Blaxploitation: Actors of Their Time

To end off our Blaxploitation week, we feel it is appropriate to honour and recognize the stars who made the Blaxploitation genre what it is today. Every actor has a backstory, so it makes it interesting to learn about their journey and the events that led them towards the industry. Here are three famous actors who played a role in the Blaxploitation genre.

Pam Grier

Pamela Suzette Grier was born in Winston-Salem, NC, one of four children of Gwendolyn Sylvia (Samuels), a nurse, and Clarence Ransom Grier Jr., an Air Force mechanic. Pam has been a major African-American star from the early 1970s. Her career started in 1971, when Roger Corman of New World Pictures launched her with “The Big Doll House” [1971], about a women’s penitentiary, and “The Big Bird Cage” [1972]. Her strong role put her into a five-year contract with Samuel Z. Arkoff of American-International Pictures, and she became a leading lady in action films such as Jack Hill’s “Coffy” [1973] and “Foxy Brown” [1974], the comic strip character “Friday Foster” [1975] and William Girdler’s“Sheba, baby” [1975]. She continued working with American-International, where she portrayed William Marshall’s vampire victim in the Blacula [1972] sequel, “Scream Blacula, Scream” [1973].

 

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Pam Grier

Grier continued to star in more films during the 1980s, but her most famous role in the 1990’s was probably “Jackie Brown” [1997], directed by Quentin Tarantino, which was an homage to her earlier 1970s action roles. She also appeared in John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars” [2001] and co-starred with Snoop Dogg in “Bones” [2001]. Her entire career of over 30 years has brought only success for this beautiful and talented actress.

Calvin Lockhart (1934–2007)

Born Bert Cooper to a large family in Nassau on October 18, 1934, he was raised there before moving to New York in his late teens with initial designs on becoming a civil engineer (Cooper Union School of Engineering). Dropping out after a year to pursue an acting career, Calvin worked as a carpenter and construction worker, among other odd jobs. He first studied with legendary coach Uta Hagen and then hit the New York theater boards. The story goes that he was discovered by playwright Ketti Frings while working as a taxi driver. She was so impressed with his arrogance that she cast him in her play “The Cool World” in 1960. From there Calvin drummed up interest via a bit of controversy on Broadway when he played a sailor in love with a white girl in the racially-themed “A Taste of Honey” starring Angel Lansbury.

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Calvin Lockhart

Calvin made a distinct early impression as a slick preacher bent on fraud in the hip cop flick “Cotton Comes to Harlem” [1970] and as an English teacher in the inner-city potboiler “Halls of Anger” [1970]. He also involved himself in such black action features as “Melinda” [1972], “Honeybaby, Honeybaby” [1974] and “The Baron” [1977]. Calvin was then cast in “Uptown Saturday Night” [1974] and “Let’s Do It Again” [1975]. He could also play fey upon request, camping it up briefly in “Myra Breckinridge” [1970]. During this rich period he also became an artist-in-residence with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford (the first black actor) and appeared prestigiously in such productions as “Titus Andronicus” [1972].
In 1974, Calvin married a woman also from the West Indies and had three children. After his career subsided, he decided to return to his homeland in the mid ’90s and resettled in Nassau with his fourth wife, Jennifer Miles. There he involved himself with the Freeport Players Guild as a director. He also returned to films after a 15-year absence, completing “Rain” [2008], a movie shot in the Bahamas, shortly before he suffered a major stroke. Sadly, Calvin died of complications on March 29, 2007, and his family is in the process of establishing a scholarship fund in his name for Bahamian student pursuing an acting or film making career.

Ken Gampu (1929–2003)

Ken Gampu was one of the first black South Africans to be featured in Hollywood films, working alongside such stars as Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster. A former schoolteacher, law clerk and interpreter, he spoke seven native dialects in addition to English and Afrikaans. Discovered by playwright Athol Fugard, he was cast in the play “No Good Friday” in 1958. In the 60’s he moved to films and earned international distinction for his role in the movie “Adventure Dingaka” [1964]. He earned excellent notices as well a year later in Cornel Wilde’s African adventure “The Naked Prey” [1965] as a warrior leader. Several of his films have earned cult status with time, including “Zulu Dawn” [1979] and “The Gods Must Be Crazy” [1980].

 

 

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Ken Gampu

 

Ken was involved in many theatre musicals by Bertha Egnos, including “Dingaka” and “Ipi Tombi,” the most successful musical ever staged in South Africa. He was also featured in the jazz opera “King Kong”. He suffered indignities as a black actor in South Africa despite his success in Hollywood. In 1975, he was cast as Lennie in a South African stage production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” but was allowed to play the role only after the government gave him permission to share a stage with white actors. Gampu died at age 74 in Vosloorus, South Africa.

Many actors of this genre displayed a tremendous amount of talent and pazazz. Every actor showcased what they thought to be unique and most importantly, their own. During this time, being of colour was extremely limiting and difficult, especially for those who wanted to be taken seriously in the film industry in Hollywood. This re-emphasizes the stamina and determination of these actors, making them a true inspiration.

Credit Sources:

http://www.imdb.com/

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