Lately, I’ve been watching the Marvel TV programme Luke Cage on Netflix, when I can find a spare moment. One thing that’s quite apparent early on is that it’s heavily indebted to, and deliberately homages, the blaxploitation genre of movies. In the 1970s, these films were cheaply-made, stylised (and stylish) films featuring African-American protagonists, usually fighting back against oppression from The Man, and looking quite cool while they did it.
This genre was a sub-genre of the exploitation film. In a way the exploitation film had been around since the birth of cinema: cheaply-made films with risque topics aimed at teenagers. What we now recognise as the archetypal exploitation film (cheap production values, questionable acting, sexy young people, violence, more sexy young people) came to prominence in the 70s.
The title of the genre has always seemed quite appropriate, matching its gritty, grimy, sleazy, style. When hard pressed to think about it though, it might seem hard to pinpoint where the exploitation is actually taking place. Is the genre exploiting female actors and characters by treating them as sex objects? That’s what I’d always assumed. Perhaps the most common assumption about the meaning of the name is that it comes from the fact that it exploits popular teen crazes or contemporary fears about the next big thing to destroy society (sex, motorcycle gangs, bikinis, video nasties, Dungeons & Dragons) in order to make a cheap buck. A logical assumption, and pretty close to the truth. What the exploitation in exploitation film really refers to is advertising.
Within Hollywood, exploitation has long been synonymous with promotion in reference to films. It comes from the idea that a successful film needs something to exploit: e.g. a big star, a well-known franchise etc. Exploitation films were so-called because they were easy to promote. You want teenage boys to watch your film? Stick a beautiful girl in a bikini on the poster, then a motorcycle. Then stick on another beautiful girl in a bikini, just to be sure. And make them both cavegirls.
Now, I could be pedantic and say that this is what exploitation film specifically means, and assuming the term has a different meaning is wrong. Technically wrong, the most satisfying form of wrongness to those who are right. But, it’s pretty logical to think that such films are so-called because they exploit hot-button topics and gender stereotypes, because they do, and so why not let exploitation film have that meaning? It works. It probably works better than naming it after a very specific industry phrase that most normal people are unaware of.
Anyway, rather than worrying about what the term strictly means, we should celebrate the genre’s contributions to the English language. Like blaxploitation, there were many other logically-named subgenres, such as:
ozploitation (Mad Max would be a good example of this and carsploitation)
as well as other similar genres:
Bruceploitation (as in Bruce Lee – the genre featured knock-offs of Bruce Lee films after his death)
Even though most of these were before my time (though I do vaguely remember the tail end of the “video nasty” hysteria in the UK in the 80s), it’s easy to be nostalgic for the age of the exploitation film. Studios are too regulated, too organised to allow any films like these to slip through their gates. They aren’t making many low-budget films anymore, instead focussing on big “tentpole” summer films which are carefully tested and planned to ensure maximum profit. There are tributes to the genre, such as Grindhouse, but even then that’s just an homage from a successful directing pair who can afford to make a film look cheap and lurid. Other films try to capture the feel of exploitation films (Nazis at the North Pole! Sharknado!) but they’re too knowing, too tongue-in-cheek, and lacking the grime and grit of a real exploitation film. Even when interesting young filmmakers show promise with interesting independent films, they’re quickly snapped up by the major studios to give their blockbuster releases an aura of prestige.
Ah to be back in the simpler, more innocent days, when all one needed for entertainment was a Nazi dominatrix chasing cavegirls around on a motorcycle at the beach.