Before today’s boyz in the hood were even in diapers, a wave of gritty, fiercely populist films introduced a decidedly stylized vision of black America to the screen. The early-’70s genre — blaxploitation — luxuriated in its defiance of pre-civil rights movie stereotypes and sometimes created new ones by featuring heroes who were often as morally ambiguous as their white counterparts.
Blaxploitation fizzled by mid-decade, a casualty of overexposure and changing tastes, but not before introducing the memorable ass-whupping amazon Foxy Brown, cool-but-conflicted drug dealer Super Fly, Mob-battling boxer B.J. Hammer, and vengeance-starved ex-Green Beret Slaughter. Now, some 20 years later, the actors who brought these pop-culture icons to life — former beauty contestant Pam Grier, 47; stage-trained Ron O’Neal, 58; ball stars Fred Williamson, 58, and Jim Brown, 60 — are teaming up. For Original Gangstas, opening May 10, producer Williamson cast himself and his colleagues (along with Shaft‘s Richard Roundtree) as former gang members who reunite to wipe crime off the streets of their Gary, Ind., hood. Here, the fab four share their views on black cinema, then and now.
How much influence did blaxploitation have on today’s African-American filmmakers?
O’Neal: I think that without us they wouldn’t be where they are now, and the wisest of them acknowledges that. When I came along there was only Sidney Poitier doing, you know, Lilies of the Field.
Brown: Oscar Micheaux made movies with black casts way back in the ’20s and ’30s. So he is more of an influence today than anybody.
Grier: The only influence
and it’s very little
is that today’s filmmakers appreciate the humor and energy of the films we did.
Williamson: No influence at all. Zip. Zero. It’s like it never happened.
What do you think of the recent crop of black action films like ”Dead Presidents”?
Grier: They’ve come a long way from the films we did in the ’70s, when a lot of the budgets were under a million. A lot of films today are about victims, but most of the films then were about empowerment. That’s a big difference.
Williamson: You would expect better quality, since you have bigger budgets, but I think some of the films we made in the ’70s were damn good. You look at the films now with blacks, they usually have a white star alongside the black star. When we were making our films, we were the total draw. We weren’t depending on any other species to carry the picture.
How do you react when you see stars like Wesley Snipes earning huge salaries?
Brown: I don’t. I feel that time and situations dictate certain things.
Grier: I think it’s fair, because their white counterparts get huge salaries.
O’Neal: I say it’s about time. I wish it could’ve been me, but that’s wishful thinking — that’s a waste of time.
Williamson: If I were starting out and doing the same thing Wesley is, I would be making the same kind of money. If I were playing the caliber of football today that I was when I played, I’d probably be part owner.