Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Power in Blaxploitation Cinema

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Poster for Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), the film generally regarded as kickstarting the Blaxploitation genre.

Blaxploitation is a subgenre of exploitation films, primarily produced in the 1970s, characterised by its ‘exploitation of the symbolic meanings of blackness’ (Boys, Boyz, Bois) in an attempt to entice a growing audience of African-American cinemagoers. These films were produced by a predominantly black crew and were the first to depict strong black protagonists backed by a supporting cast of relatable black characters (source?). However, these films have been criticised due to their excessive use of violence, profanity and sexualised content and their potential impact on black youth.

The impact of these films can be analysed and approached from a range of disciplinary perspectives. Whilst an economist may view the subgenre as a successful venture that generated an income for studios and helped to revitalise a dying industry, a film studies scholar may make arguments that delve beyond financial success and consider the context and societal implications that blaxploitation films have had.



Throughout history, the study of economic ideas had traditionally been the realm of moral philosophy. However, as economic systems became more complex throughout the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, so too did their study. Eventually, in the 19th century, scholars began to specialise in the subject and academic journals and textbooks such as Marshall’s Principles of Economics were published, heralding the professionalisation of economics as an academic discipline. When looking at Blaxploitation cinema, applied microeconomic theory could be used by economists to establish whether or not the films benefited the economy and its agents. Economic principles surrounding resource allocation and the demographics of the labour pool can also be considered by economists when viewing the Blaxploitation film movement. Backhouse defines the discipline as being 'about how production is organised in order to satisfy human wants' and dealing with phenomena such as 'prices, money, production, markets [and] bargaining', although economics still exists in societies that lack these phenomena.[1]

Economics in Blaxploitation Cinema[edit]

Profit and loss is a key principle of microeconomic theory, a concept which stems from the supply and demand curve. This makes is easy to make an economic argument in favour of Blaxploitation film as they generated a lot of money and helped to revitalise an industry that was starting to die. It is especially important to consider the economic situation of Hollywood after the U.S. Supreme Court antitrust ruling of 1948 in which the main studios lost their monopoly on the film industry.[2] The movie Shaft, for example, is claimed to have saved the studio MGM from bankruptcy as it grossed over $16 million after its first year.[3]

The production of Blaxploitation films enabled the development of black producers, directors and actors, welcoming a specialist workforce to Hollywood that had previously been excluded. On a local level, this reduced unemployment and aided the development of the black workforce. Jim Brown reiterates this view stating that: "Maybe the Black films weren't of the highest quality, but Black people were getting experience in the industry" (Ebony, October 1978). Dr Eithne Quinn, a historian at the University of Manchester, although recognising the violent and sexual nature of movies such as Shaft and Superfly, she acknowledges the fact that there had rarely ever been more black workers on a film production in US history.[4]

Film Studies[edit]


A photograph of Richard Roundtree, who was an iconic actor during the 1970s starring in films such as "Shaft".

Historically, film studies appeared as an academic discipline in the 20th century and handled different aspects of films, as theoretical, historical and critical aspects.[5] Indeed, film studies thinkers are deeply interested in the artistical, cultural and political characters of cinema, which reveal the big influence of cinema on society. In fact, film studies is intrinsically tied to film theory, which emerged in the early 20th century and which is “a set of scholarly approaches within the academic discipline of cinema studies that question the essentialism of cinema and provides conceptual frameworks for understanding film’s relationship to reality, the other arts, individual viewers and society at large”[6]. There is thus an intense link between society and film, as Marxism considers that the social relations of society are one of the fundamental pioneers of society and define in what way society thinks. As a matter of fact, Louis Delluc affirmed that “cinema will make us all comprehend the things of this world as well as force us to recognize ourselves”[7]. Blaxploitation cinema, when it emerged, has therefore had an important impact on its audience and on society.

Film Studies in Blaxploitation Cinema[edit]

It suits to study the history of film studies to well understand the significance of Black representation and Black movement. Certain film critics judged the movies based solely on their aesthetic quality, for example Clayton Riley who saw 'Shaft' as "technically mediocre... poorly acted...lacks both style and substance"[8]. Furthermore, Tommy L. Lott explains how film critics often view that "audiences have no role to play in the determination of aesthetic values”[9]. It is however impossible, in regards to Blaxploitation Cinema,  to neglect the power of the audience nor solely judge the artistic quality as despite being low quality movies they still to this day form a large part in the history of cinema. Similarly, Stephane Dunn, director of the Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse College, sees Blaxploitation films as being "worth our critical eye and thoughts. If they were nothing, just B-grade action films, why do we keep coming back to them?”. The power of the audience and the social implications of the Blaxploitation films are thus, clearly evident. Regardless of whether these implications were positive or negative, Salisbury Tracey explains that there's a "mutual understanding that it marked a historical moment when African Americans seized control of their own creative expression"[10]. Dr. Eithne Quinn also describes this era of cinema as a "rich moment in black cultural history"[11]. The importance of blaxploitation films is noticed in the insertion of blacks actors as main characters in cinema. As Melvin Van Peebles said “The black audience finally gets a chance to see some their own fantasies acted out - about rising out of the mud and kicking some ass”[12]. This changed a lot the situation of black people in society, defining a new identity and influence through representation. Blaxploitation also played a role in the civil rights movement and the rise of Black Power , being an alternative form of resistance as Joshua K. Wright claims by saying that "they served as microcosms of the struggle of Black men to achieve power".[13]



Within the Western tradition, moral philosophy is viewed as having emerged in ancient Greece with the work of the Sophists.[14] While discussion of ethical matters is evident in the work of pre-Socratic philosophers such as Democritus[15], it was only following changes in social structure around the fifth century BCE that an interrogation of existing ethical concepts became necessary; Homeric notions of 'good' based on social hierarchy lost their relevance whilst an increased awareness of other cultures created questions surrounding the 'local' or 'universal' nature of moral rules. Moral concepts had become confused, leaving the Sophists with the task of finding clear definitions of moral terms and exploring what it means to live a good life.[14] As such, ethical theories may best be understood as attempting to answer Socrates' question: ''how should one live?"[16]

Ethics in Blaxploitation Cinema[edit]

One such theory is Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism, which views ‘good’ as reducible to pleasure. For Bentham, a good action is one that results in a positive ‘net utility’, meaning more pleasure is produced than pain. This ‘net utility’ can be calculated using the ‘hedonic calculus’, a series of seven factors weighted numerically.[17] As such, when analysing Blaxploitation cinema through a utilitarian lens we can clearly see the importance of both the pleasure produced in the audiences who flocked to see these films as well as in the studio executives who profited greatly from their success.[18] However, a utilitarian would need to weigh this against the pain that may result from highly stereotyped representations of the black community.[19] Despite this, the impressive box office returns may ultimately suggest the ‘net utility’ of these films to be positive, leading the utilitarian to brand them ‘good’, a declaration that is made crucial due to the history of the discipline.


In attempting to understand the impact of Blaxploitation, economics provides us with a largely quantitative approach, focusing objectively on the economic benefits of the genre in relation to its associated costs. Meanwhile, film studies approaches the subject through a more qualitative lens, examining the films both in terms of their intrinsic cinematic qualities and impact on society. It is clear that the histories of these disciplines render them inherently restrictive, with both ignoring key factors explored by the other. For example, while a film studies scholar may consider the impact of Blaxploitation narratives on an African-American audience, due to historically crafted disciplinary boundaries they would be unlikely to also consider the impact the films had on black employment rates in Hollywood. Therefore, we can see that a holistic, interdisciplinary approach is needed if we wish to truly understand the impact of Blaxploitation cinema.

  1. Backhouse RE. The Penguin History of Economics. Penguin, London; 2002
  2. De Vany A. Was the Antitrust Action that Broke Up the Movie Studios Good for the Movies? Evidence from the Stock Market. American Law and Economics Association [Internet]. 2004;6(1):135-153. Available from:
  3. Hartmann J. The Trope of Blaxploitation in Critical Responses to "Sweetback". Film History. 1994;6(3):382-404.   
  4. Quinn E. "Tryin' to Get Over": "Super Fly", Black Politics, and Post—Civil Rights Film Enterprise. Cinema Journal 2010; 49(2): .
  5. Polan, D. (2007). Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  6. McDonald, K. (2016). Film theory. Routledge.
  7. Abel, R. (1993). French Film Theory and Criticism.
  8. Riley C. Movies. The New York Times. 1971;:Section D, Page 13.   
  9. Lott T. A No-Theory Theory of Contemporary Black Cinema. Black American Literature Forum. 1991;25(2):221.
  10. Salisbury, T. (2012). The Good, the Bad & the Ugly - 21st Century Blaxploitation : Movies, Music, Television & Literature.
  11. Quinn E, Krämer P. Blaxploitation. In LRW, MH, editors, Contemporary American Cinema. Open University Press. 2006
  12. China Forever : The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema. (2008). Poshek Fu.
  13. Wright J. Black Outlaws and the Struggle for Empowerment in Blaxploitation Cinema. Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men. 2014;2(2):63.   
  14. a b MacIntyre A. A short history of Ethics. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; 1967
  15. Golob S, Timmermann J, editors. The Cambridge History of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2017.
  16. Plato. Gorgias, in Platonis Opera, ed. J. Burnet. Oxford: Clarendon Press; 1903.
  17. Burns JH, Hart HLA. (eds.) The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. New York: Oxford University Press; 1996.
  18. Guerrero E. Framing blackness: The African American image in film. Temple University Press; 2012.
  19. Harris KM. Boys, Boyz, Bois: An Ethics of Black Masculinity in Film and Popular Media. Oxford: Routledge; 2006.