The following films have been selected by Cinema of Soul and DAARAC as the (top 21) essential blaxploitation films, titles that we would recommend to anyone beginning their exploration into the ethnic sub-genre.
Each title commonly rates high among blaxploitation fans in both entertainment value and name ID, as well as having unique historic or cultural value.
All synopses excerpted from the book, Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide, shared with permission from the author, Josiah Howard. Our list does NOT reflect his personal opinions or those of his book.
Across 110th Street (1972) - Action, Crime, Drama
When three black men rob a Harlem numbers racket, they find themselves pursued by both the NYC mob and the NYC police.
A smash hit at the box office, this over-praised 'examination' of racism and corruption in the New York City police department (played against a backdrop of two feuding mob factions, one in Harlem, one in Little Italy) is a stretched and very tired, super-violent and relentlessly downbeat attempt to create a blaxploitation film that not only entertains but also sheds light on the socio-political issues of the day.
(In alphabetical order)
From shoe-shine boy to top mafia kingpin, the story of a Harlem youth's rise and fall in New York City's crime world.
The tragic tale of a broken home and misguided dreams, Black Caesar holds it's own against Super Fly as one of blaxploitation's most carefully construted and consistently engaging entries.
In 1780, an African prince on a trip abroad is bitten by Count Dracula and placed in a coffin. 200 years later the coffin is opened in Los Angeles and havoc ensues.
'Blacula' (his actual character name is Mamuwalde) is played by William Marshall, who is, as always, refined, grand and erudite. Taking his part very seriously (except when he orders a 'Bloody Mary' at a bar!), and looking genuinely scary in his transformation makeup, Marshall is perfect as the all-knowing vampire.
A day in the life of the workers and neighborhood residents who live in the vicinity of a Los Angeles car wash.
Silly, episodic and slight, Car Wash is a colorful period piece; a summer film release that entertained inner city audiances who were on the lookout for some relief from the stifling heat.
When a US narcotics agent destroys a poppy field worth $30,000,000, she becomes the target of an embittered drug queen.
Cleopatra Jones is the embodiment of the liberated '70s woman who can, and does, take care of herself. An expert in foreign affairs (and karate) she is a slick, regal and wholesome super-hero fashioned to appeal to a broad general audience. Model turned actress Tamara Dobson is everything she should be in the title role.
A nurse goes on a killing rampage when her 11 year old sister gets hooked on heroin.
The best of the many 'female hero' blaxploitation entires (director Quentin Tarantino called it, "one of the most entertaining movies ever made."), Coffy is a shockingly violent and unapologetically gory revenge fantasy; one of only six blaxploitation films to take the No. 1 spot on Variety's 50 Top Grossing films list.
Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) - Action, Comedy
When $87,000 in donations is stolen, two policemen believe there is more to the theft than meets the eye.
It's easy to understand why Cotton Comes to Harlem thrilled audiences. At the time the film was released, there really had never been anything else quite like it. Incorporating comedy, action and drama, and colorfully telling the story of a diverse group of African Americans living and working in Harlem, USA, everything about the film seemed novel and forward-thinking.
A nightclub performer is framed on a bogus drug charge and sent to prison - only to be let out so that he can prove himself innocent.
Dolemite, a $90,000 production, has become a cult classic and favorite of bad movie lovers around the globe. As Dolemite, Rudy Ray Moore envelops himself in his tried and true rhymes and embellishes them with outlandish costumes, slapstick situations, karate fight sequences, and a bevy of beautiful women.
A young woman, out to avenge her brother's death, poses as a prostitute to infiltrate a drug ring.
This 'female hero' revenge fantasy is, today, one of blaxploitation's most popular films. From the very beginning of the picture it is clear that Pam Grier, fresh from her success with Coffy, has ascended into that rarified category go black superstar.
Hit Man (1972) - Crime, Drama
A small time hood resolves to violently avenge his brother's murder.
San Franciso 49ers football star-turned actor Bernie Casey plays Tyron Tackett, a small-time criminal who has come to town to bury his brother. Studly, streetwise and refreshingly real, Casey's single-minded determination and quest for righteousness is arresting. Pam Grier plays a prostitute named Gozelda (in one of her pre-superstar supporting roles), and here she effortlessly enhances her legendary status as walking, talking cinematic goddess.
The Mack (1973) - Crime, Drama
A petty Los Angeles criminal transforms himself into the city's most financially successful pimp.
Though it does not play as well today, at the time of it's release The Mack (Slang for pimp) was a huge success that, like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song before it, dared to present an African-American outlaw as a folk hero.
Mandingo (1975) - Drama, History, Romance
Life on a formerly-grand Southern plantation turns sour when the master of the house's son falls in love with a slave.
1975's Mandingo was one of the first films to invert Hollywood's popular presentation of contented slaves and their fair-minded masters. Here white plantation heir Hammond Maxwell (Perry King) enjoys a fringe benefit - Ellen (Brenda Sykes), a young black slave girl.
A wrongly accused man comes away from his imprisonment with experiences that help him on a new life path.
This unsettling look at life behind the walls of a brutal prison was a hit with both audiences and critics. Leon Issac Kennedy plays Martel 'Too Sweet' Gordone, a drifter who, while defending a woman in a diner brawl becomes wrongly implicated in a murder.
Shaft (1971) - Action, Crime, Thriller
A New York City police detective is hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem drug lord.
This standard detective story, featuring a young African-American male in a starring role, is one of blaxploitation's most discussed pictures. Richard Roundtree plays John Shaft, a hip, jive-talking, streetwise detective, who also happens to be quite the ladies man.
America's first black CIA agent quits and puts his top-secret knowledge of guerrilla warfare to use on the streets of Chicago.
Less sensational and much more serious than it's title might suggest, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is a bleak, very violent, militant-minded film that, at the time of it's release, cause quite a stir.
A Harlem cocaine dealer puts together a plan to retire from the drug trade.
Directed by Gordon parks Jr., Super Fly is that rare film in which each performer seems to top the one preceding them on screen. Ron O'Neil gives what would turn out to be his signature performance in the lead as the elaborately coiffed, hip dressing, and street-tough dope dealer Priest.
(One of only six blaxploitation films to top Variety's Top Grossing films list.)
After attacking two police officers who have brutalized a suspect, an African-American 'sexual stud' flees and is pursued by the law.
A bombastic, offensive and politically incorrect examination of one black mans journey toward self-reliance and respect. A smash hit with audiences, and one of only six blaxploitation films to top Variety's Top Grossing films list. Sweetback is a distinctly personal and extremely confrontational statement film.
Three the Hard Way (1974) - Action, Thriller
When a wealthy neo-Nazi develops a serum that will kill all blacks, three powerful African-American men combine forces to foil the plot.
They're all here in one picture! Jim Brown as Jimmy Lait, a Los Angeles-based record promoter, Jim Kelly as Mr. Keyes, Lait's New York-based karate expert friend and Fred Williamson as Chicago business man Jagger Daniels. All three are macho, cool, larger than life super-heros who can take on all-comers with consummate ease.
A gambling ring hires popular underground figure Mr. T to find out who is at the boittom of a string of robberies.
Robert Hooks is superb in the lead as Mr. T, a jack-of-all-trades (in this instance hired as a private investigator). Attractive and charismatic (he wears $300 suits), intimidating (he beats up and kills several people) sexually attractive (he has a number of young, eager girls who can be called on for favors), and informed (he knows exactly what's going on at every crap shoot in town), Mr. T is a macho-fantasy figure for the masses - a take-
charge super-hero who, though tough, believes in justice and has a heart.
Truck Turner (1974) - Action, Crime, Thriller
After killing a popular Madame's boyfriend, a bounty hunter finds himself being pursued by the mob.
Nichelle Nichols (best known for her goody-two-shoes African-American female space-travel character on T V's Star Trek) as Dorinda, a slutty, filthy mouthed, shrill, gun-toting, merciless, and unrepentantly violent Madame.
Breathtakingly crude (this is one of only two blaxploitation films that features a female character using the word "pussy" - the other is Melinda).
A New York City pimp and a social worker vie for control of a young prostitute's destiny.
The film's poster art is utterly deceiving. What would appear to be a gritty, hardcore and depressing film is, instead, a jaunty, costume-heavy, inner-city fantasy picture.
Mr. Howard's second book, Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide (now in a fourth printing) provided readers with a broad and sweeping overview of America's one and only African-American motion picture boom. A compendium of of more than 250 film reviews as well as Q & A interviews with actors, directors and producers, Blaxploitation Cinema is "required reading" at several universities and film schools. Film Review cited the book as "... a mine of superbly collated information... a treasure trove on an under-examined film genre," while American Library Journal observed "... truth in advertising; an essential addition to your film book library." Today, Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide remains the primary source on the genre; cited in more than 60 books, magazines, newspapers, websites and scholarly works.