The birth of Blaxploitation: How Sweet Sweetback's Baadasss Song sparked a genre
Entertainment Weekly's new special edition, A Celebration of Black Film, explores more than a century of movies and the people who created them. This excerpt from the issue turns its focus on Blaxploitation, a singularly African American genre that began in the 1970s, making stars of Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Pam Grier (Coffy), Fred Williamson (Hammer), and more. The term, however, was first deployed by a critic at the Hollywood branch of the NAACP, who charged that the new genre traded in arguably negative images of African American life. But Blaxploitation flourished and proved a valuable new outlet for Black voices. Chris Nashawaty reports on the pioneering entry, Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song.
It would take a few years for the new wave of gritty urban movies boiling up from the 1970s American underground to be labeled Blaxploitation, but Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is where it all began.
Initially rated X (later reclassified as R), Melvin Van Peebles' genre-birthing tale of a hustler-stud — who goes on the run after killing a pair of white cops who were brutalizing a Black revolutionary — was a desperate howl of Black inner-city anguish that exploded on the screen like a Molotov cocktail.
Van Peebles, who wrote, directed, edited, composed music for, and starred in the 1971 film, shot Sweetback in 19 days on a budget of $500,000. And while its down-and-dirty DIY vibe can feel amateurish at times, there's no denying the raw force of the movie's urgent street-level message. In fact, it's right there in the titles that appear onscreen at the opening of the film: "This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man."
"Before Sweetback, it was the same old 'okeydoke' from Hollywood," the late Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton told PEOPLE in 2004. "The only Black star was Sidney Poitier. Melvin opened a lot of doors." And blew them off their hinges too: When Sweetback hit theaters, it felt inflammatory — and necessary. African American audiences starving for some truth ate up what Van Peebles had to say (to the tune of $10 million at the box office).
Those same moviegoers also hungered for a sequel, which Sweetback's closing credits seemed to promise. After finally crossing the Mexican border on his run for freedom, the words "Watch out" flash across the screen, followed by: "A Baad Asssss N----- Is Coming Back to Collect Some Dues…." Van Peebles never did make a follow-up, but soon enough theaters in cities across America would be inundated with a new kind of cinema that couldn't be any more different than what white Hollywood was pumping out: unapologetically Black.
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