In the early 1970s, several African American women starred in television programs and films. You might thing big deal, but remember, only a few years earlier the first African American actress starred in her own primetime television series. Even more surprising, these young women were portraying strong, action characters. At the time, only a few African American women co-starred in television series like Mannix, Star Trek, Room 222 and Batman. These women were breaking new ground, so it was a big deal.
In the new decade of 1970s, doors began to open and audiences took notice, at least for a while. While it lasted, this was a big deal. African American actresses had a hard time breaking through, especially leaving behind stereotypical roles. To be powerful, assertive, to kick the ass of men in fights, and to rise above old social norms with attitude, was a big shift in the landscape. To be fair, these gals also had to be beautiful and sexy too. This wasn’t Shakespeare, these were mostly low budget films, or a television series on the lowest rated network, they had to sell tickets or get viewers, so these woman had to bring it, in several ways. They did.
Let’s look at a few of these amazing women.
Teresa Graves – Her career was short but she will be remembered for the television role in Get Christie Love. First a television movie, then a series, Graves played an undercover police detective. Although it ran for just the 1974-75 season, it made an impression. The character was said to be inspired by films starring Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson, also strong female characters. Graves is also remembered as a regular on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In. Get Christie Love is said to be ready for a re-boot.
Tamara Dobson – Dobson starred in two Cleopatra Jones films in 1973 and 1975. She moved from the world of fashion modeling to acting and quickly moved into the Jones character, who was an undercover government agent, posing as a fashion model. Great casting, right? Like Christie Love, Cleopatra Jones was focused on bringing down the drug trade. Her films contained martial arts, feminism and rode the wave of the blaxploitation film craze. Dobson’s career, like Graves, was unfortunately short. Dobson stood an imposing 6’2″ and was a combination of beauty and take-no-prisoners action.
Rosalind Cash – A singer/actress, one Cash’s first roles was in The Omega Man, a sci fi film starring Charlton Heston. She more than held her own as a tough and resourceful survivor, who saves Heston’s character. She is also his love interest. After this film her parts never really exploited her talents and while she appeared in a few more films she moved to television for the rest of her career.
Pam Grier – Pam Grier exemplified the strong and sexy actress of the early 1970s. She starred in several films where she kicked butt and didn’t take names. Her characters confronted chauvinistic males, and took on crime bosses with equal doses of violence and sex. She began in a few low budget films, of the blaxploitation genre, before being offered the lead in Coffey. She portrayed a female vigilante out to settle the score after her sister’s drug-related death. In the first few minutes of the film she goes from a drug user trading sex for drugs to blowing his head off with a shotgun. Now that’s a statement. Later she starred in Foxy Brown, where she played a character out for revenge of her boyfriend’s murder by a drug gang. Do you see a theme in many of these films? This was followed by Sheba, Baby, a film about a female private detective who goes after the shady characters trying to take over her father’s business. Friday Foster was about a magazine photographer going after the murder of a friend, then she is marked for murder. By the late 1970s, the blaxploitation wave was receding and her career shifted gears into co-starring and character roles. In the 1990s her career got a boost from several prominent roles: the title role in Jackie Brown; and Original Gangstas, a project with Fred Williamson and Jim Brown. Even though her career seemed to downshift, she never stopped working, she just waited till the world caught up with her again.
Although not all of these women starred in blaxploitation films, that genre did give Grier and Dobson a way to starring roles. The genre is equally guilty for being very sexist and subjected women to a variety of stereotypes. Mostly this genre was a man’s world and featured women as girlfriends, hookers, family members that needed protecting and as eye candy.
The blaxploitation genre did give rise to a black film industry, although briefly, and it gave many actors and actresses opportunities to be seen, and many broke through to bigger careers. Arguably, many African American actresses prospered by the door that blaxploitation films opened, although many had been slowly building their careers before the genre hit. Judy Pace, Gloria Hendry, Olivia Cole, Denise Richards, Paula Kelly, Lonette McKee, Cicely Tyson, Ja’net DuBois Janet MacLachlan, Marla Gibbs and Barbara McNair were some. Veteran actresses like Beah Richards, Ruby Dee, Esther Rolle and Isabel Sanford had been building their careers on stage and in mainstream supporting roles.
The trail that had been blazed by Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne, now had become a road, but would need decades to gain ground on breaking stereotypes, opening doors to roles usually offered to actresses not of color, pay equity and simply, respect.
Graves, Dobson, Cash and Grier were trailblazers too, by way of action roles in very much a man’s world. With a shotgun or a a karate kick, or a cunning smile, these women were not to be trifled with. Even after slapping on the cuffs, Christie Love would say, “You’re under arrest, Sugah!”