Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in Shaft (1971) – MGM
Blaxploitation movies were all the rage during the early 1970s. Blaxploitation is simply a term combining the words “black” and “exploitation.” Generally low-budget offerings, blaxploitation films often feature tough, gritty African-American heroes and villains in challenging urban settings.
Here are the ten best blaxploitation movie characters from the Golden Age of that memorable genre. We begin in the Big Apple…
Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, Shaft (MGM, 1971)
Ernest Tidyman’s literary character first came to the big screen in July 1971, with Richard Roundtree playing John Shaft, a black private eye who operates out of an office in mid-town Manhattan. Harlem gangster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) hires Shaft to find his missing daughter, who’s been kidnapped by the Mafia. Roundtree excels in the role as the super cool, self-described “spade detective,” greatly assisted by Gordon Parks’ direction and Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft.” Yeah, baby, “Who’s the black private dick/That’s a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft? Ya damn right!”
William Marshall as Prince Mamuwalde, Blacula (American International, 1972)
The horror film met the civil rights movement in 1972 when William Marshall took a bite out of the silver screen as Prince Mamuwalde a.k.a. Blacula. In 1780, the African prince and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) are on a tour of Europe, visiting Transylvania where the infamous Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) imprisons them. Luva dies in captivity while the racist Dracula turns her husband into a vampire, biting him on the neck and declaring, “I will curse you with my name…You shall be – Blacula!” Two gay interior decorators later purchase the furnishings of Dracula’s old castle, including a coffin holding the sleeping Blacula. The reanimated Blacula is now set loose on modern day Los Angeles, hitting the nightclubs, charming the young women and going about his bloody business. “That is one strange dude!” a young black brother proclaims after meeting Blacula.
Ron O’Neal as Youngblood Priest, Super Fly (Warner Bros., 1972)
Ron O’Neal stars as Youngblood Priest a.k.a. Super Fly, a black cocaine dealer who peddles his dope on the mean streets of New York City. Skilled in the martial arts and the owner of a customized 1971 Cadillac Eldorado, the fashion plate Priest is planning one more big score before he quits the drug business for good. One of the biggies in the blaxploitation genre, the ultra cool Super Fly was directed by Gordon Parks Jr. and features music by the one and only Curtis Mayfield. “Freddie’s dead/That’s what I said…Everybody’s misused him/Ripped him off and abused him/Another junkie plan/Pushin’ dope for the man.”
French movie poster: Ron O’Neal in Super Fly (1972)
Tamara Dobson as Cleopatra Jones, Cleopatra Jones (Warner Bros., 1973)
The towering 6’2″ Tamara Dobson plays Cleopatra Jones, an Amazonian government agent who kicks ass and takes names as she battles international drug traffickers. This have-you-met Miss Jones incurs the vengeful wrath of drug kingpin Mommy (Shelley Winters), who orders a contract hit on the super agent. A former fashion model who appeared in Vogue, Mademoiselle, Essence and Ebony, Dobson is pure dynamite as the deadly Cleo Jones, sporting a monster Afro and tooling about town in her midnight black Corvette. “What’s wrong with you woman? Why can’t you just open a door like a normal person?” an incredulous Snake (Christopher Joy) asks, after Cleo Jones busts in and makes her grand entrance.
Fred Williamson as Tommy Gibbs, Black Caesar (American International, 1973)
Former professional football player Fred “The Hammer” Williamson stars as Tommy Gibbs, who earns his stripes as a contract killer for the Mafia. Tommy eventually garners his own territory in Harlem, where he engages in the usual criminal pursuits while establishing himself as one of the most ruthless – yet best-dressed – gangsters in the city. Mr. James Brown mightily contributes to the movie’s soulful soundtrack, singing “Down and Out in New York City” and “Mama’s Dead.” Hail Caesar, baby!
Title lobby card: Fred Williamson as Tommy Gibbs in Black Caesar (1973)
Pam Grier as Coffy, Coffy (American International, 1973)
The fabulous Pam Grier plays Coffy, an L.A. nurse who goes on the offensive when her little sis is juiced by some bad heroin. Coffy then targets drug dealers, pimps, mobsters and any other subterranean lowlifes, including the dirty King George (Robert DoQui), who cruises the mean streets in his 1961 Cadillac Fleetwood. “They call her Coffy and she’ll cream you!” blared the movie’s tagline. You go girl!
Jim Kelly as Black Belt Jones, Black Belt Jones (Warner Bros., 1974)
The always cool Jim Kelly plays Black Belt Jones, a martial arts practitioner who comes to the rescue when goombahs invade the ‘hood. The mob boys want to take over old Pop Byrd’s (Scatman Crothers) karate emporium, but the slashing, high-kicking Mr. Jones has something to say about that. “He clobbers the mob,” the movie’s promo material promised. Yes, think the black Bruce Lee.
Isaac Hayes as Mac “Truck” Turner, Truck Turner (American International, 1974)
Isaac Hayes comes out smoking as Truck Turner, a bounty hunter who puts the big hurt on a quarry named Gator. The deceased’s trash-talking girlfriend Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols) doesn’t take kindly to Truck’s deed, hiring Harvard Blue (Yaphett Kotto) to avenge her boy toy’s death. “Anybody ask you what happened, tell ‘em you been hit by a truck: Mac ‘Truck’ Turner!” Hayes declares in one scene.
Fred Williamson as Jefferson Bolt, That Man Bolt (Universal, 1973)
Fred “The Hammer” Williamson sure got around in the blaxploitation cinema, this time playing Jefferson Bolt, the African-American community’s answer to James Bond and Derek Flint. An expert in the martial arts – the hero had to be in these films, lest some aggrieved feminist sister kicks his butt all the way to Sunday – Bolt heads to Hong Kong after getting shafted while transporting $1 million in what may have been funny money.
Jim Brown as Slaughter, Slaughter (American International, 1972)
NFL legend Jim Brown stars as Slaughter – an appropriate name, given the movie’s body count which numbers over 100 – an ex-Green Beret captain who goes on a vengeance trip after his father is killed by the Cleveland mob. The Feds then “talk” Slaughter into heading south of the border, where the rest of the slimy goombahs are in need of extermination. “Jim Brown plays Slaughter as if he hated doing it, which is to his credit. Among other indignities, he is subject to racial insults on the order of ‘Just who do you think you are, boy?’—which put ‘Slaughter’ perhaps five years behind current fashions in movie bigotry,” observed Roger Greenspun of The New York Times (8/17/72).
Eleven More Great Blaxploitation Movie Characters
- Godfrey Cambridge as Gravedigger Jones and Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson, Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)
- Fred Williamson as Duke Johnson, Bucktown (1975)
- Pam Grier as Foxy Brown, Foxy Brown (1974)
- Jeanne Bell as Diana “T.N.T.” Jackson, T.N.T. Jackson (1974)
- Rudy Ray Moore as Dolemite, Dolemite (1975)
- Pam Grier as Friday Foster, Friday Foster (1975)
- Rod Perry as General Ahmed, The Black Gestapo (1975)
- Bernie Casey as Dr. Henry Pride, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976)
- Robert Hooks as Mr. T, Trouble Man (1972)
- Carol Speed as Abby Williams, Abby (1974)
- All images courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas