by: Justin Guarini
Definition: Blaxploitation or blacksploitation is a film genre which emerged in the United States in the 1970s. It is considered an ethnic subgenre of the general category of exploitation films. Blaxploitation films were originally made specifically for an urban black audience, although the genre’s audience appeal soon broadened to cross-racial and ethnic lines. The term itself is a portmanteau of the words “black” and “exploitation,” and was coined in the early 1970s by the Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) head, and ex-film publicist Junius Griffin. Blaxploitation films were the first to regularly feature soundtracks of funk and soul music as well as primarily black casts.
When I took the role of “Priest” in the new musical “Superfly”, I had barely scratched the surface of what Blaxploitation was. I knew of it. I had heard and made plenty of jokes about the term “Superfly”, but I really didn’t fully understand the struggle of my people (something I still grapple with because of my solid lack of identity with any race, due to my multi-ethnic heritage) and the bitter pills they had to swallow while making these films.
Then again, were they bitter pills to them? After all, what other movies did Black people have starring roles in during the time? I don’t have the numbers but I’m going to go out on a limb and say, very few. There was/is Sydney Poitier, and his contemporary Harry Belafonte; Claudia McNeil, and her counterpart Juanita Moore …but they were/are four in a small handful of Black actors that were given the “privilege” of starring in major studio productions.
In the musical “Superfly” I encountered the beautiful and at times haunting music of the era. Curtis Mayfield’s title track was, of course, the signature piece in the show. However, woven throughout the sonic tapestry were pieces from Issac Hayes, James Brown (Say it LOUD), and even Bob Dylan. Rich history laid bare before my feet…feet that have walked, with ease, the path that was slashed, burned and bled for well before I was born. I dare say that I would not have even been born had the heralds before me not given their all to beg, borrow, steal, and ultimately forge a way for me.
At first it was humorous to see myself in the wig at Chuck Lapoint’s shop:
Then as the face came together, I was surprised to say the least at the result…still unaware of the education I was about to receive at the hands of a master:
it wasn’t until I was deep in the flesh of the piece and wearing my full costume (something that Bill T. Jones ((the aforementioned Master)) made me do every day while I played “Priest”, unlike the other actors) that I truly understood the gravity of who I was playing, and the weight of the history that rested on my shoulders.
Whoever says that Theater isn’t transformative…well, either they’re not doing their homework, or they haven’t been blessed with the opportunity to delve deep into their own psyche, genetic makeup, and understanding of the world in order to fully embody a complete stranger.