During the 1970s, many picture show palaces across America weren’t doing the same brisk business they were a decade before, so they quietly transformed into B-movie projecting grindhouses. In Chicago, there was the Fox; in Baltimore, there was the Hippodrome, and in New York City (my neck of the Harlem woods), there was the Tapia. Much like most of New York City back in the bad old days, the Tapia was a theater in decline, yet still retained a glimmer of its yesteryear glam.
Located on 147th Street and Broadway, the Tapia, with its slopped floors and mammoth screen, became the weekend haven for me and a crew that included my boys Beedie, Kyle and Darryl. Every Saturday or Sunday afternoon, after paying 75 cents, we watched all kinds of movies there, from weird sci-fi to bullet-ridden mafia movies to crazy kung-fu headkicks, but our favorite flicks were the ones that featured flamboyant flyboys decked-out in Flare Brothers suits and fur coats.
Baadasssss Cinema – A Bold Look at 70's Blaxploitation Films (Documentary)
Munching on popcorn with my eyes glued to the screen, films like Shaft, Super Fly, Foxy Brown and The Mack meant more to us than a stack of Marvel comic books or a sack of McDonald’s burgers. After suffering setbacks in an entertainment system they once controlled before there was a TV in every apartment, major movie studios began allowing their producers to make different kinds of films in hopes of pulling the general public away from their homes. On one hand, cinema rebels Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) were crafting their classics, while down those mean streets, Dolemite was karate smashing, and Youngblood Priest (Super Fly) was making his last score.
Super Fly trailer
During the post-civil rights ‘70s, what would later become known as Blaxploitation would be viewed as cultural Black power symbols. Filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks and Ossie Davis, utilizing often underrated (and underestimated) actors, were on a mission to wipe out generations of negative, and often degrading film images that began with 1915’s Birth of Nation and continued to flourish for over 50 years of American cinema history.
Although most white audiences didn’t seem to mind seeing “Negroes” portrayed as mumble-mouthed mammies, eager-to-please maids or buck-eyed butlers dancing a jig with bouncy haired Shirley Temple, these stereotypes were painful for Black audiences to watch. Tired of experience chagrin each time they went to the movies, beginning in the late ‘60s, a new kind of image began to be projected. Rising from the ashes, the Blaxploitation genre was born.
The lead characters in many of these films were often renegades or anti-heroes dwelling in the ghetto, brothers and sisters “fightin’ against the man,” unafraid to take a stand against the establishment in the guise of cool gangsters, slick private detectives, bitter Vietnam vets or funky femme fatales who’d shoot you in second, but there were also more than a few (Cornbread, Earl and Me, Sounder, Sparkle, Five on the Black Hand Side) that attempted to tell richer, more poignant types of stories.
For the remarkably short time that they lasted onscreen, from approximately from 1968 to 1979, these soulful landscapes were a hip trip to a soulful world where the main characters looked like us. In 1980, my favorite grindhouse the Tapia was sold and renamed the Nova, but those Blax-movie memories have stayed with me ever since.
Five On the Black Hand Side
Years later, the Blaxplotation era has gone on to inspire many pop cultists filmmakers (John Singleton, The Hughes Brothers, Darnell Martin) cultural critics (Lisa Jones, Todd Boyd, Nelson George) and, perhaps most of all, countless hip-hop artists including Big Daddy Kane, Snoop Dogg, Foxy Brown and Kendrick Lamar. Exhibits A and B, below.
Snoop Dogg – So Many Pros
Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta
As an aficionado of the culture, I saw many of the classics of the genre in their first run and, years later, discovered many more through my writer buddies Darius James (That's Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury) and David Walker (Marvel Comics scribe/former Badazz MoFo publisher), two wonderful dudes whose passion for the genre simply encouraged me to dig deeper into various stories and mythologies behind these movies.
Beginning with an essay running next “Throwback Thursday,” I’ll be exploring a little known Afro-neo-realist film 1974 Tough aka Johnny Tough. Then, for the next few weeks, we’ll be jumping into the way-back machine to investigate different aspects of Blaxploitation cinema, from the source material to the soundtracks to a few of the more obscure gems of the genre. Please plan to join us on #throwbackThursdays.
And buckle up for the ride.