African-American films of the early 1970’s

1960’s America was an era of extreme social and political upheaval. Political assassinations (J.F.K., Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X), the War in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, economic problems, inner-city riots and student protests - all converged to initiate social change that still reverberates today. 

Among changes to American culture was the emergence of films made for black audiences, with the hero depicted by black actors. In traditional Hollywood films, black actors were typically presented in stereotypical fashion, which reinforced racist assumptions dating back to the slave era.

By the late 1960’s, traditional Hollywood studios were eager to expand their markets. The “white flight” from inner cities contributed to a decline in sales of movie tickets (most movie theaters were in cities). In an effort to fill theaters, studios began financing films made by African-American directors. Among the first commercially successful films was “Shaft” (1971), directed by Gordon Parks.

Shaft (1971)

“Shaft” was based on a private detective who is hired by a mob boss to find out who kidnapped his daughter. It ends up being the mafia, in a dispute over the Harlem drug trade. Although the film features a black director and actor in the protagonist role, the film had a white producer, white writers and was essentially another Hollywood film. 

The theme to Shaft wind the 1971 Academy Award for Best Song, and was performed on the awards show by Isaac Hayes. The soundtrack consists mostly of songs during scenes where Shaft is walking the streets. The songs tell stories, and are referenced throughout the film.

Shaft (1971) - Opening Credits

Academy Awards (1972) - performance by Isaac Hayes (pt. 1/2)

Superfly (1972)

“Superfly” was the first black-oriented film to be financed entirely by African-Americans and was shot by a non-white crew. Directed by Gordon Parks Jr. (Gordon Park’s son), the film was shot on a shoestring budget. The soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield grossed more money than the film.

The film remained controversial within the African-American community for its perceived glorification of drug use and the stereotyping of African-Americans. The theme of the film however is the desire of the main character (“Priest”) to escape the drug trade with one final deal. Priest has to navigate past corrupt NY police who are secretly controlling and profiting from the Harlem drug trade. The final scene struck a chord with black audiences, as the protagonist outsmarts the white man and overcomes “the only game the man left us to play”.

Superfly (1972) - Opening Scene

Curtis Mayfield - theme to Superfly

Superfly (1972) - Montage scene “Pusherman”

Ron O’Neal interview about Superfly

Foxy Brown (1974)

Foxy Brown, Starring Pam Grier, features a black female in the role of the hero.The soundtrack features music by Willie Hutch, who was a songwriter and producer for acts such as the 5th Dimension and the Jackson 5 (“I’ll be There”). Hutch also scored music for the 1973 blaxploitation film “The Mack”.

Foxy Brown (1974) - Bar fight scene

Other notable “blaxpoitation” films of the 1970’s

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

Coffy (1973)

The Mack (1973)

Cleopatra Jones (1973)

Black Caesar (1973)

Uptown Saturday Night (1974)

Cooley High (1975)