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

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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].

Grier continued to star in more films during the 1980s, but her most famous role in the 1990s was probably “Jackie Brown” [1997], directed by Quentin Tarantino, which was a 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)

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Calvin Lockhart

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 theatre 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.

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/ 

Blaxploitation: International Films

Blaxploitation arose at a critical time for the Hollywood film industry. While black political activists battled in the courtrooms and streets for the end of segregation and equal civil rights, it became increasingly difficult for Hollywood studios to ignore black society, which ultimately led to the infiltration of black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood. Thus; Blaxploitation was born. Here are just two examples of the type of films produced in this genre.

Across 110th Street [1972]

This film is set in Harlem, of which 110th street is an informal boundary line. In a daring robbery, some $300,000 is taken from a Mafia-owned Harlem policy bank. Several Mafiosi are killed, as are two policemen. Lieutenant William Pope, played by Yaphet Kotto, has to work with crude, racist but streetwise Italian-American Captain Frank Martelli, played by Anthony Quinn, in the NYPD’s 27th precinct. They are looking for three black men who slaughtered seven men, three black gangsters and two Italian gangsters. Mafia lieutenant Nick D’Salvio, played by Anthony Franciosa, and his two henchmen are also after the hoods. Will the mafia catch these criminals first, or will the police?

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Across 110th Street [1972]

The film has claimed to be more than just a cliché. It was deep and developed, yet had a simplistic story about cops and criminals, with a gritty and honest addition to its characters. It was seen as pure and uncut, with cinematic genius from beginning to end. Despite the many pitfalls seen by critics, the film continually saved itself by being genuine and dark throughout. The film demonstrated the raw force of truth, giving viewers a rare (yet fictional) story of the changing of the guard in Harlem, the truth of its streets, and the minds of its criminals.

Foxy Brown [1974]

A sexy black woman, Foxy Brown (Pam Grier) seeks revenge when her government-agent boyfriend is shot down by gangsters led by the kinky couple of Steve Elias (Peter Brown) and Miss Katherine (Kathryn Loder) that services local judges, congressmen, and police in the area. Foxy decides to pose as a prostitute to infiltrate the company, and helps save a fellow black woman from a life of drugs and sexual exploitation and reunites her with her husband and child. However, not long after she infiltrates the company,  Foxy is caught before she can escape…

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Foxy Brown [1974]

It was this film that catapulted Pam Grier to a level of iconic stardom. Foxy oozes independence and woman empowerment. She’s a ‘whole lotta’ woman who’s got what it takes to beat the baddies at their own game, a voluptuous body, a show-stopping Afro, and, most importantly, a “black belt in barstools”. Together with Jack Hill’s (director) slick direction and an exciting yet soulful Willie Hutch soundtrack, this movie is a modern classic that exceeds the Blaxploitation genre in which it evolved.

There are hundreds of International blaxploitation films on the market which we encourage you to watch. The genre carries many themes to suit your taste, such as action, romance, horror, crime, and sci-fi to name a few. So bring out the popcorn, kick up your feet, and enjoy!

South African Blaxploitation Films

What is Blaxploitation? Blaxploitation was a term coined in the early 1970s to refer to a sub-genre of black cinema, which incorporated the culture of Black people in America and worldwide. Although initially popular, it quickly disintegrated as a film genre criticized for stereotypical characterization and glorification of violence.

In retrospect, Blaxploitation and the legacy it left behind have been acknowledged as a positive contribution to African and African-American film history. Blaxploitation films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss song [1971], Coffy [1973], and Dolemite [1975] proved that black actors possessed a strong box-office appeal, and despite the fact that many of the films were written, directed and produced by white people, black audiences finally saw the recognition that African and African-American actors, directors and writers deserved, and fought for, since the early days of silent film. The following South African films, restored by Retro Afrika Bioscope, depict the essence of Blaxploitation.

Umbango (The Feud) [1986]

When Kay Kay, a powerful, ruthless businessman sets out on a mission of revenge against two men accused of killing his brother, he strong-arms the local sheriff into forming a posse of thugs to aid in his vendetta. But when Jet and Owen, the two easy going friends, learn of the gang out for their blood, they prepare to stand their ground and fight back. It all comes to a head in a final gunfight, a showdown in the small western town where blood will have to be split if the friends wish to come out of this alive.

Bullet On The Run [1982]

Bullet is back, and this time he will have to put his reputation on the line as he goes deep undercover in prison to unfold the mystery of a police corruption ring, being run by one of the most wanted mob bosses in the country, a man known only as Snake.

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Bullet On The Run [1982]

When looking at Blaxploitation films, we can see a historical-cultural significance that comes from a time and place which transcends into the universal truths of freedom, expression, and community. Despite some of the controversy that these films created, it opened the doors to talented African-Americans, ultimately proving to its audience that they could thrive in film. Thus, their achievements speak for themselves.

Bringing Lost African Gems Straight to your Living Room on Mzansi Bioskop

Gravel Road Entertainment Group’s Retro Afrika Bioscope and Mzansi Bioskop have teamed up to bring you a starlit line up of lost and forgotten South African films. Over the next couple of months, you can tune in every Sunday at 8pm to DSTV Channel 164, Mzansi Bioskop to feast your eyes on some of the most authentically South African films that were produced in the ’70s and ’80s. These films showcase all-African casts and in a number of local languages with English subtitles.

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“Umbango” will have it’s first-ever TV premiere this coming Sunday. The film was produced and directed by Tonie van der Merwe, starring Popo Gumede, Hector Mathanda and Kay Magubane and is arguably one of the first all African cast isiZulu Westerns. The film was digitally restored by Gravel Road Entertainment Group and was, together with the film Joe Bullet, an official selection in the Forum section at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2015. Both films had sell-out audiences at the festival. “As the first producer and director of an African language film, it gives me great pride to finally get some recognition for our contribution to the South African film industry. I am proud of what we have achieved and it’s a great honour and privilege to experience this moment. It’s a shame that most of these actors such as Ken Gampu, Joe Lopez and Hector Mathanda cannot be here today to see these films on TV. Thank you again to all the actors and my colleges. I salute you!!” says Tonie van der Merwe.

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About “Umbango”

When Kay Kay, a powerful, ruthless businessman sets out on a mission of revenge against two men accused of killing his brother, he strong-arms the local sheriff into forming a posse of thugs to aid in his vendetta. But when Jet and Owen, the two easy going friends, learn of the gang out for their blood, they prepare to stand their ground and fight back. It all comes to a head in a final gun-fight, a showdown in the small western town where blood will have to be split if the friends wish to come out of this alive.

Retro Afrika Bioscope is Gravel Road Entertainment Group’s speciality release label for classic retro African content. In 2013, Gravel Road launched an initiative to locate, digitally restore and re-release films produced for the oppressed majority (African) audiences in the ’70s and ’80s under the old South African film subsidy schemes. All films being released by Retro Afrika Bioscope undergo a highly specialized digital restoration process.

The line-up of films for the month of July includes Abathumbi (Starring: Innocent Gumede and Khulekani Magubane), Zero for Zep (Starring: So Mhlanga and Khulekani Magubane), Umgulukudu (Starring: Roy Dlamini and Mandla Ngoya) and Thunder Valley (Starring: Roy Dlamini and Mandla Ngoya).

More information on these films are available on:
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Finding the Forgotten Cinematic Jewels of Africa

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Gravel Road Entertainment Group is a Cape Town-based entertainment company that focuses on creating quality film content. Aimed to enrich people’s lives and designed to be distributed across all market channels.

We then thought of an innovative idea to be distinct from other Film Companies and gave birth to a creatively genius idea. This is when Retro Afrika Bioscope was born. The initial idea behind this speciality release label was to locate, acquire, restore and expose once discarded and forgotten Classic African films to a whole new generation of African Cinema lovers around the world. Many of these films were banned from South African screens back then.

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These stories brought some form of eluding from what was happening in South Africa from 1960 till 1990. We all know that apartheid was brutal at that time and entertainment was very minimal due to South Africa’s harsh policies.

Even though black South African actors were very exploited back then we could see from the content they were generating that they loved what they were doing and enjoyed the platform they received which means they were made for this and nothing else made them happier than being in front of the camera.

All in all, these films, filmmakers and actors created a legacy for themselves and made a historical monument which Gravel Road Entertainment Group has brought forth and allowed our generation to enjoy Mzanzi’s own film ancestors. “Mayibuye I’Retro Afrika Bioscope Mayibuye” enjoy the African Cinematic jewels!!!

Written by: Thokozile Nwebani

What Was Happening When

1980 – Run For Your Life

While out on a cross-country run in unfamiliar territory, two friends  stumble upon an illegal drug operation in the woods. Soon taken hostage by the notorious drug-lord, they face the threat of becoming drug slaves themselves. Forced to work the plantation for the man known as “Cobra”, the two friends will have to rely on one another and use their wits if they wish to defeat the armed guards holding them captive.

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January

14 – The local community at Soekmekaar resists forced removal and damages the police station.

March

12 – The Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) together with its sister churches for Blacks (the NGK in Afrika), Coloureds (the NG Sendingkerk) and Indians (the Reformed Church in Africa), issue a statement that the Churches will bring no objection in principle should authorities judge that circumstances justify reconsideration of the Immorality Act and the Mixed Marriages Act.

April

4 – Umkhonto we Sizwe attacks the Booysens Police Station in Johannesburg with grenades, rocket launchers and AK47s.

May

2 – Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall is banned because the government fears that it might be used as a song of liberty by black school children.

June

1 – Bombs explode at Sasol One and Two and Natref Eight at Sasolburg and Secunda, with no injuries and RM58 damage. The attack was organised by Solomon Mahlangu of the Umkhonto weSizwe Special Operations.

August

Special Branch policeman Detective-Sergeant T.G. Zondi is shot at in Sobantu Village.

October

14 – The Soweto community calls for a stayaway to protest against rent increases.

November

21 – A terrorist is killed in Chiawelo and a child is injured by police in the process.

What Was Happening When

1980 – Impango 

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January

14 – The local community at Soekmekaar resists forced removal and damages the police station.

March

12 – The Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) together with its sister churches for Blacks (the NGK in Afrika), Coloureds (the NG Sendingkerk) and Indians (the Reformed Church in Africa), issue a statement that the Churches will bring no objection in principle should authorities judge that circumstances justify reconsideration of the Immorality Act and the Mixed Marriages Act.

April

4 – Umkhonto we Sizwe attacks the Booysens Police Station in Johannesburg with grenades, rocket launchers and AK47s.

May

2 – Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall is banned because the government fears that it might be used as a song of liberty by black school children.

June

1 – Bombs explode at Sasol One and Two and Natref Eight at Sasolburg and Secunda, with no injuries and RM58 damage. The attack was organised by Solomon Mahlangu of the Umkhonto weSizwe Special Operations.

August

Special Branch policeman Detective-Sergeant T.G. Zondi is shot at in Sobantu Village.

October

14 – The Soweto community calls for a stayaway to protest against rent increases.

November

21 – A terrorist is killed in Chiawelo and a child is injured by police in the process.