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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 1

Jean-Paul Regis

"Blaxploitation" and Black Appropriation

William Paul

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1Earlier this year, a front page story in Variety announced the expected release of "an unprecedented number of pics" by black filmmakers:

  • 1 Laurence Cohn, "Blacks Taking the Helm," Variety, March 18, 1991, p. 1.

Thirteen films directed by African-Americans are scheduled for release in 1991. Twenty other films starring black actors are slated for release, the most since the explosion of the early'70s, when hundreds of so-called blaxploitation features were made.1

2Variety saw a difference in these films in that the earlier films were chiefly "actioners" with black casts and aimed at black audience, while the new films "are largely the product of black filmmakers - and are expected to attract white audiences." As it turned out, they also attracted a lot of favorable criticism as well, with many critics regarding these films collectively of greater interest than anything else coming out of Hollywood.

  • 2 Writing in 1973, Bogle attacked these films for often unconsciously perpetuating stereotypes of a (...)

3This efflorescence of black films was different in one other regard: the black films that emerged in the first half of the seventies were as frequently vilified as the current crop has been praised.2 That they were lumped together as "blaxploitation" movies in itself derides the status accorded the films: the neat elision of black and exploitation suggests that films aimed at a black audience necessarily invoked exploitation fare. Designed for a target audience and intended for quick playoff, these films clearly deserved the exploitation epithet. But the term also suggests something of a double standard since the films appeared precisely in a period when exploitation genres aimed at white audiences lost their exploitation attributes by virtue of higher budgets. Violent policiers and horror films might have been cheapjack exploitation movies in the 1950s, but Dirty Harry (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) granted them a patina of respectability that established the two as key genres for the 1970s.

4If innumerable cop movies following in the wake of Dirty Harry were not necessarily exploitation fare, why should a movie with a black cop he specifically tagged as "blaxploitation?" There is perhaps a condescending suggestion in this that black audiences were being exploited in a way that white audiences were not, that in some way they were being tricked out of their ready cash by being offered white genres in blackface, which was in fact the opinion of a number of black critics. The blaxploitation films, whatever the critical opinion at the time or since, were certainly popular with their target audience. Noting this necessarily raises the question whether giving an audience what it wants to see is a form of exploiting them? But to ask this question about blaxploitation necessarily raises political issues that don't come into play when a similar kind of genre film is geared for a white audience.

5I can make this point most forcefully by noting that the most startling aspect of the black films was a simple novelty: they were really the first films finding wide commercial release through major studios that gave any realistic indication of the realities of black life in inner city America, however stylized they might be by genre conventions. It was almost as if the genre conventions didn't detract from the realism of the films, but instead, by putting blacks in filmic environments normally occupied by whites, they created a greater sense of reality. The concomitant usurpation of familiar territory probably accounts for all the head shaking in print that greeted these films in the white press. Locating white genres in a black context can never be simply a matter of playing them in black face. There are ways in which a black cast changes the genre, and often in striking fashion. Exploitation is not so much the issue here as appropriation, a borrowing of existing forms for idiosyncratic purposes.

  • 3 Michael Fleming, "Flack over' New Jack," Variety, March 18, 1991, p. 108. These concerns have cont (...)

6Variety reported "exhibitor resistance [to black films] based on violent incidents connected with the release of some blaxploitation pics 20 years ago."3 It's pretty questionnable if any films could actually lead to rebellion, yet there was some anxiety that the blaxploitation films could do precisely that. I suspect that this response in part derives from an actual rebellion that was taking place, but on the aesthetic rather than the political or social playing field: appropriating white genres is itself something of a political act since it is laying claim to material that has belonged solely to white society, material that in the past could at best acknowledge black characters solely in inferior positions. As a consequence, even the schlockiest generally demonstrated more of a political awareness than their white counterparts because they were effectively born in a political context.

7Recasting white genres for black audiences necessarily transforms the way we understand the conventions of the original genres. Starting with Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), one of the most insistent attitudes that emerges from blaxploitation films is that white men should stay out of black men's business, and black men will do alright if left to their own devices. In a sense, this becomes a statement about the genres themselves: left alone to the devices of genres inherited from dominant white society, the black creators can create new meanings for old devices by the simple device of a radically altered context. Consider, for example, the familiar convention of the detective genre that the detective is always more competent than the police if he's a private detective or more competent than his superiors if he's a police detective. The latter applies in Cotton Comes to Harlem with the important difference from earlier detective films that the detectives are black while the superiors are white. The general inability of whites to accomplish much of anything in this film reverses most thoughts about racial superiority lurking in white America's collective unconscious.

8Complementing their distinctiveness in exploring the life of the inner city, these films were unique in Hollywood history for their forthright and casual presentation of racial anger, and racial anger from a decidedly black perspective. The anger of blacks towards whites in blaxploitation is unusually open for an american film, although understanding it may involve an understanding of the generic context from which these films spring. Early on in Shaft (1971), for example, the eponymous private dick, as elegantly turned out as a high fashion model in turtle neck and leather topcoat, has trouble getting a yellow cab to stop for him. This is enough reason to get angry, of course, but the genre itself serves to intensify the emotion by contextualizing it with an implicit reference to dozens of other private eye films in which the dick hero seems to magically summon up a cab by a mere wave of his hand to carry him on his next adventure. The private eye might operate on the margins of society, but he generally has resources like the ability to command cabs that give him a certain power over that society. The black private eye is doubly marginalized, and his opposition to the power structure is consequently politicized in terms of racial anger.

9The very aggressive quality of blaxploitation films echoes the aggression the films are performing on other films. To say that a film is ripping off a previous films, as it was claimed, accurately, that Cooley High (1975) ripped off American Graffiti (1973), would normally be to condemn the new film, but blaxploitation managed to transform ripping off into a positive act. Possession is nine-tenths of aesthetic law, and the thefts that Cooley High and Car Wash (1976), both directed by Michael Schultz, perform on American Graffiti and M*A*S*H (1970), respectively, are acts of taking aesthetic possession, borrowing formal strategies and content from earlier films to create new works that effectively undermine the premises of the models. I'm interested in these two films in particular precisely because they display such a tight relationship to earlier films; by looking at these relationships I can show how the films invert at the same time that they take and how, I think, they enrich the original material.

10American Graffiti was distinguished by an aimlessly wandering plot that complemented the seemingly carefree existence of its aimlessly wandering heroes. The people in this film know from their own experience that society is fluid because the world they live in is defined by a constant flow. This quality of flow is at the root of the film's lyricism, so that the modal method of the film ends up reinforcing the attitudes of the characters, a certitude that all is fluid in this free and open world. In Cooley High the lyricism of American Graffiti is replaced by a grittiness that has its roots in economic necessity. That does not mean the kids of Cooley High have any less desire for the kind of carefree behavior that typifies the American Graffiti kids, who can move about at will wherever they will. In fact, given the restrictions of their world, the desire for freedom becomes more of an imperative. But the sowing-of-wild-oats aspect of later teenage comedy that American Graffiti set the pattern for takes and odd turn in Cooley High precisely because these kids have a more predictable future than the characters in the other films: as we learn from the first shot of the school building, Cooley High is specifically "Edwin G. Cooley vocational High School." With a vocational high school at the center of ghetto life, future options are closed off right from the get-go.

11Like later teen comedy, the film honors the tremendous sense of vitality in the characters of this film, but it does so in a way that factors in the economic limitations placed on their lives. There is a funny moment in which a character places his own aspirations for something better in the context of the actual limitations of his life. Preach is trying to pick up a girl, Brenda (Cynthia Davis), who has no desire to be an ordinary pickup. He discovers her at a party sitting in a room by herself reading a book of poetry. To her surprise, Preach shares the girl's interest in poetry, in fact has some ambition to be a poet himself. Reading and writing poetry, then, becomes a way of making more of yourself, setting yourself apart from other people in your aspirations to some kind of better life. As if to validate himself to Brenda, Preach lets her know that he knows the poetry she's reading, and then to show how really knowledgeable he is, he recommends a different poet from whom he quotes a few lines by heart. All of this is by way of demonstrating that he has the same kind of upward aspirations as Brenda, but in his romantic enthusiasm he concludes by saying, "I'm gonna give you that... as soon as I steal a copy" Simply to have any aspiration for these characters is itself a breaking of rules.

12Where American Graffiti celebrates a freedom that is specificaly a freedom of mobility, the kids in Cooley High don't have the privilege of cruising around in their own cars at night. The only actual escape they can find comes by playing hooky and cadging a free ride on the back of a bus, a brief sequence that carries with it more of a genuine sense of exhilaration than all the endless driving in American Graffiti. Escape is a key issue in both American Graffiti and Cooley High, but in Cooley High the boys want to break away from their environment first of all and only by implication from their adolescence, while in American Graffiti the priorities are reversed and ambivalently viewed.

13The two characters in Cooley High are Preach and his close friend, nicknamed "Cochise" (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs). Cochise expects to escape through the traditional route for blacks of sports by winning a basketball scholarship that will enable him to go to college. Preach is taking a more unexpected direction in his aspirations to being a writer. As in American Graffiti the boy who will become a writer also has a dream-girl, the albino-like features of the blonde in the white T-bird from the earlier film here transformed into what the film itself calls a "high yella bitch." Unlike her model in American Graffiti who remains at the end of the film an elusive fantasy figure, the "high yella" Brenda has a flesh-and-blood reality, and Preach does eventually get involved with her. This is to say that dreams can be realized in this world, but what they realize is itself limited. In American Graffiti where there is no economic necessity, ideals are never deflated, and it becomes preferable that a dream remains a dream even at film's end. The necessary limitation of the ideal in Cooley High is given its most disturbing force by the "high yella bitch" epithet that attaches itself to Brenda, hardly a fitting name for a romanticized ideal, and yet appropriate enough in the terms the film wants to present. The very hostility of the language suggests the extent to which the dream is despised much as it is also sought after.

14A very common element of the blaxploitation films is the use of the word "nigger" as the ultimate slur against anyone, at the same time it's a word the characters recognize applies to all of them anyway. Early on in Cooley High there's a compelling scene when Preach and Cochise are with their cronies, one of whom has found some of Preach's poetry. The kid reads a poem outloud, some pretty purple stuff about "throbbing manhood," and the reading is clearly intended to wound Preach for the ambition that is implied in his writing poetry at all. The wounded Preach responds with a counterattack, snatching back the poetry and angrily accusing the whole group, "You guys think it's funny because I want to be something besides a factory worker or a football player. Well, that's because you're all a bunch of stupid niggers that don't know shit!" There follows by a reaction shot of the others who remain in startled silence at first, then recover their wits and laugh a laughter that must seem the defensive after the silence.

15Preach has raised very realistic issues of their future for them, the only two choices they have: the factory workers that most will become, the sportsplayer the Cochise hopes to become. The pain of Preach's attack derives from the fact that to have any kinds of aspirations to move outside of this world necessarily implies a rejection of all the people of this world, and by extension a rejection of part of yourself. At the same time, the attempt to reject being a "nigger" is confounded by the fact that the larger society will continue to see the person moving up in precisely those terms. The boys in American Graffiti have the luxury of toying with choice, but the boys in Cooley High in effect have no choice at all, much as they can try acting as if they did. To move up in the world, the blacks must create a radical break in their lives, find a way of denying a past self. In American Graffiti adolescence is treated more nostalgically, a blessed period from which all the characters are eventually exiled, with Richard Dreyfuss ending up in literal exile in Canada according to the epilogue at the end.

16A year later Michael Schultz made Car Wash (1976). As the title indicates the film was set in entirely in a car wash, while M*A*S*H, as its title indicates, was set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit on location during the Korean War. The great difference in setting notwithstanding, the latter film imitates the earlier in a number of striking ways: it has a large cast, impulses towards an egalitarian utopianism, a raunchiness of humor and an emphasis on the grossness of its characters, and finally an extreme randomness and a seemingly improvised quality in its narrative. And there is one repeated and very specific reference of M*A*S*H in Car Wash: low angle shots of a speaker horn - in the latter film broadcasting a local radio station - similarly used to punctuate and structure a loose narrative and also deliver the final credits. Car Wash takes all of these qualities and drives them to a far greater extreme than M*A*S*H, where the egalitarianism and sense of contingency is more apparent than real. Commensurately, Car Wash takes the implications of form and matter in a far more consequential and radical direction than M*A*S*H.

  • 4 There are in fact others in the films, bit parts and supernumaries who appear in the end credits. (...)
  • 5 The rise in popularity of major stars in the past could normally be traced by noting at what point (...)

17Consider the opening right from the very credits in fact. The film begins with the word "starring" before we finally reach the main title "in Car Wash."4 There are a number of deliberate reversals engineered by presenting the credits this way. The whole system of stars, which of course antedates the movies, implies a hierarchy of character importance that is in place even before the dramatic work starts. Furthermore, Hollywood convention grants more power to performers whose names appear before the main title than those who appear after.5 Finally, the whole list is alphabetical, and in some ways its application here is a sendup of that convention, a strategy normally reserved for movies with a lot of big stars in them. There aren't really 29 stars here, of course, so the alphabetical listing of names seems a joke played on the film's very apparent low budget. Nonetheless, the alphabetizing does prevent a hierarchy that could be based on familiarity, so that Franklyn Ajaye appears well ahead of better known performers of the time, Garrett Morris and Richard Pryor. On the other hand, while M*A*S*H seems to invoke an egalitarian spirit with its emphasis on group interaction, it actually honors traditional Hollywood hierarchies by moving stars Donald Sutherland, and Elliot Gould into the center of the action and establishes them as dominant, even dominating, characters over all others.

18The overturning of hierarchies implied by the credits is reinforced by the style, which offers as radical a departure from Hollywood camera conventions as anything in M*A*S*H, but was less likely to be noticed because of its surface imitative quality. After the credit sequence, the film proper begins with Lonnie (Ivan Dixon), a man we will later find out is entrusted with the responsibility of opening and closing the car wash. He gets off a bus, and the camera pans to the left with him as he walks towards the car wash office and starts to take his keys out. At this point the camera stops to let him go out of the image as "Hippo" (James Spinks), a very fat man riding a motor bike appears in the background moving to the right. As the camera lets Lonnie go out of the left of the image, it reverses direction to pick up Hippo on the motorbike and pan right with him as he comes around the corner, onto the lot., again reversing direction to pan left with him as he drives onto the lot and reaches Lonnie, who is now opening the door to the office. The point of the style is to undermine our sense of certainty about conventional hierarchies in the image where the foreground performer becomes the central focus and the background remains precisely that, a setting for the foreground. Here the background supersedes and takes over the camera movement, turning it into a foreground, but the reversal of hierarchy doesn't create a new hierarchy in turn because it doesn't supplant the initial point of interest. Rather, it joins up with it. This visual strategy of shifting back and forth between points of interest as a way of undermining any hierarchical sense of interest is a consistent method of the film's narrative as well. Until the final sequence when it deliberately reverses this method, the film rarely spends more than a minute with any one character or plot line.

19The radical egalitarianism of this film may best be seen in the treatment of one of the workers, Vendy, a male homosexual who enjoys "flaming" and playing the queen. He is the third character that we meet, connected to the first two in the fluid way of undermining hierarchies by means of a radio broadcast. The radio news broadcast already heard in the shot of Lonnie and the fat man seems to be the focal point as a cut takes us to a shot of a loudspeaker, from which there is then a tilt down to Vendy looking in a mirror and trying to fix a very elaborate hair-do. He shakes his head, mutters, "This will never do," and walks out the doors as the radio announcer is heard on the soundtrack reading a news story about congressmen hiring male aids in exchange for sexual favors. As Vendy walks outside and then into another room, the announcer continues, "A southern senior committee member replied that he had no objection to homosexuals as long as they stayed in their place" At precisely this point, Vendy, having walked into another room, slams the door shut and the camera zooms in on a "Ladies" sign. The juxtaposition of sound track and image makes clear this is a character who triumphantly doesn't know what his or her place is.

20The confusion that Vendy embraces are played to the hilt in a later scene with a Black Muslim named Abdullah, who is disgusted by him and calls him a "sorry-looking faggot." This prompts the following exchange:

Vendy: "Who you calling sorry-looking?" (the workers laugh)
Abdullah: "Can't you all see that 'she' ain't funny? She's just another poor example of how the system has of destroying our men."
Vendy: "Honey, I am more man than you'll ever be and more woman than you'll ever get." (snaps fingers and saunters off)

21By this point in the dialogue, all categories are so confused that any judgement of exactly who this person is and exactly what his/her place should be are rendered impossible. The strength of the character is precisely in the self-respect that he/she demonstrates here, and that is what makes him equal to all others.

22That the film can accept a character as deviant as a flaming queen signals the Utopian impulses behind its egalitarian vision. Nonetheless, the film does not operate within a Utopian world. It has a full sense of how demeaning is the work in the car wash that employs most of these characters. By contrast, Gould and Sutherland in M*A*S*H are on top of the heap in two powerful ways: they are officers and they are surgeons with near miraculous skills. They are very aware of the power of their position and they do everything humanly possible to exploit it. The film in no way questions this or even suggests anything other than that we should delight in how much they are able to lord over other characters. In Car Wash all the characters are equal because they are all at the bottom of the social structure where they can operate as checks on each others' aspirations. This restraint is once conjoined with fecal imagery that befits their lowly status. When a foreman (Leonard Jackson) who delights in ordering others around answers the question, "what makes you think you're so special?" by saying "Cause I'm the one nigger here who doesn't get wet around here," he again invokes that old inversion that I noted with the use of "nigger" in Cooley High. By calling himself a nigger, he allies himself with the others at the same moment that he's claiming to set himself apart, lowering himself at the same time that he's trying to claim higher status. By the end of the film his claim for elevation will find its answer in a dog turd neatly placed on the hood of his otherwise spotless car by his fellow workers.

23Underlying the film's egalitarianism is a sense that the characters have to accept their own lowly place in society, they have to accept the fact that all aspirations they may allow themselves are necessarily limited. The film is not concerned with taking all the various characters through a series of disillusionment about their identity. For the most part they understand precisely who and where they are in society, and that is the reason for the extent of their egalitarian feeling. Quite simply, there really is no moving up from this lowest rung on the social ladder.

24Earlier I had mentioned the film concludes with one extended dramatic sequence that is stylistically set apart from the rest of the film. It is a sequence to signal the end of the film that is granted a special power both by its placement and difference. It concerns Abdullah's attempt to rob the car wash in response to his having been fired earlier in the day. He is talked out of it by Lonnie, an ex — con who says this robbery won't enable him to buy a revolution. Convinced by this argument, Abdullah breaks down and starts to cry, "I don't know, man, I don't know. I know I'm not crazy, but every day I have to come here and watch this clown show, man. And sometimes I just can't take it." In a sense the question Abdullah raises here is a question the film can never answer: it is in fact a clown show the workers put on, and yet it is precisely the clown show that makes this life and this working situation endurable. There's a striking moment early on in the film before the workers start washing the first car: someone tosses out a tennis ball and they all get into an impromptu volleyball type game, conveying a very strong sense of play, the enjoyment of messing around together and being the clowns that Abdullah is dismissing. The film occasionally falters in its inventiveness, and its humor is at times crude without being funny, but in its repeated moments of clowning, the film finally honors the irrepressibility of the characters themselves.

25The film's egalitariam utopianism is different from M*A*S*H because it is bought at the price of accepting the inevitability of the hierarchical nature of the larger society. In M*A*S*H Gould and Sutherland present themselves as anarchic spirits always at war with the hierarchical power structure of the army, but their war is really an attempt to put themselves in positions of power, to reinvent the hierarchy so that they are now on the top. In Car Wash, the men can all be equal simply because they are all at the bottom, and that is precisely where they will stay no matter how much they indulge their freewheeling spirits.

  • 6 The most obvious exception to this is Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple which became one of the (...)
  • 7 It is now estimated that about 25% of the audience for theatrical films is black.

26This early efflorescence of black filmmaking grew dim by the end of the decade, with only a small number of movies still being made for black audiences with predominantly black casts, with those that are made generally having some basis in music.6 Michael Schultz, who directed some of the most interesting of these films in the seventies, would find himself directing Krush Grove, a musical about breakdancing, in 1985. What happened in this period when black audiences were becoming increasingly important to theatrical box office was a kind of containment.7 Billy Dee Williams, a talented actor with matinee idol looks, might have had the male lead in Lady Sings the Blues and Bingo Long, but by 1980 he was playing third string behind Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford in The Empire Strikes Back. Except for comedians, black actors generally receive supporting parts to dominant white actors in genres that normally appeal to black audiences, and they have a very clearly defined place that generally keeps them out of any romantic plot. And even with the comedians, the plots usually find strategies for containing their sexual energy.

27The new black cinema that has garnered so much attention in the last year has once again raised questions about crossover potential, but now the argument is put in different terms. These films are generally more naturalistic in their approach, less clearly genre material, so at the least they have attracted a good deal of favorable critical attention. Given their penchant for realistic presentation that doesn't depend on genre conventions, these films might seem like more of a departure from past blaxploitation than they in fact are. Consider one of the most commercially successful, Boyz'n the Hood (1991), written and directed by John Singleton. The film is about two boys, one intellectual with enough talent to get him to college, the other who hopes to go to college on a sports scholarship. The boy who does get the scholarship is killed in gang violence. This rough plot outline foregrounds the similarities with Cooley High, but I don't want to minimize the differences. All I want to do is suggest ways in which we might see connections to the past to indicate that we might now see a tradition of black filmmaking establishing itself, with models taken from past black films. What's most different about blaxploitation in the early seventies from the newer films was the insistence that the films based themselves on white models. The imitation was not slavish, however, a way of reinforcing a second class status on films that could never be regarded as first class by the larger society in any case. Rather, these films performed acts of theft not unlike Preach's promise in Cooley High to steal a book of poetry for Brenda. The theft asserts a power over the property that cannot come from merely buying it. Cooley High steals from American Graffiti much as Car Wash steals from M*A*S*H, and both end up creating distinctive works that ultimately owe little to their originals.


1 Laurence Cohn, "Blacks Taking the Helm," Variety, March 18, 1991, p. 1.

2 Writing in 1973, Bogle attacked these films for often unconsciously perpetuating stereotypes of a more overtly racist past. Because of his general dislike for these films, he offers a curious reason for the great success of Cotton Comes to Harlem among black audiences:
The great irony of Cotton comes to Harlem, and part of the reason it proved mindlessly entertaining, was that its audiences, at least black ones, were a step ahead of the director and knew the stereotypes to be just that. After so many dreary television programs on the "race problem and after a flood of newly published pseudo-relevant black literature, black audiences were content to sit back and laugh for a change. And so the audience triumphed over the picture.
Boble, p. 231. For an overview of contemporary response, see Charles Michener, " Black Movies," Newsweek, October 23, 1972, pp. 74-82.

3 Michael Fleming, "Flack over' New Jack," Variety, March 18, 1991, p. 108. These concerns have continued to some degree, beginning with Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), when commentators feared the possibility of summer riots that never materialized. There was some violence at the opening of New Jack City (1991), but co-producer Doug McHenry rightly noted a racist double standard in the attention paid to this violence since "Similar incidents have occurred at the opening of other films without the same negative publicity for the picture," including Godfather III.

4 There are in fact others in the films, bit parts and supernumaries who appear in the end credits. But this title does include all the names that would normally go in the opening credits.

5 The rise in popularity of major stars in the past could normally be traced by noting at what point in their career their names began to appear before the title.

6 The most obvious exception to this is Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple which became one of the top-grossing film of 1985 and thus the highest grossing film with a predominantly black cast ever made. It had the shrewdness to cast a woman who had previously been noted for her comedy in the lead role, but I don't think this is enough to account for its great success and its emergence as one of the few genuine crossover movies. It's possible that it's appeal, as in "The Bill Cosby" show, lies in casting blacks as staunch defenders of family feeling.

7 It is now estimated that about 25% of the audience for theatrical films is black.


University of Michigan

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1992

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