Why '70s Actress Vonetta McGee Hated the 'Blaxploitation' Label
Vonetta McGee is better known for her roles in several ‘70s blaxploitation films. But ironically, she hated the word “blaxploitation,” compared it to racism, and said she preferred to label the movies as “black-film genre.”
McGee was born in 1945, a time where roles for African American actresses were scarce and mostly insulting. She studied pre-law at San Francisco State College, where she started acting as part of the Black theatre group Aldridge Players West.
She eventually left college before graduating to pursue an acting career, but not in the States.
In 1968, McGee landed her first roles in the Italian films “Faustina” and “The Great Silence.” And although many critics have pointed out that no one really watched those films outside of Italy and Germany, McGee caught the attention of the one and only Sidney Poitier.
He secured her roles in two US films: “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” and “The Lost Man,” where she was first introduced to the American audience.
Vonetta McGee (1945–2010) would've been 74 today. #BornOnThisDay— getTV (@gettv) January 14, 2019
She was a familiar face for 40 yrs, from action classics like SHAFT IN AFRICA + THE EIGER SANCTION to TV like CAGNEY & LACEY + BUSTIN’ LOOSE w/ Jimmie Walker.
We remember her w/ her 1987 episode of AMEN — 6:30a ET pic.twitter.com/yhWyEsWnMG
At the time, the Blaxploitation era was steadily emerging in an industry that had been profoundly racist until then. Inspired by the civil rights movement, the genre sought to made of black people the on-screen heroes. There were movies made by black people for black people.
McGee went on to earn leading roles in several blaxploitation films like “Blacula,” “Hammer,” “Detroit 9000, “ and “Shaft in Africa.”
In a “Blacula” review made for The New York Times, writer Roger Greenspun described McGee as “just possibly the most beautiful woman currently acting in movies.”
Although Blaxploitation films indeed increased the visibility of African Americans in Hollywood, the genre faced several critics.
According to Vice, Junius Griffin, a National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) representative, “coined the term from the words ‘Black’ and ‘exploitation’ and, along with many others, denounced the genre’s regressive side."
McGee was also a detractor of the term.
THOMASINE & BUSHROD is the Blaxploitation Western you’ve always dreamed of but never knew existed. Vonetta McGee and Max Julien play the leads, who wind up playing Robin Hoods, stealing from wealthy whites and giving to poor southerners.— Anthology Film Archives (@AnthologyFilm) September 8, 2018
See it at 6:45 in WOMEN OF THE WEST! pic.twitter.com/RJCCZnblIv
She told the LA Times in 1979 that the label was used “like racism, so you don’t have to think of the individual elements, just the whole. If you study propaganda, you understand how this works.”
Instead, she said she preferred the term “black-film genre.”
After the blaxploitation films started to decline in 1974, McGee’s career kept rising. She took roles in films like “The Kremlin Letter,” “Thomasine & Bushrod,” and “The Eiger Sanction,” where she stared the screen with Clint Eastwood.
#VonettaMcGee (1945–2010) starred in films like THE EIGER SANCTION (1975) + TV shows like BUSTIN' LOOSE w/ #JimmieWalker!— getTV (@gettv) May 8, 2019
See her on AMEN — 7:30a ET on @getTV
What else do you remember her from?https://t.co/Y4UlsZ5aNb pic.twitter.com/1ZwLegeOpA
She also appeared on TV series such as “Hell Town,” “Bustin’ Loose,” “L.A. Law” and “Cagney & Lacey,” where she met her husband Carl Lumbly, with whom she married in 1986.
McGee never stopped addressing the industry’s racism and unfairness.
When Diana Ross started to appear in films, becoming an example of “equal opportunities” in the industry, McGee argued otherwise. “She has had the luxury of a studio behind her,'' McGee said. ''This is where a lot of us fell short. We all needed a certain amount of protection. But we were on our own.''
Clint Eastwood & Vonetta McGee pic.twitter.com/nSifSBodKx— priscilla page (@BBW_BFF) September 20, 2016
After the birth of her son in 1988, McGee became less active on the screen. She worked in just four more films and one TV show until her death in 2010 from after a cardiac arrest. She was 65.
McGee was survived by her husband, Carl Lumbly, who is now 67 and still acting, and their son, Brandon Lumbly.