Blaxploitation Marathon, Vol. 2by Jonathan Doyle and Neil Karassik
(with special guests Sarah Duda and Ken Stuebing)
At the conclusion of our recent Blaxploitation Marathon, we jokingly hinted at Vol. 2. Well, it looks like it's happening. The first marathon was a spontaneous reaction to a) Black Dynamite and b) a cold winter weekend in Toronto with not much going on. This time, a lot more thought went into the game plan.
I managed to round-up blaxploitation classics and obscurities alike and, as a result of this hefty blaxploitation windfall, we're tacking-on an extra day. We're also shooting for a surprisingly lofty goal: twenty consecutive blaxploitation movies! I don't know if we're gonna make it, but we're all fuelled up with forties and ready to go. -- JD
Black Gunn(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 1.20.2004)
JD: We're really easing our way into Blaxploitation Marathon, Vol. 2 with this one. Black Gunn begins as a somewhat humorless, deliberately paced Jim Brown vehicle (his movies are super mellow... just like he is), but it eventually picks up steam and becomes a lively action movie. In addition to some stellar action set pieces, Black Gunn features lots of good music, all kinds of wacky racial hatred and an awesomely innocent Black Panther-style organization called B.A.G. (Black Action Group). As you might expect, their headquarters comes complete with obligatory Malcolm X and Che Guevara posters. Ultimately, this is an inoffensive, by-the-book blaxploitation movie, no more and no less. Novelty value: according to the extras on BaadAsssss Cinema, this is the first blaxploitation movie Quentin Tarantino ever saw.
NK: The same year (1972) he played the titular hero in Slaughter, Jim Brown also starred as the titular Black Gunn. Both films bear a revenge-driven likeness, but Slaughter is clearly the more cinematic of the two. This one starts slow, but when Gunn's brother is murdered at the hands of the dirty mob, the pace picks up. In fact, the final twenty minutes is a non-stop shoot-out. Gunn also features many of the genre's stand-out elements, most notably a low down bowling enthusiast drug dealer named Jimpy and a memorable junky who's a dead ringer for Creeper the Hamburger Pimp from Dolemite. The film also features a youngish Martin Landau as a ruthless racist mob boss who instigates all the drama. On the whole, Black Gunn isn't exactly good-timely blaxploitation cinema, but its (mostly) brisk pace is easy to digest. A great seventies soundtrack sweetens the deal. Dig it.
Trick Baby(Universal Home Video, 1.11.2005)
NK: One film in and we've already met our first non-blaxploitation joint. 1972's Trick Baby is actually based on a novel by the late, great Robert Beck (aka Iceberg Slim). Though I've never read the source material, this is a remarkably conceived con man drama with an intriguing never-done-before racial twist. You'll also find some very bizarre intercutting between a black couple and a white couple having sex. Deep and fascinating stuff, mostly in the more character-driven first half.
JD: This movie will surprise you at every turn. In spite of its title and superficial resemblance to traditional blaxploitation fare, Trick Baby is some kind of lost low key seventies gem. Not only is it an unusually complex, subtextual blaxploitation film, it's also a cunning and peculiar con man movie. Of all the movies we've see over the course of these two marathons, this is the one that has surprised me most. Crafted with imagination, insight and originality to spare, Trick Baby is an unexpectedly wise and dignified exploration of mid-seventies race relations.
The Black Six(Brentwood Home Video, 11.12.2002)
(from Black Vengeance 4-Pack)
JD: I really, really want to like this movie more. It has an amazing poster and an infectiously likeable cast of characters -- six real NFL superstars, playing a gang of hippy-esque bikers, looking to avenge a friend killed by rival bikers -- but the movie goes absolutely nowhere. Unforgettably amusing moments abound, but overall coherence is a serious problem. In that sense, it's kind of the Black Shampoo of this weekend's marathon. Regular DiscLand readers may remember cult director Matt Cimber from past reviews, including Hundra and The Witch Who Came From the Sea, but The Black Six lacks the former's charm and the latter's transgressive artistry. Still, you can't help but have a good time watching this film. Just be sure to find ways to get through those dull patches.
NK: This is probably the first and last blaxploitation biker film starring several NFLers that I will ever see. The Black Six is truly mind-boggling. It's like Easy Rider meets The Wild Bunch meets complete narrative incoherence and ultra low production values. In one astonishingly terrible (thus amazing) sequence, the black six bikers tear apart a racist redneck diner that is literally made out of cardboard. Brentwood Home Video's impossibly primitive DVD presentation keeps things appropriately sleazy, but I don't think I've ever seen such a despicably surreal DVD menu. It plays without a loop, so we literally had to eject the disc and insert it to re-experience the sweet magic again and again.
The Human Tornado(Xenon Pictures, 3.19.2002)
JD: While this movie is just as zero budget as the original Dolemite, it's infused with a new wave of creative inspiration, enthusiasm and pure, unadulterated sleaze. Rudy Ray Moore offers up full frontal nudity on several occasions, breasts are constantly exposed and there's even a nude instant replay! But seriously, the first rule of The Human Tornado is, "Don't talk about The Human Tornado." Or at least it should be. This is one of the guiltiest guilty pleasures you'll ever see and an unbelievably incoherent, borderline Bollywood experience -- yet it's totally irresistible. If pressed-for-time, proceed directly to the Jean Cocteau-meets-Kenneth Anger surrealist sequence about an hour in. I have no idea where this idea came from, but it's a fascinatingly ill-fitting flourish.
NK: "Nerve-shattering... Brain-battering... Mind-splattering... A one man disaster!" So goes the tagline for this brain-melting sequel. Within the first ten minutes, we see multiple full-frontal shots of the human tornado -- and it's not a pretty picture. In fact, this is a fairly reprehensible, outrageously undisciplined film by any standard, but also a hugely watchable pornographic train-wreck that completely derails any coherent credibility the first, equally lo-fi Dolemite had. I have no idea where this completely trippy franchise is headed, but I'm definitely on board. The sped-up, re-mixed kung-fu is... wow!
Watermelon Man(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 9.14.2004)
JD: This movie definitely benefits from the upgrade to DVD. On VHS, Watermelon Man seemed downright amateurish, but Van Peebles' peculiar style comes through a bit more coherently with the solid transfer on this disc. Nonetheless, this pre-Sweetback effort remains a muddled and chaotic experience. The film's narrative strategy never really comes into focus: if this guy is hated as a white man, does it really say anything when he turns black and is still hated? Van Peebles also makes the mistake of telling the same jokes and making the same points again and again. And again. Plus, Godfrey Cambridge's performance is broad and flamboyant where it should be precise and authentic, over-stating the surrealism of the premise and preventing the film's pointed racial observations from ringing true. It's an amusingly dated curiosity, but that's about it.
NK: Don't get me wrong, Melvin Van Peebles' 1970 racial awareness comedy Watermelon Man is a very watchable dud. Godfrey Cambridge earns some points for his generally charismatic turn as a white businessman ignoramus who suddenly wakes up as a black man (granted, he's an incredibly unconvincing white guy). Cambridge repeatedly tries to change back to his former caucasian self through increasingly moronic techniques, from drinking milk to taking a long, steamy shower to bathing in milk. The film has a fairly TV movie visual vibe, but Peebles' crudely brazen filmmaking is made more awkward via jarring elliptical editing, multi-hued filters and some very bizarre onscreen text. Sweetback is grittier and definitely more artistic, but this film showcases some of the stylistic touchstones that defined his infinitely less goofy follow-up.
KS: And in the end, a stylish zoom into a freeze on our wayward protagonist, seemingly digging his present tense situation.
TNT Jackson(Alpha Home Entertainment, 4.25.2006)
JD: This blaxploitation "classic" from Roger Corman's New World Pictures has an appealing hero, some groovy beats and plenty of funky slow-mo-nude-fu, but most of the performances are pretty dull and the filmmaking is crude (more nude, less crude... dudes). It's not without grooviness, but pointing lit cigars at TNT Jackson's exposed breasts is totally ungroovy. Same goes for the jive-ass transfer.
NK: Yeah, DVD doesn't get any less crackin' than TNT Jackson's abysmally cruddy transfer. Also, the title's inaccurate. It should be "TNA" Jackson. The pic contains numerous topless shots from the very stunning TNT (Playboy Playmate of the Month Jeanne Bell) and her equally attractive honky friend. Definitely noteworthy is that Bell was featured in yesterday's Black Gunn and will also be in tomorrow's Trouble Man. One interesting asset this film has over many of its blaxploitation colleagues is that it was shot on location in the phunky Philippines.
KS: The reason Neil and Jon are able to key-in on how nude this movie is boils down to one (SPOILER) scene where TNT Jackson purposefully doffs her loose, flowing gown and engages in some serious nude-fu. This film is a definite precursor to Eastern Promises, except the heroine here chooses to fight in the nude, taking advantage of her assets, whereas Viggo M. seemed perilously vulnerable. Actually, this movie features some solid fight scenes, interestingly shot and cut. Drama-infused fighting -- who knew?
SD: I'd like to underscore how much this transfer is not good. That being said, I'm extremely happy that the "Alpha Video" logo eventually disappeared and TNT Jackson took over with her neat nude fighting. Distract them with your nakedness whilst kicking their ass into next week. Smart. Classy. Baadasssss.
Willie Dynamite(Universal Home Video, 1.11.2005)
JD: It's hard to believe this forgotten blaxploitation classic comes from Universal Pictures and the producers of Jaws, Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown. In any case, it has style to spare. No movie more proudly wears its pimp affiliation on its sleeve. The poster is like an advertisement for The Pimp Olympics. The good news? This is that rare blaxploitation movie that actually lives up to the poster. Unforgettable characters, eye-popping costumes/sets, hilarious dialogue and a silky smooth bongo soundtrack. And don't forget, Willie "Burger King" D's coat is made from lamb. Lamb!
KS: This engaging tale of the titular pimp's trials and tribulations is colorful, skillfully composed and cool in an and-you-thought-Pulp-Fiction-was-cool kinda way. The best part? 2 many 2 count. The theme song during the opening credits is a phenomenal and apt overture, the leads are hot/heavy and the leopard skin interior in WD's purple Galaxy 500 is par excellence. Plus, the flair that the players strut on screen makes Willie D a singular pimp-beyond-belief!
NK: Big Willie's style is tight. He may even be the tightest pimp on the entire blaxploitation front. Big-ups to the film's elaborate costume design, highlighted by our protagonist's progressively pimpin' wardrobe that incorporates lamb fur and pink jumpsuits. Despite his hilariously over-the-top appearance, WD comes across as a seductively believable hustler. After a few genre-defiant titles, I'm glad to be back on the street -- and Willie's got the beat!
SD: Willie's wardrobe rules in this pimp-tastic, street fairy tale. He's charming, smooth, deep and a lover of brightly colored turtlenecks. Later that year, he went on to become long-running Sesame Street regular Gordon. Pimpin' aint easy.
Petey Wheatstraw(Xenon Pictures, 3.19.2002)
NK: Rudy Ray Moore is back, but this ain't no Dolemite. This is the third entry in the Rudy dude's DVD box set and it may as well be the second Dolemite sequel. For fans of The Human Tornado's goofy kung-fu sequences, they're also back. More or less ridiculous than D2 and waaay more ridiculous than Dolemite, Petey Wheatstraw is hands-down the most awesomely named blaxploitation film I've ever seen. Typical for a RRM product, this movie has all kinds of style, but it's utterly incoherent and pathetically juvenile (at its best, it's like the John Waters of blaxploitation). Instead of full frontal male nudity, we get pants shitting, so yeah. Seriously, these guys must've been on incredible drugs.
JD: Three movies into this semi-franchise (Monkey Hu$tle doesn't count because it's a studio movie) and it looks like Rudy's starting to lose his mojo. This movie has a lot to offer -- sweet afros, avante-garde directorial flourishes, horn-blastin' live tracks -- but it can't compete with the trashy mellow charm of Dolemite or The Human Tornado. Petey Wheatstraw is more hard-edged and grungy than its predecessors, but hopes are still high for RRM's last seventies classic, tomorrow night's Disco Godfather.
KS: The thing I'm digging most about tonight's leg of blaxploitation fare is the array of colorful costumes. Naturally, big screen baadassssses go hand-in-hand with classy, pastel fabulousness. Fashion aesthetics aside, this film is much less plot and much more pastiche. Notionally, this is a streetwise horror film, but it's actually a directionless, bizarro blend of outrageous set-pieces and one-liners. It's quotable, but as far as Rudy Ray Moore films go this is no Dolemite. Start there instead: there are better cults than this joint. That said, the name Petey Wheatstraw is undeniably amusing.
Blackenstein(Xenon Pictures, 10.21.2003)
SD: Weird Science! Eddie, a vietnam vet whose arms and legs are blown off in combat, gets new limbs sewn on by Dr. Stein. Unfortunately, the surgery doesn't go as planned and Eddie becomes a mumbling, shuffling killer with an inexplicably gigantic head and blue skin. Sadly, this movie has almost nothing going for it. Dig the end credits though.
JD: This blaxploitation horror film has one of the genre's most memorably idiotic titles -- and it's a good fit for the film. If you go enough steps down the imitation chain, quality control becomes a serious problem. First there was Nosferatu, then there was Dracula, then there were countless Dracula ripoffs, then there was Blacula -- which is actually a pretty strong film and one of the very best blaxploitation films -- then there was this sorry attempt to cash-in... on Blacula's attempt to cash-in. And that doesn't even take into account the long line of Frankenstein films it follows, from Universal to Hammer (the British one, not Fred Williamson). Blackenstein's single-minded intent as a commercial venture is totally transparent. There's no sense of fun or creative adventure. Even if you're looking for frivolous, so-bad-it's-good entertainment, this dead-on-arrival dud has almost nothing to offer.
NK: Blackenstein: The Black Frankenstein (just Blackenstein isn’t sufficient tip-off that this is loosely based on the Mary Shelley monster?) is bottom-of-the-barrel cinema from any perspective. The fun begins and ends with the film's comically dreadful tagline: “To stop that mutha, takes one bad brotha.” There are too many flaws to list, but the key reason this genre monster-mash is so painfully bland and un-Blacula-like is because it lacks any of the amusing trappings found in the best horror or blaxploitation. To boot, this film is horribly paced and the creature's resurrection comes way too late in the game. If I had to offer some constructive feedback, I'd add that the film's gothic sets are almost better than terrible [ed. according to imdb, the filmmakers somehow got their hands on one of the sets from James Whale's original 1931 Frankenstein].
KS: Let's work backwards, shall we? The credits in reverse were perverse, anticipating Gaspar Noe's Irreversible by several decades. Before that, the final fate of Blackenstein (hint: he's gone to the dogs) was as graphic as it was gratifying. Blackenstein was an interminable troublemaker and, frankly, I'm relieved he met his fate. Before that… well, this movie dragged. If you're going to watch a ridiculous movie, it's best not to have lulls that remind you you're watching a ridiculous movie.
Amazing Grace(MGM Home Entertainment, 12.26.2001)
NK: Late comedienne Jackie "Moms" Mabley had her only lead film role in this feel-good political comedy that she starred in one year before her death. Moms plays Grace, a raspy granny with a lovably unshakable attitude, who infiltrates the corrupt Baltimore political office. While this DVD is thin on extras (we get a trailer and nothing else), the fact that it includes subtitles saves the proceedings from being utterly impenetrable. Not unlike the thickest Brit cockney films (or Throw Mama From the Train's Anne Ramsey), Moms' gravely, toothless dialect is hard to decipher, usually to endearing and comic effect. This charismatic heroine is a refreshing change of pace from the younger, tough-guy-centric figures we've encountered thus far. Even Dolemite had a mama.
JD: Wanna enjoy some blaxploitation with da kids? There's no better place to start than this joyfully funky G-rated gem (except maybe Monkey Hu$tle). This movie is all about empowering people who can't catch a break. We get black empowerment, female empowerment, senior empowerment and broke-ass empowerment -- all rolled-into-one. Rather than go the conventionally glossy, goofy comedy route, director Stan Latham gives Amazing Grace a pleasantly messy, vivid sense of the everyday. Moms isn't paying a crazy old lady, she's the real deal. When she goes into inspirational mode in the late-movie campaigning section ("…you are the dark meat of God's great chicken!"), it's pretty irresistible. I'm really grateful this film exists, as there's no better record of Moms Mabley's crankily inspirational, loose-dentured comic persona. I don't know what we'd do without Moms… or subtitles.
Boss(VCI Entertainment, 9.30.2008)
JD: Written and co-produced by Fred Williamson, Boss (non-PC title: Boss Nigger) is a well-executed exercise in African-American revenge fantasy. Ever wish Gary Cooper had kicked a little ass when those townspeople wouldn't co-operate in High Noon? Fred Williamson sure does. He's laying down the law and, if whitey doesn't feel like playing along -- or dares to use the word VCI was too scared to include in the title -- this baadasssss is gonna show him who's BOSS. Veteran Hollywood director Jack Arnold (The Mouse that Roared, Hello Down There) brings a strong understanding of style, pace and genre to the proceedings. The latter proves to be the most fruitful, as Boss re-works western conventions with all kinds of amusing flourishes, most notably the anachronistically funky soul score. After the disappointment of Hammer a few weeks ago, it's nice to see Fred Wiliamson re-assert himself with some wit and subversive swagger.
NK: Let it be known that The Hammer approved the controversial title and equally sensational score. Director Jack Arnold was, in fact, a studio filmmaker who happened to be white, but the film's appropriately vulgar script (the number of N-bombs casually dropped is staggering) obviously had to have been written by an African-American (Williamson, making his screenwriting debut, before advancing to full-on director status the following year). Together, Williamson and Arnold offer a distinctive fusion of blaxploitation and the western, particularly Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy. Many will probably seek-out the film based on the legendary shock value of its title, but this is a satisfying tale full of wild thrills, edgy humour and intriguing social commentary. Fun fact: Boss' goofball sidekick is played by D'Urville Martin, who directed and co-starred in the renowned Dolemite the same year (1975). Blazing Saddles aint got nothing on this sheriff.
Trouble Man(Fox Home Entertainment, 1.10.2006)
NK: This film wasn't nearly as successful as its soundtrack (written, produced and performed by none other than Motown maverick Marvin Gaye). Like Shaft and Super Fly, Trouble Man owes a lot to its soulful soundtrack, but it's also one of the more elegantly mounted items we've screened. The film's hero, Mr. T (played by Robert Hooks, a refreshing new figure in our blaxploitation odyssey), is a cool cat with a terrific vernacular. The film goes down even better with T's drink of choice: a little gin with one ice cube. Overall, this is an exemplary title that manages to tap into the exciting aspects of the crime drama, adding multiple groovy sets, gritty action and a polished look (though it occasionally verges on TV movie mediocrity). But for the most part, Trouble Man remains funky-fresh.
JD: An extremely business-like film about an extremely business-like character. As it turns out, this is both a strength and a weakness. While Trouble Man is traditional in many ways and not especially original, it's crafted with impeccable taste and care. Every set, costume and cut -- courtesy of Steven Spielberg's longtime editor Michael Kahn -- is delivered with maximum precision. The filmmaking here is reminiscent of seasoned old crime film pros like Don Siegel in his prime. There's also a terrific score by Marvin Gaye. If only some effort were made to make this overly talky, repetitive film a little more distinctive, it could have been a true blaxploitation classic. Still, this is clearly a must-see for fans of the genre.
The Spook Who Sat By the Door(Monarch Video, 1.27.2004)
NK: Hot off of helming Trouble Man, Ivan Dixon gave us this rather serious adaptation of Sam Greenlee's 1969 black militancy novel of the same name. The film has a politically charged narrative with a pointed message and it takes itself a little too seriously at times, but is clearly made with intelligence and care. Dixon once again manages to assemble a talented crew and, like Trouble Man, this film features an excellent score, this time courtesy of Herbie Hancock, whose jazzy presence gives this a more eclectic vibe than your standard blaxpolitation soundtrack.
JD: For my money, this is one of the major blaxploitation films. Dixon does pretty everything I wish he'd done with Trouble Man. Spook lacks that film's polish, but it's replaced with a much looser, more provocative and original energy. Hancock's score is incredibly odd, alternating between jazz and proggy, psych indulgences, a perfect fit for the film's mix of mellowness and angry, disorienting revolution. The more radical moments of the film bring to mind the sensibility of Paul Schrader's Blue Collar, Patty Hearst and Mishima, as everything is delivered with conviction, seriousness-of-purpose and even rage. Truth is, it's a stretch to apply the blaxploitation label to a film this refreshingly light on frivolity. Find it. See it. Start a revolution.
KS: This is a genuinely awesome movie. It's a smart, stylish, confident, character-driven profile of a seventies uprising that makes great use of its Chicago setting. Seriously, Spook has it all: honest performances, realistic action and yes, Herbie Hancock's funky-fresh eclectic score is mighty effective in elevating this film to A-level achievement. After weaving interesting elements of seventies society -- turtlenecks, dinner jackets, side-burns, LSD consumption, revolutionary spirit to spare and classy wood-panelled interiors complete with sweet hi-fi set-ups -- this gem of a movie has earned its place in the blaxploitation canon.
SD: John Singleton's Furious Styles owes a great debt to this movie's revolutionary philosophy. Endlessly entertaining, Spook features one of the (if not the) definitive LSD-related death on film. Tripping might not be a bad way to go. Think about it.
KS: This is a bold, grim suburban exorcism flick with a freaky, wailing, downright beastly demon-possession-of-a-woman situation. Trippy and tense. You want heavyweight actors? This movie features William Marshall -- who was/is Blacula and plays this film's charismatic exorcist -- and the beautiful Jeanie Bell (the same stunner who was the cause of much fap-fap-fapping last night in TNT Jackson). You also want iconic timeless imagery? This movie features a Pandora's Box opening sequence, as well as Halloween/House of the Devil suburban terrorizing twists. You also get effectively spooky, bizarre and awkward moments, fearlessly pushing this film into unbelievable intimacy. Abby is subversive, particularly with its heavy proto-noise-rock freak-out sound effects. I also respect the clever nod to Psycho with a tres gratuitous shower sequence. Worthy, fearlessly free genre filmmaking at play.
NK: Apparently, this film fared well in cinemas, but it was regrettably withdrawn from theatres due to a copyright infringement lawsuit courtesy of Warner. Yes, 1974's Abby is unmistakably influenced by 1973's possession sensation, The Exorcist. Call it blasphemy, but Abby definitely has a distinctive voice. At pic number five today, we have finally seen this day's first dud, mostly owing to a disgraceful DVD transfer. Yet another unfortunate outcome for this film.
JD: It's true, the transfer is one of the most nightmarish things found on this disc. However, lurking somewhere beneath all those muddy colors, scratches and other layers of crud, there appears to be a playful genre exercise with some genuine merit. The Halloween costume-looking make-up effects manage to be somewhat spooky, due in large part to their bargain basement mediocrity. You may find yourself thinking, "This can't possibly be fictional because nobody would ever try to pass something that cartoonish off as real. This is really happening!" It should also be noted that director William Girdler went on to direct all kinds of cool stuff, from Pam Grier's Sheba, Baby (which we're watching tomorrow) to the horror triple whammy Grizzly, Day of the Animals and The Manitou. Sadly, he died in a helicopter accident just months after turning thirty back in 1978.
Wattstax(Warner Home Video, 9.7.2004)
KS: Gimme that old time music not just any day but one special day, a momentous gathering of soul/jazz/funk music that powerfully uplifts one's spirit. Wattstax is an exceptionally groovy document of a 1972 festival at L.A. Colesium, featuring immortal moments from a movement. Fabulous talent including The Staples Singers, Albert King and Issac Hayes converged in this historic star-studded occasion, tenderly introduced by Richard Prior. This is a sure cure for cancer, feel so good! Note, one of my favourite experiences of 2010 is catching the super-inspirational speech from the Rev. Jesse Jackson later sampled by Primal Scream on their seminal dance-rock opus Screamadelica, anchoring the epic track "Come Together." Can I repeat this movie is fantastic?
NK: After a steady diet of heavy-handed drama, Wattstax makes for freshly funktacular blaxploitation recompense. This is clearly soul's answer to Woodstock and a hugely comprehensive concert bonanza that not only features some huge musical talent, but also a memorably coherent performance from Richard Pryor. Thirty-seven years later, this remains one of the great music docs and an interesting precursor to Dave Chappelle's Block Party.
JD: Chappelle actually acknowledged this as the primary inspiration behind Block Party. If you ever have a blaxploitation marathon of your own, be sure to include this incredibly entertaining movie, as it offers a great contrast to the more story-driven entries, while also encapsulating most of the major staples (pun intended) of the blaxploitation genre. Best of all, this movie is overflowing with glimpses of everyday people doing their everyday thing, much like this afternoon's Amazing Grace. Obviously the music is incredible, but the scene that impressed me most is the one with the drunk guy who stubbornly refuses to leave the field, only to be forcibly removed by dozens of playful, enthusiastic members of the crowd. Happy vibes.
SD: Wattstax is a refreshingly awesome, inspiring movie. I dug every minute of this party-time, funktastic gem. Let the good time roll.
Disco Godfather(Xenon Pictures, 3.19.2002)
Disco Godfather came out exactly thirty-one years ago. To commemorate this very special anniversary, we will each review the film in exactly thirty-one words.
JD: It may be a blessing that Rudy Ray didn't make any Moore movies after this. Dolemite and The Human Tornado were a strong start, but the rapid decline was being felt.
NK: After two earlier miracles, I was totally on board for Rudy Ray Moore's uniquely stupid brand of childishly self-indulgent nonsense. Sadly, Disco Godfather is very subdued by comparison. It's also dull.
KS: Transcendental disco floor revelations, musical souls unite against the scourge of angel dust. A chill film for your crib, Disco Godfather is deeply funky and sprawling, an unabashedly seventies sentimentality, brotha.
Cotton Comes to Harlem(MGM Home Entertainment, 1.9.2001)
JD: Directed by the legendary Ossie Davis -- the first of five films he directed, all in the seventies -- this lively, good-natured early blaxploitation film combines violent crime and goofball comedy to generally good effect. The plot gets a bit convoluted, but for the most part, it plays like a relatively focussed ensemble drama, unlike some of the more muddled, confusing films we've watched. The second half is much weaker than the first, but we're used to that by now. Keep an eye out for the following highlights: a crazy mumbling painter, a theatre with Putney Swope on the marquee, several characters inexplicably flying through the air and an incident involving a woman under house arrest, who seduces a cop and leaves him in the hallway… naked… with a paper bag on his head. Yikes. It should also be noted that Cotton's eye-popping poster provides the image at the top of this page.
NK: Ossie Davis adapts Chester Himes' 1970 crime novel with lovingly scatterbrained panache. The film's unhinged balance of urban action, social drama and lightweight satire is endearing, despite the plot being overstuffed with diverse characters (a pre-Sanford and Son Redd Foxx frequently appears as a similarly sassy junk-dealer) and sub plots that all connect to a MacGuffin device that involves a bale of cotton secretly stuffed with a lot stolen money. Davis' direction is most intriguing at its least conventional -- a long-winded chase sequence during the film's initial fifteen minutes is wonderfully unrefined. Another asset is the film's leading officers, Godfrey Cambridge (the truly memorable dude who starred in Watermelon Man) and Raymond St. Jacques. They have an edgy camaraderie that rivals the best buddy cop companionships.
Take a Hard Ride(Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1.17.2006)
NK: Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly re-join forces after starring in 1974's entertaining action romp Three the Hard Way, which we checked out during our last marathon. The actors retain their usual screen personae: The Hammer's a cigar-smoking badass brother, Kelly (playing a mute afro'd Indian without much conviction) performs goofy karate moves and displays modest onscreen charisma and Jim Brown looks generally bored and tough. Take a Hard Ride is an overly sincere genre-shuffler that unsmilingly relies on the white man's western tropes. While it does contain a handsome backdrop (filmed on location in Spain's Canary Islands) and some legit talent, this spaghettisploitation riff is too middling to take a hard ride with the real thing, even if it boasts a very seasoned set of genre vets.
JD: This scenic, well-made western suffers from a severe lack of narrative momentum or originality. That said, Jim Kelly's martial arts moves are a welcome change of pace from creaky western conventions and Antonio Margheriti layers on all kinds of enjoyably over-the-top action, including a Williamson-Brown fistfight -- that threatens to become a They Live-style jumbo brawl -- and some borderline Zabriskie Point explosiveness. He also takes great pleasure in throwing (fake) people and (real) horses off cliffs. Pay extra special attention when Williamson falls down a waterfall, miraculously maintaining his composure and hanging on to his gun. His hair barely even gets wet! Overall, this is a minor genre exercise, but Anchor Bay's solid anamorphic transfer and Jerry Goldsmith's bizarre score make for a diverting, mildly enjoyable 103 minutes.
Detroit 9000(Miramax, 11.14.2000)
JD: This has always been one of my favourite blaxploitation movies, in spite of the absence of any big icons of the genre. Of course, director Arthur Marks was one of the most prolific, consistent blaxploitation directors. After this film, he banged-out a string of memorable hits including Friday Foster, Bucktown, The Monkey Hu$tle and J.D.'s Revenge, but this remains my personal favorite (Quentin Tarantino likes it so much he re-released it through his company Rolling Thunder Pictures). Again, the plot is unnecessarily convoluted, but there's a greater focus on the two protagonists than usual and both characterizations have surprising nuance, particularly Alex Rocco's Lieutenant Danny Bassett -- whose life is a total train wreck. Added bonus: Scatman Crothers delivers a typically memorable cameo.
NK: True, this Tarantino-endorsed 1973 cult film has a memorable performance from the always-brilliant Scatman, as a reverend no less. Like many, if not the majority, of the blaxploitation titles we've seen, Detroit 9000 is a straight-faced police thriller, but it also displays a higher level of character, racial and political nuance, thus rationalizing its substitution of campy excitement for hard boiled drama. This isn't a genre-defining film, but it satisfies on almost every front, holding its own as a sophisticated cut above your typical seventies B-movie. Plus, in a very Rear Window-esque shot, we got our first glimpse of interracial lesbian intimacy in a blaxploitation movie. Dig the performances, dig the funkadelic score… dig the squib-tastic shoot-outs.
The Black Gestapo(Brentwood Home Video, 11.12.2002)
(from Black Vengeance 4-Pack)
JD: The transfer on this disc is almost as bad as the Abby transfer we saw yesterday. However, The Black Gestapo still comes through as a really dark and provocative piece of work. This film approaches Black Nationalist groups as if they have the potential to grow to Nazi-like proportions (the credits include actual footage of Nazis). This has the effect of simultaneously empowering the black members of the audience and terrifying the white ones. But everyone wins because this is an endlessly watchable, if somewhat amateurish and mean-spirited, stab at controversy. Director Lee Frost made some really playful, well-crafted films (The Thing with Two Heads, Policewomen, Dixie Dynamite) and you can sense that skill in this flawed, but progressively more amusing exercise in politicized blaxploitation. By the way, this movie is inexplicably included on both sides of the disc, which means Black Cobra II isn't actually part of the Black Vengeance 4-Pack. Damn.
NK: This is some pretty heavy shit. Black Gestapo is the I Spit on Your Grave of blaxploitation -- even though Gestapo came three years earlier. Both films provide moments of unflinching terror, in addition to bathtub castration horror. This is a hugely worthwhile, straight-up 'sploitation film and the stylishly grim results are bizarrely, brilliantly counter-cultural. Black Gestapo is probably the most audaciously absorbing (and cheaply made) film we've seen all week and its appalling DVD menu earns double points for duplicating the crazy audio from The Black Six menu.
Sheba, Baby(MGM Home Entertainment, 1.9.2001)
After twenty-one films, we're calling an end to Blaxploitation Marathon, Vol. 2. To celebrate the success of our mission, we're reviewing Sheba, Baby in exactly twenty-one words.
JD: Usually described as lesser Grier, this film has a narrative clarity that's preferable to the jumbled, overstuffed approach we've found elsewhere.
NK: Took two marathons to hit up Pam Grier. Sheba isn't legendary like her earlier films, but it's a solid PG underdog.
It might be a year or it might be a few weeks, but be sure to return for Blaxploitation Marathon, Vol. 3!