Column: A new book on Blaxploitation movies celebrates it all, from Pam Grier to ‘Black Belt Jones’

As a preteen growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey, Odie Henderson saw a tremendous number of wildly inappropriate movies. Take age 4, an especially big, bad year for Henderson and inarguably too young to be eye-mauled by “The Exorcist.”

But there was also that time the future Boston Globe film critic and author of the new book “Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras: A History of Blaxploitation Cinema” saw a double bill of “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown,” starring Pam Grier. Grier figures prominently in Henderson’s book, published earlier this month.

It’s an extremely good read, and Henderson is coming to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre for a book signing and a 35mm screening of the 1972 “Super Fly,” another seminal title in the garish, brutal, vitally expressive screen era of Blaxploitation.

That word doesn’t fly with everyone these days. Nor did it in the long-deferred phase of American film that brought a flowering of Black opportunities on screen — Henderson frames the timeline as 1970 to 1978 — sparked by the success of “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” followed by “Shaft” a year later, in 1971.

Henderson has no problem with the label because he loves the range of work it encompasses. “Is it a genre, like comedy or Western,” he writes in the book’s prologue, “or something more fluid and harder to define? I like to describe it the way I’d describe the equally slippery term ‘film noir’: Blaxploitation is an era, a period of time when certain films are definitive examples and others are up for discussion and debate.”

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The 1973 poster for “Coffy” starring Pam Grier. (LMPC/Getty Images) 

Q: Odie, isn’t age 4 at least 10 years too early for “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown”?

A: I definitely should not have them at that age! That same year, 1974, I also saw a double feature of “Enter the Dragon” and “Black Belt Jones.” I recall being fascinated by both Jim Kelly’s and Pam Grier’s Afros, usurped only by Franklyn Ajaye’s Afro two years later in “Car Wash.” I saw a lot of movies way too young, but when you have aunties or older cousins, you had opportunities to do things like that. I remember my pops saying to me a lot of the time, after we saw something on the deuce, 42nd Street, in Times Square: “Don’t tell your mother.”

Q: Take us back to the beginning. Some folks might guess the Blaxploitation era started with “Shaft,” but that was a major studio, MGM, not American International Pictures …

A: “Shaft” was the movie that basically saved MGM from bankruptcy, so Hollywood had a big stake in the film’s success. At that point MGM was about to merge with 20th Century Fox, but the deal fell through. And then “Shaft” made a lot of money, directed by Gordon Parks. The year before, though, Samuel Goldwyn Jr. made “Cotton Comes to Harlem” with Ossie Davis directing, and that made a lot of money first. That one got it on Hollywood’s radar that Black folks would see a movie about Black people.

Defining Blaxploitation by a single genre would be disingenuous, but there are characteristics common to all that aren’t genre-specific: the attitude, the swagger and most importantly, I’d argue, the music and the fashion.

Q: I mean, the “Foxy Brown” opening credits are almost too much for one movie. Fantastic. And an irresistible song, although compared to the title song from “Trouble Man”?

A: That’s one of Marvin Gaye’s best songs. He wanted to be a singer like Frank Sinatra, not the sexy soul singer he became. But he wrote the entire score for “Trouble Man.” Michael Kahn, who became Spielberg’s editor, he edited that film, by the way.

Q: You write in the book that you began research with one explanation for Blaxploitation era’s demise in mind. But that changed?

A: It did, yes. My theory was it died because by the late ’70s there were a lot more Black people on TV, and TV was free. You had a big event like “Roots,” but before that, Black sitcoms that were hits: “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son.” I assumed what killed Blaxploitation was a combination of that, plus the blockbusters like “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” Black folks went for those, just like everybody else.

But then Elvis Mitchell interviewed me for his Netflix documentary on Blaxploitation, “Is That Black Enough for You?” And we had this friendly dispute about what killed it off. He thinks it was (the commercial failure) of “The Wiz” in 1978. We went back and forth on that, and he finally said, “I think we actually think the same thing here: That when the (Blaxploitation) movies ceased to be marketable for Black audiences, the era died.” “The Wiz” cost an ungodly amount of money, and lost a lot. But it’s beloved by Black folks my age everywhere. As much as I have problems with “The Wiz,” I cannot deny my childhood love of it.

Q: Was the Blaxploitation era of the real low-down movies, lots of crime and sex, a double-edged sword, do you think?

A: You have to first talk about what was happening on screen before this time. With Hollywood’s pre-Code era (1929-1934), in movies like “Baby Face,” actors of color occasionally did more than bit roles — the maid, the porter. But until Sidney Poitier came along in the middle of the 20th century, there wasn’t much besides those mostly negative images. When Poitier became a star, he fell victim to having to represent the entire race in a positive light. Eventually he took control of his own movies and started directing, and that allowed him to be freer.

With Blaxploitation, yes, a lot of it’s salacious, with a little bit of message thrown in, like the broccoli you hide underneath the cheese sauce so the kids’ll eat it (laughs). But Black folks saw themselves in power. When I saw Jim Kelly in “Black Belt Jones” or Pam Grier in “Coffy,” I mean, that’s different from watching Clint Eastwood sticking a gun in a Black guy’s face and asking him if he feels lucky. Or watching  Thug Number Three  on an episode of “Beretta.” Pam Grier pulling a gun out of her Afro meant one thing: We were in power.

As with anything that starts underground, once it goes mainstream, it’s going to be destroyed. Maybe that’s what happened with Blaxploitation.

Q: It didn’t take long in the ’70s for “respectable” studio films, the ones that won Oscars, to co-opt the same levels of violence.

A: Right. Look at “The Godfather,” which came from a really trashy book. I always say that was an exploitation movie directed too damn well to be called an exploitation movie.

Q: Do you think Blaxploitation got a dubious or double-edged second life thanks to Quentin Tarantino?

A: Well, I loved “Jackie Brown” …

Q: My favorite of his.

A: Mine too. That’s where he distills Blaxploitation down to an essence, really. With “Django Unchained,” which I also like, he’s focusing (completely) on all the most salacious and negative imagery he can. It’s a pastiche that often works. But not always. Tarantino, and I hate to say this, he does the white-boy thing, focusing on what he thinks are the coolest elements of Blaxploitation without realizing that some of what he’s doing is too much. And not worth leaning into.

Richard Roundtree in the 1971 “Shaft.” (MGM) 

Q: You list a lot of favorites in “Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras.” Do you have a favorite moment or sequence that captures everything you love about Blaxploitation?

A: The opening of “Shaft.” When Shaft comes out of the subway at 42nd Street, in time with that song, and walks down the street. That’s the defining moment for me. I did that literally yesterday, and I’ll do it again tonight: Walk out of the Times Square station at 42nd Street and hear that theme in my head. (Director) Gordon Parks told Richard Roundtree to just cross the street without looking, because Shaft would never look both ways. That moment when he almost gets run over by the cab? That really happened. He almost got Richard Roundtree run over the first day. On the first day of filming.

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Author: Michael Phillips

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