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Category: BLAXPLOITATION Archive

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).

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – BABY NEEDS A NEW PAIR OF SHOES

BABY NEEDS A NEW PAIR OF SHOES 1974 (a.k.a. Jive Turkey; Nigger Rich; Get Nigger Rich on Number 666) director: Bill Brame; starring: Paul Harris, Frank deKova, Serena

Considering the fact that Bill Brame’s only other blaxploitation flick was the rectum-reamingly bad MISS MELODY JONES, it’s amazing that this film isn’t worse. Don’t mistake what I’m saying for a ringing endorsement, ’cause BABY NEEDS A NEW PAIR OF SHOES is a terrible film — it just happens to be better than an even worse film.

The muddled plot has something to do with Hakim Jabbar (Paul Harris), also known as Pasha, the godfather of the local black Mafia. Pasha is the king of the local numbers racket, who finds himself caught in a war when Italian mobsters — led by Frank “F-TROOP” deKova — try to muscle in on his action. Complicating things are the corrupt cops and politicians that are also trying to run him out of business. Lucky for Pasha he’s got an endless supply of expendable goons and a deadly hitman/drag queen (Serena). Armed with killer high heel shoes, the gender-bending assassin is the most memorable character in a forgettable cast of losers.

There’s one word that runs through your mind when watching BABY NEEDS A NEW PAIR OF SHOES — actually there’s several words, including shitty, boring and abysmal — but the one prevalent word has to be “ghetto”. This is easily one of the most ghetto films you’ll ever see — welfare filmmaking at its finest. Although it’s set in the 1950s, other than a few old cars there is almost no effort to actually make the film look like a period piece. You get the distinct feeling that director Brame stumbled across a truck filled with film equipment, helped himself to everything inside, and decided to make a movie with his ill-gotten gains. Too bad there wasn’t a book on the truck explaining how to actually make a movie, as the only thing Brame and his crew seem to be capable of doing is loading the film into camera and getting really good shots of the boom mic.

Paul Harris as Hakim Jabbar/Pasha

There’s not much written about the history BABY NEEDS A NEW PAIR OF SHOES. Based on an original story by Howard and Elizabeth Ransom (Howard also produced the film), the screenplay was written by Fredricka DeCosta. It should come as no surprise that neither of the Ransoms nor DeCosta have any other film credits to their name. One of the other producers was Edith Ransom, and there are seven cast members all with the last name of Ransom (five of them credited as “Kid”), which leads me to believe this was very much a family endeavor. The lack of reviews from the film’s initial release suggests it had a very limited run before ending up on home video in the 1980s. Caught in the trap of public domain, the film became best known under the title of JIVE TURKEY.

The only reason to watch this turkey is if you’re a fan of lead actor Paul Harris. Hardcore blaxploitation fans will remember Harris as Gator in TRUCK TURNER and the Blind Man in THE MACK. Harris’s career started out in live theater, with roles in musicals like SHOW BOAT. In 1962, he starred in director Basil Dearden’s film ALL NIGHT LONG, an offbeat adaptation of OTHELLO, set within the world of jazz musicians. Harris starred as Aurelius Rex, the Othello character, and his co-stars included such celebrated jazz musicians as Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck (playing themselves). Like many black actors in the 70s, Harris got his one shot at being the lead actor in a film. Too bad it was in this piece of shit.

BadAzz MoFo’s Blaxploitation Archive – ABAR: THE FIRST BLACK SUPERMAN

ABAR: THE FIRST BLACK SUPERMAN (a.k.a In Your Face) 1977 director: Frank Packard; starring Tobar Mayo, and a bunch of people you’ve never heard of.

Of the almost 300 movies that comprise the genre and the era of blaxploitation, there are quite a few made by filmmakers and actors who only turned out one or two films, before disappearing into total obscurity. Actors like Winston Thrash (SPEEDING UP TIME) and Loye Hawkins (THE GUY FROM HARLEM), as well as directors like Renee Martinez and Bill Brame are all but forgotten. The sad thing is that most of the films turned out by these people, which include such craptacular garbage as THE GUY FROM HARLEM (directed by Martinez) and MISS MELODY JONES (directed by Brame), don’t really warrant being remembered. Trust me — I’ve seen most of ‘em, and my life was not enriched. But every now and then one manages to shine through, and despite its rather questionable artistic merits or quality, keeps from being total garbage. In fact, sometimes these terrible films have a certain quality that makes them…well…so bad they are good (a deplorable cliché that I try to avoid as much as possible). Such is the case with ABAR: THE FIRST BLACK SUPERMAN.

You may think that BLACK PANTHER was the first film starring a black superhero. Or, if you have any sense of cinematic history, you might think SPAWN or BLADE were the first films to feature super-powered black men whoopin’ ass, or that METEOR MAN was cinema’s first black superhero. And in all those cases, you’d be wrong. The first black cinematic superhero would be none other than John Abar, the title character of this obscure film that is primarily known to only the most dedicated fans of blaxploitation.

When black research scientist Dr. Kincade (J. Walter Smith) moves his family to an all white neighborhood, the local honkys get their underwear all in a bunch. With a rabid mob of kill-crazy whiteys picketing on their front lawn, throwing garbage, and disemboweling their cat, the Kincades seem to be in dire circumstances. But all them honky muthas best look out, ‘cause ridin’ to the Kincade’s rescue, on a bunch of motorcycles, is the Black Front United (BFU), led by John Abar (Tobar Mayo). Before long, Abar is hired to protect the family full time; unfortunately he ain’t able to do shit when some honky sumbitch kills the Kincade’s young son. Now, it seems that Doc Kincade has been working on a serum that can make a man indestructible…just like the bullet-proof rabbits that he keeps in his basement laboratory. Yes, he has bullet-proof rabbits in his basement laboratory. It don’t take too much convincing for Abar to swig down the serum like a bottle of Thunderbird, thus turning him into a bullet-proof motherfucker, with heightened psychic abilities, and divine powers that he’s determined to use to rid the world of racist shit heads.

No, dear readers, I’m not making any of this up — what you just read is really the plot. ABAR, THE FIRST BLACK SUPERMAN is one of the most bizare flicks I’ve ever sat through (which is saying a lot). This is so off-the-wall you’d think Jamaa “Penitentiary” Fanaka directed it. We’re talking about a movie that’s so crazy you can’t believe someone actually thought this insanity up, or that it actually got it made. And even more unbelievable is the fact that you’re watching it.

Despite its freaky nature and an absurd premise, ABAR is fun, and equally political in what it’s trying to say. This little gem offers up a great concept, with some profound and provocative dialog. What’s really deep is the notion that it takes a black man with increased mental and physical strength, to battle the evil ways of white racists. Of course any profundity is marred by some of the worst (and I do mean worst) acting you will ever see. The performances here are more stiff than the erection of a teenage boy. And let’s not forget inept directing, lighting, editing, story structure, soundtrack, and every other technical and aesthetic element you can think of.

ABAR is sort of like a delicious cake, frosted with dog poop. But all these hindrances can’t keep the film down. There are even a few moments that make my cynical heart swell with pride, like when the BFU first ride up on their motorcycles, chase off the evil racists, and place an African flag on the Kincade’s front lawn. I cried like a baby. And I love the dream sequence when Kincade’s son dreams the family is back in the old west facing down a group of white vigilantes. Black cowboy Deadwood Dick (Abar, as the real life gunslinger Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love) rides to the rescue, and blasts the vile honky vermin away; declaring, “My friends call me Deadwood Dick; but my enemies call me Smart Black Nigger.”

Tobar Mayo as ABAR: THE FIRST BLACK SUPERMAN

From what I can tell, most of the people involved with this movie were never involved with another film — which should clue you in as to the quality of work involved (there were a few exceptions, like cinematographer Ron Garcia, who went on to work with David Lynch on TWIN PEAKS). Tobar Mayo, who is the king badass as Abar, is one of the more “notable” people involved in this flick. Mayo, who looks like the love child of Ji-Tu Cumbuka and Doug E. Fresh, and who may or may not be related to Whitman Mayo (Grady on SANFORD & SON), also appeared in Charles Barnett’s brilliant KILLER OF SHEEP, blaxploitation era garbage like TOUGH, BIG TIME, and BABY NEEDS A NEW PAIR OF SHOES (a.k.a. NIGGER RICH, a.k.a. JIVE TURKEY), as well as a handful of television shows, including THE JEFFERSONS and MANNIX. He was also in the softcore film THE MISLAYED GENIE, as well as THE DEVIL’S GARDEN, directed by Bob Chinn, who is best known for his work in porno, and as creator of the Johnny Wadd series starring John Holmes.

Frank Packard, the director of this bizarre film, acted in a handful of movies in the early 1970s, but ABAR was the only thing he ever directed. Likewise, this is the only credit for writer/producer James Smalley. Allegedly, Smalley was a pimp, who financed ABAR with money he earned from turning out prostitutes. The production was plagued with problems, including ineptitude, and its release was delayed. Initially, American International Pictures was going to distribute it, and produce a sequel, but that deal fell through, resulting in a somewhat limited theatrical release on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit, followed by a release on home video under the title IN YOUR FACE.

Check out this interview with Tobar Mayo on the podcast The Projection Booth.

 

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