By Wil Forbis
February 1 2010
It seems an absurd question at first. To draw parallels between the funky, jive-a-licious, booty-shaking era of African-American cinema known as Blaxploitation and our current president --- a man whose dispassionate, professorial character is about as funky as an accounting spreadsheet --- seems like a strained effort. Even Senate leader Harry Reid's unearthed election-year comment that Obama's light skin and articulate speech would make him palatable to voters was an acknowledgment of Obama's distance from black street culture. And the reason that the occasional joke alluding to Obama being a "gangsta" or "pimp" falls so flat is that --- to anyone with a reasonable sense of America's cultural makeup --- the president is more Steve Urkel than Superfly.
But we here at acid logic have long argued that absurd premises often contain a grain of truth... that up is sometimes down, that wrong is sometimes right and, yes, black is sometimes white!
Let me ask the question a different way: would Barack Obama have been elected president had the Blaxploitation film movement never occurred? Almost upon utterance, this question too gets dragged into a quagmire of counter thoughts. Had Blaxploitation never occurred, then one would presume that the cultural forces that caused Blaxploitation to come to be would also be null, in which case, we would be looking at a very different America right now. But if we ignore these rather Star Trek-ish musings on disrupting the time space continuum etc., I think we can use this question to analyze whether what happened in pop culture during the 70s reverberates today.
Since their inception, movies have played a big part in how citizens of this country, and citizens of the world, view each other. At their worst, movies reinforce negative or false stereotypes of the various ethnicities comprising the stew of America. At their best, they challenge viewer's biases and endow members of ethnic groups with the complete spectrum of human characteristics. Most people would agree that Blaxploitation was part of a change in how the majority of America viewed black people. Up until the 60s, black characters in movies were largely played as comedic boobs or menacing thugs. This limited repertoire started to expand with the advent of the civil rights movement (particularly in the career of actor Sidney Poitier) but didn't really cement into a meaningful, diverse range of characters until the onslaught of the Blaxploitation films of the 70s. (Frankly, quite a number of the black characters in Blaxploitation films were also cartoonish or absurd, but progress was made.)
How much did Blaxploitation force things to change? Let's consider this: if you went up to a black teenager in 1975 and asked him whether he anticipated that there would be a black president within the next half century, what would his response have been? I suspect one of two options. Either, "Damn right!" followed by a diatribe on how Smokey Carmichael, Huey P. Newton or some other hero of black nationalism was going to lead a revolution into the White House (see Parliament's "Chocolate City" for this theory in song form), or, "Hell no!" followed by a litany of complaints on how blacks would never be allowed to advance to the upper echelons of the political class.* Each answer has obvious flaws, but they indicate what part of the problem was: Blacks (and whites) couldn't visualize what an electable African-American presidential candidate would look like. Blaxploitation had undoubtably expanded the range of black characters shown on screen to include positive, noble and even inspirational role models, but these characters were still mostly antiauthoritarian, certainly not potential members of the political class. And they were almost exclusively loyal to black culture before larger society (e.g. "the Man.") Such attributes do not define the kind of person capable of opening the doors of the White House.
* I base these answers on conversations with black teenagers I have known. Their number may exceed three.
However, Blaxploitation's influence did not evaporate at the end of the 70s. During the next decade, blacks continued to expand the repertoire of characters whom they portrayed. Particularly, these characters began to move into positions of authority: black cops, black judges, black teachers. (The weary black police Captain --- usually played by Yaphet Kotto --- to whom the rogue detective must explain his actions, became a cliché.) Additionally, we saw the rise of black characters whose first loyalty was to the "establishment" not their race. How many times did we see the following scene in movies from the 80s? A black police Sergeant hauls in a street pimp. The pimp mewls something like, "Take it easy, brother," to which the cop gruffly replies, "I am not your brother!"
The 90s continued the trend of black characters moving their way up the ladder of society. But these characters still contained an undeniable element of "blackness." Wesley Snipes might've played an FBI agent, but it was always in the context of a role that could not be played by a Caucasian, or Asian. Whether by speech, swagger or dialogue, something always defined black characters of this era as black. One actor changed that.
Will Smith was the first black actor to play lead roles that could've just as easily gone to Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise. In the mid-90s he starred in a string of films --- "Independence Day," "Men in Black," "Enemy of the State" --- where his role had little obvious reference to his race. (If anything, Smith has made a point of tackling roles previously defined by white actors; look at his characters in "Wild Wild West" and "I Am Legend.") People talk about the election of Barack Obama as a moment when America transcended race. Of course, that's ridiculous --- race is still with us, and if it ever is transcended it won't occur in one moment but a collection of moments --- but I would argue that Smith's appearances in these films constituted several of such moments. (So much so that you get the sense that Smith at times struggles to maintain his black identity -- indeed, there's something offkilter about watching him play decidedly urban black roles like his character in the "Bad Boys" films.)
Smith essentially served as the prototype Obama --- affable, not at war with the establishment, skilled and competent. Perhaps the real question here is whether Barack Obama would've been elected had Will Smith not done his turn in films? (Or, had Dennis Haysbert not appeared as a black president on "24.") Smith's popularity as a actor, particularly one who played roles not bound by race, was no doubt part of what signaled to the political establishment that a black presidential candidate was a tenable proposition. And Smith's success was indebted to the numerous black actors who came before him, particularly those in the groundbreaking era of Blaxploitation.