Book Review: BLACK CAESARS AND FOXY CLEOPATRAS is Essential Reading for Essential Watching

Film critic and historian Odie Henderson’s History of Blaxploitation Cinema informs and delights

Now available, veteran film critic Odie Henderson’s tome exploring the history of black cinema of the 70s is a must-read for fans of the genre – or anyone simply looking to dig in.

Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras is neither an encyclopedia of blaxploitation films, nor a collection of reviews, at least not in the traditional sense. Henderson does provide commentary and opinions on a great many films, but the structure and intent of the book is a historical telling of the story of blaxploitation cinema. Told chronologically, this history not only recounts the evolution of the genre, but couches it in its historical context as well. Year by year, each annualized section sets the stage of world news and current events, both sociopolitical and cultural.

Henderson understands the assignment, providing a straightforward narrative and colorful commentary that’s insightful and intelligent but not dryly academic. In other words, it’s a fun read and I learned a hell of a lot. He’s not afraid to include personal anecdotes and memories as a black child growing up in the 70s, which I found particularly compelling. As someone who is of a younger generation and for whom these movies precede my birth, I found this an incredibly effective approach. I’m a fan of the genre who has seen many of these films, but the historical context does provide new insights. It never occurred to me, for example, that Cotton Comes to Harlem had preceded Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft – the two movies I had thought of as the genre’s jump-start.

The telling tracks not only the genre’s beginning, but its end as well. The genre fell off in the latter part of the 70s, and Henderson discusses the reasons for why this happened.

Year by year, Henderson tracks and reviews many of the genre’s films ranging from classics to obscurities, paying attention to trends and themes as well as which were written, directed, and produced by black talent. Besides tracking important actors and filmmakers, the book also devotes necessary attention to the composers and musicians who gave the genre its soul.

Tangential films are also covered as appropriate: Sidney Poitier movies, kung fu flicks, “counterprogramming”, and a new class of television sitcoms featuring black families. It’s all part of the overall story, and this is an unrushed approach: consider that Pam Grier’s breakout role in Coffy is covered in chapter 10, nearing the book’s halfway mark.

Henderson is funny and entertaining to read and even if I don’t agree with all of his opinions (most notably, an aside calling midlife malaise masterpiece The Big Chill a “lily-White piece of garbage” felt especially unkind and uncharacteristically thoughtless), it’s clear that he is the right author for this material, bringing a genuine affection, expert commentary, good vibes, and a critical eye – and some hearty chuckles.

The book is well-edited, although it does have a small printing flaw – on two chapters, the last page leading into a new section is cut off, accidentally inked over by a black chapter divider. In the big picture, it’s a small issue and in no way impeded my overall enjoyment of the book.

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Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras – Hardcover

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