A few weeks ago, it was announced that remakes of Cleopatra Jones and Super Fly, two classic blaxploitation titles, were in the works. News also broke that the new Shaft film, a sequel to the 2000 reboot starring Samuel L. Jackson, will hit theaters and Netflix in the summer of 2019. In a few weeks, Taraji P. Henson will appear in Proud Mary, an action drama where she plays a hit-woman in Boston, taking out thugs much in the way we’ve seen Keanu Reeves do in the John Wick series. The promotional posters for Proud Mary feature Henson standing in silhouette with the style of the film’s title very reminiscent of classic blaxploitation films. And this week ABC has announced that a pilot for a Get Christie Love reboot has been greenlit. With all this in the works, it’s clear that Hollywood, perhaps desperately looking for anything that has the slightest tinge of name recognition, is invested in reviving blaxploitation cinema for modern audiences.
Blaxploitation, a genre of low budget films that starred black actors and featured mostly black casts, started in the early 1970’s. They were notable for their soundtracks, and with films like Coffy and Cleopatra Jones, giving birth to the American female action star. In recent years, elements of the genre have appeared in Scott Sanders' Black Dynamite and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the former becoming a cult hit that launched a two-season animated series on Adult Swim. For those who want to see more films that star black actors and feature majority black casts, this revival may be very exciting. But because this genre is so of its time, can Hollywood really make blaxploitation films work today? Should they be trying to revive it at all? And why are they doing this now?
Gerald R. Butters Jr., Professor of History at Aurora University – who’s surprised Hollywood hasn’t tried this sooner – believes this is happening for a number of reasons. One, he feels that Hollywood is looking for films that are heavily stylized, using Baby Driver as an example of a film “that is stylized in the blaxploitation fashion.” He also says that the interest could also come from our current racial political climate, saying that we’re currently “living in the Black Lives Matter era” and that black audiences, “are looking for a hero.” And while more prestigious, historical pictures that feature black casts such as 12 Years A Slave “can be award winners,” they aren’t necessarily box office hits. Blaxploitation films, usually more action-focused could be, as they will be marketed to the kind of audience that came in droves to see something like Get Out.
We can’t talk about the revival of blaxploitation without talking about Jordan Peele’s debut. The film became one of the big talking points of this year, spawning a plethora of think pieces and going on to gross over $250 million worldwide. When you add in Moonlight winning Best Picture at the Oscars, it seems that the preconceived notions that audiences wouldn’t turn out (and vote) for films made by black directors has been shattered (for the time being). I can only imagine studios heads racking their brains trying to figure out what kind of intellectual property they could buy (or already owned) so that they can produce films for an audience that has been feeling left behind for decades. While blaxploitation has many titles that are recognizable to film lovers everywhere, the problem may not be trying to sell the genre to a new generation, but whether the genre can shake off its own controversial history.
Even during its height of popularity, blaxploitation was very controversial in the same communities they were directly marketing to. Dr. Mikel J. Koven, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Worcester says, via email, that people who were against blaxploitation believed the genre “perpetuated negative stereotypes of African-Americans.” Butters says something similar, that the older generation was afraid that “black children would attempt to replicate the actions and behaviors of the on-screen characters.” Some of those actions involved sex, as main characters in more than a few blaxploitation films were pimps, and while the genre did give birth to the American female action hero, women in some blaxploitation films were in no way treated as equals to men.
It’s important to think about this because of what’s going on right now in Hollywood, as well as many other institutions. Women have been coming forward (almost daily) to call out decades of unchecked sexual harassment and abuse. It has started a national conversation about sex and power that started with the fall of Harvey Weinstein and is in no way stopping anytime soon. Butters hopes that the filmmakers who will help revive this genre will produce “stylish blockbusters that embody a 2017 sensibility;” films that carry the same message of black pride and black power, but not carry its more problematic aspects. Even if new blaxploitation films are able to avoid those controversies, the question remains: should this be happening at all?
Korven, who is overall taking a “we’ll see” approach, does feel that the genre is better off being left alone. “Blaxploitation was of its time. And African-American filmmakers have evolved since that period,” he says. He feels that bringing these characters to modern times will do nothing but hurt those characters' legacies. “The values they embodied are no longer the values of the communities. To adapt those values would mean the characters cease to be those characters.”
Korven, while critical, is hoping that one thing comes out of all this and that’s the rise of new black filmmakers. “The true legacy of blaxploitation was giving inspiration to a new generation of African-American filmmakers; that they too could make movies,” he says. This won’t surprise anyone, but even with calls for more diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, not much has really changed. So while the verdict is still out on whether this will overall be a good or bad thing for movies, the idea that more opportunities will become available for directors of color, especially women of color, is something that will only benefit cinema. If done with respect and care, these new blaxploitation films can accomplish not just progress for today’s Hollywood, but its future. Audiences aren’t getting any less diverse, so there’s no reason the heroes we see on screen should either.
Gerald R. Butters Jr, PH.D is a Professor of History at Aurora University and the author of “Beyond Blaxploitation (Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series)” and “From SWEETBACK to SUPER FLY: Race and Film Audiences in Chicago's Loop.”
Dr. Mikel J. Koven is the Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Worcester (in the UK) and author of “Blaxploitation Films (2010).