Yesterday, three of the city’s most diligent film programming groups, Black World Cinema, the Chicago Cinema Society, and South Side Projections, teamed up to host a “Jim Kelly Day,” an all day celebration of the late actor and martial artist. Two of Kelly’s films, Black Belt Jones and Enter the Dragon, were screened, the former of which is a lively, cartoonish blaxploitation film about a martial arts master who helps a group of young students protect their karate school from mobsters.
The blaxploitation genre is sprawling and comprehensive. It embraced various film styles and fostered entire careers for actors and directors like Larry Cohen, Gordon Parks, Fred Williamson, and of course, Kelly. Not every example of the canon is worthwhile—rampant amateurism renders much of blaxploitation nearly unwatchable—but the best examples constitute some of the most nimble and entertaining, but also serious and socially aware, American cinema to date. My five favorites are after the jump.
5. Cotton Comes to Harlem (Ossie Davis, 1970) Though it predates the classic era of blaxploitation (most people believe the classic era begins 1971 with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and ends in ’79 with Disco Godfather), this action comedy directed by the great actor Ossie Davis strikes me as the true progenitor of the style. Elements of the film’s diverse tones and characterization can be found in just about every blaxploitation film that followed, from the playful and exuberant (Cooley High, Dolemite) to the dour and sociopolitical (Detroit 9000, Superfly).
4. Three the Hard Way (Gordon Parks, Jr., 1974) Action filmmaking at its most frenetic, extravagant, and technically proficient. Parks, Jr. calibrates the persona of his trio of stars—Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, and, of course, Jim Kelly—perfectly, and executes a number of thrilling sequences that blend aspects of kung-fu and car chase films. In his review of Superfly, Dave Kehr calls Parks, Jr. “a director with a distinctive, tightly packed visual style.” Indeed, his precise mis-en-scene and elegant editing techniques made him a downright classy filmmaker, a fascinating counterpoint to his pulpy sensibilities as a storyteller.
3. The Black Godfather (John Evans, 1974) Many blaxploitation films explore drugs and crime, but few did so with as much complexity as this drama. The central conflict involves the battle of wills between a capitalist-minded drug dealer and leftist ideologue who disagree on how to dispose of a heroin-peddling mafia boss whose moved in on their territory. Evans, who never judges his characters or underplays the conviction of their particular cause, goes to great lengths in denouncing infighting among African Americans while still indulging in the grindhouse sensibilities of blaxploitation writ large.
2. Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973) Hill applies his hardened sensibilities to the blaxploitation style, and the result is this rough, vividly realized crime thriller. The film, alongside another Grier/Hill collaboration, Foxy Brown, offers a unique female perspective on blaxploitation style, mostly playing by the rules but also taking certain liberties. As is the case with so many blaxploitation heroes and heroines, the titular Coffy is driven by morality and self-righteousness, but she also has a nasty, almost sadistic undercurrent, reminiscent of Travis Bickle or Paul Kersey in her vigilantism. Hill’s touch, of course, but plausibly portrayed by Grier.
1. The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973) The towering masterwork of blaxploitation. Dixon, a TV actor and political activist who once served as president of Negro Actors for Action, blends political rhetoric with bravura filmmaking, displaying a strong anticolonial, anti-imperialist point of view while orchestrating action sequences that draw comparisons to the conflict in Vietnam. The film’s depiction of race relations is as weighty and complex as any in the blaxploitation genre. Its deep examination of supremacists versus nonsupremacists eventually verges on the abstract, calling into question the very notion of what makes one “white” and what makes one “black.” And, of course, there’s lots of shoot-outs and car chases.