Author

Barry Morgan

Date of Award

2010

Level of Access

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

Advisor

Nathan Godfried

Second Committee Member

Michael Lang

Third Committee Member

Laura Lindenfeld

Abstract

In 1971 director Melvin Van Peebles released Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, a film that quickly became the most successful independent production in the history of American cinema. Van Peebles' film focused on the marginalization of African-Americans from larger American society and contained many controversial elements, such as statutory rape, the murder of law enforcement officers, and a corrupt and racist Los Angeles Police Department. The film is also generally credited as the progenitor of the blaxploitation genre, a set of films unique to the early to mid-1970s that featured African-Americans in leading roles, usually revolved around a theme of blacks overcoming whites, and often resorted to violence and gratuitous nudity in order to attract a primarily black urban audience. On the surface, blaxploitation may be dismissed as pure claptrap, chiefly because of its misogyny, reinforcement of racial stereotypes, low production value, and co-optation by Hollywood in order to exploit African-American audiences. However, a close examination of the blaxploitation genre reveals something deeper. Blaxploitation film [or "black film" of the 1970s), viewed as primary source material and set in historical context, is an essential resource that can be used to examine contemporary racial, economic, and sexual issues in American society. This research finds that the blaxploitation genre of the early to mid-1970s reflected deeply rooted tensions in American society that reached a critical mass in the 1960s, including race relations, socio-economic inequality, and changing gender and sexual roles. Using a cultural history perspective and methodological tools from the sub-discipline of film history, this research attempts to illuminate segments of American popular consciousness during the time of these films' production. This process provides a richer understanding of the relationship between film and its audiences and the impact film can have both in creating and addressing societal problems. Ultimately, the goal of this research is to shed new light on a genre of films that is often overlooked, and to stress the importance of the production and consumption of these valuable cultural products in order to gain a better understanding of America's long and complex racial, economic, and sexual history.

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