Blaxploitation films are often dismissed by serious film students in the same way that Spaghetti Westerns are. Despite the widespread assumption that blaxploitation flicks were about nothing but the Three P’s – pimps, pushers and prostitutes – the reality is that many of them dealt with explosive issues in a way that mainstream filmmakers of the time would have shied away from. Here are eight examples that featured a premise or an approach that truly pushed the envelope.
The movie featured four covert operators with various commando and martial arts skills. The quartet, the “Force Four” of the title, were mercenaries specializing in stealing various artifacts that were plundered from African nations during the colonial period.
Force Four would retrieve those artifacts from wealthy customers of black market art and relics and then return them to their clients – the African governments who wanted those items restored to their proper place. Think Mission: Impossible films crossed with the Lara Croft flicks for a comparison.
Unfortunately the incredibly low budget couldn’t do justice to the terrific premise, relegating Force Four to obscurity. This movie cries out for a remake and I’ve got the perfect tagline for the movie posters: “Force Four – Restoring the plundered cultural heritage of the Dark Continent!”
7. MISTER DEATHMAN (1977) – The odd title is the codename of this movie’s hero – a black secret agent. There were other blaxploitation flicks that made attempts at creating a “black James Bond” for want of a better term, many of them starring Fred Williamson or Jim Kelly.
What sets Mister Deathman apart is the fact that it had the balls to pit its hero against the pro-Apartheid government of 1970s South Africa. Talk about a daring premise! Mister Deathman was sent in on a covert mission to recover vital technology from a space shuttle prototype that crash- landed in South Africa.
Stella Stevens was along for the ride, completing her blaxploitation hat trick of lesbian (or at least bisexual) supporting characters begun in Jim Brown’s Slaughter and Tamara Dobson’s Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.
For a film with a related premise see the sequel to Superfly titled Superfly: TNT. On the plus side that movie had a script by THE Alex Hailey and an opera song performed by Robert Guillaume. On the minus side it shied away from explicitly naming the South African government and went with a fictional country with similarly oppressive racial policies. The plot involved the retired drug dealer of the original Superfly running guns to black rebels in that fictional African country.
The members of the titular brotherhood are black Vietnam vets who return home to the American south where they run afoul of the actual Ku Klux Klan. Our heroes put the military skills they picked up in the jungles of Vietnam to good use by waging all-out war on the white- robed scumbags.
The scenes with the Brotherhood blowing away crackers in Klan robes pack a visceral punch that you can’t help but feel had a cathartic effect on many audience members. And those scenes no doubt made this film a dangerous item to carry in many southern states at a time when billboard-sized recruiting posters for the KKK were still commonplace in redneckland. In fact the final shot of the movie is one of those huge posters shown in freeze- frame as the Brotherhood rides off to fight the Klan in another part of the South.
The closing credits roll by to a rousing song called High Horse, probably the only disco song ever written as an exhortation to rise up and fight the KKK. By the way, all the members of the Brotherhood were played by football players for the Washington Redskins in the 1970s.
And that serves as the perfect segueway to a similar blaxploitation movie from 1973 called The Black Six. This earlier film also featured NFL stars playing the heroes, but they were all from different teams. The Black Six were higher profile football players like Mean Joe Greene, Mercury Morris, Gene Washington and others.
The sextet constituted a black biker gang who roamed the American south. When their leader’s brother is killed by white trash racists the gang gets revenge on the local yokels and kills literally hundreds of redneck racist bikers in the apocalyptic finale. This high-body count flick was directed by Matt Cimber, the Spaghetti Western director who was married to Jayne Mansfield when she died.
5. GOODBYE, UNCLE TOM (1971) – This movie was originally released in Italy under the title Addio, Zio Tom. It is essential to watch the original Italian version with English subtitles in its entirety. The English- language version edits out many of the most powerful scenes and softens the script to avoid the subtext of brewing racial hostility.
Like the old Walter Cronkite television series You Are There, in which he conducted mock “newscasts” of historical events, this movie opens up with a time- traveling film crew planning on educating the viewer about the slave trade and the plantation system of the American south before the Civil War.
Their schtick is that they are filming a “documentary” instead of a newscast and the film’s way of dealing with its dark subject matter is like the tasteless Italian flick Mondo Cane and its sequels. Throw in the unrelentingly graphic violence of the Ilsa movies and you have an idea of what to expect from Goodbye, Uncle Tom.
Anyone familiar with this movie may object to my including this repulsive celluloid nightmare on this list. My reasoning is that the only way to TRULY examine the horrors and intentional degradation of slavery in the antebellum south is in this movie’s unflinching, graphic, demeaning, bloody and surreally tasteless way.
The atrocities inflicted on African Americans are presented in a completely uncompromising manner. Roots wasn’t graphic enough with its visuals while Mandingo and its sequel Drum and the unrelated Slavers were largely centered around titillation. Goodbye, Uncle Tom is not for the squeamish and depicts truly unspeakable acts that you wouldn’t want to see inflicted on animals, let alone your fellow human beings. It’s like torture porn with a social conscience. WARNING: Do NOT confuse this movie with the Herbert Lom sleaze adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which tries to be a Mandingo ripoff.
4. THREE THE HARD WAY (1974) – This movie is sometimes confused with Five The Hard Way, the bad biker film that was also released under the title Sidehackers. Three The Hard Way, directed by Superfly‘s Gordon Parks, features the Holy Trinity of blaxploitation action – Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Jim Kelly, as no-nonsense heroes battling Neo- Nazis intent on exterminating all black people in the United States.
The bit of pseudo- science the movie uses to provide credibility for that ambitious scheme is that the Neo- Nazis have perfected a poison that functions in a similar manner to sickle- cell anemia. The poison can be planted in the drinking water of major cities but only black people will fall victim to it. Members of other races drinking the poisoned water will be just fine. The hatemongers have designated Washington DC, Los Angeles and Detroit as their first targets.
The villains perfected their poison via a Dr Mengele- style mad scientist who used African Americans as human guinea pigs. Those experiments took place in a Georgia compound the filmmakers specifically designed to be a haunting combo of a southern plantation and a Nazi death camp. Chillingly effective visuals.
One of the unfortunate black men being experimented on by the Neo- Nazis escapes the concentration camp at the beginning of the film and gets word to Jim Brown’s character, who rounds up our other two stars and takes action. A nice bit of trivia is that one of the necking teenagers the escapee stumbles upon is played by a young Corbin Bernsen, who was related to the producer of this flick.
The only thing keeping this film from absolute pulp action perfection is the absence of Pam Grier. She’d have been perfect in the role played by Jeanne Bell (of TNT Jackson fame), the leader of the three female bikers (shades of Darktown Strutters) who aid our heroes at a crucial point in the film.
Some of the blame for the lack of respect accorded this cinematic masterpiece comes from the outrageous movie posters that make it look like standard blaxploitation fare to modern film viewers. In reality Superfly pioneered some of the story elements that other blaxploitation flicks would turn into laughable cliches with their incessant repetition.
Another obstacle to celluloid respectability is the title, which became synonymous with the lead character, played masterfully by Ron O’Neal. Actually, O’Neal’s character is named Youngblood Priest. “Superfly” was the adjective used to describe the high quality of the cocaine Priest pushed to his customers, as in the line of dialogue “Priest, you sell some superfly shit!”
And yes, cocaine is indeed the drug our protagonist deals in his New York ghetto territory, even though it wasn’t until the 1980s that this particular drug became a media darling. Superfly gained notoriety even before its release because of the NAACP pressuring the studio to change the ending to have Youngblood Priest get killed. The organization did not want a cocaine pusher to emerge triumphant at movie’s end, fearing that would send the wrong message. (I’m really tired of political and religious organizations getting in the way of art by obsessing over how people may view it)
The NAACP proved it hadn’t really understood the script. Ron O’Neal’s character was not a one- dimensional figure like the “heroic” pimps of other early blaxploitation films. His Youngblood Priest is a complex, talented man whom the viewer can easily believe would have gravitated to a much more constructive life if not for the wretched poverty and merciless violence of the ghetto environment he was born into. Priest himself clearly finds no romance in his gangster lifestyle. O’Neal’s portrayal convinces us that it was purely a matter of survival for Priest in the usual “eat or be eaten” scenario.
The audience therefore sympathizes with Priest in his obsessive quest for one really big score so he can afford to escape the life he clearly loathes. Significantly, his white girlfriend wants him to continue his criminal ways. She doesn’t really love him, but just gets vicarious thrills from sharing his outlaw lifestyle. His black girlfriend, played by Shiela Frazier, does love him and encourages him to find a way out of the ghetto for both of them, though neither of them delude themselves about the nature of Priest’s business.
Frazier and O’Neal share a wordless scene that will haunt you forever after you see it. Director Gordon Parks frames a shot with the two African Americans’ faces staring longingly at the camera while pressed up against iron bars, invoking images of both slavery and prison, but as the camera pulls back we see that the two aren’t incarcerated. Instead the bars are part of a gate surrounding an expensive house, and in this case the figurative “bars” are blocking the young couple from the finer things in life. I literally cried the first time I saw that scene. It is perfectly rendered and is despairingly beautiful.
Throw in at least as much action as The Godfather featured and the iconic soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield and I rest my case that Superfly belongs alongside the greatest American gangster films ever made.
2. THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973) – The title of this explosive film, based on the controversial novel by Sam Greenlee, plays on the old double meanings of the slang expression “spook”. While spook could be used as a derogatory term for a black person it could also refer to a secret agent.
The story’s hero, played by Lawrence Cook, is an African American working in the domestic offices of the Central Intelligence Agency. While outwardly an efficient and capable paper pusher he inwardly regards himself as an undercover operative for his own race, infiltrating the white intelligence establishment.
After five years of learning all he can via secretly reading CIA operations files our protagonist, significantly named Dan Freeman, decides to launch a covert operation of his own to destroy the white power structure and elevate his people to positions of authority.
Resigning from the CIA, he returns to his native Chicago and uses classic intelligence techniques to establish clandestine cells staffed by fellow African Americans. Over time his subversive campaign utilizes violence and infiltration of local government agencies in a spectacularly successful way. Freeman next extends his “cell” approach to other major cities with the same success.
Eventually the day arrives when his expanding organization is far- reaching enough that Freeman can abandon clandestine behavior and function more openly, launching coordinated armed uprisings that succeed in seizing entire portions of the United States as sovereign African American territory. These scattered territories proceed to wage a larger and larger war against the rest of the United States until Freeman gets what he wants.
This movie is very powerful and only its low budget prevents it from having the full impact it might have had. The film’s efforts at verisimilitude are so effective that for some audiences seeing it in 1973 it must have felt like a cinematic version of Orson Welles’ legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast from the 1930s. A particularly nice touch is the covert radio operator calling himself Uncle Tom with undisguised irony as he broadcasts propaganda and coded messages to Freeman’s operatives around the country.
Lawrence Cook turns in the performance of a lifetime as Freeman, playing things low- key and intense rather than affecting grandiose “man with a vision” posturing. Sam Greenlee wrote the screenplay, adapted from his 1969 novel and the director of this thought- provoking film was none other than Ivan Dixon, better known as Kinch, the black GI on Hogan’s Heroes.
1. DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975) – This brilliant satirical action film is easily the most misunderstood movie on this list. It deserved, but never achieved, a Rocky Horror Picture Show– sized cult following.
Syreena (Trina Parks) is the leader of a foursome of black female bikers who return to Syreena’s inner-city Los Angeles home in search of her missing mother. It turns out that her old neighborhood is suffering a rash of disappearances and our heroines spend the rest of the film trying to get to the bottom of it all. Their adventure is punctuated with various romantic or purely sexual encounters as well as conflicts with a Los Angeles police force depicted as nasty racists who are even more inept than the Keystone Kops.
The main villain is a figure clearly based on Colonel Sanders, the well- known founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. That villain, called Commander Cross (Cross. Get it?) is a similar Confederate colonel figure. Just as KFC’s slogan was “finger- lickin’ good” the slogan for Commander Cross’ rib joints is that his product is “bone- suckin’ good”.
As an example of this film’s wry, daring sense of humor, it explores the deeper implications of what an advertising icon who looks like a Confederate colonel might mean to African American consumers by depicting Cross owning an actual southern plantation in the middle of Los Angeles. Cross is behind the epidemic of disappearances of black people in L.A.
As you’ll figure out very early in the movie the ribs served in Commander Cross’ restaurants are fatally extracted from the African Americans his white- robed minions abduct.
Colonel Sanders is not the only old advertising icon who gets slammed for their explicitly racist premise. Among the slaves serving on Cross’ Los Angeles plantation are sendups of Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemimah and the ugly stereotype who was the mascot of the old Sambo’s restaurant chain. (This chain eventually changed the name of their restaurants due to public pressure)
The wildly outrageous humor of this movie could be described as Richard Pryor meets South Park. Among the joyously (and intentionally) tasteless comedy set pieces interspersed with the action sequences and musical numbers are a dark parody of old Minstrel acts complete with an Interlocutor and Mr Bones, plus Cross’ elaborate scheme to create a “black baby machine” that will produce African Americans he can harvest for their ribs without the need for kidnapping.
In the end Commander Cross is defeated and is reduced to a busboy in one of his own rib joints, where he will answer to the new African American owners of the business. All this plus the film features songs by the Dramatics, John Gary Williams and the Newcomers. If you have friends who are so simple- mindedly politically correct that they won’t get this film’s irreverent humor watch it with them just to see them turn purple with uncomprehending outrage.
And if anyone’s wondering, I didn’t include Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song because of its comparative fame.
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