Any list of the 10 best black action movies must start in the 1970s, the golden age of “blaxploitation.” Blaxploitation movies were made to appeal to urban audiences of the time, often with plenty of action and a villain who was a rich white guy. Later directors like Quentin Tarantino and Keenan Ivory Wayans loved the B-movie cool of these low-budget productions, spoofing and imitating them in the decades that followed.
“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Melvin van Peebles’ influential independent film was not blaxploitation, but a sincere effort at a real story about black characters battling The Man. The low-budget film’s success made other producers realize there was a market for black action movies. The blaxploitation market was the indirect result of copying van Peebles’ pioneering effort.
“Shaft.” 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night” put an urban black detective in a small Southern town. “Shaft,” by contrast, followed the adventures of Richard Roundtree’s cool private dick in his own element. The iconic theme song made music an important part of the black action film genre.
“Superfly.” Cocaine dealer Ron O’Neal becomes a folk hero as he tries to leave his life of crime. The 1972 drama caused controversy, as some said it glorified the underworld. It is best remembered for Curtis Mayfield’s wildly successful soundtrack album.
“Foxy Brown.” Beautiful Pam Grier played the female lead in several blaxploitation classics. Like the women in other action films, she was often subjected to abuse and indignity, but she gave it back as good as she got. 1974’s“Foxy” is her defining role, and murderous white drug lords soon wish they’d never crossed her path.
“I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.” Director Keenan Ivory Wayans grew up loving the blaxploitation classics of the ‘70s. For his first film in 1988, he created an affectionate parody of the genre. Black action stars Jim Brown, Antonio Fargas and Isaac Hayes returned to spoof their images for “Sucka,” which even had its own “Shaft”-like theme song.
“New Jack City.” The urban crime drama was still very much alive in 1991, and the success of this film set off a new wave of rap-themed action movies very unlike “blaxploitation.” Wesley Snipes’ villainous drug lord is closer to “Scarface” than “Superfly.” “New Jack” launched the film careers of rapper Ice-T and director Mario van Peebles, son of Melvin.
“Juice.” Ernest Dickerson, former cinematographer for Spike Lee, began his own directing career in 1992. The gang-banger drama “Juice” was most noteworthy for its then-unknown star. Tupac Shakur was soon a rap superstar, whose life was cut short by all-too-real drama and violence.
“Original Gangstas.” By 1997, original blaxploitation stars had been spoofing themselves for years in “Saturday Night Live” skits and films like “Sucka.” With “Gangstas,” they decided to reunite for a real movie. Roundtree, Brown, Fred Williamson, and Pam Grier are among the legends battling a modern-day urban gang.
“A Lowdown Dirty Shame.” Wayans himself decided to make his own black action movie in 1994, although the results were still sprinkled with comedy. Jada Pinkett is adorable as the ass-kicking assistant smitten with Wayans’ detective Shame. Note: Don’t confuse this with John Waters’ filthy sex comedy “A Dirty Shame,” or your evening may take an unexpected left turn into weirdness.
“Undercover Brother.” Eddie Griffin brings the blaxploitation spoof into the 21st century. Inspired by the “Austin Powers” series, the movie has flashy action, special effects and “Saturday Night Live’s” Chris Kattan as, yes, a rich white villain. It may be the world’s first big-budget comedy film inspired by an independent web series spoofing low-budget action movies.