Countdown at Kusini (a.k.a. Cool Red) – 1976, director: Ossie Davis; starring: Greg Morris, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis
Within the ranks of black films of the 1970s, there are a handful of titles that remain shrouded with an air of mystery. These are the “lost” films of the blaxploitation era, of which there are two distinct types. The first type of lost blaxploitation film are those that have never been officially released on home video, but have still managed to find a home on bootleg videos. Films like The Legend of Nigger Charley, though never having had any sort of authorized release, can be found on DVD. But then there’s the other type of lost film that is truly lost. These are the ones that have never turned up on video in any way, and in some cases have not been seen since their original release. Perhaps the most famous of these lost films is director Ossie Davis’s Countdown at Kusini (a.k.a. Cool Red), a movie with an interesting history, that has remained largely unseen since its initial release in 1976.
Best known for his role as Barney Collier on the television series Mission: Impossible, Greg Morris stars as Red Salter, an American jazz musician working in Nigeria. Red is trying to make time with Leah Matanzima (Ruby Dee), who is working with a group of rebels trying to liberate the fictional nation of Fahari. Leah recruits Red to help smuggle Ernest Motapo (Ossie Davis), the leader of the revolutionary army, out of Nigeria and into Fahari. Motapo is being hunted by mercenary Ben Amed (Tom Aldredge), who has been hired by a powerful corporation that has been oppressing the people of Fahari, and stripping the nation of its natural resources. Though he is reluctant to get too heavily involved, Red soon finds himself fighting along with Motapo and the rebels to liberate their homeland from its colonialist oppressors.
Coming along as the popularity of blaxploitation was crashing and burning, Countdown at Kusini was conceived and produced as something of an alternative to what was often seen as a largely negative genre. To be certain, a great many of the films produced and marketed to black audiences in the 1970s were mired in negativity, as well as hampered by low budgets and inferior production values. Although it sought to put forth a more positive, empowering, and politically provocative message than the other films being churned out—especially those being churned out toward the tail end of the cycle—Countdown at Kusini suffers from the same budgetary and production value issues found in some of the more notoriously bad blaxploitation films. But because the film has been barely seen since coming out in 1976, it has become regarded as something of a lost classic—the assumption being that it is probably a decent film (never mind the fact that the film received mostly negative reviews). The sad truth of the matter is that though the backstory of how and why Countdown at Kusini was made (a story I will get into in my upcoming book — provided I actually write it), the movie itself isn’t very good. It stops short of being truly bad, though it teeters dangerously close to the edge of the cliff of being pretty bad.
The victim of a very limited budget, and a long list of production woes incurred while shooting in Nigeria, Countdown at Kusini starts out promising as a politically charged assault on colonialism in Africa. But the film quickly falls apart, weighed down by a flimsy, poorly developed screenplay, with even more poorly developed characters. Best known as an actor, Ossie Davis helped launch blaxploitation as the director of Cotton Comes to Harlem and highly under-rated Gordon’s War. Davis co-wrote, co-produced, and directed Countdown at Kusini, which is probably the main reason people have been willing to give this film the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, it isn’t deserving of any assumptions of greatness, because, quite honestly, there is no greatness to be found. Though it is clear the budget is limited, neither Davis, nor director of photography, Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors, First Blood) seem to be able to give the film any sense of style or energy. The result is a flat, lifeless script that looks equally flat and lifeless, shot primarily in medium shots that betray the film as having been shot as quickly and efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, quick and efficient aren’t always what a movie needs, especially when the script itself is lacking.
Despite everything working against it, Countdown at Kusini does have moments that work. Most notably, the film manages to pull itself together for a satisfying climax that constitutes the most well crafted portion of the film. The rest of the film, however, is not that well crafted or nearly as compelling. The film earns points for its anti-colonialist message, but other films have handled that subject matter much better, including director Valerio Zurlini’s poorly titled 1968 film Black Jesus (a.k.a. Seated at His Right), starring Woody Strode, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece The Battle of Algiers. Even during its best moments, Countdown at Kusini can’t hold its own against other like-minded films.