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Category: BAMF Film Review Archive

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – WHITE DOG

If there was ever a film I thought would never see the light of day on home video, it would have to be director Sam Fuller’s White Dog. Regarded by many as one of the most controversial films of all time—unwarranted hyperbolic exaggeration if there ever was any—White Dog languished, practically unreleased since its production in 1982. Since that time it had a relatively insignificant theatrical release overseas, while never enjoying a legitimate home video release in the United States until 2008, when it was released as part of the Criterion Collection. For more than two decades it had become something of an urban myth, creating around it a sense of cinematic taboo usually reserved for films like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust or Michael and Roberta Findlay’s Snuff.

Kristy McNichol co-stars as Julie Sawyer, a struggling actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd with her car. Rather than leaving the dog to die on the side of the road, Julie takes him to a veterinarian, who gives the dog a clean bill of health and sends him home with the actress. Julie posts signs all over, hoping it will help her locate the dog’s owner, but the more time she spends with the dog, the more attached she becomes. By the time a rapist breaks into her apartment and the dog saves her life, it’s pretty much a given that he is there to stay. But when the dog viciously attacks Julie’s actress friend (Lynne Moody), who happens to be black, she suspects that there may be something wrong with the animal. Unbeknownst to her is that the dog has already attacked (and killed) a black person. Roland (Jameson Parker), Julie’s boyfriend, convinces her that the dog must be some sort of attack animal, and therefore dangerous. But rather than send the dog to the pound, Julie decides to try and have him retrained, so he won’t have the killer instinct.

Julie believes that there’s nothing wrong with the dog that can’t be fixed, and takes him to trainer Carruthers (Burl Ives), who warns her that an attack dog is a four-legged time bomb waiting to explode. But when the dog viciously attacks fellow trainer Joe (Bob Minor), who happens to be black, Caruthers realizes there is more to this dog than meets the eyes. This dog is a white dog—a dog trained by a white person to attack and kill black people. Enter Carruthers’ business partner, Keys (Paul Winfield), a super badass animal trainer who wrestles lions like it ain’t no thing. Keys becomes obsessed with the white dog, and is determined to break it of its racism, diligently training it to see past its deadly hatred for people with black skin. But when the dog manages to escape from its cage, and kills another black person, it is up in the air if he can be rehabilitated. With the guilt of the death hanging over him, Keys becomes even more determined to cure the dog.

At the time of its release, because of the nature of the film, White Dog was mistaken by some for being a pro-racism story, and as a result people reacted to the film as if it were preaching hate. The very notion that White Dog is a racist film is, however, completely ridiculous, especially given Fuller’s earlier films like Shock Corridor and Crimson Kimono, which aggressively attacked racist thinking. White Dog is as much of a condemnation of racism as anything else Fuller has done, but it suffered from being misunderstood during its initial release, and as a result languished in obscurity.

An accomplished journalist and outspoken director whose films often sparked controversy and debate, Fuller was never afraid to push the envelope with his movies. Already an established writer, Fuller’s directorial debut with 1949’s I Shot Jesse James established him as a talented force to reckoned with, a reputation that continued through to 1964’s The Naked Kiss. Fuller’s direction became more sporadic and less frequent between the mid 1960s through the 1970s, with 1980’s The Big Red One marking an artistic return to form. Fuller followed up with White Dog, based on a nonfiction book by Romain Gary.

As originally envisioned by Paramount, White Dog was to be little more than an exploitation horror film—a sort of canine version of Jaws. Fuller was brought on to the film after several other directors had already been attached, most notably, Roman Polanski. Under the direction of Fuller, however, with a script co-written by Curtis Hanson, White Dog evolved into something more than a cheap exploitation film. True to the style of his past work, Fuller used the film as a vehicle to explore subject matter other filmmakers were often afraid to approach, in a way that was as hard hitting as it was unflinching. In doing so, Fuller created a film that was a bold examination of racism, and the brutality that it manifests.

White Dog is not Fuller’s best work, and it is uneven at times. Jameson Parker as Julie’s boyfriend disappears at one point in the movie, never to return, and even Julie goes from being a central character to a throwaway supporting personality that has little to offer the second and third acts of the film. The central flaw of the film’s shifting main characters is not as problematic as it could be in any other movie, simply because Paul Winfield’s animal trainer is far more compelling than McNichol’s struggling actress. Winfield is cast as a strange mix of mad scientist and Captain Ahab, out to destroy a terrible monster. But what makes the character interesting, is that Keys views the dog as more of a victim, with the racist training that turned it into a killer as the monster. Although handled at times with ham-fisted dialog and direction, this train of thought is what makes White Dog brilliant. Under the subversive guidance of Fuller, the movie becomes less about a dog trained to kill black people, and instead becomes an exploration of the societal ill of racism; which is a disease that infects everything, even something as innocent as a dog.

There are other problems that surface throughout White Dog, including a script that at times is just plain silly and overwrought. And Fuller’s direction at times makes it difficult to tell exactly what he’s going for. There are sequences that have the feel of the sort of horror thriller Paramount originally wanted, and these scenes throw a bit of a wrench into the rest of Fuller’s artistic vision. And while all of the problems to be found in White Dog are enough to diminish any other film, they can’t hold back Fuller or keep the film from being a great bit of cinema. With the exception of maybe Larry Cohen, there is probably no other director other than Sam Fuller with the balls, talent or ability to infuse profound social commentary where you least expect it, making this film work in the way that it works. Had the movie been made six or seven years earlier, during the blaxploitation era, it would have fit in perfectly with the seemingly radical race politics that was found in many films. But coming in the 1980s, when Hollywood had retreated back into a more conservative approach to dealing with race, it was pretty much doomed.

Despite its noticeable flaws, White Dog is a solid film that serves as a great showcase for a director who was not afraid to take chances. Fuller was 70 years-old when he made White Dog, and could hardly be considered in his prime. Yet he still made a film better and more provocative than most filmmakers before or since could have gotten away with. And for that reason alone, White Dog is worth watching and studying.

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – THE 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN

If you are a true fan of martial arts flicks, then you no-doubt have seen this film in at least one of its several incarnations, which includes the alternate titles Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer. If, however, for some strange reason you have never seen this movie, then you can’t, in any way, shape or form, consider yourself to be a true die-hard fan of kung fu films. As harsh as that may sound, the reality is that for every genre and sub-genre of film you can imagine, there are only a very small handful of films that are essential viewing within that particular group. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of those films.

With the popularity of Bruce Lee and films like Five Fingers of Death (a.k.a. King Boxer) in the early 1970s, there was a flood of chop sockey cinema that was dumped in inner-city and Chinatown movies theaters all the way into the 80s. Produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was one of these countless films. It had been a huge hit in Hong Kong, before it was edited, dubbed and released in the United States under the title Master Killer. At the same time films like Master Killer were being played in double and triple and quadruple features at rundown theaters and drive-ins, local television stations were still airing feature films during the day on Saturdays. Many stations, including Channel 5 in New York, and Channel 12 in Portland, where I moved when I was in junior high, began showing kung fu films, including Master Killer.

Like so many others who had become fascinated with kung fu films in the 1970s, I watched Master Killer simply because it appeared, at least as first glance, to be more of the silly, asskicking entertainment that made up many of my Saturday afternoons. But the reality is that the film was very different from all the others I had seen, and was really the only one to make any sort of lasting impression. Years later, when I went back and started rewatching martial arts films, this was the film I wanted to see again. When I finally saw it as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, probably a decade or more later, it was totally familiar, while at the same time a completely new experience.

The plot of 36th Chamber comes from the standard template of Hong Kong’s cinema of vengeance. Gordon Liu stars as San Te (although his name at the beginning is Liu Yu-te), an unassuming student who witnesses the brutality of the Manchus as nefarious General Tien (Lo Lieh) kills a rival. This prompts Liu to become involved in the rebellion to overthrow, but the cost of his involvement is the massacre of his family. With nowhere else to go, Liu flees to the Shaolin Temple, hoping that the monks there will teach him the kung fu skills he needs to avenge his family. At the temple Liu is renamed San Te by the monks, and he eventually begins the difficult training that involves mastering all 35 chambers used to teach the Shaolin kung fu.

A standard element in many martial arts films was the obligatory “training” sequence where a student of questionable skills eventually learns to become a master. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin took this standard convention, and turned it into the foundation of the film’s second act. Where a training sequence may have lasted somewhere around 10 minutes in another film, 36th Chamber uses the concept and turns it into a way of charting the growth of San Te’s character. In scene after scene of some of the most memorable moments to grace Hong Kong cinema, San Te masters one chamber after another, quickly moving toward his goal of becoming a fighter who can take revenge for his family. But as he masters each skill involved with the individual chambers, San Te begins to grow as a person, profoundly influenced by the Buddhist teachings of the Shaolin monks. When he finally has moved through all the chambers, and passed his final test, San Te is given the opportunity to oversee the instruction at any of the 35 chambers. Instead, he asks to create a 36th chamber, one that can be used to teach kung fu outside the temple to everyday people, so that they may protect themselves from the tyrants who rule the land.

What is profound about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is that while it follows many of the conventions established in other martial arts films, it moves beyond those standard trappings. In countless other movies San Te would have simply learned to fight and gotten his revenge. But director Liu Chia-Liang (a.k.a. Lau Kar-Leung) takes the genre to another level by developing San Te’s consciousness along with his fighting skills. This is evidenced by the protagonist’s journey from wanting to merely exact vengeance for the death of his family to his desire to teach others, so that they may protect themselves and fight against oppression.

The most popular heroes of martial arts films were always the flawed and the oppressed that grew into greatness through much trial and tribulation, despite their weakness. But at the same time, it was always difficult to find much depth or dimension within a majority of the martial arts heroes of Hong Kong films, especially as they played in the U.S., heavily edited and poorly dubbed. In making the journey to America, many films lost whatever heart and soul they may have had—if they had any in the first place. But no editing or poor dubbing was able to remove the heart and soul from 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and even as Master Killer, it emerged as a classic with the genre.

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS

Over four decades ago, Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers was considered one of the most provocative, politically incendiary movies of its time. The Black Panther Party used it as a training film, the French government banned it, and lovers of cinema revered it as a masterpiece. In 2003, the Pentagon hosted a special screening of the film, in hopes it would shed valuable light on how to deal with rebel forces in Iraq. The following year The Battle of Algiers was released in a beautifully packaged addition to the Criterion Collection, where it could be studied, appreciated and, no doubt, argued about.

Chronicling the 1954-1962 revolution that would eventually lead to the end of French colonial rule in Algeria, The Battle of Algiers is a bleak, uncompromising portrait of terrorist warfare and a war on terror.The film starts with French soldiers interrogating a captured Algerian prisoner. The man’s will has been broken, and his weary, tear-streaked face alludes to the torture he has endured. The French soldiers, led by the charismatic Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), assure their prisoner he has done the right thing. But the emotionally dead gaze in the man’s eyes says something to the contrary. As Mathieu leads his men on a raid to find rebel leader Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), the magnitude of the betrayal that occurred moments before the camera entered the interrogation room becomes painfully clear.

Hiding behind a false wall in Algiers’ Muslim Casbah, Ali and his three companions in the Algerian National Liberation Front, or FLN, await their fate. As Mathieu and his men rampage through the apartment concealing them, Ali and his fellow rebels—which include a woman and a young boy—pray for an escape that will never come. As the moment of their impending capture—or death—comes ever closer, Ali reflects on the course of his life leading up to this point.

A communist who fought against the fascists during World War II and a student of Italian neo-realism, Pontecorvo brought both an artistic aesthetic and a political ideology to The Battle of Algiers. Shot in stark black-and-white, Pontecorvo’s film bears an uncanny resemblance to a documentary. During its initial release in 1965, the film’s distributor added a disclaimer: “Not one foot of newsreel or documentary film has been used.”

Such a statement might seem merely a hyperbolic marketing stunt, until you see the gritty reality Pontecorvo portrays. From the frenzied panic that follows a series of terrorist bombings to the throngs of Muslim dissidents who take to the streets to oppose French rule, much of The Battle of Algiers appears composed of actual riot footage captured just as the shit was hitting the fan.

Pontecorvo made a film of historical propaganda by working closely with the newly liberated Algerian government, as well as Saadi Yacef, the former leader of the FLN, who basically plays himself in the movie. But his roots in neorealism kept the director from crafting a film that paints its characters in absolutes. Instead, Pontecorvo and co-writer Franco Solinas create a world of moral ambiguity, in which the heroes are terrorists who resort to killing innocent civilians to advance their cause, and the villains are French soldiers who also resort to killing innocents to achieve their goals. No one is entirely good or bad, both sides are right and wrong. And while the film and the filmmaker clearly take the side of the FLN, Pontecorvo is careful to give the The Battle of Algiers enough sense of balance that it endures more like a historical document, and less like biased propaganda.

With the current situation in Iraq, and the Pentagon’s screening of The Battle of Algiers, much has been made of the film’s relevance to current events. Perhaps the most significant theme in that discussion is why the French refused to support military action in Iraq. What they learned during the Algerian conflict, and what is so brilliantly conveyed in this film, is that winning battles is not the same as winning a war.

To that end, The Battle of Algiers does not serve either as a great training film for political revolutionaries or as a helpful tool for understanding how to combat terrorists. Instead, it is a brilliant piece of cinema that offers a cautionary tale about the high cost of violence as a means to an end.

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.