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Category: BAMF Film Review Archive

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.

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 – 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).

Lessons in Black History – Ousamane Sembène and CAMP DE THIAROYE

Ousamane Sembène – Born in Senegal in 1923, Ousamane Sembène grew up in a blue collar environment, working a variety of manual labor jobs. In 1947 he made his way to France, became involved in the labor union movement, joined the Communist Party, and was introduced to the works of writers like Claude McKay. Inspired by his experiences, Sembène wrote his first novel in 1956. Le Docker Noir (The Black Docker) was the first of nine books written by Sembène, who would go on to be regarded as on the greatest authors from Africa. His books often dealt with issues regarding colonialism, racism and the plight of the working man, but were seldom translated in other languages. Sembène understood that his books would have trouble reaching the immigrant, working class and disenfranchised audience of which he wrote, prompting him to explore film. In 1963, at the age of 40, Sembène made his first film, the short Barrom Sarret. He would make nine more films over the course of the next forty years, and go on to become considered the “Father of African Cinema.” Sembène passed away in 2007 at the age of 84, but not before leaving behind a rich legacy of literature and film.

Ousamane Sembène's Camp de Thiaroye - one of the best films to ever come out of Africa

In a career that spanned more than 40 years, Ousamane Sembène only made a total of thirteen films, the best of which — or at least my personal favorite — would have to be 1988’s Camp de Thiaroye. Set in Senegal in 1944, Sembene’s film finds a platoon of African soldiers returning from combat in World War II, where they have fought for the French. Although the soldiers served loyally, they are treated like prisoners of war, held at a military camp with no freedom of movement, waiting for their back pay that never seems to arrive. Having suffered the horrors of war, the racism and mounting indignities build until the situation reaches a critical mass. When the soldiers stand up for themselves, demanding respect and the money they are owed, the French Army reacts by brutally killing the Africans in what has historically been remembered as the Thiaroye Massacre.

Based on true events, in which the French actually executed African soldiers that had served in World War II, Camp de Thiaroye is a landmark film of anti-colonialism and anti-war. It is also one of the best films to emerge from Africa by an African director. Sembène has crafted a film populated with memorable characters that on the surface feels like something akin to The Great Escape…but don’t be fooled. Sembène is so deftly skilled as a storyteller that his personal politics never get in the way of the story itself, even though the deeper implications of the what he is saying is always simmering beneath the surface, like a pot of water coming to a slow boil. A brilliant mix of drama, with bittersweet comedy, the film is a scathing condemnation of anti-colonialism that never seems heavy-handed, but in the end delivers a powerful blow that is emotionally devastating.

Although Sembène made several great films, this was in many ways his best and most personal. Sembène himself had been drafted and served in the French Army, and to that end the film is a semi-autobiographical account of the racism and discrimination he faced during his tour of duty. Camp de Thiaroye is a brilliant film that is emotionally dense and culturally rich, and well worth tracking down.

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.

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