In 1968, America’s film industry was in a steep decline. The onset of television’s rise, coupled with the Civil Rights movement and counterculture revolution, was detrimental to the medium. By the end of the 1960s, movie theatres accounted for roughly 90% fewer entertainment dollars for American families.
The industry had reached its nadir because simple stories (Biblical epics, musicals, westerns and war movies) did not mirror an era highlighted by a desire for people to revel in the uniqueness of their humanity as much as being inspired via titillation and violence.
In a review of the 1968-released film “Bullitt,” a Steve McQueen-led production centered on the story of a San Francisco cop assigned as bodyguard to a witness in an intrigue-filled organized crime case. Roger Ebert notes that McQueen’s sharp European fashion stylings and reserved yet resolute body language give him an inherently personal “mythological presence.”
Deeper yet, the film features an 11-minute car chase through San Francisco’s hills (where McQueen performs his own behind-the-wheel stunts) that the legendary reviewer celebrates for “a dozen near-misses” that left his stomach “somewhere in the basement.”
The notion of this film as compared to Tommy gun-toting, square-jawed and off-the-rack suited FBI agents upholding the law is notable.
Ultimately the film’s success hinged upon its introduction of pragmatic realism coupled with brooding anti-heroism simmering under an effortlessly cool surface. It provided a blueprint for survival for an American film industry teetering on the edge of social relevance and commercial sustainability.
The success of “Bullitt” sparked a revolution when reimagined and evolved via Black creatives experiencing their first generation of social liberation.
The 15 years that followed the release of “Bullitt” saw Black and white cinema influenced by sharp denial of socially conservative films with milquetoast, middle-of-the-road themes and fervent, traditional Americana.
Here’s a look at 12 films that changed the socioeconomic future of the American film industry. To an absurd degree, the 1970s Black film marketplace valued visibility and authenticity above everything else.
Box office: $42.3 million
Budget: $5.5 million
Steve McQueen’s bespoke yet approachable fashion and personal sense were a highlight as the film industry emerged from one of its darkest eras. The dynamic industrial growth that the movie spurred can be best defined, however, by the amount of money that McQueen’s chasing automobile of choice through the San Francisco hills — a 1968 Ford Mustang GT — sold for upon being rediscovered after not being seen for 46 years following its sale to then Warner Bros. employee Robert Ross.
A car that, adjusted for inflation, sold for $20,670 in 1968 was purchased, at a January 2020 Mecum auction in Kissimmee, FL, for $3.74 million.
Was this an incredibly game-changing era of American cinema? The numbers never lie.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Box office: $15.2 million
A young Black orphan turned male prostitute saves a Black Panther from an assault by racist Caucasian police officers. The film is soundtracked by Earth, Wind, and Fire, reimagining Negro spirituals as acoustic funk jams. Following the film’s opening scenes, its title card reads, “Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man.”
The film’s director, Melvin van Peebles, stars as its unnamed, largely mute protagonist. The “actions” in this film are rough, shocking and revolutionary in their varying levels of vulgarity.
The Criterion Collection refers to the film as “a sustained howl of rage and defiance.” It’s an apt description.
French Connection (1971)
Box office: $75 million (worldwide)
Budget: $1.8 million
Gene Hackman is “bad news, but a good cop” as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a New York Police Department detective pursuing a wealthy French heroin smuggler. An Internet Movie Database user describes the plot as “a short-tempered alcoholic bigot who is nevertheless a hard-working and dedicated police officer” chasing a “suave and urbane gentleman.”
At the 44th Academy Awards, the film won 60 percent of its nominations — Best Picture, Best Actor (Hackman), Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Unassailable success sets an undeniable precedent.
Dirty Harry (1971)
Box office: $36 million
Budget: $4 million
Clint Eastwood stars as San Francisco Police Department Inspector Harry Callahan, an officer of the law who derides the machismo and arrogance of the criminals he’s pursuing (“Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?!?”) with a double-action Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44-cal. Magnum revolver. The firearm has a nearly seven-inch-long barrel and is marketed as “the most powerful handgun in the world.”
The manner in which Callahan solves crimes? Unhinged brutality. As the film’s marketing tagline says, “he doesn’t break murder cases, he smashes them.”
“Dirty Harry” spawned a five-film series transpiring over 17 years that grossed in the range of $1 billion.
Box office: $12 million (USA)
Within a decade, Richard Roundtree — an Ebony Magazine model turned off-Broadway actor — became a critically-acclaimed, major film superstar by portraying a Manhattan-based private detective named John Shaft. A breakout Black soul performer (Issac Hayes) nicknamed “Black Moses” says Shaft is “a sex machine to all the chicks” in the film soundtrack’s titular single.
“If I were not the actor who played John Shaft, I would (still) be trailed to the dressing room, monitored or stripped. That’s the truth of the matter,” stated Roundtree to the New York Times in 2015.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Harder They Come (1972)
Box office: (unknown)
Jamaica’s first feature film is a brilliant glorification of violence and anti-heroic individuality. The story centers on Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin, a musician who travels to Kingston to become a reggae star. Somewhere along the way, he becomes a vigilante out for murderous justice.
Real-life reggae star Jimmy Cliff also stars in the film and contributes to its soundtrack. The film was released in June 1972 in Jamaica, and by the end of the year — due to Europe’s then-growing Jamaican immigrant population — had become a critical worldwide sensation.
In a 2022 interview, director Perry Henzell’s eldest daughter, Justine, noted about the film’s sociopolitical leanings that “Perry had to make a decision early on. Was he making a film for foreigners or Jamaicans? He chose Jamaicans, which is why the film has lasted the test of time.”
Super Fly (1972)
Box office: $30 million
“Reading the script didn’t tell you ‘and then he took another hit of cocaine’ and then about a minute later ‘he took another hit.’ So when I saw it visually, I thought, ‘This is a cocaine infomercial,'” reportedly noted the movie’s main soundtrack artist, Curtis Mayfield.
Suppose one adjusts the calculus of criminality associated with the film for inflation. In that case, narcotics entrepreneurs Youngblood Priest and his brother, Eddie, are giving Scatter ‘ a short-order cook and restauranteur — $2.1 million for 30 kilos of cocaine to sell and earn $7.2 million.
That’s an incredibly epic retirement plan.
Black Caesar (1973)
Box office: $2 million (rental)
Budget: “low budget”
When he was an American Football League defensive back, “Black Caesar” lead actor Fred Williamson nicknamed himself “The Hammer” because he taped a cast around his forearm to karate chop opposing wide receivers. Like Jim Brown, he retired after a seven-year professional football career to pursue a more lucrative career in acting.
The film industry’s feverish attempts to cash in on two trends — the ascendance of Black actors as pop icons and “The Godfather,” earning $300 million in gross box office revenue in 1972 — created the moment for an African-American gangster film set in Harlem.
James Brown does the soundtrack, too. “The Boss” is a funk master class.
Foxy Brown (1974)
Box office: $2.46 million
Six years before starring in “Foxy Brown,” Pam Grier dated then-UCLA center Lew Alcindor, who was preparing to convert to Islam and become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He proposed to Grier, but he would marry her under one condition: she needed to convert to Islam.
Had Grier done that, a woman who, in 1998, director Quentin Tarantino (who cast her in 1997’s “Jackie Brown” — an homage to this era of cinema) called a “mythical superwoman” and “the baddest, strongest and most powerful creature a guy ever created,” would have likely never been cast in this film.
And yes, true to form, this film concerns a buxom Black woman who almost singlehandedly takes down a gang of white drug dealers who murdered her boyfriend.
Three The Hard Way (1974)
Box office: (unknown)
Budget: $1.8 million
Two Black ex-professional football stars (Jim Brown and Fred Williamson) join a World Middleweight Karate champion (Jim Kelly) in a film that cashes in on the trio’s fast-rising Hollywood acclaim.
Notably, by 1974, Kelly starred alongside Bruce Lee in “Enter The Dragon” and his follow-up star vehicle, “Black Belt Jones,” released three months before “Three The Hard Way.”
Billed as “the biggest black action picture ever made,” the film’s plot concerns a white supremacist plot to taint the United States water supply with a toxin that is harmless to whites but lethal to Blacks. Shooting occurred in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
Box office: $12 million
Budget: $100,000 (estimated)
Proto-rapping Black comedian Rudy Ray Moore plays a nightclub-owning pimp and kung-fu master who partners with an undercover FBI agent and madam to wrest control of his “Total Experience” nightclub back from a competing karate-master/procurer/drug dealer who has assumed control of the establishment. This occurred while Moore’s character, Dolemite, was imprisoned after being framed by corrupt white cops as a drug smuggler.
Does that sound ludicrous enough? No? Well, consider that the money used to fund the making of the film was Moore’s own. Thus, to cut corners, much of the cast and crew are not classically trained auteurs and thespians. Instead, they’re his friends.
In 2022 dollars, this film earned $66 million.
Box office: $66 million
Budget: $23.5–37 million
By 1983, the exploitation of Black liberation and white antagonism had yielded to the exploitation of deep-seated fears of animal attack (Jaws, 1975) and curiosity about space exploration (Star Wars, 1977). Those two films earned — adjusted for inflation — $6.5 billion. That revenue is roughly 100 times what “Dolemite” and “Foxy Brown” made just two years prior. Thus, Black actors and stories holding sway in Hollywood hit a decline.
However, that says nothing for director Brian DePalma mapping the concept over to creating a film about America’s early 1980s cocaine boom that also centers on the mass emigration of Cubans — as both gangsters and political prisoners — from Mariel Harbor to Miami.
Corrupt cops, custom suits, disco soundtrack, drugs, drug use, large guns, and a shootout paced like the car chase in “Bullitt”? All here.
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