Home / News / New book celebrates the Blaxploitation era: ‘Shaft’ by Pam Grier

New book celebrates the Blaxploitation era: ‘Shaft’ by Pam Grier


Odie Henderson watched a number of highly inappropriate movies while growing up as a teenager in Jersey City, New Jersey. Take age 4, a particularly big, bad year for Henderson and arguably too young to be condoned by “The Exorcist.”

But at the same time, the future Boston Globe film critic and author of the new book “Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras: A History of Blaxploitation Cinema” saw the double bill of “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown,” starring Pam Grier. Grier features prominently in Henderson’s book, published earlier this month.

It’s an extremely good read, and Henderson is heading to Chicago’s Music Box Theater for a 35mm screening and book signing of 1972’s “Super Fly,” another seminal film from the garish, brutal, deeply affecting screen era of Blaxploitation. It’s coming.

This word is not on everyone’s ears these days. Nor did the long-delayed period of American cinema that saw a flourishing of black opportunities on the big screen — Henderson frames the timeline as 1970 to 1978 — sparked by the success of “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and its follow-up, “Shaft.” later, in 1971.

Henderson has no problem with the label because he likes the range of work it covers. In the book’s foreword, he writes: “Is it a genre like comedy or Western, or something more fluid and harder to define? I like to define it the same way I define the equally slippery term ‘film noir’: Blaxploitation, of which some films are definitive examples and It is a period, a time when others are open to discussion and debate.”

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

1973 poster for “Coffy” starring Pam Grier. (LMPC/Getty Images)

Question: Odie, isn’t 4 years old at least 10 years too young for “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown”?

A: I definitely shouldn’t have them at that age! That same year, 1974, I also saw the double feature of “Enter the Dragon” and “Black Belt Jones.” I remember being impressed by both Jim Kelly’s and Pam Grier’s Afros, only to be usurped by Franklyn Ajaye’s Afro two years later in “Car Wash.” I watched a lot of movies at a very young age, but when you have aunts or older cousins ​​you get the opportunity to do things like that. I remember my father often telling me after seeing something at the double on 42nd Street in Times Square: “Don’t tell your mother.”

Question: Take us back to the beginning. Some might guess that the Blaxploitation era started with “Shaft,” but that was a major studio, MGM, not American International Pictures…

A: “Shaft” was the movie that saved MGM from bankruptcy, so Hollywood had a big hand in the movie’s success. At this point, MGM was about to merge with 20th Century Fox, but the deal fell through. And then “Shaft,” directed by Gordon Parks, made a lot of money. But the year before, Samuel Goldwyn Jr. made “Cotton Comes to Harlem” under the direction of Ossie Davis, which first made a lot of money. This put it on Hollywood’s radar that Black people would see a movie about Black people.

It might be disingenuous to define blaxploitation by a single genre, but there are characteristics they all have in common that are not genre-specific: attitude, coolness, and most importantly, in my opinion, music and fashion.

Q: I mean, the opening credits of “Foxy Brown” are almost too much for one movie. Fantastic. And even though it’s an irresistible song The title song of “Trouble Man”?

A: This is one of Marvin Gaye’s best songs. She wanted to be a singer like Frank Sinatra, not the sexy soul singer that she was. But he wrote all the music for “Troubled Man.” Spielberg’s editor, Michael Kahn, also edited this film.

Q: You write in the book that you began your research with the decline of the Blaxploitation era in mind. But has this changed?

A: It did, yes. My theory was that it died in the late 70s because there were a lot more black people on TV and TV was free. You had a big event like “Roots,” but before that there were hit black sitcoms: “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son.” I assumed it was the combination of this and blockbusters like “Jaws” and “Star Wars” that killed blaxploitation. Blacks went to these like everyone else.

But then Elvis Mitchell interviewed me for his Netflix documentary about Blaxploitation. “Is This Black Enough for You?” And we had a friendly discussion about what killed him. He thinks it’s the (commercial failure) of 1978’s “The Wiz.” We went back and forth on that, and he finally said, “I think we’re actually thinking the same thing here: When (Blaxploitation) movies end. If they become marketable to black audiences, the era is dead. “The Wiz” cost a huge amount of money and lost a lot. But It is loved by Black people my age everywhere. Although I have my issues with “The Wiz,” I cannot deny my childhood love for it.

Q: Do you think the blaxploitation era was a double-edged sword, with really ordinary movies and lots of crime and sex?

A: First you should talk about what happened on the screen before this time. During Hollywood’s pre-Code era (1929-1934), black actors sometimes took on more than minor roles such as maids and doormen in films like “Baby Face.” But there was little else but images, mostly negative, until Sidney Poitier came along in the mid-20th century. When Poitier became a star, he fell victim to having to represent the entire race in a positive light. He eventually took control of his own films and began directing, which allowed him more freedom.

In blaxploitation, yes, a lot of it is smut, with a little bit of a message thrown in, like broccoli you hide under cheese sauce for the kids to eat (laughs). But Blacks saw themselves in power. When I saw Jim Kelly in “Black Belt Jones” or Pam Grier in “Coffy,” it was different than watching Clint Eastwood hold a gun to a black man’s face and ask him if he felt lucky. Or watching Bandit Number Three in an episode of “Beretta.” Pam Grier pulling a gun out of her Afro meant only one thing: We were in power.

Like anything that starts underground, it will disappear once it moves into the mainstream. Maybe that’s what’s happening with Blaxploitation.

Question: It wasn’t long before the “respectable” studio films that won Oscars in the ’70s adopted the same levels of violence.

A: Correct. Look at “The Godfather,” which comes from a truly trashy book. I always say that this is too well directed an exploitation movie to be called an exploitation movie.

Question: Do you think Blaxploitation has gotten a questionable or double-edged second life thanks to Quentin Tarantino?

A: Yes, I loved “Jackie Brown”…

Q: His is my favorite.

A: Me too. This is where it really boils blaxploitation down to its essence. In “Django Unchained,” which I also liked, he focuses (entirely) on the most salacious and negative images he can. It’s a pastiche that works most of the time. But not always. Tarantino, I hate to say it, does his white boy thing by focusing on what he thinks are the coolest elements of Blaxploitation, without realizing that some of the things he does are just too much. And it’s not worth leaning on.

Richard Roundtree in 1971 "Shaft." (MGM)
Richard Roundtree in the 1971 movie “Shaft”. (MGM)

Question: You list many favorites in “Black Caesars and Fox Cleopatras.” Do you have a favorite moment or scene that captures everything you love about blaxploitation?

A: The opening of “Shaft”. When Shaft left the subway at 42nd Street and walked down the street at the same time as that song. This is the defining moment for me. I literally did this yesterday and I’ll do it again tonight: Exit the Times Square station at 42nd Street and listen to that theme in my head. (Director) Gordon Parks told Richard Roundtree to cross the street without looking because Shaft never looked either way. That moment when the taxi almost got run over? This really happened. He nearly ran over Richard Roundtree on the first day. On the first day of shooting.

Henderson will be signing copies of his book “Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras: A History of Blaxploitation Cinema” at 7 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; tickets $12 musicboxutheatre.com. Post-screening discussion with Henderson and rogerebert.com editor and reviewer Brian Tallerico.


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