Black Film’s Brilliantly Reparational and Excellently Blaxploitational Moment Will Be Bittersweetly Brief
This is just the true Blaxploitation renaissance, but — again, bittersweetly — better.
Had COVID-19 not imperiled the globe, multicultural and diversely representational cinema almost, once again, saved the movie industry. Instead, the latest — and arguably most brilliant — moments of Black onscreen excellence in fifty years leave the film industry in a bizarre stasis. The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned a Black mainstream film evolution that has served all masters well. Films have been both Afrocentric and Afrofuturistic, plus representing excellence in documentary-style and long-form mediums. Moreover, they’ve been historic and historical, too. But like the film industry does every time it leans upon Blackness for salvation, it never leads to Black cinema establishing itself as the movie industry’s traditions fade into obsolescence.
In the face of the present and future, recapping the past is noteworthy.
Due to white people in newly-purchased homes in suburban communities buying television sets, staying at home, and watching broadcast TV, the American film industry saw a 60-plus percent drop in revenue between 1940–1970. Frightened by this loss in revenue, the film industry almost immediately leaned into crafting films that referenced “[r]estrictions on language, adult content and sexuality, and violence.” Plus, the industry latched onto centering film themes around the hippie, civil rights, free love, rock music, and women’s movements.
Between 1970–1971, the films Sweet Sweetback’s Baaaadassss Song, Shaft, and Super Fly were greenlit and financed for a combined total of $1.15 million. Thematically, the films met the scope of what the film industry was looking for: Sweet Sweetback’s an illicitly hyper-sexual romp about a murderous Black male prostitute and unlikely civil rights advocate. Shaft’s a film about an African-American private detective who overtly uses his sex appeal to aid him in his work. As well, Super Fly is a film that sets a Black drug dealer trying to “get over on” empowered Caucasians, earn $1 million, and retire from drug dealing as an unlikely heroic protagonist.
These three inexpensive and exploitative films earned $270 million in 2020 dollars, adjusted for inflation. This is a 3500% return on investment in terms of gross earnings. This led to series of similarly crafted Blaxploitation films that flooded the film marketplace between 1972–1976. These featured everyone from Black athletes, Black supermodels, Black children, Black karate experts, and more.
However, by 1977, white-created Star Wars — a multi-ethnic SPACE exploitation film with a white-led cast — premiered. Its budget was ten times that of any previous Blaxploitation film, and it earned roughly 1300% more than Sweet Sweetback, Shaft, and Super Fly, combined. By the turn of the 1980s, the Blaxploitation genre had largely disappeared.
Regarding the era, John Shaft himself — aka actor Richard Roundtree — noted to the New York Times in 2019, “it gave many people work. It gave many people entrée into the business, including a lot of our present-day producers and directors. So, in the big picture, I view it as a positive.”
Currently, as spurred by Afrocentric and Afrofuturistic epic Black Panther being a $1 billion global box-office earner in 2018, a movement similar to what occurred in 1970 is afoot. Black filmmaker Mtume Gant refers to it as the “Black Excellence Industrial Complex,” noted director Shaka King in a recent GQ profile. This era’s roots in using Black empowerment (and not adult content, sexuality, and violence) to prop open metaphorical cinema doors make it analogous to yet different than five decades prior.
Yes, this movement was spurred by the latest revival of the civil rights movement. However, it’s been sustained for the past six years by a level of performance by Black auteurs that’s unprecedented in its consistency — as better than not just Black actors, but all actors — in the face of mainstream attention being hyper-focused on Black people and stories of their freedom to think, act and live in whatever manner they wish.
Because COVID has focused all of our eyes on the same networks to seemingly all enjoy the same content, the explosion of top-tier Black cinema has been profound.
2020’s Disney+ financed, Beyoncé led Lion King redux Black Is King, HBO Max-premiered Black Panthers epilogue Judas And The Black Messiah, Amazon Prime’s Muhammad Ali (by way of Malcolm X and Sam Cooke) biopic One Night in Miami and long-anticipated sequel Coming 2 America, plus Netflix’s tour de force Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, represent a quintet of films that highlight the end of an incredible three-year cycle that both almost — similar to 1970–1972’s Blaxploitation hits — resurrected the mainstream film industry.
However, regarding the next steps, things prove — as they did five decades before — rather dicey about where both the film industry is headed.
A September 2020 Hollywood Reporter article notes that PricewaterhouseCoopers industry estimates note that after a 3.6 percent increase in global cinema revenue in 2019 to $45.1 billion, COVID-19’s impact could cause a 65.6 percent drop as many screens are forced to close, and major Hollywood releases are delayed. Also, film industry revenues for the next five years are expected to contract at a 2.4 percent compound annual rate. Though these films are incredible, the traditional marketplace into which these films are being released is beleaguered.
Moreover, because streaming portals are not forthcoming with revenue data per stream, the success of these excellently made and critically-acclaimed Black films is unknown. Budgets for these four films equaled roughly $150 million. Thus, even if all 500 million rumored subscribers between Amazon Prime, Disney+, HBO Max, and Netflix all watch these four films, the ROI as compared to what Shaft, Super Fly, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baaaadassss Song did for the film industry of the 1970s is not apparent to a semi-blinded eye.
The mind-blowing notion to consider the ROI insofar as Black legacy and its potential for even deeper impact.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baaaadassss Song platformed its director Melvin van Peebles and Earth, Wind, and Fire, who scored the film as creative legends on the rise. The same can be said for Super Fly’s duo of Gordon Parks, Jr. and Curtis Mayfield, as well as Shaft’s tandem of Gordon Parks, Sr. and Issac Hayes.
However, in a 2003 Harvard Magazine article, Blaxploitation scholar Issac Julien noted that the Blaxploitation era waned because “the black bourgeoisie was vaguely embarrassed about [the lack of political correctness] in [Blaxploitation] films.” says Julien. Related to an earlier-mentioned point, Black film critic Elvis Mitchell noted that the genre was, in retrospect, developed “purely from a commercial impulse to get as many Afros in the theater as humanly possible.”
As for the quintet of current movies, Black Is King is a legacy piece for Beyoncé that elevates her already iconic status. One Night In Miami has yielded Leslie Odom, Jr., a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Sam Cooke, and Regina King a Best Director nomination at the Golden Globes. Coming 2 America marked impactful returns to the screen for Eddie Murphy and James Earl Jones, two of the greatest actors — black or otherwise — in film history. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom netted a Best Actress nod for Viola Davis and posthumously a Best Actor nomination for Chadwick Boseman. Finally, Judas And The Black Messiah’s Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are nominated for Oscars for Best Supporting Actor.
Whither Black cinema post-COVID, though? 20% of America’s film houses are expected to reopen in an era after vaccination fully. As well, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has noted, “I am sure there is a whole group of people who say, ‘I cannot live without going to the movies.’ But on a relative scale, a movie theater is less essential and poses a high risk. Movie theaters are not that high on the list of essentials.”
Streaming portals like Amazon, Netflix, HBO Max, and Disney+, looking to spend exorbitant sums as merely marketing to reach their ambitious membership goals, could pick up the slack insofar as offering the funding to maintain the African-American cinematic boom where more traditional film companies may be cash and credit poor to make it occur, and may also not have the means to distribute an independently funded film through classic means adequately.
However, one look at Netflix’s membership figures shows that for this portal, in particular, their best bet to look at insofar as significant growth is to Asia and South America. Already, a cursory glance through their platform notes that they are making more aggressive pushes in that content lane than in redoubling efforts to support exemplary Black American cinema. For lack of a better term, Netflix has already begun marketing “exploitative” content directly to these demographics.
The Blaxploitation era died because Black films led a run of five years of highly exploitative films that essentially allowed the film industry to resolve its bottom-line financial concerns. Once the industry had solved for itself, the actors, directors, and genre in full were discarded from the renaissance occurring for films that largely appealed foremost to white men and their families.
As for this era, it sadly ends soon. Once we’re back well within the normalcy that lies beyond the “new normal” that dovetailed with Black film’s latest mega-success, the idea that streaming portals will want to double and triple down on Black cinema is arguably dubious, at best. Could we see one superstar Black epic per portal while films targeted at Latin, South American, and Pacific Rim demographics see a boom? Certainly.
It’s entirely possible that the 2021 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor could be split between performers in Judas And The Black Messiah and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. For as incredible as this is, given that the film industry is in such dire financial straits and experiencing dynamic shifts in media and access, this excellence — though astounding — will more than certainly not last.
Regarding the likely potential brevity of this incredible Black creative moment, director Shaka King’s note to GQ regarding what he calls the rise of the “Black Excellence Industrial Complex” is probably more noteworthy than he intended: “Get it while the getting is hot.”