The blaxploitation movies in which Pam Grier starred—Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), Sheba, Baby (1975) and Friday Foster (1975)—are a mix of the gritty naturalism of Superfly (1972), socially-relevant crime stories like Shaft (1971), high camp (she had a bit part in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, 1970), and outright Z-grade, no-brow trash.
The exploitation film, the low-budget genre that sensationalized social issues of the day, like teenage runaways, drug addiction, prostitution, biker gangs, and homosexuality, had been making money at drive-ins since the 1930s. Reefer Madness (1937) is, perhaps, the locus classicus. Films like The Wild One (1953), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Easy Rider (1969) are all exploitation films to some extent.
The big studios took notice when Shaft (1971) proved that low-budget films with all-black casts, reflecting current, African-American interests, concerns and realities could be big cross-over box office hits. There were, however no similar projects in development, so unproduced exploitation and crime scripts by white screenwriters with white characters were quickly reworked into vehicles with African-American characters and cultural references and acted by African-American casts. Thus, the blaxploitation genre was born.
In the hands of an African-American director Melvin Van Peebles, the exploitation material could be appropriated to address serious issues and be elevated to a cinéaste meditation on popular film genres, as was the case with Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971). However, many of the blaxploitation movies, including Grier’s, had white directors and were backed by studios more interested in cleavage and guns than social injustice and le cinema.
Grier had a special ability to be in and above her films at the same time. Her hair-raising signature stunt, a Houdini-like escape performed in Foxy Brown and recapitulated in Escape from New York (1981), involving a razor hidden in her mouth and then wielded by her tongue to cut ropes that bound her wrists—fits right in to the trashy mayhem.
Yet throughout the revenge castrations, bitch brawls, shoot-outs, and kick-boxing, Grier maintains an uncanny poise, finishing each movie with her dignity intact, standing apart from the material, without ever condescending to it. This polite aloofness allowed her to be taken seriously as an actress and celebrity while her movies were not. This is why Quentin Tarantino cast her as the lead in Jackie Brown—Grier and James Ellroy both inhabited and transcended the pulp medium in which they worked.
EMEMBERING GORDON ROGER ALEXANDER BUCHANAN PARKS (November 30, 1912 - March 7, 2006) Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was an African-American photographer, filmmaker, writer and composer who used his prodigious, largely self-taught talents to chronicle the African-American experience and to retell his own personal history. He is best remembered for his photographic essays for Life magazine and as the director of the 1971 film, Shaft. In 1948, Parks became a staff photographer for Life magazine, the FIRST African American to hold that position. Parks, who remained with the magazine until 1972, became known for his portrayals of ghetto life, black nationalists, and the civil rights movement. A photo-essay about a child from a Brazilian slum was expanded into a television documentary (1962) and a book with poetry (1978), both titled Flavio. Parks was also noted for his intimate portraits of such public figures as Ingrid Bergman, Barbra Streisand, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Muhammad Ali. Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks received the: Spingarn Medal · National Medal of Arts · NAACP Image Award – Hall of Fame Award (1984) and Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas on November 30, 1912. He died March 7, 2006, in New York City, New York at the age of 93.
Though Isaac Hayes didn’t release an album to bear his name until 1968’s Presenting Isaac Hayes, he was already pivotal in creating the Memphis & Southern soul sound of the 60’s as a songwriter and session player at Stax Records writing hits for Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas and Mabel John.
Hayes would find his biggest success as a solo artist starting with his 2nd album, 1969’s full of sex funk make out classic Hot Buttered Soul, which would the first of the US Top 10 album he had over the next 3 years, including winning an Oscar and three Grammys for the Shaft soundtrack in 1971. He would also appear in many movies such as the lead in the Blaxplotation classic Truck Turner. In the 90’s he was introduced to a newer generation fan via his role as Chef in South Park.
Isaac Hayes was born on this day, August 20th, in 1942.
CUE THE MUSIC: CELEBRATING THE BLACK MOVIE SOUNDTRACK
Next month, the Academy is celebrating The Black Movie Soundtrack at the Hollywood Bowl on September 3rd at 8pm with special guest performances and screen clips honoring the multidimensional influence of music and movies. To celebrate this event, we have highlights of some select recordings from the Margaret Herrick Library’s Brad Bennett collection of soundtracks and the Music and Recorded Sound collection, featuring songs that defined a film and the music that transformed films into classics. In a nod to movie music nostalgia, here’s a curated vinyl jukebox of the Academy’s holdings dedicated to the black movie soundtrack.
Sometimes sound surpasses the visual, turning films into a powerful experience. Consider the revered anthem of Shaft, the emotional shading of the The Color Purple’s score, and the musical gem of 20th Century Fox’s Stormy Weather, whose use of dance and music brought a new vitality to the art form.
Strong, dynamic vocals were the centerpiece of 1995’s Waiting to Exhale. Soundtrack producer Babyface assembled artists such as Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, and Chaka Khan – the film and its music came to embody female empowerment.
Music producers often have the vision to tie disparate songs into a cohesive theme, elevating a film’s soundtrack to cult status. Producer Quincy Jones’ soundtrack to the musical feature The Wiz enhanced the original Broadway score with imaginative compositions and the accompaniment of New York jazz musicians. Here’s the cover of a highlights album performed by the group Studio 79.
Curtis Mayfield’s classically soulful Super Fly masterfully complements its energetic storytelling with irrepressible melodies.
And not to be forgotten, “The Godfather of Soul,” James Brown crafted his meticulous vocal and instrumental soundtrack around the plotline for the 1973 crime drama Black Caesar.
In 1985, Prince won an Oscar for Best Original Song Score for Purple Rain at the 1984 (57th) Academy Awards. The soundtrack produced by Prince and the Revolution was simultaneously eclectic, stylish, and enigmatic; the music did not escape its R&B roots, and its appeal crossed over to pop, rock, and heavy metal genres, achieving both critical and commercial success.
Gordon Parks (1912–2006) was a groundbreaking photographer, writer, composer, activist, and film director. He may be best known for his photo essays for Lifemagazine and as the director of the 1971 filmShaft.
Parks was only sixteen when he moved from Kansas to St. Paul, Minnesota, after his mother’s death. There, homeless and hungry, he began his fight to survive, to educate himself, and to fulfill his potential dream. This compelling autobiography A Choice of Weapons, first published in 1966, now back in print by popular demand and with a new foreword by Wing Young Huie, tells how Parks managed to escape the poverty and bigotry around him and to launch his distinguished career by choosing the weapons given him by “a mother who placed love, dignity, and hard work over hatred.” Parks, the first African American to work at Life magazine and the first to write, direct, and score a Hollywood film, told an interviewer in 1999, “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”