Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Blaxploitation Is Going Highbrow With an Anti-Trump Twist

Black Panther (Shaft by any other name) and Widows are the gourmet mashups of the blaxploitation and femmesploitation genres, attempting to elevate both to a literary realm without sacrificing the street-cred ingredients that made Shaft et al. viscerally exciting, culturally uplifting and politically relevant. Finally, the genre gets some art house love.

Blaxploitation films have always been the raised, gloved fist (and middle finger) of movie genres. In the ’60s, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte carried the heavy burden of making blacks non-threatening to a skittish white America frightened by rising civil rights demands. And they did so brilliantly, with intelligence, grace and dignity. But as the civil rights battles in the streets and in the courts escalated, impatient and frustrated African-Americans looked for the kind of cinematic action heroes who defended the weak and risked everything to bring the kind of justice they knew they wouldn’t find in the racist American justice system. (As Richard Pryor joked in the ’70s: “You go [downtown] looking for justice, that’s just what you’ll find: just us.”) The black community remembered the 1955 acquittal by an all-white jury of the two men who had beaten and lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, and then a year later in a magazine interview bragged about killing him. And the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls and wounded 22 others. And the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and dozens of others. Violence against black men, women, and children was a common occurrence, and not only couldn’t black people count on the police for protection but in some places, it was the police committing the violence.

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