BLAXPLOITATION CINEMA & THE RACE HATE FILMS: RACISTS, TRUCK TURNER & BIG STUDIO EXPLOITATION
Another thought provoking, but no less incendiary film, was the Made-For-TV movie, ATTACK ON TERROR: THE FBI VS THE KU KLUX KLAN (1975). A totally out of control movie that seems a bit strong for television. It was based on events that happened in a small town in Mississippi in 1964. An unbelievable film made all the more incredible by its TV roots. The searing dialog and downbeat ending speak volumes about the time period and even rings true today although the controversial subject matter is less in the limelight as it was in years past. This film has yet to turn up on the digital format but has been shown on cable television.
It could be said that the blaxploitation films were born out of racism as well as African Americans need to be accepted in society as equals. These films depicted strong black characters that didn't need whitey's help and these films generally depicted Caucasians as lesser individuals much like the way they thought of blacks during the tumultuous slave times through the 1960's. The Race Hate films could also be viewed as an extension, albeit a more provocative and aggressive form of the blaxploitation genre.
Some other movies such as WATERMELON MAN (1970), provided a more thoughtful approach to the form. A white racist wakes up one day in the body of a black man (Godfrey Cambridge) and gets first hand knowledge of the treatment he himself had meted out to minorities. But films like this one and the above mentioned INTRUDER (1961) were few and far between. Other films like the vile and humiliating GOODBYE, UNCLE TOM (1971) existed to shock and horrify their audience with images of scathing humilation and degradation.
That film, from Italian directors Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti is about documentary filmmakers that travel back in time and record slavery and mis-treatment of African Americans through the eyes of their camera lens. Some re-creations of retaliation against "white oppressors" is also shown over the course of this film/documentary.
Much has been said of this "movie" over the years since it's brief theatrical release. It brought much controversy for the makers, not that they seemed to mind. The duo were infamy magnets for years and seemed to enjoy the attention. It's amazing that they were able to get the black "performers" to be subjected to such demeaning acts. Supposedly, the African Americans used were prisoners of a Haitian dictator which would explain a lot.
Amazingly distasteful, one scene smacks you in the face while the next one punches you in the gut followed by a hard kick to the head before you can get up and recover from the cinematic beatdown you will suffer from this grueling experience. For the sadists out there, the English version is definitely the way to go as it is a near endless onslaught of mortification and cruelty. It leaves out the numerous and questionable intellectual diatribes of the narrator that are present in the even longer Italian cut.
Incidentally, the Italian cut attempts to coax you into viewing this movie as a serious account of slavery and wrongful treatment of blacks throughout history. Supposedly, this film is still banned in its native Italy today. It is difficult to ascertain the filmmakers true intentions here. Do they want to shock you, or educate you? For me, it's the former. This film seems to exist only as sensationalist shock value disguised as a dark document of man's inhumanity to man. J & P were used to this by now and seemed to welcome such scandal with open arms.
Although J & P considered this their masterpiece, it ended up as their master disaster. considering the controversy surrounding AFRICA, ADDIO (1966), a film that made headlines instigating that the two directors may have actually paid some militants to execute some peasants in the street for the sake of the "film" (a plot point that surfaced again in Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST), it is no surprise that GOODBYE UNCLE TOM would become one of the most incendiary works of cinematic "art" in history.
The malicious nature of the race hate films is blatantly apparent in the 1977 grindhouse favorite, FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. Here, three escaped convicts evade police capture and hole up in the home of a God fearing black family and subjugate them to all manner of debasement and torture. The family gets their revenge in the end. A most despicable movie that even its star, Will Sanderson, is a bit embarrassed about discussing it. Watching the film, you can't help but chuckle in disbelief at the near endless and flammable dialog Sanderson utters throughout.
It is so hard to believe that such films could have been made at all much less get a theatrical release. The 70's was a time when creativity and controversy was only limited by how far you were willing to take the material. Nowadays, such films could not be done. This particular film was also marketed as a blaxploitation movie under the name STAYIN' ALIVE of all titles. This films release was also short-lived issued sporadically by nervous distributors wary of the subject matter, but nonetheless trying to earn a fast buck before bicycling the film on to another town.
Going back to the blaxploitation movies, many of the films were made by American International Pictures. A company founded by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. They specialized in all manner of exploitation cinema gaining some serious momentum and recognition with the release of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe movies. The studio would dive head first into the black action genre in the early 1970's and unleash a massive production line of them throughout the decade. Many of these were all very low budget (some more so than others) and filled with violence. Again, that's what the producers assumed the intended audience wanted; lots of mindless and often bloody violence filled with all manner of jive talking vigilantes.
This was especially apparent in one of the best examples of the genre and one of my personal favorites, Jonathan Kaplan's TRUCK TURNER (1974) 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. Yaphet 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. It's a true shame that there was never a TRUCK TURNER 2. The movie benefits from a wonderfully wise-crackin', jive talkin' script that's overflowing with hilarious and raucous exchanges. Truly one of the best of the genre and defines so much of what made these films so popular as well as detested.
Hayes also starred in the only Italian-blaxploitation hybrid, TOUGH GUYS (1974) 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 present. What makes it an even bigger disappointment is that Duccio Tessari (A PISTOL FOR RINGO) directs. Apparently, the Italians were unsure how to approach the material.
Williamson also breaks his three rules for this movie as he is the main villain, he doesn't get the girl in the end and he loses his one lousy fight. Speaking of the fight scenes, even though Williamson has a lot of charisma on screen I much prefer Jim Brown as he is far more believable in his action scenes. Williamson overplays the martial arts moves he tries to employ (not to mention his facial contortions) and many times quick edits mask some very sloppy choreography in Williamson's movies. HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973) is a prime example of this. Brown always seems more at ease in his fight scenes and pulls them off flawlessly.
The big studios, which had produced one of the most enduring of the genre with SHAFT (1971) got back in the game after they saw how profitable these movies continued to be. MANDINGO (1975) doesn't really count as a blaxploitation movie although some would argue it did, it's more in the camp of the race hate subgenre and an important film in its own right. Based on a novel, the film concerns a slave named Mede (Ken Norton) trained by his owner to be a prize fighter. During this time, the slave owner ignores his wife's sexual needs resulting in her having an affair with Mede.
At the time, never had a big studio (Paramount) picture went as far as MANDINGO (1975) in its depictions of depravity. Incest and Infanticide were among the elements that caused a critical firestorm against the film. Audiences flocked to see it despite the critical backlash launched against the director and actors. Even the poster was an incendiary take on the famous GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) artwork. The extremely controversial picture was viewed as nothing more than an expensive exploitation movie masked behind a veil of historical importance.
Having approached the material seriously, the picture is so in your face in its depictions of obscenities, the viewer can't help but laugh in disbelief. There's an unusual amount of nudity both male and female that borders on pornographic. Plot points inherent in most all blaxploitation movies regarding the impotence of whitey rear there limp heads here, too. Scenes showing Perry King (he plays a character with a limp) having intimate relations with his black bed wench are seen as "normal", but the moment Susan George (Perry's wife in the film) has been with Norton's character, she is immediately branded a whore. This, too, is akin to the perceived notion that the white man fears domination by the African Americans. The infamous and salacious film was recently released to DVD in America but not from Paramount, instead licensed out to Legend Films.
MANDINGO (1975) was successful enough to garner a sequel and again from Paramount (who also financed the 1972 Fred Williamson actioner LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY). The sequel dispenses with much of the moral and immoral pondering of the first film and settles more for crass exploitation values. DRUM (1976) has them in abundance. The story is more or less the same, but amps up the sex and violence level to more sensational extremes. Whereas the first film was uncompromising in its scenes of brutality and serious depiction of slavery, DRUM (1976) was less concerned with the disintegration of Southern ideals than it was showcasing outrageous characters and dialog and leaving the audience in amazing disbelief with an ending that dive bombs into a scenario of extreme violence.
Here, Warren Oates plays the role Perry King played in the first movie only it's some years later. Oates appears to be having the time of his life surrounded by naked prostitutes and uttering some audaciously offensive lines like, "You aint gonna go messin' in my poon tang now is you?" The presence of a fat, big breasted Aunt Jemima type house maid whom Oates speaks of during his childhood, "suckling her titties...", is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.
It's especially funny seeing John Colicos (Baltar from the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA TV show) as a French faggot trying to have his way with Norton soon after bringing him a woman and expecting "payment". His speeches about castrating his "stock" are a hoot. This is one highly recommended piece of embarrassing celluloid whose participants probably wish was never made. Poor Pam Grier apparently thought that this film would be her big break into serious film work. I'm sure it seemed so on paper. Enough cannot be said of the cavalcade of offensive dialog that is said with such conviction, the film becomes high camp till the gruesome ending rolls around. A perfect exploitation movie, this and other films in the Race Hate genre yielded many a grindhouse classic.
Another high point, or low point (depending on your point of view) of this curious subgenre is THE KLANSMEN (1975). Another movie based on a novel this time helmed by director Terence Young (who handled a number of the Bond movies). I'm not sure if he intentionally meant to direct an unintentionally funny exploitation movie or not, but it shows in both presentation and behind the scenes. Reportedly, stars Richard Burton and Lee Marvin were sauced the entire shoot and it was a struggle to get them to say their lines with any conviction.
Also, many of the scenes are extremely hammy and replete with bad dialog that makes you wonder if you are supposed to take the film seriously at all. Adding an air of haunting dread that only foreshadows events to come, O.J. Simpson features as a black assassin out to kill klansmen in his town in reprisal for his friend being shotgunned by the Klan earlier in the film. Linda Evans is also in this mess along with Cameron Mitchell and Lola Falona who suffers a severe rape scene that was drastically cut before the films release in America. A bloody gun battle ends the film on a perfectly sleazy note.
CONTINUED IN PART 3...