceptions, to make the point and like Parks himself once said, “I don’t make black exploitation films” (Village Voice. 1976).

As it is in most cases, it wound down to money, not say there was not issues and racism at the time but also, “They happened because individual producers decided that there was a trend out there that they could make money” (Walker, Rausch & Watson (2009), Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak, p. 12).

Reference List

  1. Linda Ruth Williams & Michael Hammond. (2006). Contemporary American Cinema, Open University Press. Maidenhead, UK.
  2. David Walker, Andrew J. Rausch, Chris Watson (2009).
  3. Reflections on Blaxploitation: actors and directors speak, Scarecrow Press, Inc. Maryland, United States.
  4. Susan Hayward (2006). Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. Taylor & Francis LLC, London.
  5. Wayne Weiten & Margaret Ann Lloyd (2006) Psychology applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century, Cengage Learning. Hampshire, UK.
  6. Novotny Lawrence (2008) Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s: Blackness and Genre. Rouledge, London, UK.
  7. Craig Lambert. (2003). The Blaxploitation Era, Available:http://harvardmagzine. com/2003/01/the-blaxploitation-era. Last accessed 13/01/2012.

Cite this Black Exploitation in Film

Black Exploitation in Film. (2016, Oct 29). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/black-exploitation-in-film/

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