Blaxploitation Marathonby Jonathan Doyle and Neil Karassik
(with special guest Sarah Duda)
It's been almost three years since our last DVD Marathon, but this weekend we're bringing the tradition back! In honor of recent blaxploitation gem Black Dynamite and its impending DVD/Blu-ray release (expect a review from Neil Karassik in a few days), we're watching/re-watching some blaxploitation classics this weekend. It's Black Film History Month, suckas!
So keep checking this space. We just opened some forties (seriously) and we're kicking-things-off with Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song -- on Criterion laserdisc!
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Laserdisc)(The Criterion Collection, 1997)
NK: Having seen Mario Van Peebles' Badasssss! when it was released in 2004, I was blow-away by the formal experimentation of Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 blaxploitation godfather. Forget the plot and genre tropes, this is some seriously subversive cinema. Like some hallucinogenic fusion of French New Wave and American Pop Art, SSBS is full of jarring optical effects, split screens and elliptical editing patterns. It's rude, crude and formally baadasssss from start to finish.
JD: Watching this movie with a forty in your hand is the way to go. Last time I saw this, it was four in the afternoon and I was stone cold sober. Big mistake. Van Peebles' jumbled, utterly incoherent approach to narrative and film style in general is far more tolerable under the mild influence of malt liquor. There's something fascinating about this film's combination of politically-charged genre cinema and cinema verite -- even calling this blaxploitation is a huge stretch -- and, to be honest, I've never seen anything quite like it. Criterion's LD comes stacked with an MVP intro (included at the end of the disc, just to stick it to the Man!) and an LD-exclusive MVP commentary. Looking forward to that.
Black Belt Jones(Warner Home Video, 1.12.2010)
(from Urban Action Collection)
NK: Featuring the most abrupt Scatman Crothers onscreen death of all time (The Shining doesn't even hold a candle), Black Belt Jones combines the best elements of blaxploitation, kung fu cinema and trampoline-bouncing bikini girls to deliver a hugely entertaining vibe that goes great with a mid-40oz buzz. Jim Kelly stars as the titular BBJ, who takes on the mob to avenge Scatman and, y'know, clean-up the streets. The film's climactic car wash brawl is outtasight... and so is this budget-friendly four-film DVD set, ya dig?
JD: Jim Kelly tries to acquire some Bruce Lee mojo by working with Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse -- and it works! This is a jamming kung funk soul party. Sure, the film is irritatingly earnest at times, but Scatman has the most outrageous Vanilla Ice haircut this side of Cool As Ice. It's an incredibly slowmotional experience. I hate to spoil the surprise (oh wait, Neil already did), but Scatman's tragic demise chilled me to the core.
Ganja & Hess(Image Entertainment, 10.3.2006)
Psychotronic: Duane Jones, star of Night of the Living Dead, is a modern vampire with visions of his native Africa. It's an interesting black-oriented horror film, both arty and exploitative, which was released after being confusingly cut.
NK: Ganja & Hess is a heavy movie to put on after midnight. It's dark, abstract and challenging across the board. It's also an insanely experimental, truly one-of-a-kind vampire blaxploitation art film. The soundtrack is nuts and the visuals are equally horrific. Totally bizarre in the best sense.
JD: This film is genuinely incredible -- and insane. Every minute of it is riddled with crazy ideas, skewed flourishes and vicious sensations. Ganja & Hess feels like a semi-naive, but totally cutting edge art from 2009. There's even some droney, Animal Collective-style soundtrack loops that are disorienting and terrifying, even by modern standards. I've never seen a vampire film this arty... and I've seen Trouble Every Day twice! We tried to have a blaxpoitation party tonight and all we got was blaxpoitation arty. But I'm not complaining.
Super Fly(Warner Home Video, 1.13.2004)
NK: Best known for its super fly Curtis Mayfield soundtrack, Super Fly puts a uniquely dark spin on drug culture. Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. (son of Shaft helmer Gordon Parks and director of Three the Hard Way, which we plan to watch at some point later this weekend), this may be the defining extended montage flick. Seriously, half the film is just people walking/driving around to funky music and stylish split-screens. I doubt we’ll see a more fly use of montage than this, but we’re pressing-on in the pursuit of even more ‘sploitation.
JD: Although this movie made a big impression on me as a teenager, it's been more than a decade since I last saw it. It's kind of amazing to me that I never even thought to buy the DVD when it came out in 2004 because a) the film's skewed morality remains as fascinating as ever and b) the disc is jammed with interesting bonus content. Most worthwhile is the chilled-out commentary by USC professor Dr. Todd Boyd, who talks a lot about drugs, the film's "vibe," etc. and explains that he has a long-running argument with John Singleton about what film is better, Shaft or Super Fly. Boyd thinks Super Fly is, hands down, the best blaxploitation film ever, while Singleton (the director of the Shaft re-make) maintains that Shaft has the upper hand. While these were two of the most commercially successful blaxploitation films, I'd argue that Foxy Brown or even The Mack is a better film. In any case, Super Fly holds up and this disc is a real treat.
The Monkey Hu$tle(MGM Home Entertainment, 1.20.2004)
JD: Dig this shit moms and pops, this movie may be full of all kinds of rampant criminality, but it’s basically a blaxpoitation movie for kids. It’s like The Bad News Bears in the hood, but instead of playing baseball, they’re ripping people off -- and raising some political hell (kids hose down white dudes more than once) to stop an expressway from being built through their never-ending party of a neighborhood. Directed by blaxploitation maestro Arthur Marks (Bucktown, Detroit 9000, Friday Foster, JD’s Revenge), Monkey Hu$tle features charismatic turns from Yaphet Kotto and the incomparable Rudy Ray Moore (aka Dolemite), who never fails to break new ground in ghetto fashion. Additional highlights include an uncharacteristically vicious, UFC-style house party catfight, a street party food fight and one giant flapjack stack. On the down side, this DVD is full frame, the plot’s wildly digressive and there are way too many characters. Nonetheless, Monkey Hu$tle has more innocent, playfully birthday party-like scenarios than any other movie I can think of. It also feels like a mid-eighties Hollywood comedy, even though it was released in 1976. Strange.
NK: Listen up mofos, Monkey Hu$tle has a distinctive formula unlike any other title we’ve screened thus far. It’s far more playfully slapstick in tone, typified by the film’s outrageous wardrobes (gold suits are de rigueur), crazy transitions and endlessly rhyming dialogue. The film also depicts a lighter shade of the wheelin-n-dealin' side of the game, which may displease more serious fans with its goofball portrayal of inner city sleaze. But this is a nice departure from the more sobering fare we’ve seen thus far and just about the perfect jump-starter for day two of this funked-out marathon.
Three the Hard Way(Warner Home Video, 1.12.2010)
(from Urban Action Collection)
NK: Fred "Hammer" Williamson, famed football star Jim Brown AND martial arts moaner Jim Kelly star in this visually polished blacktion crossbreed that includes one of the wackiest conspiracy plots of its time: white supremacists attempting to eliminate the black race by poisoning the city’s water supply (note: the toxin doesn’t affect whities). Featuring many elaborate chase sequences, shoot-outs and massive ‘splosions, this is a comparatively big-budget entry within the blaxploitation canon. This should be much easier to consume for genre noobs, as it grafts together several popular sub-genres. As previously mentioned, the film was directed by Gordon Parks Jr., who made Super Fly two years prior. Tragically, he died in a helicopter crash in 1979, putting an end to his equally short-but-well-lived filmmaking career. Three the Hard Way is also part of Warner’s impressive Urban Action Collection, which regrettably contains no extra features. Then again, we’re certainly getting great bang for our buck.
JD: It's true, this is an incredible 4-pack -- and it's available for under twenty bucks! While this film clearly adheres to many trademarks of the blaxploitation film, it also plays like a classy, well-crafted Hollywood action film of the period. The spirit of fun drops a little too low at times, but the explosive action sequences yield more-than-sufficient rewards. It should also be noted that this film is really nothing like Super Fly. Whereas that film is a gritty, trashy drama, this is a stylish, even somewhat austere suspense thriller. Sure, there's all kinds of funky music on the soundtrack, but there's a very geometrical sensitivity to space and distance in Parks' visual choices and he ingeniously chooses to exclude music from several key action sequences. In fact, a case could be made that this is one of the most stylistically sophisticated blaxploitation films ever made. It's a shame that Parks died so young because he seemed to be evolving into a surprisingly disciplined filmmaker.
Mandingo(Legend Films, 6.3.2008)
JD: Okay, so this isn't really a blaxploitation film -- not in the traditional sense anyway -- but the poster was included in What It Is… What It Was!, so let's roll with it. Those of you who have heard about Mandingo probably fear that this is some tasteless exercise in cheap, exploitative camp. Wrong! Truth is, this is an incredibly honest film that manages to put forth a vision of slavery as it was perceived in context, not from some "enlightened," morally simplified modern perspective. In Mandingo, slavery is an everyday fact of life. The slaves aren't pitiful, tragic victims, they're real people struggling to make sense of a totally perverse time and place. As directed by unheralded master Richard Fleischer (Compulsion, The Boston Strangler, Soylent Green), Mandingo is hard-to-watch, but impossible to forget.
NK: Despite receiving a divisive critical reception upon its release in 1975 (Roger Ebert gave it zero stars, while Robin Wood called it "the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood"), Mandingo doesn't merit any of the negative misjudgement it received. The film contains a severely hard-hitting, appropriately queasy depiction of slavery that doesn't ever depend on sentimentality for its emotional impact (I'm looking at you, Spielberg). Our marathon just took a sobering turn, but I'm hugely grateful for seeing this deeply disturbing, utterly groundbreaking historical horror epic.
SD: I'm back, just in time for what is by far the most depraved (ergo realistic), fascinating depiction of antebellum American society I've ever seen. Mandingo's take on white Southerners is light years from the refined ladies and gents depicted in Gone with the Wind. The ruling class in Mandingo have more in common with the bad guys from Deliverance than they do with Rhett and Scarlett. This is not a sanitized look at slave-owners, it's an unflinching horrorshow that lays bare every despicable aspect of a pre-Revolutionary American South that took pleasure in boiling men alive. A strong stomach is recommended.
BaadAsssss Cinema(New Video, 1.28.2003)
JD: I don't know if blaxploitation enthusiasts were anxiously awaiting an anthropological study of that genre but Isaac Julien made one anyway. Although I'm sure Julien has enthusiasm for these films, BaadAsssss Cinema doesn't really reflect that. It feels like it was made by someone who feels a little too guilty about the pleasure of blaxploitation. Rather than deal with the cinematic virtues of the films, he puts far too much emphasis on their social and racial significance and, while this is certainly interesting, Julien's historical perspective feels incomplete and self-serving. Also, Julien's choice of films and interview subjects can feel a little arbitrary at times. Some may ask, "why the hell do they interview Tupac's mother?" To those people I say, good question. In spite of these complaints, BaadAsssss Cinema is required viewing for blaxploitation fans. [from 2005 review]
NK: After Mandingo's stark depiction of the nineteenth century's primitive woes, we've moved back to the genre's giddier charms. BaadAsssss Cinema is a curt, well-rounded doc that features valuable anecdotes by many important figures from back in the day, including Melvin Van Peebles, Fred Williamson and Pam Grier, who reminisce with lucid enthusiasm and fresh insight. The film also includes newer blood, like genre-riffing fanboy Quentin Tarantino and film critic Elvis Mitchell, whose encyclopedic knowledge is more than welcome. While some subjects are more vital than others -- and the sum of these interviews isn't definitive by any stretch -- think of it as the ultimate blaxploitation extra feature… and a great intermission to get us pumped for what's to come. Time to crack another forty, y'all!
SD: Being late to the game, I really appreciate this short and sweet(back) overview of the genre. I may have missed six of the movies discussed above, but at least I saw clips of them. Now that I have some historical context, I'm ready to sit (sweet)back and check out some more fly flicks.
Black Shampoo(VCI Entertainment, 2.15.2005)
NK: This is the goofiest, nakedest, most unintentionally awesome movie I’ve seen all weekend. If you thought a 40oz of malt liquor went best with the stylish cinematography in John Carpenter's Halloween, think again. That's right, renowned DP Dean Cundy co-shot this amazingly underrated, endlessly re-watchable blaxploitation oddity. VCI's transfer is really impressive -- believe it or not -- and the flick probably looks better than it ever has. Crude and impossibly far from perfect, this film has a handful of artful moments that rank among the finest in this marathon.
SD: This movie has one of the longest, artiest love-in-a-shower scenes ever. The story revolves around Mr. Jonathan, a brooding hair stylist/prostitute in skin-tight pants who takes shampooing to some very sexy places for several lucky ladies. While Mr. Jonathan doesn't show much range as an actor, he does have a conspicuously emotional (over)reaction to his salon being vandalized. Just when you think this movie cannot get any weirder, it does. In a good way.
JD: On the whole, this is a nightmarish joke of a movie: the acting's terrible, it goes nowhere and there are arbitrary, poorly-handled tone shifts everywhere. But in spite of these macro problems, the film is full of all kinds of micro delights. The score is stunningly spacey and there are astounding flourishes everywhere, from the gender neutral salon dwarf getting abused by a double-bearded brute to the strangely slow-mo sequence of a woman slowly undressing. This is an amateur, borderline soft-core porno film that still manages to impress thanks to its inventively anything-goes sensibility.
Hammer(MGM Home Entertainment, 1.20.2004)
NK: So this is how Fred Williamson got the moniker "The Hammer." His starring debut is in fact a fairly throwaway entry in our ongoing blaxploitation odyssey. It's a slow-paced, sometimes incoherent, sometimes un-engaging boxing drama that takes itself a little too seriously. Still, Williamson proves to be a completely charismatic figure, upgrading the film's pedigree.
SD: Please Hammer, don't hurt 'em! This is the weakest of the four movies I've watched tonight. B.J. Hammer is a boxer (with ties to the mafia!) who spends his down time walking around town in a pair of multicoloured jeans that make it look like he's wet himself. Not too cool, Hammer. Pee-pee pants notwithstanding, this isn't very exciting stuff -- and a tough sell at 3AM.
JD: Let's face it, "The Hammer" didn't have it yet. This was only his third film -- and his first starring role. Sadly, for all its generic blaxploitation beats and rhythms, Hammer and/or "The Hammer" never really takes off. It's a bland film; how it became Williamson's defining role, I'll never know. Long live Black Ceasar!
Hot Potato(Warner Home Video, 1.12.2010)
(from Urban Action Collection)
JD: If you get this set, you can probably ignore this family-friendly non-urban adventure film (if not for Jim Kelly's presence, Hot Potato would have no place in a blaxpoitation DVD set). But even if you don't watch the movie, be sure to jump to the twenty-sixth minute for a slow-mo-martial-arts-flip-with-insanely-childish-sound-effect that will blow your mind. Jim Kelly's largely charisma-free screen persona is a peculiar match for this broad comedy of international intrigue. Even while breaking-out his trademark karate fu maneuvers, he is over-shadowed by all the cartoonish characters that surround him. It's a formally undistinguished, poorly-judged mis-step for all involved. Looks like the "Urban" Action Collection is now two for three.
NK: Seconded. This is an extremely lacklustre faux blaxploitation entry and probably the worst pic in Warner's otherwise awesome collection (we've yet to screen Black Samson, but it looks promising). In fact, there is absolutely nothing urban about this title (it's shot in rural Thailand for one thing). As a pseudo follow-up to Black Belt Jones -- Jim Kelly's character is named Jones, but maybe writer/director Oscar Williams is just not that creative -- Hot Potato is a massive disappointment. This plays like some poor man's Shaw Brothers flick, but with non-slo-mo action from Kelly and idiotic humor mostly owing to a fat slob named Rhino, played by George Memmoli, who's best-known for calling everyone a mook in Marty Scorsese's Mean Streets. Hopefully this is a low as we go.
SD: Thirded. While Jim Kelly's attire is decidedly urban, it's a wholly inappropriate match for this rural farce, which pits a martial arts expert against a band of bumbling Cirque De Soleil performers in the Thai jungle. This is one seriously confused movie. Unlike other entries in the blaxpolitation genre, this film appears to have a healthy wardrobe budget. Unfortunately, that budget was needlessly and inexplicably squandered on the weird forest people who, for no apparent reason, are clothed in matching belts... with multicoloured balls hanging from them. You do the math.
Across 110th Street(MGM Home Entertainment, 10.16.2001)
JD: This is another haven't-seen-it-in-over-a-decade experience for me. Going in, my memory was of a movie with more discipline and dramatic credibility than most blaxploitation movies -- and a terrific theme song. Based on this repeat viewing, I gotta say it's a little scuzzier-looking than I remember and a bit humorless by blaxploitation standards. Still, the classy double whammy of Monkey Hu$tle's Yaphet Kotto and a constantly raging Anthony Quinn make for a surprisingly non-exploitative (but somewhat conventional) cop film in the tradition of The French Connection. It's also great to see Antonio Fargas -- a one-of-a-kind screen presence and one of my personal favourite blaxploitation icons -- in colorfully pimped-out garb, even if he only lasts for a few brief scenes. Shoulda been a superstar.
NK: It's no surprise that Across 110th Street director Barry Sheer's filmography consists of more than a few television credits. The film mostly resembles your typical cop/crime drama series, but it has moments that are a cut above most and the title song by Bobby Womack and Peace is probably the best I've heard all weekend -- at least since Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman" in Super Fly -- and it comes as no surprise that Quentin Tarantino opened Jackie Brown with the same track. This is also the second film we've screened that's adapted from a novel (see also Mandingo), which gives it a narrative density that many blaxploitation titles lack… for better and worse. I was sad to see Rocky's Burt Young bite-the-dust so early, but you gotta love the film's squib-tastic shoot-outs. This is neither the silliest nor the somberest title we've seen and it's certainly not the best or worst either. Strong performances, a funky-fresh soundtrack and a couple sweet directorial flourishes makes this go down a lot smoother.
SD: Can the mafia maintain control over Harlem? That is the question that this gritty cop drama (with super cool music) sets out to answer. Unlike Hot Potato, Across 110th Street is decidedly urban. Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto play bad and not-quite-as-bad cops. They begin to question how much good they're doing out in the streets, where everyone's busy gettin' rich or dyin' tryin'. Quinn delivers a first rate performance as an angry SOB who asks the hard questions like, "What do we do now that we're fifty-five, eat shit?" This deserves an answer, to be sure. But in this film, like in real life, there are no easy answers. A surprisingly heavy ending befits this sombre tale.
Black Samson(Warner Home Video, 1.12.2010)
(from Urban Action Collection)
NK: 1974's Black Samson has the honor of featuring one of the most despicable villains we've met during this marathon, namely 'sploitation vet William Smith. The film also includes the coolest main cat of all time: Rockne Tarkington plays the titular Samson, a lion-owning, staff-wielding night club owner/all-around badass who's trying to clean the streets of dope peddlers and other crappy criminals. The film has a cool, laid-back appeal (for the first half anyway) that really works to its benefit. Director Charles Bail hasn't helmed a feature in decades, but he made some slightly well-known stuff back in the day, like 1976's Gumball Rally and the hard-to-see sequel to Cleopatra Jones. Warner's 4-pack is back in my good book -- and not just because The Mack's Carol Speed also co-stars.
JD: I'm really torn over this film. On one hand, the first half plays like some kind of vintage New World Pictures classic -- the film's mellow vibe brings to mind the Nurses series and my personal favourite New World Picture, The Student Teachers -- but the second half is carelessly and chaotically violent in a way that feels arbitrary and formulaic (I'm not complaining about the concluding free-for-all, however, which features everything from fridges to people flying out windows). Still, the film's unforgettable title character keeps the movie in my good graces. Samson is an incredible renaissance man, who's always in the right place at the right time, offering wise, dignified insight and getting welcome backup from his right-hand-lion. In the context of a blaxploitation marathon, it's odd to say this, but I'd gladly discard the film's exploitation elements for a more single-minded character study. In any case, this is easily my favourite film in the Urban Action Collection and further proof that this ridiculously affordable set is a must for any blaxploitation fan.
Dolemite(Xenon Pictures, 3.19.2002)
NK: If Dolemite had any sway on Snoop Doggy Dogg's illustrious fashion sense, Creeper the Hamburger Pimp had a very direct influence on the late, great Ol' Dirty Bastard. 1975 blaxploitation cult jewel Dolemite has, in fact, been referenced by many. From Kid 'n Play's House Party to Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, Rudy Ray Moore's rapping pimp superhero has proven to be a legendary icon in the annals of African-American pop culture. Sure, the film's a little rough around the edges (look for many an exposed boom mic), but this is one of the most sincere movies we've seen this weekend. While not arthouse-centric like marathon-opener Sweet Sweetback, this is a similarly gritty, super entertaining concept that merits repeat viewing. Thank God that watered-down LL Cool J revamp never got made.
JD: This movie doesn't work at all in a traditional narrative/dramatic sense, but in spite of (or because of) this, it feels like some kind of blaxploitation utopia. In essence, the blaxploitation film is a celebration of anti-authoritarianism and sensualism: disregarding the law and doing whatever you need to do to feel good. This is what Rudy Ray Moore's all about. It's unthinkable that this guy would ever make a sacrifice or a measured, reasonable decision. This is a nuance-free human being -- and that makes for blaxpoitation virtuosity. This movie is so wound up in un-de-railable cheerful feelings that, even when it gets brutally violent, it remains a playful and amusing party of a movie. Entertainment this sloppy has no right to be totally enthralling, but it is. It should also be noted that Rudy Ray Moore's bizarrely idiosyncratic line delivery never fails to amaze. This is a great, historically-important way to conclude an unforgettable weekend of black cinema... and a good incentive to dig deeper into Rudy Ray Moore's filmography during Blaxploitation Marathon, Vol. 2.