What was the first Blaxploitation movie?
It may not be easy to pinpoint the first Blaxploitation movie. Just as the same can be said about the very first rap song (In my view, the first rap record was “Here Comes the Judge” by Pigmeat Markham in 1968. Don’t believe me? Just listen to it). Sometimes it’s a matter of semantics or definition. We may have to break down the elements of a Blaxploitation movie. Is it a movie that simply stars a black lead? A black lead is a good place to start. But Sidney Poitier has been a black lead for years and I can’t think of one movie he made that would be considered Blaxploitation. So, it has to be more. What do we think about when we consider a movie Blaxploitation? Let me give you some of my non-expert opinions about the elements of a Blaxploitation movie:
· It has to have a black lead AND a predominately black cast
· It has to be an action movie
· The hero has to be fighting against one of these:
o The mob
o Drug dealers
o The Man (catch-all for military establishment, politicians, businessmen, cops, etc.)
· It has to take place in the ghetto
· The hero has to be irresistible to women and at least one sex scene has to be in it (with cool music and soft lighting. You know the deal!)
· Clothes has to be sharp
· Hip jive talk
· Have funky music (wah-wah guitars)
· Geared toward a black audience (but still maintain broad appeal — like hip-hop music and fried chicken)
This list does not need to be strictly adhered to in order to have a black exploitation movie. But those are some of the elements that are very common in many of the the movies. But where did it really start? When I think about the start of Blaxploitation, three movies come in focus; Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, 1971, Shaft, 1971 and Superfly, 1972. This is where most people think it all started. From these three movies the seeds were planted and they are the gold standard for the genre.
Well…sort of. I would have to go back at least four years to find the movie that I believe started it all — The Split, from 1968 and starring Jim Brown. This movie really blew my mind (this time). The plot follows a guy named McClain (no first or last name, just McClain), an ex-con that masterminds a daring heist, robbing the Las Angeles Coliseum ticket booth During a Rams football game. The heist goes well, but the money is lost due to complications and this pits McClain against the accomplices he recruited. Upshot: death and violence. The Split has a great cast. Besides Brown, there’s Gene Hackman, Warren Oates, Donald Sutherland, Julie Harris and Ernest Borgnine. The beautiful Dianne Carrol plays McClain’s ex-wife. Even though she had 2nd billing, it was a thankless role considering her screen time and brutal demise in the movie.
I was 11 years old and I didn’t have to be a film critic to figure out that Jim Brown was no Sidney Poitier. As a matter of fact, Sidney made a big budget movie in 1971 called The Organization, the same year Shaft and Sweetback were released. The Organization was a big budget Hollywood movie and Sidney was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time. The Organization was the third movie where Sidney Poitier portrayed the character Virgil Tibbs, following In the Heat of the Night, 1967 and They Call Me Mister Tibbs, 1970. Even though he was the star and hero, you still felt safe around Sidney. He never really lost his temper, he was very polite, he dressed like an insurance salesman and his diction was impeccable. Sidney’s character would never hit a white character unless he was punched/slapped first. But that was not true for Jim Brown’s McClain character.
In The Split, Brown’s character would bash your head in without even being angry. He didn’t speak the King’s English, he dressed stylishly, (not ghetto bawdy) and he was not perfect like Mr. Poitier. What a relief and a change of pace. Robert Chartoff, one of the producers of the movie said this about Brown’s character “This negro is no Harvard graduate on his way to winning the Noble Prize.” This was a statement that seemed to compare Brown’s character to the type of characters Sidney Poitier portrayed. Note: For all of the young people; don’t get offended by the word negro. That’s what they called African Americans and that’s what African Americans called themselves for a time. On my birth certificate, I’m not even called a negro, I’m listed as Colored!
For sure, Brown’s character was the type I had never seen before. There were many things about this movie that were rare for the time. First, here was an African American playing the lead role in an action movie. This may not sound like much today, a very low bar to jump over. But try to think of any other black action movie starring a black man before that. Poitier’s movies, even those where he played detectives, were mostly dramas. Next, the Brown character was a bad guy, an ex jailbird and a thief. Most of the thought of the day (and still a little today) was that African Americans should only play good guys because they have been denigrated so much in popular culture, they had to lean heavily in the other direction. They had to be perfect, polite, non-threatening humans, and if they smiled a lot — that was even better. Third, his character happened to be black. In other words, the movie was not about him being black and put into a situation where his race played a major role in the
trajectory of the story. But wisely, the movie did not ignore his blackness. A couple of the characters in the movie made it clear that he was black. Also, he was not a sidekick, just hanging around or going along for the ride while the white characters led the way. In this movie, he was the mastermind behind the heist. He recruited and tested the men for the job both physically and intellectually. And he did not have the “Green Mile” syndrome, where the big black man was simply there to give his very life in the service of Caucasians. In The Split, Brown killed almost his entire crew and lived to walk away from it with no tacked on apologies or psychological moral dilemmas.
For a young black boy this movie was a revelation. The Black Panthers were in the forefront of civil disobedience and their leather coats, beret hats, clenched fist and revolutionary rhetoric made a dent in my conciseness during my most malleable period. Newark and Detroit went up in flames the year before, Watts, a couple of years earlier than that. Martin Luther King and Bobby were assassinated in April and June of that year, the country was divided over the Viet Nam War, it was a Presidential election year, the Beatles grew facial hair, and John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised the Black Power clenched fist in front of the whole world at the Olympics.
In light of everything else that was going on, it was no surprise that a character like McClain would appear that same year. Jim Brown had already made five movies, four of them in 1968 alone. That year he appeared in Dark of the Sun (another great movie), Kenner, and Ice Station Zebra. But The Split was his first starring role. Even by the standards I listed above, it was not really a Blaxploitation movie. The movie was written with Lee Marvin in mind to play the lead, and looking at it now, I could easily see a white person playing that role. Compared to the Blaxploitation movies what would follow a few years later, The Split had a big budget, great acting and an understated tone.
Jim Brown would have a few more years on top. The next two years he would star and receive top billing in other movies such as 100 Rifles with Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds, Riot, with Gene Hackman again and …tick…tick…tic with George Kennedy. After Richard Roundtree, Ron O’Neal and Melvin Van Peebles ushered in the Blaxploitation genre, their careers never really reached the highs that Jim Brown had and he actually took over the mantle of the Blaxploitation genre with movies like, Slaughter, Slaughter’s Big Rip-off, Black Gun and Three the Hard Way among others. But by the middle 70s, Blaxploitation movies had run its course and those actors who played the heroes and heroines of those movies settled back into the supporting roles they were plucked from in the beginning Hollywood’s love of black cinema period. When the smoke cleared Sidney Poitier was still standing and was followed by Denzel, Wesley, and Will (Smith) as mainstream megastars. If you look on that great source of research material, Wikipedia, only two movies are listed as Blaxploitation movies by 1979, but that genre really died four years before that.
It’s clear that The Split does not neatly fit into the Blaxploitation genre. But it is also clear that a direct line could be drawn from this late 60s movie to the explosion of black hero movies in the early 70s. This movie had a bigger impact on me than the others that followed. The Blaxploitation movies (along with the entire 70s subculture) is now parodied endlessly by everyone. Those movies really aged badly and when you watch them now you can’t help but laugh at the unintentional comedy. It reminds me of when I look at photographs of myself in bell bottoms and consider, “What the F*** was I thinking!”
When I watched The Split on cable recently, I saw a little movie that I could still be proud of. It has not magically turned into a comedy. And the wardrobe, though antiquated, (It was 1968 after all) will not make you wince. It is a heist movie that did not get a lot of attention but has aged well and is still entertaining. It’s not a great movie, it really putters out toward the end. But for me as an 11-year-old, watching Jim Brown up there, kicking ass, the experience was remarkable.