Blaxploitation films have a complicated legacy. This lurid genre that focuses on black lives and black stories reached its height in the 1970s, a time of great change for race relations. What had once been a Civil Rights movement based on non-violent protest and assimilation fractured due to violent backlashes perpetuated by many white communities. Instead, black protest movements started to focus on self-preservation, protection at any cost, and identity politics.
While blaxploitation films feature all-black casts, they are often criticized for their stereotyped portrayals of pimps, drug dealers, and hypersexualized women. The genre is also criticized for profiting from the plights of black people in poor urban areas, people who never had access to the movies documenting their trials and tribulations. While some of the films on this list contain questionable characterizations, they have all had profound impacts on black and white filmmakers into the present. They helped to forge a new, yet at times problematic, path for cinema’s diverse potential.
10 Friday Foster (1975)
“Wham! Bam! Here comes Pam!” Pam Grier starred in numerous blaxploitation films, and this one stands out thanks to its star-studded cast, its dynamic leading lady, and its thrilling storyline that involves a conspiracy to kill wealthy and well-known black people.
Grier plays a model turned professional photojournalist attempting to make a name for herself in Los Angeles. When she gets a job photographing the arrival of the elusive millionaire Blake Tarr on New Year’s Eve, she ends up in the middle of a murder investigation after Tarr is assassinated. Grier is joined on screen by the likes of Yaphet Kotto, Eartha Kitt, Scatman Crothers, and Carl Weathers.
9 Blacula (1972)
Blacula was an important film when it was released, subverting the white-dominated trend in horror movies by casting a black man as the leading villain. William Marshall stars as an African prince who is transformed into a vampire after visiting Transylvania in the 18th Century.
In the film, Blacula rises from his coffin 200 years later, cruising the streets of Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood in search of food and fun. The movie maintains the basic structure of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, including casting Thalmus Rasulala as Van Helsing and Vonetta McGee as the young woman who reminds the fanged man of his long-lost love.
8 Sugar Hill (1974)
Sugar Hill is a stylish black zombie movie. After her boyfriend is killed by gangsters, Diana “Sugar” Hill, played by Marki Bey, seeks the assistance of a local voodoo queen in Houston to enact revenge. Mama Maitresse summons the lord of the dead, Baron Samedi, who uses his powers to create an army of zombies to take out those responsible for the death of Sugar’s beau.
The movie’s plot contains layers of social relevancy and potent racial history. The bodies resurrected by Baron Samedi belong to former slaves brought to America from Guinea, and the revenge plot makes Sugar a formidable female hero.
7 Shaft (1971)
One of the most famous blaxploitation films, this feature from Gordon Parks stars Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, a private detective with an office near Times Square. Shaft is hired by a mobster in Harlem, Bumpy Jonas, to help track down his kidnapped daughter. Jonas believes the Italian mob is responsible for the deed.
With Shaft, Parks made an action film out of all the racial tension and urban decline that defined 1970s life in big cities like New York. Well-known actors Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi, Christopher St. John, and Lawrence Pressman star alongside Roundtree, and the film’s iconic soundtrack was recorded by Isaac Hayes. Shaft inspired numerous spin-offs and sequels.
6 Super Fly (1972)
Another archetypal blaxploitation film, Super Fly is directed by the son of Gordon Parks, Gordon Parks Jr. It stars Ron O’Neal as Youngblood Priest, a drug dealer, and pimp who is trying to leave behind his life of crime and start fresh. Priest plans to purchase a large quantity of cocaine and retire with the profits.
Priest is eventually cornered by police who, instead of arresting him, want to be part of the drug-selling scheme. While Super Fly did well in theatres, these days, its legacy is more attached to Curtis Mayfield’s stellar soundtrack than to the film itself.
5 Ganja & Hess (1973)
Ganja & Hess is the type of film that defies labels, yet it’s often looped in with blaxploitation films due to its themes, its casting, and it’s director, Bill Gunn. Gunn is a playwright and filmmaker known for his intellectual and atmospheric features. Ganja & Hess is, on the surface, a vampire film about an anthropologist addicted to blood. It’s also a film about black existence, love, and the creative process.
Duane Jones and Marlene Clark play the title roles. Vampirism is treated as a disease in the movie, and it’s referred to as the Myrthian curse. As the characters fall in love, Jones’s Dr. Hess infects Clark’s Ganja with the same affliction that gives him both eternal life and endless hunger.
4 Cleopatra Jones (1973)
Another film with a strong female lead, Cleopatra Jones stars Tamara Dobson in the title role. Cleopatra Jones is an undercover special agent who drives a 1973 Corvette Stingray, knows martial arts, and does whatever she can to look out for folks in her hometown, which has been ravaged by drug addition.
Famed Hollywood actress Shelley Winters, known for movies like Night of the Hunter and Lolita, plays Cleopatra’s nemesis, a drug lord known as Mommy. Mommy oversees a large poppy field in Turkey. The poppies are used to make opiates like heroin, and Cleopatra seeks to eradicate all signs of the poppies to save her community.
3 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Considered the movie that really set the blaxploitation genre ablaze, Melvin Von Peebles wrote, directed, and stars in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’s, a harrowing tale about a poor black man raised by sex workers who must flee from white authorities after being framed from a crime he didn’t commit.
This sensational film doesn’t hold back from depicting sex and violence, which contributed to its X-rating. Van Peebles’s movie is revered for pinpointing the tone of the burgeoning black power movement, one unafraid to seek retribution for decades and decades of subjugation.
2 Bucktown (1975)
This Arthur Marks film tackles white Southern racism head-on. Fred Williamson plays Duke Johnson, who returns to his hometown, Bucktown, to bury his brother after he is killed by white cops for refusing to pay them for “protection.” Duke asks his friend Roy and his gang to come down and help him take out the crooked cops.
When Roy arrives, he decides to take over the town himself. Duke is left to figure out how to protect Bucktown from both Roy’s cronies and the racist police force.
1 Three The Hard Way (1974)
Gordon Parks Jr. is at the helm of this gem, a conspiracy theory thriller that pitches three tough heroes against an underground clan of white supremacists and Neo-Fascists who plan to “cleanse” the country of black people by poisoning water supplies in Los Angeles, Detroit and Washington D.C.
Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly play the trio, who must race against the clock to save black Americans from this evil plot.
NEXT: 10 Most Culturally Influential Movies Of The 1970s