‘They created a new blueprint’: the legacy of Blaxploitation film posters

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“Don’t mess roun’ with Foxy Brown,” warns a poster, depicting a sitting Pam Grier, legs crossed in a green dress, scenes of her violent escapades laid out at her feet. The design, lurid and suggestive, is instantly recognizable as a Blaxploitation film poster, a distinctive and enduring style.

Related: Blaxploitation salvation: film directors’ children on rescuing their fathers’ lost movies

Blaxploitation posters are brightly colored, sexy and intense, with vignette snapshots clustered together. Women are often scantily clad. Guns are shown in full view. They forwardly promote sex and violence yet ooze cool, meant to show the tone of the film in a glimpse in lieu of large promotional budgets. In short, they’re provocative. “There are very few people you encounter who have no opinion or have no reaction to it. It evokes a lot of feelings in people,” said Adam Howard, curator of the new Posterhouse exhibition, You Won’t Bleed Me: How Blaxploitation Defined Cool and Delivered Profits.

Curated by Full Frontal with Samantha Bee associate producer and avid movie poster enthusiast Howard, You Won’t Bleed Me displays the posters and other marketing materials like soundtracks of the rebellious Blaxploitation era. The exhibit, displayed in chronological order, examines these posters as historical documents in the larger socio-artistic movement. Sourced from collector Mathieu Bitton, the posters communicate the distinctive and distinguishing tone and style of the Blaxploitation films featured. “This material is very polarizing. For everybody who thinks these Blaxploitation movies are campy fun, there’s a lot of people who think they are really off-putting and problematic,” Howard reiterated. “I’m probably somewhere in the middle. I totally understand people’s reservations about the movies but, at the same time, I think they’re interesting and there’s usually almost always something to take out of any of them that might be useful.”

The oft-imitated cultural film style lasted from 1970 to 1979 and introduced stars like Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite, Brenda Sykes, Pam Grier, Fred Williamson and more to larger audiences. The genre laughed in the face of taboos, deliberately depicting subjects considered gauche in the American consciousness like revenge against white oppressive figures, interracial romances, and underground societies. Despite not being well-received by critics (the New Yorker called Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song “furiously tasteless”) and some civil rights organizations, Blaxploitation was the interaction of Black life and Black people colliding with traditionally white cinema.

You Won’t Bleed Me treats the genre and its art with the reverence it was previously denied, focusing on both its shortcomings and successes. Blaxploitation allowed for representation for representation-ravenous Black moviegoers. Illustrious Black directors and countless actors were finally able to express themselves under the umbrella of Blaxploitation, conveying more realistic Black experiences. Decorated stage actor Ossie Davis, notable photographer Gordon Parks Sr, and film star Sidney Poitier all directed movies during the era, lending their prestige to the new and experimental film style. “These are all exceptional Black people, compared to the grindhouse directors who are white who made a lot of these films. So, they’re already being held to a different standard in order to even get to the director’s chair. But that being said, the commercial success of some of these movies, I think, certainly created more of a space for the directors that came after them. Hollywood will, at least, acknowledge, ‘Oh, OK, these films made money, so clearly Black directors are capable of making movies that make money,’” Howard said.

The success of Blaxploitation not only aided directors, it also catapulted an entire batch of previously ignored Black talent to stardom. A 1973 article featured in the exhibit’s materials demonstrates how impactful the films were to working Black female actors of the time. Titled The Battle Among the Beauties, an Ebony writer explores the benefits of the Blaxploitation boom, crediting it with more roles with depth for Black female actors in Hollywood. “In almost total disregard for Black women ... films for the most part have shunned realistic images in favor of stereotypes. But new variations of old themes have seen women thrust into increasingly larger roles and the magic formula reverses in some instances to give us the women as hero or superhero,” reads the article excerpt. “The Black Movie Boom has created jobs for young Black actresses and has introduced such new talents as Pam Grier, Vonetta McGee, Gloria Hendry, Tamara Dobson, Judy Pace, Esther Anderson, Paula Kelly, Carol Speed, Lisa Moore, Rosalind Cash, Jacki Demar, Rosalind Miles, Kathy Imrie, Sheila Frasier and Brenda Sykes.”

Despite its flaws, the genre allowed for a more well-rounded look at Blackness than previously offered by Hollywood. “[Blaxploitation] put to bed the singular portrayal of African Americans. [The ones] that you saw before that were usually either very docile and non-threatening or [were] there strictly for comedic effect. Regardless of the quality of some of these films, [Blaxploitation] certainly created a new blueprint for what Black masculinity or Black femininity could be onscreen,” observed Howard. While the depictions on screen were not perfect, Howard noted the genre presented the opportunity “to present a slightly, if still skewed and still stereotypical, authentic flavor of the Black experience from using the slang and the clothing and the attitude that wasn’t present [in previous African American portrayals]”.

“I was just musing to someone the other day about how you watch these classic Hollywood films, and if there’s ever a Black person at all, they’re inevitably the maid or the butler and they’re standing in the corner or they’re dashing in to retrieve a coffee cup or something. But they’re not people. They’re certainly not people who have personality, or get angry or who have sex. Looking at these movies in that context, it’s easier for me at least to see why they were important and, for some people, inspirational,” the curator remarked.

Though not the most popular nor critically acclaimed, the genre was beloved and preserved in the hearts of its viewers, perhaps for the promise of retribution, leading ladies or even the visual and sonic appeal of the posters and soundtracks. Howard pointed out hip-hop and rap stars have used the era for inspiration, emulating poster styles for cover art and visuals, using soundtracks for samples and even adopting monikers like Biggie Smalls and Foxy Brown.

With its unique style, Blaxploitation continues to inspire, making it a notable reference point for contemporary artists and film-makers alike. The posters, movies and soundtracks of Blaxploitation films were glimmers of hope, of color, in a sea of white-controlled representation. “African Americans have always been overrepresented in terms of people who physically go to the movies and, unfortunately, the movies haven’t always loved us back in terms of giving us a wider representation of our experience and who we are and what we’re capable of. And yet, we’re always kind of hopeful and I think we turn lemons into lemonade,” Howard said. “The portrayal of people of color on film is never going to be perfect but I’m all for trying to continue to get to a better place.”

  • You Won’t Bleed Me: How Blaxploitation Posters Defined Cool & Delivered Profits is on display at PosterHouse in New York until 6 February, 2022

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