I was blessed to do an interview with my man Josiah Howard. For those of you that don’t know, Josiah is the author of the quintessential book on Blaxploitation movies, Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to kick it with another hardcore Blaxploitation fiend!
Blaxploitation Paperbacks: You are now in your fourth printing of Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide. Congratulations! When and how did your love of Blaxploitation begin?
Josiah Howard: I first became interested in the films through the poster art. There was a movie theater in my neighborhood called the Strand. I distinctly remember standing outside the theater and looking at the poster of Coffy for hours. This was 1973, making me 11 years old at the time: a very impressionable age. I had never really seen modern-looking young black people presented on film before. Those were the clothes I wanted to wear. That was the afro I wanted to have. That was the life I wanted to live. I also thought: “Look, we’re in the movies!”
BP: Some people consider the term Blaxploitation (and its movies) as offensive. What’s your take on that?
JH: Ridiculous! The late great Gordon Parks wouldn’t let me interview him for Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide because he had a problem with me calling Shaft a “Blaxploitation” film. Really? What’s the problem? Everything needs a label. Everything needs to be categorized—like it or not, that’s the way the world works. I think it’s a fun term: empowering. Let’s not forget it was an African-American publicist, Junius Griffin, who came up with it.
BP: I like to think of Blaxploitation as an “era” which not only consists of movies, but also music, books, television, clothing and more. Is that crazy?
JH: Agreed. The movies informed popular culture at the time. Everything from advertising to sitcoms had a dose of Mack daddies and Foxy Mamas. So did the music. Isaac Hayes won an Oscar for “Theme From Shaft.” It was the No. 1 Pop song in America. I mean, would there have been the TV show “Get Christie Love!” if it weren’t for films like Coffy, Cleopatra Jones and TNT Jackson? On a side note, I always thought that Whitney Houston should have starred in a big screen adaption of Get Christie Love!
BP: My desire for reading and love of Blaxploitation movies led me to look for a cross of the two, thus leading to BlaxploitationPaperbacks.com. Are you into the novels of the genre? If so, what are some of the books/authors you’ve read?
JH: I don’t know a lot about the novels but I do know that, of course, many of the films originated in paperback form and were largely written by African-Americans. I think it’s great. Every aspect of the influence of the films should be documented. It’s particularly interesting to me that major motion pictures had movie tie-in paperbacks—based on the script of the film but written by someone other than the scriptwriter. I’m lucky enough to have “Coffy” and “Trouble Man” (I caught both films at a “Return Engagement” double feature!) in my collection.
BP: Are there any particular movie(s) you think would make for good novelization?
JH: That’s a hard one. I really love a film called Blind Rage. It’s a double entendre title: the picture tells the story of five blind men who plan and execute an elaborate bank robbery. I love the idea! I think this could be fleshed out as a novel—and is certainly ripe for a remake.
BP: What are the essential elements of a Blaxploitation “classic” whether it’s a movie, book, television show or music?
JH: Well, as I’ve pointed out before, these are stories first and foremost about young people. It’s not grandma’s journey or Aunt Bess’ reflections on life. These are sex, drugs and rock and roll (substitute Soul music!) stories that take place in America’s inner cities. They promote and expand upon black fantasies of making it big—in or outside the established system.
BP: I consider you to be the supreme aficionado of Blaxploitation movies so I have to ask: in your opinion, who is the coolest cat and the finest female to grace the Blaxploitation screen?
JH: Thank you for the compliment but I’m really just one of many passionate about the genre—yourself included! In the female category I’m definitely partial to Pam Grier. I don’t think she’s the greatest actress in the world but she’s fascinating to watch. She has great screen impact and, to me, that’s just as powerful as being able to shake and cry on cue. As for the men of Blaxploitation I think that Jim Brown is probably the coolest. Fred Williamson is arguably the bigger star but I like Brown’s naturalness on screen. He never winks at the camera—he just plays it straight.
BP: I have a buddy of mine who’s deep into the genre also. We try to trip each other up every now and then by calling or texting a line of dialogue to see if the other can catch what movie it’s from. Is there any line that stands out for you from any film? Also, do you know where this line came from: “Man, don’t later me when you clutching my coins!”
JH: LOL! I love the quote: do tell! “I’m going to piss on your grave tomorrow” stands out as pretty memorable to me! (Pam Grier in Coffy). I also like “Boy is you on that dope again?” I’m not sure what movie it’s from but I’m sure that I heard my “Aunt” Cathy say this to her teenage son!
BP: By the way, the quote I mentioned is from Monkey Hustle. Another thing I love about Blaxploitation movies and books is the covers and poster art. I’m disappointed when the book or movie doesn’t live up to the excitement and expectation I had from seeing its cover. In fact, to this day, I’m nervous about watching Sweet Jesus Preacherman because I don’t think the movie will be as great as the cover! But what are some of your favorite movie posters or images from the genre?
JH: Well, you’re certainly right about Sweet Jesus Preacherman: it’s awful! So bad that when MGM issued their “all-inclusive” coffee table book “The MGM Story” they didn’t even mention it! I don’t mind that the poster art for many Blaxploitation films is often misleading and better than the actual films. That’s called inventive marketing.
Super Fly and Super Dude are two memorable posters for me: for different reasons. Super Fly is simply gorgeous: the car, the babe, the maxi coat! Super Dude (what a title!) looks like a spoof: cartoonish, fantastical, and crudely drawn! I also love Slaughter, Brother on the Run and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde.
BP: I applaud your book not only for the great detail you provide on Blaxploitation movies but for all the great images (pictures, posters, etc.) Is that your own collection and what’s your approach for amassing all of it?
JH: I would say that I have an impressive collection of Blaxploitation memorabilia including posters, photos, press books and the like, but the reason the book is so beautiful has nothing at all to do with me. My publisher, Plexus Books, was committed to the project as a deluxe representation of cinema as “art.” They didn’t approach it as a book about “black” films, but, instead, a book about American cinema. I’m both fortunate and grateful.
BP: There’s been a few “remakes” of Blaxploitation movies e.g. Shaft and supposedly Bones with Snoop Dogg was based on J.D’s Revenge. I’m not really a fan of the remake, but if there was one Blaxploitation movie you think could be remade, what would it be? And who would you cast?
JH: Well, I just read that every good film should be re-made every 15 to 20 years because with that time frame there is a whole new generation of movie goers who know nothing about the original. Generally speaking, I think re-makes illustrate a lack of creativity; but I get it. “It’s a brand. It was already successful. Let’s do it again.”
As I mentioned earlier, I think “Get Christie Love!” would be a lot of fun as a movie. If there can be Charlie’s Angels movies there should be Get Christie Love!
As for casting, since Whitney has passed—how tragic is that?—I’ll let Hollywood choose whomever they deem to be the “bankable” Black female of the moment.
BP: I use a rating scale on Blaxploitation Paperbacks where the lowest rating means I couldn’t even finish the book because it was so terrible. Thankfully, I haven’t come across any that bad yet. Are there any Blaxploitation movies that were just so horrible that you couldn’t get through them? I can think of a few that pushed me to the limit (e.g. Blackenstein, Mean Mother). Or are we such fans of the genre that we subject ourselves to the torture of seeing the worst ones all the way through?
JH: Lol! Well Mean Mother is absolutely atrocious! And Blackenstein is super low budget and terribly under-lit. (Black folks need more lighting: hello!) Frankly speaking, the larger part of the Blaxplotiation films are less than what moviegoers demand—even back then. They are what they are: cheaply made entertainments. But, no, I can sit through even the worst of the worst. I’m thrilled that they were made, that they were popular, and that they provided work and a forum for African-American talent.
BP: I find that many Blaxploitation fans are in countries outside of America. What do you think it is that draws such a diverse population to the genre?
JH: You’re right. The films are particularly popular in Spanish-speaking countries—Spanish language poster proliferate.
I think they’re popular in other markets because they’re straightforward shoot-em-ups. They’re not hard to translate. Everybody—in any country—wants to find a way to get more: more money, more girls or boys, more “validation”.
BP: You and I have a common purpose which is to keep the genre alive by sharing and exposing it to as many as possible. I think you are doing an awesome job. Is there anything else you would like to see happen as it pertains to fulfilling this purpose and making a huge impact?
JH: Thanks for the compliment but it’s inclination, really: I’m just running my mouth about things that I’m genuinely interested in!
As for further awareness of the genre and “era,” I have dreamed about hosting a Blaxploitation Night type TV show for one of the cable networks. It would be so much fun for me—and so cool for the new generation to have access to the films. That’s my dream! TV ONE, BET, VHI, BOUNCE—are you listening?!
BP: The last occurrence on record I was able to find historically of a Blaxploitation conference or celebration seemed to be well over 10 years ago. In your opinion, what would it take for Blaxploitation lovers to pull an ongoing celebration of the genre and its accomplishments?
JH: Money! There are conferences for everything from vintage dolls to cast iron kitchen appliances. If someone was willing to put forward the money, I would be more than happy to organize and promote a Blaxploitation conference. It’s my passion! (I’d even officiate a screening of the rarely seen “Super Dude” and “The Obsessed One”!)
BP: When all is said and done, what do you want people to say about your legacy and contribution to Blaxploitation?
JH: Legacy? Such a big word! I just wrote a book about something I was passionate about—and I was lucky enough to partner with a publisher that was equally passionate. No one has really noted this, but Plexus Books is a British publisher. I had to go outside of my own country to stir up interest and get the book deal. And, what a great job they did!
BP: OK last question: you’re trapped on a deserted island and you can only have 1 Blaxploitation movie, 1 Blaxploitation paperback and 1 Blaxploitation soundtrack. What would they be?
JH: The “soundtrack” is without question Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly. It’s magic, hit-heavy, atmospheric, career defining.
My “desert Island” Blaxploitation paperback would be Mandingo by Kyle Onstott—the novel sold more than ten million copies! It’s a great: outrageous, salacious, shamelessly exploitative entertainment: writing to the Nth degree.
And as far as films go, I’ll take Coffy any day! She’s as “bad” as the men that populate the genre—and way nicer to look at!
BP: Anything else you want to leave the readers with?
JH: Yes: Keep on Truckin’ baby…!