reblog: The Blaxploitation Era: A Scrapbook from the ’70s

Over on his film and anime blog, Brian Camp has an extensive — and copiously illustrated — personal essay on the 1970s blaxploitation scene, complete with plenty of discussion of one of my personal icons, Pam Grier.

Here’s the start of it:

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In going through old file boxes from the 1970s, I found a number of clippings that effectively illustrate the Blaxploitation era of Hollywood filmmaking, a period from roughly 1971-75, when action and other genre films showcased black heroes and heroines, usually in reworkings of standard genre formulas. They were made quickly and cheaply to capitalize on a trend that could fade out at any time as it eventually did after its peak in 1972-73. These films played grindhouses and neighborhood theaters but also, for a time, premiered at the biggest Broadway movie palaces and commanded ads and constant press coverage. I usually saw them at Bronx neighborhood theaters where they were often paired with Italian westerns and, later, kung fu films, a trend which gradually displaced Blaxploitation. I’d like to share some of what I clipped 45 or so years ago, supplemented by movie stills from my collection and posters copied from IMDB and other sites.

BLACULA opened on August 25, 1972 at the Criterion Theater, the same theater where LAWRENCE OF ARABIA had played for over a year a decade earlier and FUNNY GIRL the same just four years earlier. I went with some friends from the Bronx to see the film at the Criterion on its second weekend and it may have been my first trip to the theater. The film starred William Marshall, a classically trained actor, whom we knew from roles in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Star Trek” and a handful of movies, such as DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, in which he played one of the gladiators and a close associate of Demetrius, and THE BOSTON STRANGLER, in which he’d played Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. In BLACULA, he plays an African king who defies Count Dracula in the 19th century and is turned into a vampire who is revived in 1972 Los Angeles where he has a series of adventures and romance with a young woman who resembles his long-dead queen (Vonetta McGee). I remember enjoying the film a great deal although one overzealous audience member took exception to the scene where the vampire-hunting heroes use fire to burn attacking vampires. “You burn witches, not vampires!,” he shouted from his seat. That was a memorable evening. After the film we went to eat at Child’s House of Pancakes on 46th St. and Seventh Ave. and then walked a few feet to the Embassy Theater to see Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I should add that the Broadway movie houses had just recently raised their prices to $3.50 per ticket and this was the first time we were confronted with that. We were not pleased!

BLACULA had one sequel, SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973), which co-starred Blaxploitation diva Pam Grier and managed not to replicate the thrills of the original. I saw it at a neighborhood theater on a double bill with the Lee Van Cleef Italian western DAY OF ANGER, the better film.

Speaking of Pam Grier, we had seen her in a Filipino women’s prison thriller, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1970), on a double bill with SHAFT back in 1971 and she’d died a bloody death in that one. And then we saw her in two 1972 thrillers, COOL BREEZE, which I don’t remember well enough to describe her role in, and HIT MAN, starring Bernie Casey, where she comes to a bad end after betraying Casey–he kicks her out of his car in a safari park and she gets mauled by lions. Poor Pam! American International Pictures decided to make her the co-star of her next movie, BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973), a gender-switching variation on THE DEFIANT ONES, with Grier and Margaret Markov as escaped prisoners chained together in the Philippines. I’ve never seen it, so I don’t know her fate in it, but it made for a great ad.

(Notice Jonathan Demme’s name in the credits and the prominent billing given to location filming in the Philippines.)

The film did well enough for AIP to give Grier her own starring vehicle, COFFY (1973), which I saw on a double bill with the sci-fi comedy, THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972), which happened to star Grier’s cousin, former football player, Roosevelt Grier.

COFFY was a tight little hard-edged crime thriller with Grier coming off pretty badass as a nurse-turned-avenging angel out to take down the drug dealers in her neighborhood by any means necessary. She gets quite a shock when she learns that someone close to her is in league with them and she shows him no mercy. The film was directed by Jack Hill, who had also directed Grier in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and the similarly-themed THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972) and would go on to direct her in her next starring vehicle, FOXY BROWN, which I didn’t see until I got it on VHS decades later. Her last two starring roles in the 1970s were

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Now scuttle across to Brian’s blog and read the rest. It’s a great read.

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3 thoughts on “reblog: The Blaxploitation Era: A Scrapbook from the ’70s

  1. Great article! Some classic exploitation flicks chosen and you’ve sparked my desire to see them again. Remember watching The Thing With Two Heads as a kid on TV and thought it was terrible but fun. Thanks for evoking some great memories!

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