From Blackface to Blaxploitation: Representations of African Americans in Film


Soul Soldier, 1970

Soul Soldier, 1970

In the 1970s the variety of opportunities open to African American actors, directors, writers, and producers continued to expand. The films from this decade, whether they were action, comedy, drama, documentary, horror or romance, presented Black audiences with new and multifaceted depictions of the Black community.  A new genre, Blaxploitation cinema, marked a significant change in how African Americans were presented in films. Blaxploitation films directly confronted the older stereotypes of African Americans as servants, victims or criminals by envisioning African Americans as avengers. Many of the well-known Blaxploitation films were action thrillers and featured extreme situations of violence, sex, and drug-use. 

The films of the 1970s demonstrate a dramatic change in representations of African Americans in mainstream films. The Blaxploitation films Shaft (1971) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) introduced Black audiences to the news ways in which “Blackness” could be represented in mainstream films. This film genre features African American characters who are empowered and self-sufficient. Though controversial because of its exaggerated depictions of violence, sex, and drug-use, the Blaxploitation film genre in many ways reflected the successes of the Civil Rights movement and the attitudes of the Black Power movement. At the same time, mainstream studios continued to produce films based on traditional stereotypes, as seen in Quadroon (1972), and produced films centered on perceptions of the contemporary Black family, such as Claudine (1974).

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