Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is noted as being the catalyst for the Blaxploitation film genre. Van Peebles could not get financing from movie studios for the film, so he largely financed it himself. He also received a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby. The film ended up grossing over $15,000,000 in the box office, shocking Hollywood studios. Black American audiences were hungry for images of themselves on the big screen that didn’t depict them as fodder for cheap laughs, as bumbling fools, the subjects of crushing defeat at the hands of whiteness or the inevitable death of the Black character in a gruesome manner. Sweetback’s story was one of triumph. Triumph over white authority.
Following the success of Van Peebles’ film, Hollywood studios began churning out movies aimed at Black American audiences. However, unlike Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, most of the subsequent movies were made by white directors.
Another film also released in 1971, shortly after Van Peebles’ Sweetback was Shaft, which was directed by the incomparable Gordon Parks. The film stars Richard Roundtree as the charismatic private detective John Shaft.
Films like Sweetback and Shaft made Hollywood studios realize that Black audiences were a viable commodity. A commodity they could exploit for their financial gain, hence the name ‘Blaxploitation’ (coined by NAACP head Junius Griffin). However, these movies had great impact outside the US and it inspired filmmakers to create their own interpretations. One such film is the South African film Joe Bullet, directed by Louis de Witt.
Joe Bullet stars Ken Gampu as the titular character. What is remarkable about Joe Bullet is that it was one of the first films in South Africa to feature an all Black African cast. The film was independently released in 1973. Unfortunately, after only two screenings, it was banned by the apartheid government. Now, after more than 40 years, the film is being screened across the world.
A newly restored Joe Bullet was screened in NYC at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa). I watched it on November 13th. The crowd in attendance was diverse and clearly enjoyed the feature, clapping enthusiastically when it ended. After the screening, I had a brief chat with some South Africans and Namibians in attendance. Like me, they knew nothing of Joe Bullet prior to this restoration. It was a revelation for them, and I’m sure even if the movie had turned out to be a stinker (it’s far from that), they would still have been glad to see Africans in a work without what Toni Morrison referred to as the “white gaze”.
Growing up with Blaxploitation films in Nigeria
As a Nigerian, I witnessed the impact Blaxploitation films had growing up as a child in the 80s. Those were the days before the internet and film consumption was via VHS cassettes. The staples back then were 80s action movies starring the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Martial arts movies which young boys like me affectionately called “karate films” were also the rage and there was no bigger star than Bruce Lee. Also popular was Black American actor Jim Kelly, who we knew from Bruce Lee’s film Enter the Dragon. Kelly got to star in his own martial arts Blaxploitation film titled Black Belt Jones.
We didn’t have any other Jim Kelly films, so Black Belt Jones was our “black karate film”. After Bruce Lee, Jim Kelly was the one we talked about the most. We loved Black Belt Jones because we weren’t used to seeing Black actors in prominent roles in foreign movies. In addition, Jim Kelly was a martial artist and we all loved “karate films”. Unlike Bruce Lee, Jim Kelly looked more like us, not to mention he had an afro.
In the 80s, we thought the 70s was the epitome of cool. None of us were alive in the 70s, so we had a romanticized version of the 70s in our impressionable minds. Old pictures and vinyl records our parents had with glossy covers of Black American and Nigerian musicians with glorious afros and carefree attitudes was something very different from the world we lived in under the brutal military regime of President Ibrahim Babangida. Those carefree days from the 70s post-Biafra were definitely over. We never knew them. What we knew was discipline. Life in Nigeria was essentially dealing with disciplinarians. You dealt with disciplinarians in school (especially bad if you went to a boarding school); we dealt with disciplinarian parents who forced us to be studious beyond reason. We had to “face our books” at all times. Finally, our government was the ultimate disciplinarian. We knew no other existence other than to do what you’re told in order to avoid the koboko (a switch/cane used to flog children). One wonders whether our fascination with the 70s and the image of carefree attitudes and centralized Black faces was escapism. Those people were cool. Old vinyl records with Black faces were cool. Jim Kelly was cool. Afros were cool. Talking like and imitating the Black Americans we saw in Blaxploitation films was cool, even though we were in Port Harcourt. These things made us feel good.
The images consumed by the populace are important. Some can plant ideas of self-reliance, self-respect and autonomy; which is why the apartheid government in South Africa banned Joe Bullet. The idea of a film without a single white face, where a strong, charismatic, powerful and virile Black hero saves the day was too much for them to handle. It might have planted the idea in the minds of Black South Africans that white people aren’t necessary for anything. Such an idea would only be detrimental to the white power structure. We need more films like Joe Bullet, minus the tired narrative of a man saving the day and the damsel in distress.