Black Films & Icons

An exploration of 1970s Blaxploitation films and a memoir from a legendary actor.

Henderson, Odie. Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras: A History of Blaxploitation Cinema. Abrams. Jan. 2024. 304p. ISBN 9781419758416. $27. FILM

Boston Globe film critic Henderson’s debut book is a lively exploration of 1970s Blaxploitation films. Blaxploitation (more of an era than a genre, according to Henderson) featured Black actors, writers, and directors creating low-budget films aimed at Black audiences, always with soulful soundtracks by such stars as Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Willie Hutch, and Marvin Gaye; many became box office hits. Black and white critics often dismissed these films for their extreme violence, nudity, and sex. The NAACP coined the phrase “Blaxploitation” while denouncing Super Fly as a poor representation of the Black community because its main characters were sex workers, pimps, and drug dealers. But Black audiences enjoyed seeing Black people in leading roles as strong characters, which made these films financially successful. Henderson is clearly fond of this era of film, but that does not stop him from his own critiques of the misogyny in cult classics such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Shaft, and Willie Dynamite. However, he gives these classic films, their stars (particularly Pam Grier), and the funky soundtracks their due. VERDICT An enjoyable, funny, and in-depth examination of Blaxploitation films and their influence on contemporary cinema and television.—Leah K. Huey

Williams, Billy Dee. What Have We Here?: Portraits of a Life. Knopf. Feb. 2024. 288p. ISBN 9780593318607. $32. MEMOIR

Young moviegoers today are likely to think of actor Williams as the character Lando Calrissian in three Star Wars movies, but older folks will remember him as a suave leading man in such dramas as Mahogany and Lady Sings the Blues. At 86, he looks back on his life and storied career. Growing up in Harlem, he had an early love of the arts. But despite a role on Broadway when he was seven, Williams didn’t plan to be an actor. He wanted to be a painter and was admitted to the National Academy of Fine Arts and Design, where he earned extra money by booking acting roles. He toiled on Broadway and rubbed elbows with the likes of James Earl Jones, Laurence Olivier, and Sidney Poitier. In 1971, he appeared as Gale Sayers in the tearjerker TV movie Brian’s Song, which was seen by 55 million people and launched his stardom. Williams writes candidly about his marriages, his love affairs, interactions with his costars, and the frustrations of being a Black actor in the 1970s. VERDICT A juicy memoir from a legendary actor. Celebrity watchers will enjoy.—Rosellen “Rosy” Brewer

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