.‘Tude Renewed: The Criterion Channel goes ‘Beyond Blaxploitation’

Once again, it’s a shame about the label “Blaxploitation.” For the obvious reason: juxtaposing the words “Black” and “exploitation” raises ugly societal issues better suited for a political discussion of the history of American racism, not necessarily for an overview of a popular Black-themed movie subgenre that reached its apex in 1970s Hollywood. No one wants to be exploited, but lots of show business professionals would like to have the name recognition of, say, Richard (Shaft) Roundtree or Pam (Foxy Brown) Grier. 

More than one of the movie-biz figures whose work sold lots of theater tickets during the Blaxploitation era would argue that the films included in the Criterion Channel’s new compilation series “Beyond Blaxploitation” gave work to hundreds of African-American actors and filmmakers. In a time when the big screens were dominated, more than they are today, by white movie stars working for companies in which very few Blacks could hope to find a job, Black performers found their way to the big screen. 

What a difference they made in American pop culture. To call attention to Blaxploitation’s lasting impact, Criterion is rolling out 21 films that deserve to be seen again and again, by young audiences new to the scene as well as longtime fans. Here’s a sampling of a few noteworthy pics from the playlist:

Across 110th Street–The great Yaphet Kotto pairs up with fellow New York cop Anthony Quinn in a stylishly fast-paced tale of Black gangsters versus a mob crime family, with a first-class music score by J.J. Johnson and Bobby Womack. Directed by Barry Shear.

Friday Foster–Based on a newspaper comic strip about a photojournalist– Pam Grier at her most bodacious–who uncovers a white supremacist plot to assassinate Black leaders, this Arthur Marks-directed vehicle has an energetic supporting cast: the aforementioned Kotto, Eartha Kitt (as a frothing fashion designer), Thalmus Rasulala, Scatman Crothers and Godfrey Cambridge. Dig the car chase with Friday driving a hearse.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song–Writer-director-actor Melvin Van Peebles’ stick of social dynamite has rough-and-tumble production values to go with its unmistakable call for violent action against repression. Even by 2022 standards, it’s an ice-cold shocker full of righteous anger, harsh reality with a clear message: “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man.”

Shaft’s Big Score–Roundtree’s private detective John Shaft returns in a wittier, more restrained sequel, to settle a score with help from Drew Bundini Brown and Moses Gunn. Compared to Los Angeles-based Black shoot-em-ups, New Yorker Shaft’s methods are coolly urbane. Photographer-turned-filmmaker Gordon Parks returns to direct.

Three the Hard Way–Non-stop mayhem featuring a trio of hard-asses–Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly–on the trail of a fascistic white businessperson and his private army, hell bent on “race purification.” In a bit of movie magic, Brown and Williamson, chasing a bad guy on a Chicago street, run around a corner and suddenly find themselves in the Pike amusement park on the Long Beach waterfront. Director Gordon Parks Jr. pushes every single button on the knuckle-dusting machine.

Cleopatra Jones–The most raucously entertaining of the bunch. Special presidential agent Cleo (Tamara Dobson) oversees the burning of a Turkish opium poppy field, pissing off dope queenpin Mommy (screeching Shelley Winters). This means war. The irrepressible Antonio Fargas co-stars as Doodlebug, Mommy’s ho-chasin’, heroin-dealing sidekick, signifyin’ all the way. Directed by Jack Starrett from a screenplay by Max Julien and Sheldon Keller.

Most of the social problems featured in ‘70s “urban actioners”–police brutality, white supremacist conspiracies, economic inequality, rampant greed and corruption, the proliferation of dangerous drugs in poor neighborhoods, etc.–are still around 50 years later, despite the cinematic spotlight. The films presented by Criterion weren’t specifically designed to solve the Me Decade’s race-class-power obstacles, but they laid them out with raw style, welcome humor and maximum ‘tude. The rest is up to us.

Streaming on the Criterion Channel 
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