In Hollywood, it’s often difficult to tell the difference between the people who are being exploited and the people who are selling out. Those two morally dubious impulses had a full flowering during the early 1970s in the black narcissus of film genres: blaxploitation.

Made mostly by white producers who wanted as much sex, violence and race hatred jammed into each picture as possible, the movies also provided more work for black actors than at any other time in Hollywood’s history.

Still, as the Hollywood colossus moves further and further from making real genre movies, the enchantments of such distinctive inner-city entertainments as “Superfly,” “Foxy Brown” and “Blacula” – “Dracula’s soul brother!” – loom ever larger. Just in time for Black History Month, MGM has released “The Best of Soul Cinema” ($62.96), a five-disc DVD set that includes such popular titles as “Hell Up in Harlem,” “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown.”

Less a contraction than an accusation, the word “blaxploitation”- with its eruptive “x” conveying a sense of moral corruption – was the inadvertent coinage of Junius Griffin, head of the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP. Griffin despised the films for their portrayal of blacks as pimps and drug dealers, referring to them dismissively as “black exploitation,” which soon was shortened by Hollywood to give the genre a name.

Early hits such as Ossie Davis’ “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970), Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and Gordon Parks’ “Shaft” (both released in 1971) and Gordon Parks Jr.’s “Superfly” (1972) all were made by black directors.

In fact, John Shaft, immortalized in Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme song as “the black private dick who’s a sex machine,” originally was going to be a white guy. But when Van Peebles’ “Baadasssss” opened to strong response at black-owned theaters in Detroit and Atlanta, “Shaft” was retooled, and Richard Roundtree was cast in the title role. The picture made $12 million and saved MGM from bankruptcy.

Smelling money, such B-movie producers and distributors as Samuel Z. Arkoff, who controlled a lot of what appeared on drive-in movie screens in the “60s, scrambled to take control of these movies. They continued to provide an unprecedented level of opportunity for black actors, but now the actors were working for The Man.

Before 1970, black cinema in America consisted almost entirely of Sidney Poitier movies, and in 1967 he was one of Hollywood’s top box-office stars, appearing in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “To Sir, With Love” and “In the Heat of the Night.” But Poitier had not appeared in a picture with a black backdrop or a predominantly African-American cast until 1961, with “A Raisin in the Sun.”

“He was always the perfect image of the middle-class African-American, and black audiences felt that was just one version of who they were,” says Christine Acham, an assistant professor of African American and African Studies at the University of California-Davis.

So even though “The Mack” glorified pimp culture, and “Superfly” made a hero of a dope dealer named Priest, the characters were embraced by a black audience that felt politically and economically marginalized. These black men had money, status and power, and their characters were seen as entrepreneurial, dressed in finery, and unfailingly vanquishing The Man.

“People were frustrated with the lack of change going on in the country after being promised a lot of things by the government that never materialized,” recalls Acham, who currently is researching a book on blaxploitation films. “If you look at “Superfly,’ the subtext is that he beats The Man.

It all would end very suddenly. In 1972, Paramount spent $600,000 to make Fred Williamson’s blaxploitation Western “The Legend of Nigger Charley,” which grossed $10 million. But the studio also discovered a crossover black audience for its Italian gangster epic “The Godfather,” released the same year. Warner Brothers released “Superfly” in 1972, but a year later found that “The Exorcist” had even wider appeal to African-American audiences, with none of the political fallout from the NAACP.

When the documentary “Baadasssss Cinema” was released in 2002, a reporter attempted to interview Ron O’Neal, who’d starred in “Superfly,” but the actor replied sadly, “There’s nothing left to say about me or “Superfly.”‘ He died of cancer last month at 66, a mostly forgotten figure.

Yet nobody who saw his spectacularly coiffed pusher, Youngblood Priest, most likely ever will forget “the dude with a plan to stick it to The Man.”



THE BEST OF SOUL CINEMA

MGM, $62.96, includes:

“Coffy”: (1973), directed by Jack Hill

“Hell Up in Harlem”: (1973), directed by Larry Cohen

“Foxy Brown”: (1974), directed by Jack Hill

“Cooley High”: (1975), directed by Michael Schultz

“I’m Gonna Git You Sucka”: (1988), directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans



OTHER TITLES AVAILABLE ON DVD

“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”: (1971), directed by Melvin Van Peebles

“Shaft”: (1971), directed by Gordon Parks, remade in 2000 by John Singleton

“Superfly”: (1972), directed by Gordon Parks Jr.

“The Mack”: (1973), directed by Michael Campus



(c) 2004, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Visit MercuryNews.com, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at http://www.mercurynews.com.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-02-17-04 0625EST



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