David F. Walker
Category: BLAXPLOITATION Archive

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – SUPER FLY (1972)

SUPER FLY – 1972 director: Gordon Parks Jr.; starring: Ron O’Neal, Carl Lee, Sheila Frazier, Julius Harris, Charles MacGregor

When you think of the best films of early 70s American cinema, you think of THE GODFATHER and THE FRENCH CONNECTION. You think CHINATOWN, MEAN STREETS, and FIVE EASY PIECES. You think of all sorts of films, but unfortunately, most people don’t think of SUPER FLY. In a cinematic era that has been defined by rebellious filmmaking outside of the mainstream, where the anti-hero rose to new levels of prominence, SUPER FLY stands with the best. Unfortunately, the film has been both misunderstood and largely forgotten, leaving it to languish at best in the realm of cult films, as opposed to be lauded as a groundbreaking, trend-setting masterpiece.

Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. and written by Philip Fenty (but partially improvised by the cast), SUPER FLY frequently feels like a documentary. The gritty camera work, low budget production values and authentic 70s dialogue help to create a cinema verite view of the underbelly of Harlem cocaine dealers. At the center of this world is Youngblood Priest (O’Neal), a mid-level dealer with dreams of making one big score, and then getting out of the business forever. Priest’s ambition is supported by his girlfriend, Georgia (Frazier), scoffed at by his best friend and business partner, Eddie (Lee), and outright opposed by the corrupt police that actually rule the drug trade in New York.

O’Neal, a classically trained stage actor who was coming off a successful, award-winning run in NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY, was catapulted to stardom by his performance as Priest. With a closet full of fly vines, the baddest bitches in his bed, and a small empire of dope dealers at his command, Priest is living a twisted, ghettocentric version of the American dream, in which systemic oppression and a low ceiling of opportunities have left enterprising young black men few avenues for chasing the almighty dollar. But despite all the material wealth and creature comforts, he is tired of the criminal life and what he knows will be a life that will either lead to prison or an early death. Priest wants a chance at something more. Something better. He sees his opportunity in one huge score that will leave him with enough money to get out of the hustling business, and allow him to do something legit. The problem is all the outside forces that want to keep Priest in the game, including his partner in crime, Eddie. “You gonna give all this up?” asks Eddie. “Eight track stereo, color TV in every room, and can snort half a piece of dope every day. That’s the American dream, nigga.”

The conflict between Priest and Eddie – one wants out of the life of crime, the other believes it is the only life to live – is the ideological heart and soul that drives the film. SUPER FLY is not so much a film about a dope dealer (though it certainly is about a dope dealer) as it is about those who dare to rise above the circumstances and those who accept the hand life has seemingly dealt them. To its credit, the film is not a condemnation of drug dealers – which is what many people seem to want it to be – rather it is an examination of drug dealers. This simple fact – that the film doesn’t point an accusatory finger at Priest and say, “Shame on you for slingin’ dope” is part of what makes the film so brilliant, while also making it reviled by those that feel the only good crime movie is a crime-doesn’t-pay movie. And to be clear, crime-doesn’t-pay for some people in SUPER FLY, but as in real life, some timed the bad guys get away with the most dastardly of deeds. And to be clear, Priest is a bad guy, or more specifically, he is an anti-hero in the grandest tradition of cinematic anti-heroes. Unlike Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in SCARFACE, Priest has a level of humanity and a moral code (slightly twisted though it may be) that makes him the criminal you want to see get away.

If the conflict between Priest and Eddie is the ideological heart and soul that drives SUPER FLY, it is the performances by O’Neal and Lee that bring it all to life. Without a doubt, O’Neal turns in a captivating performance – the kind of morally corrupt character that years later would earn both Oscar nominations and wins for several black actors. SUPER FLY works because O’Neal makes it work, and because Lee knows how to play off O’Neal. Watching the natural chemistry between the two of them it is easy to forget that these are actors, and not just two drug dealers who happen to be caught on camera. At the time of SUPER FLY’s release, when it was a critical and box office hit, and before the film and those involved became the target of political backlash, O’Neal and Lee were considered strong contenders for Oscar nominations. Their performance together is on par with Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro in the later MEAN STREETS, which seems to have drawn at least some inspiration from SUPER FLY. Interestingly, producer Roger Corman had wanted Martin Scorsese to make MEAN STREETS as what would have essentially been a blaxploitation flick, but Scorsese didn’t want to go that route, and wound up not working with Corman.

As much as O’Neal’s performance is the foundation upon which SUPER FLY stands firm, it is the soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield that actually drives the film, giving it a raw power that is the closest thing to a heartbeat that any piece of cinema can possess. Arguably one of the greatest soundtracks ever recorded, Mayfield’s songs and music are an integral part of the film, serving as a Greek chorus that not only gives the film much of its emotional resonance, it also helps to move the narrative along. SUPER FLY the film exists as it does, in large part because of Mayfield’s musical contributions. In that regard, the film is very much like a musical, where the songs serve to explain and comment on what is transpiring on the screen. During one of the film’s most controversial scenes, Mayfield’s “Pusherman” pulsates to a montage that follows the path of a dope shipment — from supplier to dealer to user — demonstrating the rich, interwoven tapestry of music and images that define SUPER FLY. It was believed Mayfield would get an Oscar nomination for the soundtrack, which considering Isaac Hayes’s win for SHAFT the year before, seemed like a realistic possibility.

With incredible performances by O’Neal and Lee, and Mayfield’s seminal soundtrack, SUPER FLY was initially a critical and commercial success when it was released in New York City on August 4, 1972. Roger Greenspun of THE NEW YORK TIMES gave the film a glowing review, audiences lined up to see it, and SUPER FLY quickly surpassed THE GODFATHER on the box office charts. Critics  compared the film to such cinematic classics as PUBLIC ENEMY and LITTLE CAESAR. But despite the critical praise and financial success, the film would suffer from a political backlash that would not only impact the movie itself, but also the career of O’Neal and others involved.

SUPER FLY has gone on to become forever connected to the term blaxploitation, and with that connection has come unfair criticism that the movie was nothing more than a glorification of drug dealers. The reality is far more complex and complicated, as SUPER FLY is actually the film for which the term blaxploitation was coined. In and interview with Ron O’Neal back in 1996, he explained it like this:

“The term blaxploitation was not an accident, and it was not a term  created by white people. Blaxploitation was a term created by a black person. A black press agent, named Junius Griffin, who was at the time the head of the Beverly Hills NAACP. He had tried everything in his power to get the Warner Brothers account to handle the PR for SUPER FLY, and he didn’t get it. There was a big  brouhaha, and he was either fired, or he quit, I’m not certain which…And then, on the heels of that, from the pen of Junius Griffin, came the term blaxploitation. He was very tight with Johnson Publications, and that’s were the term was popularized, through EBONY and JET Magazine. Blaxploitation. Johnson Publications publicized Junius Griffin’s little jingle word – blaxploitation. To the utter damnation of all black films, and black artists, and hopefully to himself, as far as I’m concerned.”

Dogged by a political backlash led by the NAACP, the film became a talking-point of controversy, and an example of all the negative aspects of how Hollywood was depicting the black experience in America. Neither the quality nor the actual message of the film mattered after a point, as the belief that SUPER FLY encouraged and glorified drug dealing became the conversation surrounding the film itself, and the wave of black films that was taking the film industry by storm. As the manufactured controversy around blaxploitation films grew, SUPER FLY continued to be the example everyone used to talk about what was wrong with the black films being released at the time. At the same time, the tremendous success of SUPER FLY at the box office help fuel a string of imitators that focused on crime, while leaving out the character and story elements that made SUPER FLY compelling. Interestingly, the backlash against blaxploitation was actually a political move by key black leaders to earn positions of power in Hollywood – a plan that ultimately backfired, and helped kill of both so-called blaxploitation films, as well as black films in general for many years.

Two lesser known controversies would spring up surrounding SUPER FLY. First, there’s the assertion by producer Sig Shore (a white man), that he actually wrote and directed the film. In an interview shortly before his death in 2006, Shore took all the credit for writing and directing SUPER FLY, claiming that writer Philip Fenty contributed almost nothing to the script, and that first-time director Gordon Parks Jr. didn’t really know what he was doing behind the camera. There is also a long running rumor that Fenty plagiarized his script from a little-known book called DEALER by Richard Woodley. Neither Shore’s claims nor the plagiarism rumors have ever been confirmed, though in the case of the credit Shore gave himself, it seems a bit unlikely. There is no argument that Parks Jr, (son of Gordon Parks Sr., director of SHAFT) was not the best director in the world. In fact, any harsh criticism of SUPER FLY can be more easily leveled at the content than at the execution. The lack of experience by Parks Jr. is clearly evident – there are times when the direction is flat, the lighting poor, and some of the performances lack professionalism. The same problems plagued his other films before his untimely death in 1979, and if you study the works of Park Jr., there’s nothing to indicate he wasn’t the directorial force behind SUPER FLY.

Far from being a perfect film, SUPER FLY is still a great movie, despite its technical shortcomings, or any perceived moral ambiguity within the narrative. Some of cinema’s greatest works of art are steeped in either the moral ambiguity or the moral corruption of Godfathers and Goodellas. And while films like THE GODFATHER are revered, SUPER FLY has been reviled. In terms of the black films of the 1970s, most of which were tales of crime and criminals, shining a spotlight on pushers and pimps, SUPER FLY is not only amongst the best the so-called blaxploitation genre/era had to offer, it is also, quite simply, one of the best films of the 1970s.

Check out my 1996 interview with Ron O’Neal.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – NI**ER LOVER (a.k.a. The Bad Bunch,Tom, The Brothers)

NIGGER LOVER (a.k.a. The Bad Bunch,Tom, The Brothers) 1973 director: Greydon Clark; starring: Greydon Clark, Tom Johnigarn, Aldo Ray, Jock Mahoney

More than twenty years had passed since I watched director Greydon Clark’s NIGGER LOVER, and written my scathing review. This was one of the earliest reviews I wrote, and I was culling through my older work to create this archive of blaxploitation films, I thought to myself, “Maybe you should watch the movie again. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as you remember.” So…I watched it. And it was as bad as I remembered. Maybe worse.

The directorial debut of a man whose filmmaking skills could be called amusingly remedial, this is bargain basement exploitation at its most craptacular. To his credit, Clark did become a better director, but that doesn’t stop this piece of shit from being…well…a piece of shit. We are talking about the same director who would go on to make BLACK SHAMPOO, which is a really bad film, until you compare it to NIGGER LOVER, and suddenly it seems like the work of cinematic genius. But this is about NIGGER LOVER, not BLACK SHAMPOO, so let’s get down what needs getting down to.

Clark stars as Jim, a Vietnam veteran, whose best friend was killed in the war. Problems arise when Jim goes to deliver a letter to his friend’s father. Did I mention the Jim’s dead friend was black? This is a crucial plot point, because it means our hero must venture into the ghetto to deliver the message to dear old dad. Unfortunately, his dead friend’s brother, Tom – who now goes by the Makimba, because “Tom was my slave name,” has a honky-hating chip on his shoulder, and decides he needs to kill this no good whitey. There’s a bit more to Makimba’s decision to kill Jim – he thinks the evil cracker is working for a pair of racist cops (Aldo Ray and Jock Mahoney), who take pleasure in beating up on righteous soul brothers. Makimba  (Tom Johnigarn) also blames the death of his father on Jim, even though Makimba killed the old man with his own hands. But, you see, Makimba is blinded by hate, which is what Clark is really trying to explore as a filmmaker. The problem, of course, is that not only is the message lost amidst all the exploitation trappings of sex and violence, it is also lost in the mire of an abysmal script that is as racist as it is poorly written – which is to say that it is really racist, because it is also really poorly written. There’s actually a bit more to the film – something to do with Jim’s inability to commit to his girlfriend, while screwing some dope-smoking hippie chick on the side – but that’s as poorly crafted as the rest of this shit.

Released under multiple titles, there’s no getting around the fact that this film is bad on just about every level you can imagine. Everything from the writing to the direction to the acting is just plain awful. Clark tries trick you, with enough sex and nudity to keep you from noticing how bad this movie is, but honestly, there’s not enough nudity to make this film any good. Every single scene could have nudity, and you’d still be distracted by the ineptitude with which this shit has been cobbled together. The ad campaign for this garbage reads, “The movie they tried to stop!” Like that’s something they should’ve been braggin’ about.

Of NIGGER LOVER I can say this…I looooves the opening song, written by Sheldon Lee.
“Hey honky mother, where you go?/Who you lookin’ for
We don’t want your kind ‘round here/ Knockin’ at our door
Honky mother, no soul brother/ Don’t waste your helpin’ hand
Honky mother, nigger lover/ Ripped off by the man
Don’t be askin’ questions/ This street’s a dead end
One way or another, you’re a dead honky mother/ Just like your nigger friend
Hey honky mother, jive sucker/ Black and white don’t mix
Honky mother, nigger lover/ Good deeds just for kicks”

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – MANDINGO

MANDINGO 1975 director: Richard Fleischer; starring: James Mason, Perry King, Ken Norton, Susan George, Brenda Sykes, Ji-Tu Cumbuka

There are over 200 blaxploitation movies, ranging from the classic to the completely forgotten. But few have attained the level of infamy that MANDINGO has achieved. This is one of those films with a reputation that precedes it, conjuring up all sorts of lurid images. And that’s not to say that MANDINGO’s reputation as a sweaty bit of racist sexploitation trash is not well-deserved, ‘cause it is. It’s just that of all the blaxploitation films that have lingered in the collective pop-culture consciousness, it qualifies as neither the very best, nor the very worst. In fact, in some ways – especially when compared to so many of the other films of the era and genre – MANDINGO can be a bit mediocre.

Set on an old Southern plantation in the 1840s, the film finds plantation and slave owner Warren Maxwell (Mason), fretting over his only son, Hammond (King). It seems that Pa Maxwell wants Hammond to settle down, find a wife and cultivate the fruit of his loins. The problem is that Hammond pretty much only has a hankering for the chocolate variety of poontang. Still, Hammond agrees to marry Blanche (George), who happens to be his cousin (sometimes white people do nasty shit like that). Unbeknownst to Hammond, Blanche isn’t exactly a virgin, as it turns out she was doing the tango-skin polka with her brother (I told you, white people do some nasty shit). Well, since Hammond has popped a few cherries of some of comely slave wenches, he knows what pristine hootchie is supposed to feel like. And since his new wife’s quim is fitting him more like a well-worn shoe than a tight glove, he suspects something is amiss. This drives him back into the open legs of his favorite slave girl, Ellen (the boner-riffic Sykes), which of course makes Blanche lose her mind. Now, while all of this is going on, there’s the matter of Mede (Ken Norton) the Maxwell’s prime piece of property – a 100% pure-bred Mandingo slave, complete with an ankle-slapping trouser snake. When Blanche has finally had enough of Hammond’s cold-shoulder treatment, she decides to exact revenge by fucking his prize slave. The problem is that Mandingo cock is especially addictive to white women, and before you know it, Blanche is riding Mede’s Johnson like it was rollercoaster at Disneyland. When Blanche has a baby that everyone is expecting to be Hammond’s, it comes out looking more like a Milkdud, and the shit hits the fan, leading to a massacre that culminates in Mede being boiled alive. And the moral of the story is it’s okay for a white guy to get some black pussy, but if a black guy throws a hump into some white nookie, he’ll probably get killed for it.

There’s really no way around it – MANDINGO is a downright sleazy film. The whole film is build around the salaciously taboo thrill of watching white people and black people humping. Keep in mind that this was 1975, and stuff like that was still considered really out there (not that we’ve progressed that much in the last four decades). But despite the whole sexploitation element of the film – something made all the more sleazy by the fact that the film was sold as some sort of historical epic – MANDINGO offers an interesting cinematic glimpse at the antebellum South. This is not the glamorized Dixie of Hollywood’s past, as depicted in films like GONE WITH THE WIND or THE LITTLEST REBEL. Instead, this is the nasty-ass South where human beings we bought and sold as chattel (and where Li’l John and the Eastside Boyz would rise to fame).

Over the years critics have blasted MANDINGO for being a terrible film, charges that I’m really in no position to argue (although I wouldn’t call it terrible and unwatchable). Critics have also blasted it for being a piece of racist trash, and while I would agree with the trashy part, it is no less racist than the culture and era it depicts – we’re talking about slavery for fuck’s sake, people!!! As far as I’m concerned, I appreciate a movie about slavery where things are a bit unpleasant, blacks suffer, and whites come across as racist scum. Something tells me once you strip away the some of the sexual shenanigans (but not all), MANDINGO is closer to the truth than GONE WITH THE WIND could ever hope to be. In fact, I know that’s the case, because GONE WITH THE WIND is a piece of racist propaganda of the worst kind. Yeah…I said it.

Ji-Tu Cumbuka in MANDINGO

Only in the 1970s could a film like MANDINGO get made, and it stands as a shining example of how the changing times were reflected in the blaxploitation films of the era. And I’m not just talking about the blatant sexuality of the film, but also in the militant politics that serve as one of the film’s only compelling elements. Ji-Tu Cumbuka has a co-starring roll in the film as Cicero, a rebellious slave who gives voice the popular militancy that found its way into most black-themed films of the 1970. Cicero tries to escape the Maxwell plantation, only to be captured and sentenced to death. Before he is hung, he gives a speech that makes my heart swell with pride. “I ain’t goin’ to give no lifetime of misery and sweat to these peckerwoods. I’d rather die than be a slave! You, perkerwoods, that’s right! You peckerwoods was oppressed in your own land. We was free, and you brought us here, in chains. But now, we here. And you just better know, this is much our land as it is your’n. And after you hang me, kiss my ass!”

MANDINGO was based on a novel by Kyle Onstott, which was turned into a stage play Jack Kirkland. I’ve never read the book (which was one of many slavery/sex books of the era), or seen a production of the play, but something tells me neither aren’t quite as graphically lurid as the film. Rockne Tarkington of BLACK SAMSON-fame starred in the stage version. Director Richard Fleischer was a long-time film veteran by the time he got behind the camera. His past credits included such classics as 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, and SOYLENT GREEN. By the time Fleischer directed MANDINGO, it was clear his career was in decline. His final films would include crap like CONAN THE DESTROYER and RED SONJA.

MANDINGO would spawn a pseudo-sequel, DRUM, also starring Ken Norton. It is also one of several entries into a bizarre sub-genre known as slavesploitation. Some of these were sexploitation films out of Europe, like GOODBYE, UNCLE TOM or PASSION PLANTATION, while others, like QUADROON, were homegrown flicks.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – LIVE AND LET DIE

LIVE AND LET DIE1973 director: Guy Hamilton; starring: Roger Moore, Yaphet Kotto, Jane Seymour, Gloria Hendry, Geoffrey Holder, Julius Harris

For the better part of a decade the James Bond films set the standard for action and adventure films. Based on Ian Fleming’s popular books, the film franchise launched in 1962 with DR. NO, and nothing was ever the same. With each new film the Bond series grew in popularity, while spawning countless imitators. The role of James Bond turned Sean Connery into an international superstar, and after appearing in the first five films, he turned his back on playing 007 in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. He returned to the series for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER in 1971, but by that time the Bond films were a bit tired and worn out.

There was a time when the James Bond films were what other movies strived to be. But by the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, films like BONNIE & CLYDE, THE WILD BUNCH, and THE FRENCH CONNECTION had changed the way violence and action were portrayed on the screen. Suddenly, the Bond films, were a bit behind the times. It wasn’t until 1973, when Roger Moore replaced Sean Connery in LIVE AND LET DIE that it would become clear how the Bond films had gone from the trend-setters to copying whatever was popular at the time.

When LIVE AND LET DIE came out, the blaxploitation movement was in full swing. Two years earlier SHAFT helped usher in the both the genre and era of blaxploitation in a film that took many of its cues from the Bond films. Private detective John Shaft was a hardboiled asskicker who, like Bond, had a way with the ladies, a knack for getting out of the toughest scrapes unscathed, and operated by his own unique set of rules. In fact, SHAFT had been pretty much marketed as a Bond-like film. The superior sequels, SHAFT’S BIG SCORE and SHAFT IN AFRICA, with their revved up action sequences and, in the case SHAFT IN AFRICA, international locales, were even more like James Bond films.

LIVE AND LET DIE was the James Bond franchise’s official entry into the blaxploitation genre (making it arguably the biggest budgeted blaxploitation film of the time). Some people are likely to argue that the film is not a blaxploitation flick, but all you have to do is look at the rest of the cast, and it’s pretty obvious. There are more black actors in LIVE AND LET DIE than there are in SLAUGHTER and SLAUGHTER’S BIG RIP-OFF combined.

The plot revolves around Bond initially tangling with Mr. Big, a deadly crime kingpin with a vast empire, as he investigates the death of another double-o agent. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Bond heads “uptown” into Harlem, where it appears every person above 110th Street is part of Big’s criminal network. In reality Mr. Big is Kananga (Kotto), the ruler of tiny island nation in the Caribbean, with a devious plot that involves heroin trafficking. Like all Bond villains, Kananga has his deadly henchmen, who include Tee Hee (Harris), who has a mechanical claw for a hand, and the supernatural Baron Samedi (Holder), a voodoo priest with a thing for snakes. Kananga has also got himself a tasty piece of pale tail, Solitaire (Seymour), who happens to be a virgin with psychic powers. But once Bond gets his hands on her, she’s a virgin no more, which only pisses off the nefarious villain even more.

Compared to all the other non-Connery Bond films, LIVE AND LET DIE isn’t all that bad, especially when you look at some of the crap Roger Moore would later star in. But the biggest problem with the film is Moore himself. Connery was a barrel-chested badass who could slug it out with Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, arguably the most formidable of all Bond villains or henchman. By comparison, Moore was nothing more than a scrawny excuse of a man who looked like he could be knocked over by a strong breeze. Watching him duke it out with Yaphet Kotto, who ranks as one of the most physically menacing of all Bond villains, it’s almost laughable.

As an entry in the blaxploitation genre, LIVE AND LET DIE ranks well above so many of the other films of that era. And while the lack of a black hero causes many to not consider the film part of the genre, those people are just plain wrong (I am, after all, the motherfuckin’ Man when it comes to all things blaxploitation, and my word is gospel). At the same time, I’m more likely to judge this film as a Bond movie than as a blaxploitation flick, although in either regard they come about the same – good, but not great.

LIVE AND LET DIE marked a new era for the Bond series, but also a sadly missed opportunity. The producers, who were so eager to cash in on the popularity of the blaxploitation genre, should have gone that extra mile and cast Calvin Lockhart (left) as 007. It would have been the perfect time for something like that to happen, and Lockhart would have been the perfect choice to play Bond. Instead we got Moore, which was so much less.

In addition to Kotto, Holder and Harris, LIVE AND LET DIE starred quite a few other black actors, most notably Gloria Hendry, who co-stars as duplicitous CIA agent Rosie Carver. The film also utilized the talents of some of the best known black stuntment of the day, including Eddie Smith and Tony Brubaker.

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.

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