Starting in the ‘70s, the Blaxploitation era has evolved into a legitimate genre that has allowed Afro-American artists to redefine their cultural identity through a mix of action, tongue-in-cheek comedy, drama, and in certain cases, horror and fantasy. The ‘golden era’ of Blaxploitation films gave rise to iconic movies such as Shaft, Superfly, and Dolemite – culminating in Dolemite is My Name which was released in 2019. It was a contemporary tribute to some of the key players behind this gigantic cultural phenomenon. But while this genre has been equally criticized and celebrated through its most famous films, there are many more that have remained underrated for their significance and impact.
Pootie Tang (2001)
Born as a sketch from The Chris Rock Show, the inherently comedic and tongue-in-cheek nature of Blaxploitation as a cinematic genre is fully explored in Pootie Tang. In a nutshell, this movie is a hilarious, magic-realist tale of a belt-swinging hyper-action hero from the hood – backdropped by a pessimistic examination of modern mass media. Expect all the classic angles and themes of revenge, riches, betrayal, fame, violence, and romance. But don’t be fooled by the bad reviews – Pootie Tang could be the greatest purely-comedic tribute to the history of Blaxploitation cinema.
Leprechaun 5: In The Hood (2000)
In the vein of Blaxploitation horror classics such as Blacula and Blackenstein comes Leprechaun 5: In The Hood. In the modern era, this movie was the first to successfully combine the Blaxploitation genre with another iconic fantasy character that’s not only on par with Blaxploitation itself but also thrives on the same themes of riches and fate: the Irish Leprechaun.
In fact, In the Hood is the fifth installment in the Leprechaun series, which spanned 1993 to 2018. The Leprechaun has also been kept alive and relevant by the series adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods on Amazon Prime. One reason the myth is so easily adaptable is how it transcends traditional media, and the Leprechaun has been used by a number of different entertainment companies across mediums due to its global recognition, with online developers using the mythical creature to find new audiences. Leading gaming provider Foxy Bingo has a slew of popular games that feature the Leprechaun, including Rainbow Riches, Banks of Gold, and Wild Wild Riches. And as sure as Lucky Charms are being served on breakfast tables everywhere, Leprechaun 5: In The Hood is a combination of two genres that perfectly played to each other’s archetypes and surrounding themes.
Cleopatra Jones (1974)
Before the silver screen was graced by the likes of the Wakandan princess and tech genius Shuri, the red-clad Adelaide Wilson from Us, and Set It Off’s Cleo, there was Cleopatra Jones. This action movie was the first to resist portraying its statuesque hero, in this case the incomparable Tamara Dobson, as a sexual object. Indiewire recalls how it was Dobson herself who insisted on avoiding any nude scenes, deliberately separating herself from the prevalent hypersexuality of other black heroines from the ‘golden era’ of Blaxploitation. While it’s certainly far from being a feminist masterpiece, there’s no denying that Cleopatra Jones became a household name for paving the way for black and female representation in mass media. Sure Cleopatra sometimes wore revealing clothes – but that was the extent of her sexualization. Throughout most of the film, the heroine was treated the same as any male leading role in the genre. In fact, apart from setting off arguments about feminist media, Cleopatra Jones is also famous for its iconic, zero-effects 5-minute car chase. With a black woman at the steering wheel, Cleopatra Jones remains a ‘70s action classic that has stood the test of time.
Three the Hard Way (1974)
There are several reasons why this classic Blaxploitation film has managed to set itself apart from the many other similar films from the genre’s ‘golden era.’ For one, its $2 million budget makes it the most expensive Blaxploitation movie from the ‘70s. The budget was used not only to shoot on location in different U.S. states, but also to hire football legends Fred Williamson and Jim Brown, as well as martial artist Jim Kelly, as “The Big Three” stars of the film. And last but certainly not least, its James Bond-esque story involving a devious, nation-engulfing white supremacist plot harkens back to the core intentions of the genre itself in redefining cinema for black America.