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Books | Film

September 22, 2010

The Blaxploitation Reader

Josiah Howard, author of Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide, discusses the uniquely American film genre.

Adam Rosen

In the pantheon of lexical construction, "blaxploitation" is one bad mutha. Few linguistic mashups have been as simultaneously pithy and evocative as this infamous term, coined in the early 1970s by Los Angeles NAACP head (and ex-film publicist) Junius Griffin. A union of the words "black" and "exploitation" was not accidental: "We must insist that our children are not exposed to a diet of so-called black movies that glorify black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters, and super males with vast physical prowess but no cognitive skills," Griffin told Newsweek in 1972. His protest came after the release of Super Fly, the massively popular tale of larger-than-life coke dealer Youngblood Priest as he plots one last score. (The film was so successful that it bested no less than The Godfather in a short run as America’s highest-earning movie.) Try as he might, Griffin, along with his partners in the NAACP, CORE, and PUSH, simply could not halt the advance of blaxploitation.

Josiah Howard
"I believe the films would be a lot less fun if there wasn't the belief by some that they were making a really good film."

Josiah Howard

And thank goodness, insists Josiah Howard, author of Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide. Whatever the genre's fate, Howard says, the black action movies of the early- and mid-1970s were first and foremost "entertainments" akin to "going to the circus, or playing a video game." Relentlessly campy and with a seemingly limitless imagination on the various nouns to which the adjective black might be affixed (e.g. Black Lolita, Black Godfather, Black Fist, Black Samson, Black Caesar, Black…Shampoo), blaxploitation was a certified product of the 1970s. Howard's book is painstakingly devoted to the era, featuring 270+ movie summaries, dozens of poster reproductions, and ten interviews with some of the genre's most important directors. (Notably absent is Shaft director Gordon Parks Sr., who rejected the term "blaxploitation" being applied to his work.)

Blaxpoloitation Cinema is Howard's third work. In 2003, the 48-year old East Village resident authored a biography on Donna Summer, and last year he published a booklet on his 16 years at the celeb-laden Restaurant Florent in the Meatpacking District. Though he was once on staff at The Village Voice and Parade, Howard has since preferred to work odd jobs and write on his own terms. In the following interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity, Howard talks to Gelf about researching '70s cinema, whether or not 2009 blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite was any good, and the abiding irony of the movie Honky.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you write a book on blaxploitation?

Josiah Howard: The films—their imagery in particular—made an indelible impact on me. When I saw my first blaxploitation film, Coffy, I was eleven or twelve, much too young to be exposed to what I saw—violence, nudity, killings, drug culture, and giant afro wigs!—I came away both fascinated and hooked. I thought about writing a book on the genre for a long time but I also thought no one else would really care to read about the pictures. Then I finally just did it. I said, "Today I'm going to begin a project that is going to be enjoyable and informative for me." And it was. It's my hope that the book does the same for others.

Gelf Magazine: How much research went into the book?

Josiah Howard: Because I loved the films, I had, over the years, collected folders and folders of reviews, press material, photos and articles. I had all that at hand. The only thing I really had to do was actually see all the films—more than 275—to double check, character names, titles, release dates, credits and the like. It took about two years.

Gelf Magazine: Why'd you go with a British publisher?

Josiah Howard: McFarland & Company here in the States wanted the book and they almost got it. Though I love McFarland's books (their Black Action Films is a great source of information), they're "trade" publishers whose product, though always painstakingly fact-checked and researched, is also always overpriced and ugly to look at.
I knew nothing about FAB Press or their beautiful catalogue of film books until about a week before the deadline to send in my signed copy of the contract with McFarland. I secured a deal with FAB quickly (at a lower advance, by the way) because they were going to put out the book that I wanted to put out: an informative, picture-heavy book with glossy black & white and color artwork, not a textbook.

Gelf Magazine: In your introduction, you write about the opposition to films like Super Fly, which black TV producer Tony Brown called "sick" and "treasonous" for its depiction of African Americans. This struck me as the same language used now against BET and a lot of rap.

Josiah Howard: There is a case to be made for the "negative" images of blacks in blaxploitation films but I won't be making it. To me, they are entertainments—sometimes good and sometimes bad, most often somewhere in the middle.

Gelf Magazine: You write that Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was required viewing for Black Panther Party members after it was released in 1971. Was anything made of this at the time?

Josiah Howard: It was always mentioned in the papers, in magazines and especially by the film's director Melvin Van Peebles. If you were young and militant, I suppose the Panthers' endorsement might have meant something. But if you weren't young and militant, you didn't need the Panther Party to tell you to go and see a particular film.

Gelf Magazine: Given the Panthers' endorsement, Sweet Sweetback was obviously interpreted, at least by some, as political or empowering. Why did Jesse Jackson and other leaders oppose it then?

Josiah Howard: For their own political gain?! Jackson, in particular, is a shrewd opportunist. Talking about the films provided him with yet another public forum. Others who opposed the films called for exclusively positive images of blacks (hence Sounder) and not wholly "negative" ones (Super Fly). But "negative" is in the eye of the beholder: The family in Sounder is plain and desperately poor—but happy. The cocaine dealer in Super Fly is handsome and rich—but conflicted.

Gelf Magazine: Your treatment of blaxploitation films, I think, could at least be described as reverential. Are you more taken by the genre as a distinct art form, or because of its historical value?

Josiah Howard: "Art" is a gift word and "history" will figure out the proper way to view the films. Again, to me, blaxploitation films are entertainments—like going to the circus, or playing a video game. They're flashy, action-packed, salacious and, lest we forget, filled with fantastic music—Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft" was not only a number one pop and soul single, it won a Grammy and an Oscar.

Gelf Magazine: It seems plain that you don't think blaxploitation was nearly as distasteful as Tony Brown or Junius Griffin did. Why not?

Josiah Howard: Agreed. Brown and Griffin—and most of the films' critics—were older and didn't like anything about the pictures. They didn't like anything about any pictures whose focus was on young people, crime, drugs, alternate life styles, etc. It was all too new for them.
What they didn't get was that the pictures weren't made for them in the first place. They were made for young people who were coming of age—not overaged. The films didn't need the endorsement of older intellectuals; they were successes in their own right, in spite of the lack of establishment endorsement.

Trailer for Cleopatra Jones (1973)

Gelf Magazine: Seriously, how much of your (and others') appreciation of Blackenstein, Cleopatra Jones, and, say, Honky is ironic?

Josiah Howard: A lot. An obscure film called The Guy From Harlem (now available on DVD) is so inept you just have to love it. It's one of my top ten favorites—blaxploitation's Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Gelf Magazine: Likewise, so much of the press material—to say nothing of the dialogue and plots—for blaxploitation movies seem almost too clever or delivered with a wink. Were the actors or writers often in on the joke?

Josiah Howard: Some say yes; some say no. Pam Grier says that in each and every role she was trying for an Academy Award, while director Jonathan Kaplan says that in his film Truck Turner he and his actors were trying their best to take the title for "most 'motherfuckers' uttered in a film sequence!"

Gelf Magazine: Does conscious self-deprecation at all mitigate criticism of the genre?

Josiah Howard: I believe the films would be a lot less fun if there wasn't—just off in the shadows—the belief by some that they were making a really good film.

Gelf Magazine: Would it be fair to say blaxploitation saved Hollywood?

Josiah Howard: No, but it certainly sounds good! Hollywood never did need saving, not even during the Depression (when attendance soared). But blaxploitation films did catch the film industry by surprise because, at the start at least, no one imagined that small, shoestring-budgeted pictures starring blacks could make any profit. Contrary to popular belief, the studio heads—then and now—are not the brightest or most informed people on the planet. Don't forget, for years, and as incredible as it may seem, the big studios were completely in the dark (no pun intended!) about the tons of money being made by tiny independently produced pictures that were made exclusively for the drive-in market.

Gelf Magazine: The insert in your book, made up of posters and images from dozens of films, many undoubtedly obscure, is exhaustive. How difficult was it to track these down?

Josiah Howard: FAB Press did a wonderful job with the artwork. I'd say I provided 40 percent of the images. They—in particular editors Harvey Fenton and Francis Brewster—came up with the rest. I had never seen a poster for Brother on the Run, but they found it—and it's one of my favorite films!

Gelf Magazine: How well do parodies I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Undercover Brother, and Black Dynamite hit the mark?

Josiah Howard: They aim but they don't hit; and there's really no need for them. They're well intentioned and fun, but the original films are so readily available that the "homages" seem superfluous.

Gelf Magazine: If someone could only see five blaxploitation films, which would you suggest?

Josiah Howard: Coffy, Trouble Man, Super Fly, Black Caesar and Shaft's Big Score!—in that order.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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anthony alansky

Im a big fan of the genre,i also seen my first "blaxploitation"film wen i was a kid.I have this book and its thoroughly entertaining,informative and the pictures alone are worth the price of the book alone! anyone who loves films/action and pop culture will love this beautifully written book,well done,mr howard!

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Clarence Gamblin

I arrived in New York in the late sixties and early seventies, and they were a big part of my life that I never discussed with anyone until Josie(Josiah) published his oeuvre. Fantastic, I am happy that someone has done a work on it.

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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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