The black exploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s were just that—EXPLOITATION. These films lacked the importance of family structure, the church, and education as tools of survival in a white supremacist society. They emulated gangster life and ignored education as a weapon against drug addiction. These movies used small time pimps which ignored the fact that drugs were introduced in large quantities into the black community by cartels through governmental agencies.
Superfly, The Mack, Trick Baby, etc. were films that glorified criminals. Black super heroes also developed with films like the original Shaft, Black Belt Jones, and others. However, these films presented white supremacy as it was meted out against the poor and criminal elements without any historical context that could have connected the legacy of racism and slavery to the oppressive conditions in America. From these films, “political prisoners” were wedded to criminal elements as opposed to being the victims of political oppression. The struggle for human rights was presented as antagonistic to a “brother just trying to get over.” With these films, the idea of what a political prisoner is became corrupted. Political prisoners are those jailed for acts against the government, not those jailed for crimes against the people. One could argue that criminals are the victims of political oppression but not political prisoners.
The Black Panther 10-Point Program provides insight about the victims of political oppression: “We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails. We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States . . . .” In all of this, they did not excuse criminal behavior and recognized that criminals must still be brought to trial if they committed a crime against the people.
The exploitation films provided a collapsed understanding of the fight against white supremacy into a form of infantile resistance “against the man.” The mass fight for justice was collapsed into criminality. Street thugs became the heroes prompting the original Black Panther Party to develop the slogan, “Capitalism plus dope equals genocide.” Drugs were strategically weaponized to control the black community. Discussion of drugs as a weapon of control was avoided to explain exploitation. There are some exceptions (Glory, The Color Purple, Lean on Me, the rise of Spike Lee films, etc.) that spoke to the power of the human spirit, however, much of the same stereotypical projections continued.
The black super hero emerged with Shaft (though he was a womanizer and engaged in criminal activity), provided the marginalized with a hero of sorts. However, none of these well-told stories went beyond racist stereotypes. The social, economic, and psychological components of control were avoided in black film. Unfortunately, talented and masterful music (Curtis Mayfield) and fancy dress was used to entice movie goers into accepting the racist themes. Crime and drugs were not presented as a tool of oppression but were stripped of their real danger with the use of intoxicating music to justify the screen action. In Superfly these words became a horror that is still a problem: “Ain't I clean, bad machine, Super cool, super mean, Feelin' good, for the man, Superfly, here I stand, Secret stash, heavy bread, Baddest b . . . . . s, in the bed”