Silver Screen: Shaft and Coffy: Novotny Lawrence Discusses the Blaxploitation Movement
What: blaxploitation film screenings and discussion
On Saturday, February 5, the Varsity Center for the Arts will present an evening of blaxploitation films as part of Black History Month. Headed up by Novotny Lawrence, a professor in the SIU Department of Radio/Television, the event will consist of screenings of two important blaxploitation films, Shaft and Coffy, as well as a discussion. The shows will begin at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free, although a $10 donation is recommended.
Blaxploitation was an important cinematic movement that began in the early 1970s with films like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft, the latter of which stars SIU alum Richard Roundtree. The films in this movement were typically made by black artists for a predominantly black audience. They incorporated funk and soul music into their soundtracks, and dealt with African American issues during an era when mainstream cinema was still a predominantly white industry.
Lawrence says that in bringing these films to the public theater setting of the Varsity, "we're really trying to recreate the environment of screening a blaxploitation film."
A scholar in the area of blaxploitation films, Lawrence published a book about the subject in 2008, Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s: Blackness and Genre. He says his interest in the films began during his days in graduate school.
"I became interested in blaxploitation films in 1997 when I was working on my master's degree," Lawrence says. "As I started reading about black film history, I kept noticing that there was not much written about blaxploitation at the time. I decided that I wanted to conduct research on the subject, because so many popular films came out during that period. As I did the research, I found that there was a great deal of significant history surrounding the films."
Although located within a specific historical period, Lawrence says that the cultural and artistic impact of blaxploitation cinema can still be felt today.
"Blaxploitation is relevant today because it continues to influence film and music, among other things," Lawrence says. "For example, hip-hop artists such as Snoop Dogg and Nelly have paid homage to the movement in their style and songs. As for film, blaxploitation films were among the first to use the soundtracks to promote the films before they hit theaters. We see that model all the time today. Finally, over the past few years, filmmakers have made films influenced by blaxploitation or as homages to it. Jackie Brown, Original Gangstas, [the 2000 remake of] Shaft, and Black Dynamite serve as examples."
Lawrence also notes that blaxploitation films are capable of playing a strong role in the celebration of Black History Month.
"Blaxploitation films produced very few performers who enjoyed success after the movement," Lawrence says. "For the sake of brevity, I'll just say that Hollywood turned its back on the majority of the performers after making millions of dollars off of their work. However, Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier, the stars of the films that we're screening at the Varsity, managed to overcome the challenges associated with being black actors working in Hollywood and had successful careers. Black History Month is a time when we recognize African Americans for their achievements, which is exactly what we'll be doing for Roundtree and Grier at the Varsity Theater."
Lawrence says that audience members "can expect a little history, a little bit of a lesson, but more than anything else they can expect to have a good time."
Other Black History Month activities will include a creative-writing panel discussion featuring Allison Joseph, Jacinda T. Gides, Frank Chipasula, and the Rev. Joseph A. Brown; a lecture about soul food by Psyche Williams-Forson; a lecture about the incredibly rich history of black students at SIU by Leah Agne (which includes many others, in addition to Roundtree, like comedian and activist Dick Gregory, astronaut Joan Higginbotham, former U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, author Charles Johnson, NBA Hall of Famer Walt Frazier, and Rolling Stones sideman Darryl Jones); a lecture by Rachel Griffin about black feminism; a lecture by Barclays Ayakoroma, the executive secretary of Nigeria's National Institute for Cultural Orientation; and a lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. A film festival is still in the planning stages. See Nightlife's Entertainment Guide for more information.
who: Novotny Lawrence presents Gordon Parks's Shaft / Jack Hill's Coffy
what: blaxploitation film screenings and discussion
where: Varsity Center for the Arts
when: Saturday, February 5