Did the Blaxploitation film genre pave the way for progress?
WATCH: Jennifer Palisoc explores the history of Blaxploitation films.
TORONTO – In the 1970s – the Blaxploitation genre exploded onto the silver screen as a way of exposing black actors to audiences.
“The Blaxploitation genre served as a magnificent platform that revealed black talent,” said Fabienne Colas, the president and founder of the Toronto Black Film Festival (TBFF).
A three-part Blaxploitation series is being celebrated as part of 2015 Toronto Black Film Festival. Film experts say the genre paved the way for the black community in Hollywood.
“An explosion of a population taking control of a whole industry,” said DJ XL5, who helped program the Blaxploitation series at TBFF. “Finding a way to express who we are.”
Before Blaxploitation, African-Americans were often portrayed in films as servants or slaves. The new genre gave black audiences another choice at movie theatres.
“They felt related to those films. It’s like their own heroes and that was not conventional,” said Colas.
Still, while films such as Shaft or Hell up in Harlem were giving voice to African American writers, producers, actors and directors, the genre was controversial, even within the black community.
“Films dealt with drugs, kingpins…Some people thought the films were exploiting the black population showing them as pimps – not good for black image,” said DJ XL5.
Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, is one of the first African-American stars of the genre. He starred in numerous films and over the years has added roles as a writer, producer and director to his resume. Williamson will be receiving an honorary award at this year’s festival.
“I don’t really know who was being exploited,” said Williamson. “Black audiences were being happy…Actors were starring in more movies… Black actors were getting more work so I don’t know who the hell was being exploited.”
Williamson added there “were no black heroes” for him growing up and the genre gave him the opportunity to make those heroes.
He held a press conference in 1970 and laid out his conditions for accepting movie roles.
“The only way I’m going to work for you is you have to abide by my three rules and my three rules are: You can’t kill me in a movie. Two, I have to win all my fights in a movie and three, I get the girl at the end of the movie if I want her. You have to do two out of three of those or I’m not interested,” remembered Williamson. “My integrity is not for sale.”
The genre faded during the 1980s but Hollywood was more diverse.
“We definitely need that and that’s what Blaxploitation did,” said Colas.
While films such as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Selma are among those sharing black history with the world – some say progress is still very slow.
“People are very uncomfortable with change,” said Lanette Ware, an actress who has appeared in various television and film productions including the 2000 revival of Shaft. “We have witnessed a lot of it in our lifetime but it by no means a fair playing field.”
The 2015 Oscar nominations sparked heavy criticsm for not including an actor of colour among the nominees.
“These people gave their blood, sweat and tears for something that made a difference,” said Ware. “When you see that swept away as though it never came to be, is very painful.”
“It’s the effect these art forms are having on people…and for a group, an eclectic group of executives to say it doesn’t matter – is shameful.”
Many believe an increase in diversity in Hollywood can help turn the tide.
“Pave the way for more producers of colour, more writers of colour, more directors of colour. We can include diversity everywhere,” said Colas. “That will impact choices for the casting, that will impact choices for the story, that will impact everything.”
Ware believes once the public realizes how much power it has as an audience – change will happen.
“They need to consistently show up and support. That’s going to be vital for there to be any significant change.”