ᕦ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)ᕤ The ultimate flex: a full set of EoD Mag on your bookshelf ᕦ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)ᕤ

5 Blaxploitation Posters That Define a Redefining Movement

The cinematic genre changed the way Black characters were presented on film. These 5 works from Poster House’s latest exhibition helped put it on the map

In 1971, a film called Shaft—a breakthrough for Black cinema—was released. It was what Junius Griffin, then president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the NAACP, called “Blaxploitation,” a term he derisively coined by combining “Black” with the “exploitation” genre of film. Blaxploitation films have since been reappraised for elevating Black characters into heroes, rather than sidekicks or criminals, as they were often portrayed onscreen during the 1960s.

The movement took off throughout the 1970s, with hundreds of titles that played in independent theaters. It made stars of Black actors and depicted Black society as full of wit, wealth, and substance, with films that ranged from crime to action, Westerns, comedies, and musicals.

A new exhibition at Poster House in New York City called You Won’t Bleed Me: How Blaxploitation Posters Defined Cool & Delivered Profits features 20 movie posters from the genre, showcasing how influential they were in a time before Black characters made their way to mainstream film in projects such as the James Bond thriller Live and Let Die.

Here, the exhibition’s curator, Adam Howard (who works as a producer on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee), talks us through five posters from this epic era of cinema.

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, 1975

Design by Robert Tanenbaum

Robert Tanenbaum was one of the key artists who created illustrated posters in full color, based on photos of the actors in the film. He also created album covers around the same time for artists like Gladys Knight. “This poster is in the exhibit only because the artwork is so amazing,” says Howard. It shows a strong woman, played by Tamara Dobson, who acts as an undercover government agent by night and supermodel by day, busting crime while traveling to exotic places doing photoshoots. “What I like about these posters is that they’re aspirational; it’s part of the appeal of this genre, which is filled with style and music. … Black people winning, basically, where they wouldn’t normally, like the police or the government, a white authority figure. That comes across in the posters as well.”

The Mack, 1973

Design by Fred Pfeiffer

This film follows Goldie (Max Julien), a pimp in California, and with comedian Richard Pryor as a supporting cast member, it made $3 million at the box office. The poster shows Julien wearing a white fur coat, surrounded by scantily clad women waving dollar bills. It was heavily criticized when it came out for glamorizing crime. “When these films arrived, it was after the Civil Rights movement, a lot of the successes of the 1960s—which led to a sort of ambivalence as the general condition for a lot of African Americans didn’t change,” says Howard. “A lot of that frustration, that anger, started to get reflected in the film.”

The Mack is one of the Blaxploitation films that has been popular with the hip hop generation; it’s been sampled in songs by various rap artists, like Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J, and Wu-Tang Clan. “It was a film that was larger than life,” Howard adds. “In this film and others, you see a change in how Black characters are represented—they’re not just comedic fodder, they’re fully fledged characters aimed at an African American audience.”

Super Fly, 1972

Design by Tom Jung

The exhibition features posters that come from the personal collection of hip hop photographer Mathieu Bitton. Many of them are rare, and many are not properly archived—some artists who created them are still not known. “With these movie posters, there hasn’t been the same love and care in preserving them, unlike other films of their time,” Howard says. “That’s what makes them special.”

This poster shows the actor Ron O’Neal standing before a car in Harlem, and in the bottom corner, it features an image of Curtis Mayfield, who did the soundtrack. “The soundtracks were of as much interest to the viewers as the films,” Howard says. “That’s how these films are also remembered, for their music.”

Disco Godfather, 1979

Design by Dante

“From a stylistic perspective, these illustrative posters are my favorite. They led to the mythmaking behind these posters,” says Howard. “Before this, for the most part, Black people weren’t part of any posters, and if they were, they certainly were not in appealing roles.”

The actors are shown as strong, proud characters. “They’re up front about their sexuality, their virility, power and strength, and even machismo,” he says. “That’s a breakthrough. The colors are vibrant. It has fun taglines, which builds hype around the character.”

Whether they depict an actor in a tuxedo firing a shotgun or someone standing before expensive cars, the posters played a significant role in how the films were promoted. “This is long before the oversaturated advertising push movies get now,” he adds.

They also created superhero, cult-status stars. “These films were low-budget films, not going out to a thousand theaters. The best way to reach their audience was through their posters.”

Foxy Brown, 1974

Designer unknown

This poster is rare in how women were depicted. Women in Blaxploitation film posters often were just there to adorn men. This image changes the narrative and features actress Pam Grier front and center, independent in her own strength. “Her films are the best of what Blaxploitation had to offer,” says Howard. “She brought an undeniable movie star quality to her performances. Her posters are so striking because she’s so unique to the history of cinema—she’s never rescued by men. She has agency. She’s sexually objectified but is the driver of the action in her films. Her role has endured in history compared to others from the time.”

Share: Twitter Facebook Pinterest Email

Poster Picks