Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song launched the genre known as blaxploitation (can anyone explain that term to me?), which brought a slew of heroic black enforcers and sexy black women to the screen for the mass consumption of a large, previously ignored black audience. —Marilyn Ferdinand
I can! But first we have to discuss what an exploitation film is.
I feel silly even discussing this issue because it seems so obvious to me. But based on many conversations with normal people (that is: people who aren’t psychotronic freaks like me), I know that most people think exploitation films are films that take advantage (exploit) the people in them.
What an Exploitation Film Is Not
It isn’t surprising they would think that given the years of nudie cuties and their followers that seemed mostly thin pretenses at showing off naked women. But even that is absurd. Do these people think the naked actors were kidnapped and made to perform in the films?
As I mentioned in Troma and Economic Inequality, the star of the film made half as much money as his female co-star because she did a number of topless scenes. That was true then too. I’m all in favor of trading in our capitalist system for something more humane, but the system is what it is. Don’t blame the people who have no choice but to live under it.
What an Exploitation Film Is
So what is an exploitation film? It’s a low-budget film where the filmmakers exploit whatever they can to make their film’s successful (often to get them made at all). It’s like Babes in Arms, “My pa’s got a barn; let’s put on a show!” The filmmakers are exploiting, as Herschell Gordon Lewis put, “Something the studios couldn’t or wouldn’t do.”
So if you have a thick forest in your backyard and friend who owns a gorilla suit, you might be able to make something like Bride of the Gorilla (which is a really good film). Or if you’re in a biker club (I don’t think they call them gangs anymore), you could make a biker film. Or whatever.
The Best Thing to Exploit
But the best thing to exploit is your own creativity. Certainly that’s what Lewis and David Friedman exploited in Blood Feast. It wasn’t the gore that made that film half almost a 20,000 percent return on investment in its initial run. It was that no one had seen anything like that before.
And that’s what brings us to Ms Ferdinand’s question about blaxploitation.
What Were the Blaxploitation Films Exploiting
Perhaps no other form of exploitation filmmaking has as bad a rap as blaxploitation. This goes back to the bare chested women in the nudie cuties. People tend to think that black people were being abused.
Quite the opposite was happening. In the late sixties filmmakers started thinking that just as sex and gore appealed to people in the southern drive-in circuit, films that focused on black heroes just might appeal to urban blacks. And they were right.
Blaxploitation Never Ended, It Went Mainstream
It’s funny that people talk about blaxploitation films ending by the mid-1970s. That really isn’t true. They were simply taken over by Hollywood, which began making movies targeted directly at blacks. True, those films have no political resonance, but then the Black Panthers are long gone and Black Power is more quaint than threatening. (That’s not to say that whites aren’t still terrified of blacks; just look at the hyperbolic denunciations of Black Lives Matter.)
Another Idiot “Critic” Doesn’t Know What “Exploitation” Means
Interestingly, Roger Ebert wrote that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song wasn’t an exploitation film. As people who have read me a long time know: I hate film “critics.” They’re idiots who watch a film once and then presume to judge the work that was the result of at least dozens of people and months of work (more likely hundreds of people and years of work).
But Ebert was always held up as somehow a good critic because, I don’t know, he wrote a middling screenplay for Russ Meyer and read a book on film history? His claim that Sweetback isn’t an exploitation film is betrayed by almost every sentence in the article (it’s a “review” of Baadasssss!). He had a 13-year-old son he could use for a sex scene (that I think could have been a lot shorter — it is disturbing), so he did. He had black friends so his crew could be all black, so he did.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song Was Exploitation Filmmaking
The truth is that Sweetback simply as cinema is an art film. (It has almost no transitions; little plot; and is mostly interested in experimenting with the interaction between music and visuals. It is also brilliantly edited, but in a way that will confuse and annoy most viewers.) But it is an exploitation film because of the way it was made, why it was made that way, and how that affected the audience.
Contrary to what a lot of people think, Sweetback was not the first blaxploitation film. But to my mind, it is the most true blaxploitation film: a film by blacks, for blacks. Many blaxploitation films were made by whites. But white, black, or green, these filmmakers were exploiting the fact that a significant part of the country had been largely ignored by the film industry, because the Big Brains in Hollywood were too stupid or bigoted to realize that blacks might like to see movies that reflected their lives and dreams.
Exploitation Is a Good Word In Film
Exploitation films are made by people who are smart, creative, and driven. I’ll pick an exploitation film over a Hollywood film any day. That’s a big part of what this site is about. Hollywood has the money to buy all the professionals they need to make a film. Independents have to live by their wits. Hollywood just makes what it’s made before. And it depends upon the exploitation filmmakers to add some new DNA to their commodities — by stealing it.
So to answer the original question simply: “blaxploitation” is a genre of film featuring black heroes, made explicitly for black audiences, who had been ignored by the studios.