David F. Walker

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – KILL SQUAD

KILL SQUAD 1982 director: Patrick G. Donahue starring: Cameron Mitchell in a cameo and a bunch of people you’ve probably never heard of

Okay…I know…this isn’t really a blaxploitation movie. At the same time, it isn’t really that much of a martial arts movie – which is what is was sold as being – so, I don’t think we need to get caught up in the semantics of defining the genre of KILL SQUAD. I’m including here because…well…I guess it helps to provide certain historical lesson. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. Plus…and have to honest here…I really like this poster.

By the ‘80s, for all intents and purposes, blaxploitation was dead. Maybe not so much dead as it was mutated into something so completely different you couldn’t really recognize it. Before things really changed for black films in 1986 with Spike Lee’s SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, all there really was were a handful of post-blaxploitation flicks. What had once been blaxploitation had morphed and mutated into several uniquely different film types. The first type of neuvo-blaxploitation were the buddy films like 48 HOURS and IRON EAGLE, which cast a black actor opposite a white actor. These films ultimately evolved into another type of black action film like BEVERLY HILLS COP and ACTION JACKSON. The second type of post-blaxploitation were flicks like THE LAST DRAGON and KRUSH GROOVE, which were very true to the blaxploitation spirit, except they didn’t have much by way of testicular fortitude, and posed no threat to whitey. These films would eventually change and shift and become films like BOYZ N THE HOOD and JUICE. And the third type of film to crawl from the wreckage of what had once been the great genre of blaxploitation was what I like to call quite simply “shit”. That’s right, shit. These shit-films are the direct descendants of the shit that was being churned out in the ‘70s. I’m talking about shit like THE GUY FROM HARLEM, VELVET SMOOTH, and SPEEDING UP TIME, to name a few of the more shitty films of the 1970s, which would then evolve into shitty films of the 1980s.

Perhaps one of the biggest pieces of shit is KILL SQUAD, a film that first begs to be put out of its misery with a dull, rusty spoon through the skull, and ultimately makes you want to put the very same spoon through your own skull. The story revolves around a team of elite ‘Nam vets who reunite to help their former platoon leader avenge the murder of his wife. Hopefully, I won’t be ruining anything when I say that most of the men get killed off, and as it turns out, it was the platoon leader who had his wife murdered, and that the investigation is a sham meant to deflect any suspicion from him. Sorry to spoil the ending, but if you’re the type of person who would watch and enjoy KILL SQUAD…well…discerning taste is something you are sorely lacking.

Except for a brief role by Cameron “I’ll-act-in-anything-for-a-dollar” Mitchell, KILL SQUAD has a no-name cast of actors who probably went on to jobs where phrases like “check the oil” and “you want fries with that” are part of the day-to-day lingo.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – JOSHUA

JOSHUA (a.k.a. Joshua: The Black Rider) 1976 director: Larry Spangler; starring Fred Williamson

Some evil racists make the mistake of killing Civil War veteran Joshua’s (Fred “the Hammer” Williamson) momma. In the process of killin’ Momma Hammer, they also kidnap the wife of the white man that she worked for. Now, I don’t need to tell you Joshua ain’t givin’ a rusty shit ‘bout the wife of no white man; but as anyone who’s seen ORIGINAL GANGSTAS knows, Fred ain’t havin’ that abuse of his momma. And quicker than you can say, “Don’t be messin’ wif my momma”, our main man sets out on a trail-o-revenge. Joshua tracks them no good varmints across the open prairie; and one by one he makes sure they all contract a serious case of the deaths. One sucka gets took out with a rattlesnake, one gets spear chucked, others get filled fulla lead, and one gets blown to smithereens. It all sounds pretty exciting…but it isn’t.

Like director Jack Arnold’s BOSS NIGGER (which also starred Williamson), JOSHUA draws much of its inspiration from the European-produced spaghetti westerns, which had been popular in the 1960s, but by the 1970s had become increasingly dependent on comedy to keep the genre going. While BOSS NIGGER is a technically poor film, it is fun to watch, coming across like a blaxploitation version of Enzo Barboni’s TRINITY films. JOSHUA, on the other hand is reminiscent of spaghetti westerns from the mid-to-late 1960s, playing like a Franco Nero or John Garko film – something along the lines of MASSACRE TIME or VENGEANCE IS MINE, neither of which are all that good in their own right. But even by the standards of mediocre-to-crappy spaghetti westerns, JOSHUA isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, lacking the visual flare that fueled even some of the more craptacular Eurowesterns. While not being brain-melting terrible, JOSHUA ain’t exactly good either.

The Hammer is the only saving grace to the film, but he doesn’t keep the film moving the way Charles Bronson propels the similar CHATO’S LAND. And pretty much all the moving this film does is at a turtle’s pace, thanks in part to Larry Spangler’s flat, uninspired direction. Spangler also produced Williamson’s first western, THE LEGEND ON NIGGER CHARLEY, and he wrote, produced, and directed the sequel THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY (neither of which comfortably rest in the realm of what might be considered “decent” films). But beyond Spangler’s lifeless direction, we also have Williamson’s script, which takes no chances and gives no dimension to the hero. And while a dimensionless hero may be somewhat acceptable, flat and stale villains can really weigh a movie down, which is just another part of this sorry state of affairs.


BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO!

IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO!(a.k.a. Dead Right; Night Hunt) 1968 director: Charles Martin; starring: Raymond St. Jacques, Dana Wynter, Kevin McCarthy, Barbara McNair

First things first: whatever you do, don’t confuse this movie with the Chester Himes novel of the same name. It would be easy to make that assumption, especially since star Raymond St. Jacques would go on to star in two very successful blaxploitation films based on Himes’s work (COTTON COMES TO HARLEM and COMEBACK CHARLESTON BLUE). The second thing you need to do is never – and I mean never – confuse this with a good film. But given the terrible direction and even worse writing, you’d have to be a complete moron to think this film is good. Hell, it’s a challenge just to find anything of merit about this nearly forgotten junk. Although it came before that actual start of the blaxploitation era, this was one of several key films that helped paved the way for what was to emerge in the 1970s.

Things start out with a certain amount of promise with St. Jacques starring as James Lake, a man doing a life sentence in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. James escapes from prison, and while on the run he crosses paths with Leslie Whitlock (McCarthy). Even though he feigns ignorance, Whitlock knows that Lake is an escaped convict. Rather than turning Lake in, the evil ofay forces the righteous soul brother into killing his wife for him. It seems Ellen Whitlock (Wynter) has a gang of loot, and her unscrupulous husband wants it all to himself. It’s right about here that the film begins what seems like a never-ending descent into the toilet. It just keeps getting worse and worse as Lake goes on the run after he thinks he’s killed Ellen, but much to Whitlock’s surprise his wife turns up alive. Our hero continues to flee throughout the second act, as a series of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks reveal his life before prison. Part of these flashbacks includes Lake’s affair with Lily (McNair), the woman he shuns once he’s locked up in the joint. From there it just gets more ridiculous and convoluted, as Lake attempts to clear his name and stop Whitlock from trying to kill his wife again.

IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO isn’t exactly a great film when it starts, but it is still amazing how bad it gets by the time it is over. Usually films that end this poorly start out as total crap. But since this film starts out with the hope of at least being a mediocre noir-ish thriller, where it ends up makes it that much more disappointing.

Written and directed by a hack named Charles Martin, IF HE HOLLERS is one of those late 1960s films that paved the way for blaxploitation. St. Jacques’s hero was definitely part of the new breed of black protagonists – strong, intelligent, and willing to stand up for himself. He even gets to put his ass deep in the foot of a white motherfucker (which is always good for a bit of entertainment). But at the end of the day, this movie sucks ass. I’d like to think that if it were a better film it might be better remembered, but then THE SPLIT (starring Jim Brown) is a much better film from the same year, and that’s just as forgotten. As a film, Martin’s pathetic piece of junk is really only good for unintentional laughs.

Sadly, the film does hold a certain amount of historical significance in that it was one of the first leading screen roles for Raymond St. Jacques. During the era of Sidney Poitier’s box office reign, St. Jacques was one of the actors intended to be the “next big thing.” He started out on the stage, moved to television, and first really got attention in 1964 for his performances in BLACK LIKE ME and, more specifically, Sidney Lumet’s THE PAWNBROKER. He gave a standout performance along side Godfrey Cambridge in COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, but by the time the blaxploitation movement kicked into high gear, refined actors such as St. Jacques were taking a backseat to the rugged leading men like Jim Brown and Fred Williamson. Most of St. Jacques’ blaxploitation roles were in supporting parts in films like COOL BREEZE. In 1973 he starred in, co-produced and directed BOOK OF NUMBERS, based on the novel by Robert Deane Pharr. This was his only time spent behind the camera, and not a terrible effort (especially considering his co-star was Phillip Michael Thomas). The rest of his career was spent in smaller supporting rolls or in television appearances. One of his last memorable performances was in John Carpenter’s under-rated THEY LIVE. St. Jacques passed away in 1990.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – THE HARDER THEY COME

THE HARDER THEY COME 1973 director: Perry Henzell; starring Jimmy Cliff

Reggae was just beginning to become a recognizable sound on the global music scene, and blaxploitation was already in full swing in 1973 when this little film from Jamaica landed in theatres. Few people ever refer to it as a blaxploitation flick, even though the film was originally marketed as such by Roger Corman’s distribution company, New World. But to be clear, Perry Henzell’s cult classic contains all the trappings of the blaxploitation genre – sex, drugs, violence, anti-establishment message – and it came out during the height of the blaxploitation era. Well, if it looks like a duck, and walks like duck, then it must be a duck (even if it speaks in Jamaican patois).

Singer Jimmy Cliff stars as Ivan, a young man from the country who ventures into the rough-and-tumble streets of Jamaica looking to make a name for himself. Just a few minutes off the bus and the naïve Ivan already falls victim to a big city rip-off, losing all of his possessions. But rather than get out while the getting is good, he bums around looking for a way to make ends meet, eventually seeking refuge at a church. But when Ivan develops a boner for a young woman, and she gets a bit moist between the legs for him, things go bad (it seems the church’s preacher has his eye set on popping the cherry of Miss Thang). Ivan decides to pursue his dream of being a singer, but winds up getting screwed over by an unscrupulous producer. Just when it looks like things can’t get worse for our hero, he lands a job as small-time ganga peddler. Now I know that for some of you a career in dope dealing…oh, excuse, marijuana is an herb…may seem like a good job. But for Ivan, who seems to have been born under an unlucky star, his new job simply leads to more problems, including him shooting a cop. Quicker that you can say, “It was I who shot the sheriff,” Ivan is on the run from the law. Soon, with his song blasting from every radio and the cops looking everywhere for him, Ivan becomes a folk hero.

Upon its initial release – as something of a blaxploitation crime thriller – THE HARDER THEY COME had trouble finding an audience. All of that changed when it found a home in the bourgeoning midnight movie scene, which had made big hits of films like EL TOPO and NIGHT OF THE LVING DEAD. THE HARDER THEY COME quickly developed a cult following, in large part to midnight screenings in New York and Boston (in Boston it stayed in theaters for an amazing six years), where it became a seminal favorite among the art house/foreign film crowd. This is the primary reason it is seldom talked about in the context of other blaxploitation films, which is fine, because it really does deserve the status it has earned. But at the same time it should be recognized as a classic blaxploitation film.

Inspired by the real life Jamaican criminal/folk hero, Ivanhoe Martin, better known as Rhyging, Jimmy Cliff’s Ivan is the quintessential blaxploitation hero, cut from the same cloth as characters like Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweetback, who exist at the very bottom of society’s ladder. Ivan embodies the ultimate rebel, a poor man who seeks to better his life, only to be betrayed by the church, exploited by the wealthy, and persecuted by corrupt law enforcement. His rise to fame is not through his creative genius or his hard work, but through the criminal activity that comes as a result of his being pushed too far. He is a character that the disaffected and disenfranchised audiences of the time could rally around, and that was part of what led to the film’s success.

The other factor in the success of THE HARDER THEY COME was the classic soundtrack. Regarded by many as one of the greatest reggae albums of all time (no argument there), it is also, because of the nature of the film, a great blaxploitation album. Many of Cliff’s greatest songs appear on this album, which serves the film as a Greek chorus in much the same way Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack fueled SUPER FLY.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – GANJA & HESS

GANJA & HESS (a.k.a. Black Vampire, Blood Couple, Double Possession, Black Out) – 1973 director: Bill Gunn; starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn

As of this moment, I’ve seen Ganja & Hess—or some facsimile of Ganja & Hess —at least six times. To be honest, it’s difficult to place an exact number on how many times I’ve seen the movie, because there are several different versions, released under as many as four other titles. There is, however, only one version that represents the vision of writer-director Bill Gunn. That version was lovingly restored and released on DVD back in 1998. That disc represented the film Gunn made, and not the heavily butchered versions released by the distributor that bore little resemblance to what Gunn had in mind. Gunn’s Ganja & Hess has been revered by critics and has garnered a cult following, while altered versions like Black Vampire and Blood Couple have lapsed into relative obscurity. This is a singularly unique film that is cryptically compelling and perplexing, and in being so represents the uncompromising cinematic talents of an artist who has never gotten his proper recognition.

Now, I need to be honest, for all the times I’ve seen Ganja & Hess—and I’ve seen this uncut version three other times—I still don’t completely understand what’s going on. Duane Jones, who is best remembered for his role in the original Night of the Living Dead, stars as archeologist Dr. Hess Green, who is transformed into a vampire when he is stabbed with an ancient African dagger by his demented assistant, George (Gunn). Hess kills George, stores his body in the freezer, and goes about his life dealing with his new-found addiction for blood. And then along comes Ganja (Marlene Clark), George’s free-spirited wife, who is less concerned with the whereabouts of her husband as she is with Hess. The two quickly become lovers, and it isn’t long before Ganja is also a vampires, who deals with her addiction in her own way.

That is the basic plot of Ganja & Hess, but even knowing that much doesn’t help in comprehending this somewhat disjointed foray into metaphor and cinematic symbolism. As a film, Ganja & Hess is a visual rumination on addiction that isn’t concerned with the audience’s ability to understand everything that is going on. In many ways it is like watching someone’s attempt at translating to film a nightmare they had experienced. And while this may not sound like the most entertaining of films, it is compelling nonetheless, due in no small part to the fact that Ganja & Hess is unlike pretty much any movie you’ve ever seen before. It is one of those rare works of cinema that reflects the unique artist vision of the primary creator, which in this case is Bill Gunn.

Gunn was an actor with a handful of television credits to his name, and an incredibly gifted writer whose credits include the films The Angel Levine and director Hal Ashby’s brilliant movie The Landlord. Ganja & Hess was Gunn’s first opportunity to write and direct his own feature. He was contracted to do a blaxploitation vampire movie in the vein of Blacula, which had been a huge hit in 1972, and on paper he crafted a script that promised just such a film. But Gunn had no intention of making a typical blaxploitation, and so he went on to make the movie he wanted to make, much to the frustration of the film’s financiers. To be honest, this film is as far removed from blaxploitation as you can get — aside from the era in which it was released (making it blaxploitation by default in my book). After the initial release of Ganja & Hess, which was well-received by critics, but lost to audiences that thought they were getting a vampire sexploitation flick, the distributors recut the film and released it under various different titles. Where Gunn’s version ran 110 minutes, Double Possession, Blood Couple, Black Vampire, and Black Out: The Moment of Terror all ran a scant 78 minutes—and none featured Gunn’s name as writer and director.

Ganja & Hess is an interesting film, though it is not for everyone. It is devoid of nearly all the conventions of trappings of most horror films as well as blaxploitation movies, making something very different from entries in either of those genres. It is as more of an artistic achievement than it is a work of baseline entertainment, and as long as it is viewed and considered from that standpoint, it should always be engaging.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – THE FINAL COMEDOWN (a.k.a. Blast)

THE FINAL COMEDOWN (a.k.a. Blast) 1972 director: Oscar Williams; starring: Billy Dee Williams, D’Urville Martin, Raymond St. Jacques

Acclaimed director Jules Dassian’s politically charged 1968 film UPTIGHT was in many ways the precursor to what would become the blaxploitation film. With an all-star cast, and a focus on the black militancy of the late 1960s, UPTIGHT broke new cinematic ground, and set the tone for what would come in the 1970s. Where Dassian’s film left off, this bad boy picks up. That’s not to say that THE FINAL COMEDOWN is a sequel, but it is the progression off the anger and violence that we saw coming to a head in UPTIGHT. Here, in THE FINAL COMEDOWN, we see all that hostility and rage explode.

Billy Dee Williams is Johnny Johnson, an ambitious, hard working young man, at the end of his rope. Our story unfolds with Johnny, and members of his Black Panther-type group in a shoot out with the pigs. Johnny is shot by the pork patrol, and through flashbacks we see the events that have lead to this moment. As the picture bounces from the present to the past and back again, the complexity of Johnny is revealed. From an idealistic pacifist, working for change, to militant leader, literally dying for change, the audience is privy to the evolution of Johnny’s character.

Billy Dee Williams, who, by the 1980s pretty much became a parody of himself, shows off his true talents in THE FINAL COMEDOWN. This ain’t the malt liquor pitchman here, this is the same actor that drove audiences to tears as Gayle Sayers in BRIAN’S SONG. This is the same actor that got a nation of women wet in LADY SINGS THE BLUES. This is the same actor that was supposed to star as Malcolm X in a film written by James Baldwin (seriously). Williams infuses so much complexity and emotional fury into Johnny that you can genuinely feel his rage. When Johnny gets into an argument with his white girlfriend, who calls him bitter, the emerging militant declares; “Bitter baby? I ain’t bitter. I was bitter 350 years ago. I’m violent! Do you hear me god dammit?! Violent!!” That single scene says it all.

Written, produced and directed by Oscar Williams, THE FINAL COMEDOWN was partially funded by the American Film Institute. I wonder how the AFI felt when they saw this explosive film, which was heavily influenced by Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. Williams is best known for writing such films as BLACK BELT JONES and TRUCK TURNER, he also directed HOT POTATO and FIVE ON THE BLACK HAND SIDE. But THE FINAL COMEDOWN is Oscar Williams’s defining film, a highly politicized blaxploitation drama mixed with an Italian neo-realism aesthetic. No other film has ever stripped away the larger-than-life image of the black militant, and given it such a human face. There can be a strange beauty to anger and violence, a bizarre poetry in bitterness; and THE FINAL COMEDOWN captures it all.

Additional funding for THE FINAL COMEDOWN came from B-movie mogul Roger Corman, who recut the film, added new footage, and released it under the title BLAST, with writing and directing credit going to Frank Arthur Wilson. The new footage for the alternative version was directed by Allan Arkush (ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL). BLAST was shorter than THE FINAL COMEDOWN, and from what I understand, much of the militancy was removed.

Movie Poster of the Week – 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS

BadAzz MoFo’s celebration of the art of the movie poster (though not necessarily the movie itself).

The other day I was having a conversation with someone about movie poster art, and how we seldom get to see posters that are illustrated these days. Most of the time we see nothing more than montage images thrown together in Photoshop, which are poor excuses for the classic illustrations and paintings I saw when I was a kid. This is especially true of exploitation movies, which almost always seemed to have the best artwork. So, I’ve decided to feature some of my favorite movie posters of all time (though not necessarily my favorite movies of all time).

First up we have the Italian exploitation classic 1990: The Bronx Warriors, directed by Enzo G. Castellari. This is an early entry in the Italian rip-offs of films like The Warriors, Escape from New York, Mad Max, and The Road Warrior. In fact, The Bronx Warriors is a shameless rip-off of Escape from New York, with bits and pieces of The Warriors thrown in for good measure. It is a terrible film, and some day I may write a review, but for now let’s just admire the poster. Above we have the better of two versions, and below we have a decent, but not nearly as badass alternate poster.

I’ll be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with a ton of the movies from this particular genre of Italian exploitation films, which is to say I hate pretty much all of them. But I love the posters. I love the posters so much, that don’t be surprised if most the entries in this category are crappy Italian films you’ve probably never heard of.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – Jamaa Fanaka’s EMMA MAE (a.k.a. Black Sister’s Revenge)

EMMA MAE (a.k.a. Black Sister’s Revenge) 1975 director: Jamaa Fanaka; starring: Jerri Hayes

When you sit down to watch a Jamaa Fanaka film you have to know there’s more going on than meets the eye. On the surface Fanaka makes films that some people might argue look a bit like crap–technical ineptitude, bad acting, and outrageousness are the norm in the world of Fanaka. But under the surface of killer penises, crack smoking midgets, and ghetto airforce avengers there’s always a much deeper message. Finding that message ain’t always the easiest thing to do; but if you ain’t havin’ fun tryin’, then there’s something wrong with yo’ brain.

Fanaka is best known for his PENITENTIARY series, which included characters with names like Too Sweet, Half Dead, Seldom Seen, and Midnight Thud (a crack smoking midget, who watches porn, and spouts philosophy). Fanaka’s first film is the legendary cult hit WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES (known as SOUL VENGEANCE on video), the story of a guy with a giant killer penis, that Fanaka wrote, produced and directed his senior year at UCLA. EMMA MAE is Fanaka’s second film, which he made to complete his master’s thesis. The film cost $250,000 to produce, and the money came from grants from the American Film Institute and UCLA’s Black Studies Center.

Fanaka managed to tone the craziness down a bit with this film, a ghettorific drama about a young countrified girl from Mississippi named Emma Mae (Hayes) who comes to live with family in Los Angeles. Emma quickly falls for Jesse, a pill-poppin’ loser, who finds himself in jail after whoopin’ on some cops. Now Emma is faced with raising bail money for the man she loves (let’s forget she’s only known him about a minute or two). First Emma starts a car wash, complete with belly dancers (gotta love that Fanaka), to raise the needed cash. Unfortunately, the cops quickly shut the operation down, leaving Emma Mae no choice but to form a gang and rob a bank. With her man out of jail things should end happily ever after, but then this is a Jamaa Fanaka film – the same man who gave us giant cocks strangling evil honkys. So it should come as no surprise that our heroine catches her old man in bed with some other chick, and then proceeds to beat his ass like a runaway slave. That’s right, homegirl beats homeboy’s ass like she was a member of the LAPD. Emma emerges a new, stronger, and more independent woman, ready to take on new challenges, and whoop more ass.

Despite all the flaws that can be found in this film (and believe me when I say they run the gamut), EMMA MAE is a film that works. The underlying themes of black empowerment, and the personal growth and liberation of black women are all there under the surface, just waiting for someone to notice them. We actually get to see Emma grow and evolve as a person, which was something rare for black female characters to do back in the day. There is sense of honesty and compassion that shines through, giving the film a sense of reality that many blaxploitation era films lack. For all her ass kickin’, gun totin’ badassosity, Emma is nothing like Foxy Brown or Cleopatra Jones – she’s someone we’ve all known in our lives. The people look real, they aren’t glamorous stars, just plain old folk Fanaka got off the street. And then there’s Jamaa’s script, which despite some unconvincing delivery from time to time, has dialog that sounds like the way black people really talk (or at least more like the way black people talk than what we normally get to see).

EMMA MAE (which is available on video as BLACK SISTER’S REVENGE), like all of Jamaa Fanaka’s films, needs to be watched with more than just casual viewing, otherwise you will miss some of what’s below the surface. Fanaka is a true genius filmmaker, whose work has long gone ignored and unappreciated. Of course the fact that he might have been insane doesn’t help his case – but that don’t mean you shouldn’t watch his movies, which are always entertaining.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – DEATH OF A SNOWMAN

Death of a Snowman (a.k.a. Soul Patrol, Black Trash) 1976 – director: Christopher Rowley; starring: Nigel Davenport, Ken Gampu

Back in the early days of home video, when studios were much slower to release new movies, and video tapes were usually rented at grocery stores, there was a glut of exploitation titles to choose from. These were all flicks that had come out in decades earlier, and many of them were released on video under alternate titles. This is especially true of select blaxploitation titles—movies like The Bus is Coming became Ghetto Revenge, while Force Four, Charcoal Black, Brother on the Run and Savage became Black Force, Black Rage, Black Force 2 and Black Valor, respectively. And then there was Death of a Snowman, one of the few blaxploitation films to boast of being an international production, which found a home on select video shelves under the titles Black Trash and Soul Patrol.

Produced in South Africa during the height of the racist apartheid system that made segregation legal, Death of a Snowman is a unique entry into the blaxploitation genre for a variety of reasons. There were only a handful of black action films to come to the United States via other countries, and most of those were films that had started out as something else, but were then re-titled and re-edited for the American market (the best example being Mean Mother, which started out as the Italian film El hombre que vino del odio). Death of a Snowman is, however, one of the only—if not the only—movies produced outside of the United States that was specifically modeled after the blaxploitation movies that had become popular throughout America.

Ken Gampu stars as Steve Chaka, a newspaper reporter covering a series of violent crimes committed against criminals. Someone calling themselves “War On Crime” claims responsibility for the brutal murders of Soweto’s criminal empire, and promises more deaths will come until the streets are free of illegal activities. Meanwhile, Chaka’s good friend, white police detective Lt. Ben Deel (Nigel Davenport) is investigating the War On Crime murders. Deel doesn’t believe Chaka is involved in the crimes, but he does believe the reporter is being used by the vigilante organization, which tells Chaka of its actions just before they are committed. The more Chaka and Deel investigate the case, the more deadly things become, and the higher the body count, as War On Crime leaves an ever-increasing pile of bullet-riddled corpses stacking up.

Death of a Snowman falls into a very specific class of blaxploitation film in which it can’t be considered one of the A or B-films of the era—Shaft, Truck Turner, Foxy Brown—nor is it one of the low-rent Z-grade flicks indicative of the times—The Guy from Harlem, Speeding Up Time, Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes. This leaves the film in the awkward position of being neither among the best of the genre nor the worst. Instead, director Christopher Rowley’s movie finds itself in the company of such films as Matt Cimber’s The Candy Tangerine Man and The Black Six, and Greydon Clark’s Black Shampoo—none of which should be confused with great cinema, but all of which are entertaining in their own right.

As an obviously low budget exploitation film, Death of a Snowman succeeds more often than it fails. The story is interesting—despite the fact the heroes have relatively little screen time together (perhaps a result of South Africa’s racist policies?)—and the direction is standard drive-in movie competent. The soundtrack offers a nice funky groove that helps propel the film a decent pace, and more than almost anything else, helps to establish the blaxploitation vibe.

The film is perhaps most interesting as a piece of cinematic history. It was filmed and takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, but there is never any mention of apartheid. The film seems to gloss over politics as much as possible, and if you knew nothing of how things were in South Africa, you’d never have any indication from watching Death of a Snowman. But if you do know about apartheid, then you begin to pick up on little traces of it throughout the film.

Ken Gampu

Death of a Snowman is also significant for its casting of Ken Gampu. One of the first black South African actors to work in Hollywood films, Gampu became a recognizable character actor who appeared in many movies shot in Africa. In film, he was most famous for playing soldiers, tribal leaders and cops, with Death of a Snowman being one of his more significant roles. Gampu was also known for his work on the stage, including his historic casting in a South African production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, in which he had to be granted special permission by the government to appear on stage with white actors. Years later, when asked about his performance in Of Mice and Men, Gampu was quoted as saying, “For the first time the black man was on an equal footing with the white man, and you know – the heavens didn’t fall.”

Having been released on VHS as Black Trash and Soul Patrol—both being the sort of title that cost ninety-nine cents—Death of a Snowman seldom made it on the radar of fans of blaxploitation, or any other genre of exploitation film for that matter. Terrible transfer of bad prints, combined with poor dubbing and generic box art made this movie the type that begged to be ignored. A quality release in 2015 from Synapse Films finally gave Death of a Snowman some of the respect that it deserves, for even though this is not the greatest bit of exploitation cinema you could hope to see, it is entertaining and worth a watch.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – COUNTDOWN AT KUSINI (a.k.a. COOL RED)

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.

NOTE: For those wondering how I managed to see Countdown at Kusini, the short version is that I was able to view it through the UCLA Film Archive while researching my upcoming book on the history of blaxploitation. I will go more in depth into the history of the film itself in the book (provided I get around to writing it).