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Arizona Colt
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« on: June 13, 2007, 05:35:21 AM »

BLAXPLOITATION MOVIES--DIG IT

During the 70s a surge of films populated by predominantly African American actors, were hugely successful throughout the decade. Actors who, before the 70s, never really got a chance to shine were now getting that shot at the big time and produced a plethora of movies and popularity that, like the kung fu film imports of the time, never make as big an impact as they did during this time period.

Football player Jim Brown was probably the first black actor to attain respectable roles in big studio movies beginning with ICE STATION ZERO. Followed by other films such as THE DIRTY DOZEN, 100 RIFLES and I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND, a film that was originally to have been a much bigger endeavor.

Arguably the most popular of the blaxploitation actors would be another former football player Fred "the Hammer" Williamson.He would appear in dozens of black action movies as well as creating his own production company through which he would even direct some of the films he starred in. The name of his company best described many of the movies he directed--Po Boy Productions. Some of these included MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS, DEATH JOURNEY and the very dismal ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO.

Williamson starred in 1972s HAMMER. A fairly routine effort bolstered by a performance by lead heavy William Smith, a former weight lifter and major bad ass who, according to Williamson, was the toughest man he ever met. After HAMMER, Williamson would star in a film he would become synonomous with. 1972s BLACK CAESAR directed by Larry Cohen who also directed the black movie BONE with Yaphett Kotto.

Cohen, like many of the other directors of blaxploitation, was a caucasian. He also directed the follow-up to BLACK CAESAR, HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973). BLACK CAESAR was basically a re-telling of the Julius Caesar story whereby Williamson rises to the top in the criminal underworld taking on the mob and becoming a big boss in the process only to be toppled and eventually killed from an unlikely band of hoodlums from the gutter at the end. The film had two different endings. One in which Williamson lives and the original downbeat finish. After this, Williamson had a policy in his films, he would win all his fights, get the girl and lives at the end. He and Cohen had a parting of ways that wasn't on the best of terms but they mended long enough to do the blaxploitation throwback from 1996 entitled ORIGINAL GANGSTAS.

Williamson had a lot of charisma in his movies and filled them with witty banter and lots of swooning white girls. The one near constant trait in all the black action movies was the "impotence" of the white man and the dominance of the white women by the black heroes. This went over well with the black male audiences but reportedly, many of the black females going to these movies hated seeing that. This was probably a sentiment shared by many a white viewer who refused to accept such a story conceit but then, these movies were not made for the white audiences. These movies didn't exclude them, they simply were a chance to give the black audiences to have their own heroes to (finally) root for and identify with.

One of the most controversial views of the blaxploitation movies was that although they were directed by white men (most of the time) and starred black actors, the films themselves still glorified racism. Many viewers were disturbed by this. Even though after years of being thought of as second class citizens, they were finally getting widespread notoriety in film, the consensus of many was that these movies glorified the notion that all black audiences wanted to see was brutal acts of violence and could not comprehend a more subdued or serious cinematic experience. This perpetuated the idea that black actors could and would not be taken seriously. Now, there were those who thought that instead of helping the black movement in film was, in actuality, hurting it instead.

Many of the films were made by American International Pictures. The big studios got in on the act after they saw how profitable these movies were. These movies were all very low budget (some moreso than others) and absolutely filled with violence. Again, that's what the producers assumed that's what the intended audience wanted. Lots of mindless and often bloody violence filled with all manner of jive talking vigilantes.

This was never more apparent than in one of the best examples of the genre and one of my personal favorites. Jonathan Kaplan's TRUCK TURNER (see review in RANDOM REVIEWS OF GENRE CINEMA thread) starring Isaac Hayes. Here, Hayes plays a skip tracer, or bounty hunter who, along with his partner, bust a drug pusher. This brings down some even bigger fish who all want Turner dead along with anybody close to him. Nichelle Nichols (Uhura from STAR TREK) plays the ringleader of a prostitute ring in one of the most amazingly raunchy and foul mouthed roles you'll ever see. The violence level is extremely high and bloody. Yaphett Kotto is very good as the main villain. He employs all manner of flamboyantly dressed pimps and hitmen to take out Turner. A bloody and violent shoot out in a hospital brings the film to a close.

Hayes also starred in the only Italian-blaxploitation hybrid, TOUGH GUYS starring Fred Williamson as the main villain. Being a Dino de Laurentiis production, you'd expect some big set pieces but you get nothing. Some spaghetti western vets are on hand and Hayes is totally wasted. None of the hip one liners or charisma are on hand. What makes it an even bigger disappointment is that Duccio Tessari (A PISTOL FOR RINGO) directs. Apparently, the Italians did not know how to approach the material. It's a true shame that there was never a TRUCK TURNER 2.

Around 1973 a black actress named Pam Grier would shake up the blaxploitation world with a double punch of classics from the great exploitation director Jack Hill (SPIDER BABY, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS). The films were COFFY and FOXY BROWN. Before these two, Grier had appeared in several movies already including SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM!, the filipino lensed THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE and BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA also starring Margaret Markov. It wasn't until COFFY that grier really got hot. Here, she plays a nurse by day, shotgun packin' vigilante by night out to snuff out the drug pushers who killed her sister. Thalmus Rasthula is on hand as a pimp and the always reliable Sid Haig is here as a nasty villain. The violence level is extremely high here and the tone is very serious. Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers even did their own version of COFFY in 1976 topping it in violence and sleaze entitled THE SEXY KILLER.

1974s FOXY BROWN was just as nasty and violent as its predecessor but there was a playfulness and sarcastic aura about this film that aleviates the general uneasiness of COFFY. FOXY BROWN is also much better remembered than the previous film although COFFY is better made and also preferred by its director. FOXY is about Grier avenging the murder of her cop boyfriend by infiltrating the crime ring and even aligning with a local branch of Black Panther-like vigilantes to take out the villains. Grier's character is brutally beaten, raped and forcefully shot up with drugs. she comes back with a vengeance at the end culminating in a shockingly memorable final moment that involves a "pickle jar". If ever there was a film to see in this genre, this is a good place to start.

Grier would also appear in BUCKTOWN with Fred Williamson, Tony King and Carl Weathers although her role here is diminished to damsel in distress about a black man who comes to a small southern town to take over his dead brothers bar only to find trouble with the racist law in the town. He enlists the help of some of his gang friends from the city to get rid of the racists. After the black gangsters eliminate them, they decide to stay in the town and ultimately become worse than the racial discriminators ever were. Now, Williamson has to take out his friends.

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Arizona Colt
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« Reply #1 on: June 13, 2007, 05:36:09 AM »

Grier also appeared as FRIDAY FOSTER also starring Kotto and Carl Weathers as a silent hitman out to silence Grier who is a nosy reporter. SHEBA, BABY followed. A PG effort directed by schlock king Greydon Clark. Then, Grier wanted to do more serious work so she appeared in a supporting role in the incendiary sequel to MANDINGO, 1976s DRUM (see RANDOM REVIEWS...) an extremely wild movie experience that will never be repeated. Grier never did escape the blaxploitation roles that made her famous.

Jim Brown, whom I consider a much better actor than Williamson, who had some degree of fame already, cemented that fame with the 1972 film SLAUGHTER directed by one of my favorite 70s directors Jack Starrett. This was another very violent venture involving the mob. Stella Stevens and Rip Torn (what a name!) who plays one of the simply nastiest bad guys I've seen. The film was successful enough that a sequel followed in '73 entitled SLAUGHTER'S BIG RIP-OFF. Here, Ed McMahon(!) plays the head bad guy who assigns an assassin (played very well by frequent baddie Don Stroud) to take out Slaughter before he can avenge the death of a friend and expose his criminal activities. There is one incredibly effective scene here where Stroud has Brown and his girlfriend at gunpoint and forces him to drive his car over a cliff(!) or he will shoot his girlfriend. This film was directed by Gordon Douglas who directed the famous and excellent sci-fi film THEM! from 1955 and starring James Whitmore and James Arness.

His most famous role, Brown also appeared in BLACK GUNN, the blaxploitation western from Antonio Margheriti TAKE A HARD RIDE and Williamson's pitifully bad ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO also featuring Williamson, Jim Kelly and Richard Roundtree.

Meanwhile, there were many other black action movies being churned out--BAMBOO GODS & IRON MEN, THE BLACK GESTAPO, THE BLACK SIX, IF HE HOLLERS LET HIM GO, BLACK VENGEANCE, WATERMELON MAN, MR. BIG, DR. BLACK & MR. HYDE, BLACULA, BLACKENSTEIN, BOSS NI**ER, THE LEGEND OF NI**ER CHARLEY, SOUL OF NI**ER CHARLEY, MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS, DARKTOWN STRUTTERS, BROTHERHOOD OF DEATH, THE KLANSMEN (with O.J. Simpson as a Klan killer!) and on and on.

One in particular would become one of the most famous and most raunchy and crude example of the genre--DOLEMITE starring Rudy Ray Moore, a stand up comedian who utilized very rude and dirty rhymes in his acts akin to what Andrew Dice Clay would do years later. DOLEMITE is a pretty bad movie but its badness works in its favor. Moore is hilarious in the role. Especially in his entrances. Whenever an opportunity arises for him to appear, the bad guys will say something like "who'll help you?" followed by Moore appearing and proclaiming, "Dolemite, mother fu**er!" before either filling the bad guys with machine gun fire or beating them to pulps with his kung fu skills. Moore did a handful of these movies like DISCO GODFATHER, THE HUMAN TORNADO and PEATY WHEATSTRAW, THE DEVIL'S SON-IN-LAW. Moore is quite a character and at least DOLEMITE is required viewing for fans of the genre.

Fred Williamson would keep the genre afloat with many films most of them forgettable. When the genre would die out, Williamson moved on to Italy where he did a string of MAD MAX rip-offs that were popular briefly over there. These included Castellari's THE NEW BARBARIANS which had Williamson taking on George Eastman and his merry gang of faggot villains who call themselves The Templars. Williamson uses a bow that fires explosive arrows. Numerous gory scenes of heads exploding follow. Williamson also appeared in Fulci's gory and downbeat ENDGAME which was later ripped off in Paul Michael Glaser's (the guy from STARSKY & HUTCH) THE RUNNING MAN. The story is essentially the same. Whether Steve King wrote his story before Fulci's movie is unknown to me but ENDGAME was shot in '83 while the Schwarzenegger film was lensed in '86.

Williamson would also appear in the unfinished THE NEW SPARTANS which had an absolutely incredible dream cast that included Patrick Wayne, Toshiro Mifune, Jimmy Wang Yu among others. Apparently the producers ran out of money. A promotional still of the cast together is all that remains of what could have been one of the greatest exploitation actioners.

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« Reply #2 on: June 13, 2007, 07:20:43 AM »

I loved these films when I was younger. They always played in the worst neighborhoods, so you got an adrenaline rush even before you saw the film. Shaft supposedly started this genre, but in reality, the "race cinema" has been around as long as mainstream cinema. One of it's earliest pioneers was Noble Johnson, an enduring character actor in Hollywood. The "Blaxploitation" films had the largest budget of any, up until that time. Truck Turner, Coffy, Superfly TNT & Slaughter were some of the better entries in my opinion. I am glad these films are enjoying re-releases on video, and hope to get into detailed discussions on these films. How do you feel about the direction these films are going in today, with the Gangsta films?

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Arizona Colt
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« Reply #3 on: June 13, 2007, 02:14:35 PM »

Which gangster films are you referring to? The black action films had there day back in the 70s The new SHAFT film with Samuel Jackson I assume was an effort to revive the genre but it did nothing to ignite interest. MGM released a handful of these a few years back. SUGAR HILL showed up remastered on digital cable from MGM but they have yet to release anymore. I don't think the genre is anything more than nostaligia at the moment. Fans of the films will keep them alive.

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« Reply #4 on: June 13, 2007, 02:19:34 PM »

Go into LackCluster Video, the shelves are littered with Gangsta vids. Sometimes, almost as many as mainstream fliks.

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Arizona Colt
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« Reply #5 on: June 13, 2007, 02:23:21 PM »

Oh okay, I've seen some of these in Best Buy. These garbage movies with the rappers. Anything with rappers as the stars I stay from like the plague.

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« Reply #6 on: June 13, 2007, 02:43:10 PM »

Oh okay, I've seen some of these in Best Buy. These garbage movies with the rappers. Anything with rappers as the stars I stay from like the plague.
  That's exactly the position movie goers took 35 years ago.

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Arizona Colt
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« Reply #7 on: June 13, 2007, 02:45:28 PM »

Yes, but there were no rappers then. I don't even consider hip hop music. I have no intention of subjecting myself to a "movie" with rap "music" in it. Plus, none of these guys could do with a little money what the filmmakers and actors in the 70s could do. There's no imagination anymore.

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« Reply #8 on: June 13, 2007, 02:48:54 PM »

Yes, but there were no rappers then. I don't even consider hip hop music. I have no intention of subjecting myself to a "movie" with rap "music" in it. Plus, none of these guys could do with a little money what the filmmakers and actors in the 70s could do. There's no imagination anymore.
  But you would agree that they are a valid continuation of the genre, even tho the styles have changed. Black athletes and Soul singers have just been replaced with Rappers.

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« Reply #9 on: June 13, 2007, 02:52:31 PM »

No. Because no one really knows they're out there. Those older movies were getting distribution regionally, in the drive-ins and inner city theatres and grindhouse cinemas. No such luck with these new films. It's a different time now. Eventually, all old and treasured genres will more than likely go the way of the dinosaur save for a few keeping them alive but even then that line gets thinner and thinner.

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« Reply #10 on: June 13, 2007, 02:59:36 PM »

Well, Black people know they're out there. By the way, Jim Brown made 1 film before Dirty Dozen(his second) and later made Ice Station Zebra.

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Arizona Colt
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« Reply #11 on: June 13, 2007, 03:00:41 PM »

What was it? I thought that ICE STATION ZEBRA was his first big role?

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« Reply #12 on: June 13, 2007, 03:02:44 PM »

What was it? I thought that ICE STATION ZEBRA was his first big role?
  I believe it was a western, but the name escapes me now.

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Arizona Colt
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« Reply #13 on: June 13, 2007, 03:07:47 PM »

I think the western was just an appearance. ICE STATION ZEBRA was his first role of substance if I'm not mistaken.

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« Reply #14 on: June 13, 2007, 03:39:26 PM »

He was pretty well-known by the time he got into films. Something about an all-time rushing record in the NFL!  Not having seen his 1st, I would say his role in Dozen was fairly substantial, maybe more than Zebra, because he was portrayed more as an action star. He had starring roles in between Dozen and Zebra, most notably Dark of the Sun with Rod Taylor. Great action sequences in that, and the first time I saw a filmed fight with a chainsaw.

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