As the story goes, “Blaxploitation” began in 1971 with the success of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. The low-budget, X-rated film’s popularity inspired Hollywood to cash in on exploitation films featuring black characters in urban situations. But if we separate Blaxploitation from 1970s black cinema, and recognize both as far more diverse than they are usually given credit for, we have to travel further back in time to find an origin point. And there are few better years to begin than 1967.
The Watts riots and the assassination of Malcolm X both occurred less than two years before, cultural tuning forks depleting the optimism of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Black Panthers were not yet a year old, and yet their birth seemed a natural progression of the era’s growing political nihilism. Martin Luther King Jr. would be killed before the summer of 1968. Robert F. Kennedy would survive him by less than two months. In Hollywood, the old system was failing before the new generation; petulant kids the executives couldn’t understand. The monolithic studios were gone, and the modern blockbuster wouldn’t swim into existence for another ten years. In the interim, creative forces were sparking everywhere, black voices ready to be heard.
In France, Melvin Van Peeble’s completed his first feature. He would announce himself as a creative force at the following year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, shocking distributors who had assumed he was French and white. In Detroit, the continued success of Motown studios was about to spill over, first into television, then into feature films. In Los Angeles, Charles Burnett arrived at UCLA. The many black film makers who followed him would create the LA Rebellion, ushering in a historic period of expression for people of color on campus. In December, Sydney Poitier would reach the apex of his career in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, setting the stage for the first Oscar to be awarded to a black male actor. And on Broadway, a play began to run.
It was called The Great White Hope, and starred James Earl Jones as a not quite historically accurate version of the famous boxer Jack Johnson. Jones would win a Tony for the performance in 1969. He would bring the role to the screen in 1970. And just as the seeds of black cinematic expression in the ’70s would be inevitably pushed aside by a re-conglomerated Hollywood system in the 1980s, Jones’ own career would find itself mirroring the rise and fall of black cinema as a central force in mainstream film.
Jones has held a certain cultural position for so long that it’s almost impossible to picture him as anything but the timbre-voiced model of poised stoicism. Even as early as 1972’s ham-fisted TV movie The Man, Jones’ unbeatable presence is milked for every glower and pregnant pause. As a black senator forced into the presidency, Jones’ was already being subsumed into his natural charisma, in a part that demanded him to be equal levels messianic and stiff.
But watch his Oscar-nominated performance in The Great White Hope and try to tell yourself he couldn’t have been as big as De Niro. Jones is balletic, graceful, an actor with an athlete’s confidence. When he first appears onscreen, he gleams with sweat, maneuvering around a punching bag. But it is his inner kineticism that propels his character, a man who buries layers of anger beneath a mocking smile and an almost violent bravado. The film’s best scene finds Jones’ boxer exiled to Europe, performing an embarrassing scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to a crowd of rude Germans. Here is Blaxploitation in miniature, a talented black man forced to conform to narrow, retrograde stereotypes for the amusement of white audiences.
Jones gives an even better performance in 1974’s Claudine. He plays a garbage man trying to build a relationship with his new girlfriend and her six children. The film attempts to illustrate multiple aspects of everyday black existence, from the contradictory demands of welfare to the burgeoning black political movement (the woman’s daughter dates a young man who changes his name from Teddy to Abdullah). Jones moves through the film with a magnetism that exudes from every inch of his body. He is once again dancer-like, simultaneously guarded and vulnerable. And once more, the film provides a microcosmic portrait of the allure of Blaxploitation. When Jones’ characters’ life is overwhelmed by child support and societal double standards, he vows to leave town, move to Chicago, and become a hustler. The fact that he doesn’t reads like the dream of Blaxploitation meeting reality, a man left with no choice but to embrace his new family and accept the seemingly insurmountable challenges of day to day life.
Even Jones’ Kennedy Center induction treated the first decade of his film acting career as an ellipses, jumping from The Great White Hope to Star Wars as if nothing existed in between. Ignoring his role in Claudine, or his turn as author Alex Haley in Roots, are unfortunate oversights, but they reflect an overall trend towards generalization that has been brought to the era’s black cinema. Just as Jones’ career now mostly materializes into the popular consciousness with his role as Darth Vader (a voice-work session that the actor reportedly completed in two hours), much of the best black cinema of the ’70s has since gone on to be wrongly labeled as Blaxploitation. From the teen drama Cooley High to the adaptation of the family comedy Five on the Black Hand Side, films that bear none of the genre’s typical trappings are frequently listed alongside the likes of The Mack and Superfly. Meanwhile, films like Claudine are barely mentioned at all.
A year before Star Wars, Jones once more played an athlete, portraying a Negro League baseball player in the period comedy The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Though the role is not nearly the showcase that Great White Hope is, it nonetheless represents Jones’ part in another powerful force in ’70s black cinema. Bingo Long was one of nearly a dozen films produced for cinema and television by Motown Productions in the ’70s and early ’80s. Here is Jones alongside not just Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, but a literal baseball team’s worth of black supporting actors, including Otis Day (Carwash) and Ted Ross (who would go on to play the Cowardly Lion in Motown’s disastrous The Wiz). Williams himself had appeared in Motown’s most high profile pictures, as Diana Ross’s love interest in both Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany. Perhaps for the last times in their careers, Bingo Long allowed Jones and Williams to support not white stars, but other black actors.
By 1977, Blaxploitation was already evaporating. The success of Jaws (directed by Steven Spielberg only after he declined the chance to direct Bingo Long) had already hinted at the impending status quo. Expensive failures like The Wiz in 1978 would soon derail Motown’s cinematic ambitions. The black radicalism and Nixon-era pessimism that had fueled the rage politics of Blaxploitation were about to give way to the jingoistic decadence of Reagan’s ’80s. Thanks to mainstream resistance to black performers, James Earl Jones’ career couldn’t have existed until the ’70s. And thanks to the subsequent sidelining of black roles in the ’80s, it likely wouldn’t have taken off afterwards.
If the 1960s told the story of the black self divided, and the 1970s illustrated the dominance of aggressive masculinity, the 1980s sent black representation on screen one step forwards and two steps back. Richard Pryor alone emerged from the ’70s as a bankable male star, and even then, most of his roles were only that of a sidekick to white characters. And though Eddie Murphy achieved an unparalleled level of box office success for a black actor, both men’s fame came only in comedy. Long gone was the barely-controlled rage of Sydney Poitier in the 1960s, or Jim Brown bedding a white woman in 100 Guns. The image of black men onscreen had moved from rage to irreverence.
It would take the black directors and performers of the 1990s to provide an alternative (and sadly, the public eye only turned away from black issues following the sensationalism of gang violence and Rodney King). For a case study in the difficulties facing black dramatic actors in the 80s, consider an anecdote from this episode of At the Movies. Lavar Burton’s role in Roots had announced him as perhaps the most significant black actor of his generation. But by 1980, as Gene Siskel tells a shocked Roger Ebert, the only way for him to appear alongside Steve McQueen in Hunter was to replace a part originally written for a dog.
No one would assume Jones or Burton have ever looked back at their careers and felt any degree of bitterness or regret. In some ways, Jones’ steady place in the background has kept him safe from the decline into irrelevance that struck so many of the white stars of his generation.Unlike Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino, Jones has remained defined by stature. When some editor has to eventually assemble his lifetime clip-reel, they won’t need to jump past embarrassments like Rocky and Bullwinkle or Hook or Jack and Jill (though they may have to resist the urge to further canonize his role in Best of the Best). He didn’t die young like Richard Pryor, or migrate to soap operas like Billy Dee Williams. And unlike most visible film actors, Jones has, to this day, maintained a consistent and lauded career as a stage actor. But if James Earl Jones’ career truly parallels the journey of black cinema through the public consciousness since 1970, we can find decades of underrepresentation lurking within a single YouTube video.
In Matt Goldman’s “Vader Sessions,” footage of Darth Vader is recut with dialog from James Earl Jones’ other roles. In the place of familiar lines, Vader is recast as a scatterbrained, foul-mouthed lunatic surrounded by acquiescent yes men. It would be a lie to say it isn’t funny. And it would be wrong to isolate the video as anything abnormal in an age of constant remixing. But in the context of black cinema, one can’t help but question how the video takes a man’s entire career and reduces it to a joke. Many of the lines in the video come from Claudine and The Great White Hope. And though the images are iconic, the dialog is likely unfamiliar to the more than five million people who have viewed this video on its original channel. As of this writing, both of those films are also available for free on YouTube. Claudine has been viewed just over four hundred thousand times. The Great White Hope has barely broken thirty thousand.
Granted, no one is mistaking YouTube for Netflix. Of course a ten minute comedy mashup is going to be more popular than relatively obscure films from the early ’70s. But the relative popularity of these videos provides a final diorama of how selective tastes, more often than not controlled by a largely white audience, can devalue the work of people of color. Forty years after their release, it is still films like Claudine that aren’t talked about, relegated nearly to nonexistence by a selective approach to history. Right now, the story of black cinema in the 1970s is often dismissed as little more than the rise and fall of a single, violent genre. But the careers of countless performers, producers, directors and screenwriters is waiting in plain sight, serving as undeniable evidence that the truth of black cinema lies far beyond Blaxploitation.