Monday, February 28, 2011

28 Days of Blaxploitation (sort of)

Our friend over at My Year In Crime has just finished a month featuring one of my favorite film genre (meta-genre?), Blaxploitation.  In honor of that, I decided to re-publish an article I did last year on the same subject.  This was original posted elsewhere on 2/28/2010.

According to Wikipedia, Blaxploitation is: “a film genre that emerged in the United States in the early 1970s when many exploitation films were made that targeted an audience of urban black people; the word itself is a portmanteau of the words "black" and "exploitation." Blaxploitation films were the first to feature soundtracks of funk and soul music. These films starred primarily black actors.”

For me, the genre represents an updating of Film Noir.  Working mostly outside of, or on the periphery of the Hollywood film industry, these movies were often filmed on shoestring budgets with casts of mostly unknowns.  Hard luck mainstream actors would often show up for a pay check, so they could add a ‘name’ to the bill.  But working in such a way allowed filmmakers to make stylistically and conceptually interesting films that the mainstream movie industry didn’t have the stomach for.  Like Noir, the films tended toward darker stories and characters, often dealing with crime as a central theme.  The movies usually dripped with sex and violence, much like their Film Noir predecessors (though due to relaxed restrictions, more graphically).  Chances could be taken and boundaries could be pushed because budgets were often kept so low, and returns could be quite high.  And some fantastic talents got their starts, both behind and in front of the camera.

Like Film Noir, the genre has no clear and solid definition.  It’s very difficult to say, ‘this film is’ or ‘this film isn’t.’  To a degree, it becomes a matter of taste.  One can debate what movie is the ‘first’ Blaxploitation film.  Is it Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song?  Or is it Shaft?  Is Shaft really Blaxploitation at all, or simply a 70s cop movie with a black actor in the lead?  Much like Noir, the debates can be endless.  I tend to be pretty liberal in my interpretation of what qualifies.  Still, I ended up watching some movies this month that I don’t feel quite fit.  These are the starred titles.  For whatever reason, in hindsight, I don’t think they count.  And I can certainly see Trick Baby and The Spook Who Sat by the Door being questioned, as well, but they had enough elements that I kept them on my list.

This list is hardly complete.  Many of my favorites aren’t even on here, because I didn’t get to them this year.  Trouble Man, Foxy Brown, and That Man Bolt, just to name a few.  At the tail end of the list is a modern film directly inspired by the original Blaxploitation movies.

1) Cleopatra Jones:  In spite of some pretty good production values, and a few cool scenes, this is not one of the better Blaxploitation films I’ve seen.  Tamara Dobson plays the title character, an international woman of mystery, brought back to her home town when evil drug dealing Shelley Winters attacks her favorite charity.  Winters is at her repulsive best, and her goofy, greasy haired assistant Tony is great.  But Dobson is kind of dull in the lead, and her martial arts are about as convincing as latter day Steven Seagal.  I kept wanting more Bernie Casey, who is woefully underused.  This feels like it could have easily been better, but something is missing. 

2) Black Gunn:  Though the story is pretty standard, this movie is elevated by an army of great character actors. The music is great, and Jim Brown is good in the lead. The villains and various allies, like Martin Landau, Bernie Casey, and Bruce Glover (Crispin Glover's dad) are all great. Even small parts like the hood who gets knocked around in the bowling alley are well played and interesting. And the expected violent climax keeps getting more and more outrageous as it goes on. If you're in the mood for some Blaxploitation, this is a pretty good choice. Not up to Coffy levels, but better than many.

3) Trick Baby:  A good script and solid acting make up for a low budget in this very good conman movie.  When a pair of hustlers pull the wool over the wrong mark, they bring down the wrath of a crooked cop and an angry mobster.  Based on a novel by Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck), it captures the excitement and the danger of life as a conman.  Check this one out. 

*4) Thank God it’s Friday:  Oh, man.  Where does one begin?  This movie is one of those common to the late 70s and early 80s where a bunch of odd people all descend on a specific location and comic hijinks ensue.   The problem is that someone forgot to add the comic part.  Extremely annoying people stand around and act really dumb while playing extra crappy disco music for an hour and a half.  Eventually the Commodores come out and play a dreadful, boring song.  Then the film ends.  Donna Summers stumbles around, looking vaguely confused for a good portion of the film, and also sings a song which sucks.   The movie is really, really bad.  I can only imagine the people involved were dusted on a LOT of coke, else there’s really no excuse for this kind of shoddy work. 

5) The Mack:  Mackin’ ain’t easy.  Unfortunately, sitting through this film wasn’t either.  The typical fall, rise, and fall again story could have been saved had the lead actor, Max Julien been charismatic in any way.  He’s supposed to be a svengali type character, but comes off as a lifeless Matthew McConaughey instead.  I just don’t see him controlling a bunch of prostitutes.  Still, the supporting cast is good.  Don Gordon as the racist cop and Richard Pryor are especially good.  Having long heard about this film, I ended up being pretty disappointed upon finally seeing it.  There are certainly good bits to be sure.  But overall, I just found it dull.  The documentary about making the film that appeared on the DVD ended up being far more interesting.

6) Black Samson:  Dashiki?  Yup.  Lion-headed staff?  Yup.  Actual, living lion sitting on the bar?  You know it.  Samson has all it takes to keep the streets safe in this fairly by the numbers, but very entertaining flick.  Cool dude, Rockne Tarkington is Samson.  Go-to tough jerk William Smith is the racist villain.  There’s plenty of snappy dialog and a few good knock-down drag-out fights.  And, yeah, there’s a lion.

7) Three The Hard Way:  When you team up Jim Brown, Jim Kelly, and Fred Williamson, you know there’s going to be some serious business.  The guys kick a lot of butt, blow up a lot of stuff, and shoot a lot of guns.  Jim Brown has a team of topless dominatri (what’s plural for dominatrix?…never thought I’d have to ask that) on call, so you know this movie is nuts.  Check this one out for sure.  Then check the guys out in Take a Hard Ride, their next movie together. 

8) Super Fly:  Solid performances help this somewhat standard story of a criminal trying to go straight.  There are some excellent sequences and awesome music.  And Julius Harris is excellent in his brief role.  Ron O’Neal is great in the lead.  Worth a watch but not amazing.

9) Mandinga:  Good golly.  Another Italian rip-off; another terrible film.  Chock full of nudity and poorly performed violence, this is sort of the essence of ‘exploitation’ cinema.  Unfortunately, like a lot of Italian films from the 70s, it’s also quite boring.  At least they tried to make up with it by playing the same repetitive music over and over again for the whole danged movie.  If you’re in the mood for crap, take a look.  Otherwise, don’t bother.

10) Three Tough Guys:  This film is a touch slow, and pretty low quality, but enjoyable.  Ex-cop Isaac Hayes and priest Lino Ventura team up to kick some criminal butt.  Fred Williamson plays a rare villainous character.  There are some good lines and a few cool scenes.  And the priest riding around on his ten-speed to get some butt kicking done is fun to watch.  OK 70s cheese if you can get past the low quality of the film stock/DVD transfer.

*11) Greased Lightening:  About a third of the way into watching this film, I started to think to myself that it felt like a bio-pic.  Turns out, it is.  Richard Pryor plays Wendell Scott, the first black driver in NASCAR.  The early part of the film, which starts with Scott’s return from the Second World War, is a great deal of fun.  He teams up with friends to run moonshine in what kept reminding me of an episode of The Dukes of Hazaard.  As the film progresses, in typical bio-pic fashion, things begin to happen with little context, like his sudden friendship with Beau Bridges’ Hutch, or his rivalry with Beau Welles.  Still, there are some very good parts, and Pam Grier looks absolutely amazing in the first half of the film.  The movie does have a somewhat slow pace, perhaps because of its episodic nature.  I was surprised to find out after watching it that it was just over an hour and a half.  It felt much longer.  I won’t say I was bored, but it was slow.  Certainly not amazing, but a pretty good movie.

12) The Harder They Come:  This is the story of an extremely unlikable jerk who moves from the country to the city with a dream of being a singer.  He treats everyone like garbage while expecting everyone to love him.  When things don’t go his way, he steals, kills and basically does whatever he wants.  This is all set against the ultra depressing backdrop of Jamaica.  And, if that doesn’t sell you, it’s also really slow paced.  After fifteen minutes, I disliked the lead so much my attention started to drift.  It’s a very unpleasant movie.

*13) Uptown Saturday Night:  A fantastic cast does a great job in this comic misadventure.  It gets a touch slow in the middle, but for the most part, this is a very enjoyable movie with Sidney Poitier staring and directing, Bill Cosby as his best friend, and a parade of cameos.  The mobsters, played by Harry Belafonte and Calvin Lockhart are especially good.  Their sequence at the church picnic had me rolling on the floor (best comically timed zoom I’ve seen in a while).  There is a bit of strong language, and some violence, but most of it is for the sake of comedy, and it’s not brutal at all.  Even in the shootouts, nobody actually gets hit (like watching a GI Joe cartoon).  If you’re in the mood for a good, fun, lighthearted comedy, check this one out.

14) Bucktown:  Fred Williamson leads a cast of heavy hitters in a cool story about power and corruption.  Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease, as Williamson’s character discovers when he recruits his big city friends to clean up his dead brother’s hometown.  The audio on this movie is a bit spotty.  However, it’s full of some great performances and has some awesome dialog.  And the finale is crazy.  Really crazy.  My one complaint with the movie is Pam Grier’s role.  She’s playing a weak sort of character and she doesn’t wear it well, shrieking and whining much of her dialog.  It may be my least favorite performance from one of my favorite actresses.  This is a really cool blaxploitation film, and a must watch for fans of the genre.

15) Black Shampoo:  This movie is surreal.  It starts out as a cornball comedy, with writing about on par with the average porn (“But I didn’t order a pizza”).  John Daniels is wonderfully awful in the lead.  He’s supposed to be a super-lover that all the women dig, but he comes off as an awkward dullard.  There’s plenty of nudity, lots of bad jokes, and some surprisingly good music.  Then things take an unexpected turn for the dark and violent.  With about fifteen minutes to go, things get really bad.  Lots of people die, in ugly ways.  I have no idea why there’s a sudden shift in tone, but it’s jarring.  Of course, a good deal of this film is jarring, and that’s half the fun.  Oh, man, the cowboy picnic.

16) Slaughter:  A fairly standard plot is improved by some funky direction and some nasty violence. Jim Brown, Stella Stevens, and Don Gordon are a lot of fun to watch, and Rip Torn is awesomely crazy as the racist villain (his final scene had my friends and I laughing pretty hard). This is certainly good for some laughs, especially at the hair and acting of the mob boss.  Slaughter is a solid Blaxploitation film.

17) Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off:  A step down in the crazy factor from the first film, this movie is also sadly lacking Don Gordon as Slaughter’s buddy.  However, it’s still pretty good.  Jim Brown is typically cool in the lead.  And there’s plenty of over the top violence.  Ed McHahon has fun as the evil boss and Brock Peters has a memorable, if small role as a jerk cop.  A good, but not especially great film, and a good companion to Slaughter and Black Gunn.  I was bummed there wasn’t a third film, as the ending of Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off hints at something that could have been a lot of fun.

*18) Let’s Do it Again:  Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier team up again in this spiritual follow up to Uptown Saturday Night.  The cast of great stars and character actors is even longer than the first movie’s, with Jimmy Walker and John Amos, as well as Julius Harris and Ossie Davis.  If the idea of Jimmy Walker playing a boxer is funny to you, or if you enjoy the actors, check this one out.  There are some very funny gags and great little bits.  And Poitier seems a bit more comfortable with comedy than he was in Uptown.  Check this film out for some good clean fun.

*19) Car Wash:  This is one of those sort of hap-hazard ensemble cast films that doesn’t have much of a plot.  Instead we see a ‘day in the life’ of an L.A. car wash and its staff of odd ducks.  Some stories are better than others, and the cast is fantastic (look out for a young Tim Thomerson).  But by its very nature it’s uneven.  Some characters and their story lines aren’t especially interesting.  Still, it’s pretty funny at times, and certainly worth watching.

20) Dynamite Brothers:  Hippie fight!  Extras from BJ and The Bear square off against the cast of a Shaw Brothers film in this wacky 70s gem.  Timothy Brown and Alan Tang are forced together in a quest to fight drug pushers and find Tang’s long lost brother.  Pimps, pushers, Chinese drug lords, open shirts, and lots of red paint for blood.  The editing is laughably bad, as is the film’s sense of geography (why was an apartment across the street in one scene, and across town in another?  Why when you look left on any given busy city street can you find a block of burned out, semi-abandoned buildings?  Hang on; wasn‘t he just driving in the mountains?).  Great fun, and a good watch with like minded friends in the mood for cheese.

*21) Mother, Jugs, and Speed:  There is a lot of good in this movie.  But the movie isn’t very good.  It’s one of those depressing comedies that were so popular in the 70s, like MASH.  You know, plenty of odd, bawdy jokes (most not very funny), interrupted by people getting shot to death, suicide, etc.  But, that said, Bill Cosby owns this movie.  His performance is so good, I kept hoping the film would get better somehow to match it.  And when the combination of characters from the title finally happens, it’s great.  But it comes so late in the film that it makes you wish the film had started there instead.  There is a good idea at the center of this film, and a good cast.  But it never comes together.

22) Abar: Black Superman:  Shockingly bad acting, exceptionally low production values, and some seriously ham-fisted moralizing make this goof-ball movie a blast.  The actors are wonderfully stiff.  There are great sequences where the actors are clearly reading off cards.  They didn’t do retakes.  Stumbling over dialog is common.  And everyone is painted with the broadest of strokes.  Everyone white is evil.  Any black person who doesn’t live in the ghetto is a sell out.  It takes forever to get the ‘Black Superman’ element of the film, but when it happens…Well, not all that much changes.  It’s still a really poorly made film.  But dang, it’s entertaining. 

23) The Spook Who Sat by the Door:  In spite of what must have been a low budget, this film looks fantastic and has a strong cast.  This is a movie that could never have been made at that time within the Hollywood system.  The closest Hollywood could come was Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which had to bury its social relevance in science fiction and makeup.  Lawrence Cook is great in the lead, as a man playing the long game, setting plans that take years to mature.  As one of his women says, he’s a quite guy, but one you don’t mess with.  He’s my kind of hero, a thinker who can still take care of business if it’s called for.  And with plans all his own, taking orders from none.  Like any political/protest film, this movie paints many characters with broad strokes, and its politics are a touch simplistic.  However, the point of a movie like this isn’t to be ‘realistic’ but to provoke thought.  And it does.  Check this one out.

24) Blackenstein:  Surprisingly enough, this movie is poorly made, with awful acting and shoddy editing.  But it’s OK, because Dr. Winifred Walker is there.  At times, it seems like introducing Dr. Winifred Walker (played by Ivory Stone) or pointlessly dropping in ‘DNA’ into various sentences was all the script actually called for.  Ultra-dramatic music plays at totally inappropriate times.  They get all the use out of set pieces from the original Frankenstein set that they can.  The madness (and stupidity) is all presided over by Dr. Stein (played by Dick Van Dyke look alike John Hart).  A really, really awful movie that is sure to please those looking for some MST3K style fun with friends.

25) Savage!:  James Inglehart is not a particularly interesting leading man, but this movie is still fun to watch.  Today we have Prague.   In the 90s, it was Vancouver.   In the 80s it was Argentina.  But in the 70s, if you didn’t have a lot of money, you went to the Philippines.   Lots of very dangerous looking stunts, tons of extras, and some beautiful scenery add to this low budget movie.  Genre regular Carol Speed and former go-go dancer Lada Edmund Jr. (?) play Savage’s lady warriors as he leads a revolution against an oppressive regime (which, of course includes actor Vic Diaz, go-to Pilipino villain).  There’s lots of gunplay.  Some pointless nudity.  Not really a lot of plot.  All that was missing was Pam Grier and Sid Haig.

26) Hit Man:  This adaptation of Ted Lewis’ novel Jack’s Return Home (which also served as the basis of both versions of Get Carter) sees Bernie Casey as the tough dude coming back to town to avenge his brother’s death.  Casey is smooth and dangerous, and I’ve never understood why he wasn’t a bigger star.  The film is grim and relentless, and the last act is bloody and brutal.  There is some humor, but the story is very bleak.  The film also features a young Pam Grier in one of her earlier roles.  If you enjoy brutal revenge films like Point Blank and Death Wish, or want to see another take on the story of Get Carter, check this one out.

27)  Black Belt Jones:  Ooooooo!  Jim Kelly smacks, cracks, rocks, and socks a bunch of drug dealing mobsters.  Oyyyyyyyy!  And he hooks up with the lovely Gloria Hendry.  Ooo! Ooo! Waaaaaah!  The villains are silly; the fights frequent and involved (and often in slow-motion).  Hoyeeee!  I’m pretty sure the score lifts a bunch of samples from the Omega Man soundtrack, which is a bit odd.  OoooWohooo!  And the climactic battle is extremely wacky.  HAAAA!  Check this one out for some lighthearted fun and martial arts zaniness.  WaaChaaaaa!  And really, what’s with all those strange sounds Kelly makes while fighting?  OhhhhHaa!

28)  Black Dynamite:  Solid!  This comic homage to the Blaxploitation genre is smart, funny, and just darned cool.  Michael Jai White busts some jive turkeys and does some crazy kung fu as he follows corruption all the way to the top (ALL the way).  It’s chock full of tons of references for fans.  And the nice thing is that while it’s certainly a comedy, it’s respectful in its own way of the movies that inspired it.  Many of the supporting actors capture the essence genre regulars, too.  Tommy Davidson is doing Antonio Fargas.  Byron Minns does his best Rudy Ray Moore.  And Michael Jai White manages to capture a little Jim Brown, a little Richard Roundtree, and a bit of Fred Williamson at the same time.  And then there’s young Pam Grier look-alike Salli Richardson-Whitfield.  The music is spot on, as well.  If you’re a fan of the genre, this is a must.

That was my 28 Days of Blaxploitation for February of 2010.  I saw a lot that was new to me, and that’s always a pleasure.  I watched a couple old favorites while I was at it.  But, as I said above, this is not a complete list.  If you’re new to the genre, let me make a few suggestions with my current top 10 list. 

10. Hell Up in Harlem
9. Three The Hard Way
8. Shaft’s Big Score
7. That Man Bolt
6. Trouble Man
5. Bucktown
4. Friday Foster
3. Truck Turner
2. Slaughter
1. Coffy


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