BLAXPLOITATION CINEMA & THE RACE HATE FILMS: THE IMPORTANCE OF POITIER, "THE HAMMER" & JIM BROWN
During the 70's 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. Now, these performers were getting that shot at the big time and acting, and in some cases, producing a plethora of movies with a popularity that, like the kung fu film imports of the time, has yet to be repeated in this day and age. These films that showcased African American actors and actresses in larger than life heroic roles glorified the most common stereotypes associated with blacks but also had them overcoming the evil white oppressors. The villains in these movies were (more often than not) white characters.
To instill hatred of these antagonists, the script writers made sure to incorporate plenty of incendiary racist remarks for the villains to spout at the heroes. Another plot point inherent in so many blaxploitation pictures is the sexual domination of the white woman. Most often these white female characters are attached in some way to a white male. Said male character would most always be of lesser stature in physical attributes compared to the hero and would sometimes have some handicap whether it be a bad leg or minor disfigurement.
This correlates to the impotence of the white character against the sexual virility of the stronger black character who can easily entice the white female to succumb to his charms. Apparently a good number of female African American moviegoers didn't like to see scenes of Jim Brown or Fred Williamson bedding down a sultry and submissive white woman. Even still, a taboo that had been subtly broken late in the previous decade, was now being thrust upon audiences in a more graphic fashion.
Exploitation films and their many variations would take a subject matter and make use of its more salacious and brutal aspects. Blaxploitation movies took pugnacity in film to new levels amping up the sex and sensationalism on a smaller budget than was afforded a big Hollywood production. However, a number of films often classified as blaxploitation do not fit this criteria, at least not to me. Some of these films offered a more mature approach eschewing the strikingly violent displays prevalent in so many of the genres more famous works. One such actor who is often associated with the genre whom I feel doesn't necessarily belong there is Sydney Poitier.
Sidney Poitier was the first African American actor of some repute to break away from the stereotype of past black actors such as Maitland Mortland and most (in)famously, Stepin Fetchit, the first black entertainer to break into the Hollywood machine. Poitier made his mark with striking performances in THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955) and THE DEFIANT ONES (1958), a movie about two escaped convicts, one white (Tony Curtis) and the other black (Poitier). Chained together, the two must put aside their racial differences in an effort to evade the law enforcement officials that seek to recapture them.
Directed by Stanley Kramer, THE DEFIANT ONES (1958) is a moving tale about racism and sacrifice. Deserving of its classic status, a blaxploitation remake was unleashed on the public in 1973 for the gender switched, BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA starring Pam Grier and Mark Damon's wife, Margaret Markov.
Poitier would continue taking serious roles in Hollywood including Ralph Nelson's violent western, DUEL AT DIABLO (1966) starring James Garner and the Oscar winning comedy, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER? (1967) starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The latter film deals with a couples daughter who surprises them by bringing home her fiance, a black man. As the controversial actor Stepin Fetchit had opened doors for black actors, so did Poitier further the cause by presenting black performers in a serious, respectable light dealing with adult and thought provoking issues that still resonate today. Poitier eventually found himself in the directors chair for a number of films including BUCK & THE PREACHER (1972); a western about a black wagonmaster and a conman transporting freed slaves across the west was another nicely done production that skirts the blaxploitation borders but never really crosses. The same applies for the 1971 comedy SKIN GAME starring James Garner and Louis Gossett Jr.
This film, another western, dealt with two conmen (Garner taps into his popular MAVERICK role) one the slave trader, the other the slave, going from town to town pretending to sell his worker only to have him elude his new master and rendezvous with his partner to split the loot. Later, Gossett's character gets sold and is unable to get away and it's up to Garner to rescue him. Ed Asner plays a nasty slave hunter. An uneasy blend of comedy and serious drama, it is nonetheless bolstered by a good performance from the main leads and a powerful sequence when Gossett is taken to the plantation of Howard Calloway (Andrew Duggan). Speaking in a proper manner totally unlike what was expected of a slave, Calloway seems amazed. But when he threatens Jason (Gossett) with death if he ever hears such speech again, Jason responds in a less educated and humiliating fashion.
The blaxploitation genre would later adopt westerns creating some hybrids. These substituted the racism by whitey and violence on the streets of a brutal modern city, for the barren and equally violent plains of a western landscape. Examples of these include THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1972), SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1973), TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975) and BOSS NIGGER (1975).
There are three blaxploitation movies that are often regarded as the REAL progenitor of this overlooked style of cinema. Those films are COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970), SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971) and most famously to mainstream audiences, SHAFT (1971). COTTON deals with two black cops on a chase to find some stolen money embezzled by a swindling preacher. The money is eventually lost and the chase is on all throughout Harlem to find it. Directed by actor, Ossie Davis, the film contains so much of what would later make the genre so enjoyable. SWEETBACK was directed by Melvin Van Peebles on the cheap and dealt with an African American male prostitute who ends up killing two racist cops then going on the run stopping long enough to bed down various females along the way dropping their panties at the drop of a hat. It's not a very good movie, but definitely a groundbreaking one.
Arguably the most famous of these three is Gordon Parks's SHAFT (1971). Richard Roundtree is John Shaft, a private investigator making his home in New York City. He's hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a black crime boss with leads that eventually point to the Italian mafia. Shaft attempts to push the mob out of Harlem. SHAFT (1971) is often referred to as the one blaxploitation movie that mattered. Featuring a black authoritative hero, Roundtree laid the groundwork for all others to follow. The dynamite score by Isaac Hayes won an Oscar and was hugely influential on the genre and music in general) What all three of these above mentioned films have in common with the black action films that came after are the smooth talking and memorable protagonists, funny one-liners, lots of sex and above all, oodles of violence. SHAFT (1971) was very successful and led to two sequels, SHAFT'S BIG SCORE (1972) and SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973). From here on into the 1980's, the remainder of the decade would be filled with a flood of imitators and cool cats on the big screens and drive ins across America and beyond.
Another blaxploitation movie that is highly regarded among critics and fans alike is SUPERFLY (1972) directed by Gordon Parks Jr. The film is a serious account of a drug dealer (played by Ron O'Neal) who struggles with his desire to go straight but wants to pull off one last big deal before packing it in. However, the mob has no plans of allowing to cease his dealings in the drug market. Lots of flashy 70's fashions in addition to the usual sex and violence accompany a nice score from Curtis mayfield; a score that was nominated for a Grammy.
Former Cleveland Browns football player, Jim Brown, was probably the first black actor to attain respectable roles in big studio action movies like ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968). Prior to this film, Brown played a supporting role in one of the most copied and memorable movies in cinema history, THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967). Brown furthered his stature as an action star in big budget movies like 100 RIFLES (1969) and EL CONDOR (1970) to low budget action pictures for Roger Corman like I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND (1973), a film that was originally to have been a much bigger endeavor. Brown was tall and possessed lots of charisma that aided his larger than life persona in numerous action pictures that followed his big studio undertakings.
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. The name of Williamson's company, Po Boy Productions aptly described many of the films he performed production duties on. Williamson would sometimes direct many of the films he starred in. Some of these included the horrendously awful MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS (1976; a film that wastes an extremely good cast), DEATH JOURNEY (1976) and the dismal, ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO (1982). Williamson first starred in 1972's HAMMER. A fairly routine effort bolstered by a strong antagonistic performance by William Smith, a former weight lifter and major bad ass who, according to Williamson, was the toughest man he ever met. After HAMMER (1972), Williamson would star in a film he would become synonymous with; 1972's BLACK CAESAR directed by Larry Cohen who also directed the blaxploitation movie BONE (1972) with Yaphett Kotto.
Cohen, like many of the other directors of blaxploitation, was a Caucasian. He also directed the lesser follow-up to BLACK CAESAR, HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973). BLACK CAESAR (1972) bore some similarities to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in addition to gangster flicks of the 1930's. Williamson plays a man who comes from the slums of Harlem. Through a series of fateful events, his eventual rise to the top in the criminal underworld taking on the mob and becoming a big boss leads to dire consequences. He is later toppled and eventually killed from an unlikely band of young gutter hoodlums at the end; by the very people in the same type of neighborhood he himself came from. The film had two different endings. One in which Williamson lives and the original downbeat finish in which Williamson, already injured, is cut down by a gang of young kids. After this, Williamson had a policy in his films, he would win all his fights, get the girl and survive 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. He did break his set of rules for the boring and dreary TOUGH GUYS (1974; THREE TOUGH GUYS), an Italian attempt by Dino De Laurentiis to capture the flavor of the blaxploitation movies.
Williamson, like Brown, had a lot of charisma in his movies and filled them with witty banter and lots of swooning white women. 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, as already mentioned above, 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 weren't made for 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.
Jim Brown, whom I consider a much better actor than Williamson, (and already had some degree of fame) cemented his celebrity with the blaxploitation audience in the 1972 film, SLAUGHTER directed by one of my favorite 70's directors, Jack Starrett. This was another very violent venture involving the mob. Stella Stevens stars along with Rip Torn (what a name!) who plays one of the nastiest bad guys I've seen. The full frontal sex scenes between Brown and Stevens were a bit much for the time I would imagine.
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 vicious, yet effective scene where Stroud has Brown and his girlfriend at gunpoint and forces him to drive his car over a cliff(!) If not, he will shoot his girlfriend. This film was directed by Gordon Douglas who directed the famous and excellent sci-fi film THEM! from 1954 starring James Whitmore and James Arness.
Brown also appeared in BLACK GUNN the same year. Some of the later blaxploitation movies would feature a few of the big stars together in the same flick. Notable entries were TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975) starring Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly and Lee Van Cleef. It was a US western/blaxploitation hybrid directed by Antonio Margheriti. The three would also feature in THREE THE HARD WAY (1974) about a white supremacist who concocts a plan to poison the water supply with a special toxin that is lethal to blacks.
One of the most controversial views of the blaxploitation movies was that although they were directed by white men (some of the time) and starred black actors, the films themselves still glorified racism. Many viewers were disturbed by this, even after years of being thought of as second class citizens, African Americans 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, this was hurting it instead. There was a subgenre of films that straddled the line between serious document on racism and that of crass exploitation. Some of these films were, in ways, highly offensive, but treated the subject matter with dignity with the ultimate end being racial harmony or detailing the consequences of negative thinking between ethnic groups.
The Race Hate subgenre featured a number of startling and most often shocking entries. Some of these films came from big studios, some did not. Some explored the dark avenues of man's propensity to distrust his lighter/darker skinned brethren. Some went for shock value, eschewing any sort of real message in an effort to get its audience behind the put upon heroes. One of the most fascinating, and ahead-of-its-time films depicting the plight of African Americans during the pre-Civil Rights days is the Roger Corman directed film, THE INTRUDER (1961).
A thought provoking and award winning film about a man who comes to a small segregated Southern town in an effort to halt blacks from fraternizing with whites. Adam Cramer (Shatner) stirs up far more hatred and violence than was already present culminating in some vicious scenes of violence and eventual murder. Featuring a dynamite and combustible performance by William Shatner, the film was a failure upon its first release but has since been critically acclaimed and has won numerous awards at film festivals all over the world. The film also deals with the struggle of blacks to become equals in society and integrate into the school system. One white man who walks with the young blacks to the school is viciously beaten and ends up losing an eye for his trouble.
Initially, this man was in disagreement with desegregation, but after bearing witness to the cruelty of his own people, began to see the wrong in hating a man because of the color of his skin. There's also a speech given at a kitchen table from an old man that not only speaks volumes about racism back then, but resonates deeply even today. This was William Shatner's first film role and his theater background serves him well here. His speech atop a courthouse steps is one of the most hate-filled, yet memorable moments in the picture. An incredibly powerful film that I highly recommend. One of Corman's true cinematic masterpieces.
DVD Availability: MGM (R1); New Concorde (R1); Anchor Bay (R1); Some titles discussed have not been issued on any digital format
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