BLAXPLOITATION CINEMA & THE RACE HATE FILMS: PRECIOUS PAM, RUDY RAY & WHITE DOGS
Going back to 1973, an actress named Pam Grier would shake up the blaxploitation world with a double punch of Ebony classics from the great exploitation director Jack Hill (SPIDER BABY, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS). The films were COFFY (1973) and FOXY BROWN (1974). Before starring in these two unforgettably violent vehicles, Grier had appeared in SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM! (1973), the Filipino lensed THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE (1973), THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972) and BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973) also starring Margaret Markov. It wasn't until COFFY (1973) that Grier really got hot.
Here, she plays a nurse by day, shotgun packin' vigilante by night aiming to snuff out the drug pushers who killed her sister. Robert Doqui is on hand as a pimp and the always reliable Sid Haig is here as a nasty villain. The violence level is extremely high and the tone is very serious. One of the best scenes involves Grier in a cat fight with a handful of women. Grier has a nasty surprise for them after putting razor blades in her hair! Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers even did their own version of COFFY in 1976 topping it in violence and sleaze entitled THE SEXY KILLER.
FOXY BROWN was just as nasty and violent as its predecessor but there was a playfulness and sarcastic aura about this film that alleviates the general uneasiness of COFFY (1973). FOXY BROWN (1974) is also much better remembered than the previous film, although COFFY is better made and also preferred by its director. FOXY has Grier avenging the murder of her cop boyfriend by infiltrating the crime ring that killed him and even aligning with a local branch of Black Panther-like vigilantes to help 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. Filled with many notable and occasionally offensive moments, FOXY BROWN (1974) is a colorful exercise in the blaxploitation genre replete with everything found in the best of Brown or Williamson's movies. Grier obviously had a ball shooting the film, changing from one vibrant or revealing outfit from one sequence to the next. The opening credit sequence is worth the DVD alone.
Grier would also co-star in BUCKTOWN (1975) with Fred Williamson, Tony King and Carl Weathers. Her role here is diminished to damsel in distress as opposed to her role as the tough heroine. It's about a man who comes to a small southern hamlet 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 dirty 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 using his fists, guns and a tank. Pam didn't get to participate in the action here settling instead for the role of damsel in distress.
The same year Grier starred as FRIDAY FOSTER (1975) also starring Yaphet Kotto and Carl Weathers as a silent hitman out to silence Grier who plays a photographer out to get some shots of the richest African American in the US. She inadvertently photographs an assassination attempt and plunges herself into a deadly conspiracy. A lively cast with Godfrey Cambridge, Thalmus Rasulala, Eartha Kitt, Jim Backus, Scatman Crothers and Ted Lange round out the performers in this average actioner. Possibly Pam's fans were expecting something along the lines of her two previous hits. Her character of Friday Foster is a big departure from the tough, ass kicking fighting female of COFFY and FOXY BROWN but a bit more spunky and less timid than her role in BUCKTOWN (1975).
SHEBA, BABY (1975) is a PG rated Pam Grier vehicle directed by the late, great exploitation director, William Girdler. Here, she plays a detective in Chicago that goes back to her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky to protect her father after gangsters move in on his loan company. Austin Stoker and D'Urville Martin co-star. If you don't mind seeing Grier in a movie where she doesn't reveal her ample assets, you at least get Grier in a skin tight wetsuit, the major highlight of this PG Pam program.
Desiring at this point in her career to act in more serious work, Grier took a supporting role in the incendiary sequel to MANDINGO (1975), 1976's DRUM, one of the most over the top films in the blaxploitation genre. Pam Grier never did escape the blaxploitation roles that made her famous appearing in a lot of action films typifying her previous exploitation glories. She did gain one of the best roles of her entire career in JACKIE BROWN (1997) and has never stopped working getting roles in various movies and television shows.
Meanwhile, there were many other black action movies being churned out--BAMBOO GODS & IRON MEN (1974), THE BLACK GESTAPO (1975), THE BLACK SIX (1974), IF HE HOLLERS LET HIM GO (1968; an early entry before the genre became fashionable), BLACK VENGEANCE (1975), HITMAN (1972), DR. BLACK & MR. HYDE (1976), BLACULA (1972), BLACKENSTEIN (1973), MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS (1976), BROTHERHOOD OF DEATH (1976), EMMA MAE aka BLACK SISTER'S REVENGE (1976), PENITENTIARY (1979) and on and on. There were also some seriously twisted entries such as DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975), WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES (1975) and BLACK DEVIL DOLL FROM HELL (1984) which had quirky subject matter or offensive and distasteful darkly comical moments.
One film in particular would become one of the most famous and most raunchy and crude examples of the genre--DOLEMITE (1975) 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 (1975) 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's gonna help you?" followed by Moore appearing out of nowhere 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 (1979), THE HUMAN TORNADO (1976) and PEATY WHEATSTRAW, THE DEVIL'S SON-IN-LAW (1977). Moore is quite a character and at least DOLEMITE (1975) is required viewing for fans of the genre.
Fred Williamson would keep the genre afloat through the remainder of the 70's and into the early 80's with many films but most of them were forgettable. When the genre died out, Williamson moved on to Italy (he was a popular actor there) where he did a string of MAD MAX rip-offs (among other things) that were briefly popular over there.
In 1996, there was an attempt to revive the genre with the release of ORIGINAL GANGSTAS. The film was about a group of adults attempting to take back the streets of their hometown from rampant gang activity. This was an ambitious production bringing together the most popular stars of black action cinema. Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, Ron O'Neal and Paul Winfield round out the cast. Director Larry Cohen, who helmed one of the best entries in the genre, BLACK CAESAR (1972) which was discussed in part one of this overview handled directing chores on this homage to the genre that made so many African Americans famous as well as American pop culture icons.
Since this overview discusses the blaxploitation movies as well as the race hate subgenre, I want to close out the piece by discussing two important films of the latter category-- Ralph Nelson's TICK...TICK...TICK...(1970) and Sam Fuller's WHITE DOG (1982). Nelson's film is sometimes classified as blaxploitation. However, I think it transcends the genre as the movie is a telling story of one man's journey to prove to a racist town that a black sheriff can be just and upright, if not more so than any white sheriff could ever be.
Director Ralph Nelson directs this fascinating movie with an assured hand and never lets the film fall into exploitation trappings. Just when you think it will throw some blatant shock value your way, the scenes of incendiary dialog and malicious acts of aggression are presented in a thought provoking manner.
A subplot concerns the newly ejected sheriff who preceded Jim Brown's election as lawman. There is a conflict with the previous sheriff being replaced by an African American officer of the law. As played by George Kennedy, there is much resentment in his performance. He is a good man, but deals with personal humiliation as well as that of the townsfolk who expect him to retaliate in some way. As the film progresses, Kennedy realizes the African American sheriff is as capable as any man regardless of his color.
The one detail that carries over from the race hate films is portrayed in character actor Don Stroud's performance. He plays a deputy with an aversion for people of color. He wants the new sheriff dead. A rich and dirty politician shares this sentiment after Brown's character imprisons his son for murdering a little girl (and a white girl, too), the result of drunk driving. The politician gets a posse together to kill the sheriff.
Amazingly, this film could have ended as so many others do with a big blow out action set piece, but Nelson's picture is more concerned with the humanity involved. Instead, some of the racist townsfolk, including several of the klan members(!) rally behind the black sheriff and force the murderous posse to turn back followed by the convicted son of the mayor being escorted to his trial without reprisal.
The entire film leaves you with a lot to ponder. In times of need, man can work together for good putting aside personal differences to do what's right and maybe, possibly live in peace. Unlike the more flamboyant nastiness of the race hate and blaxploitation films, TICK...TICK...TICK (1970) gives you something more than visual shocks and callous verbal assaults to think about.
Samuel Fuller's controversial WHITE DOG (1982) is another curious film that found itself abandoned by its studio, Paramount when they got cold feet over the films subject matter as well as not knowing quite how to market the picture. The persistent objections from the NAACP also didn't help the nervous distributor in releasing the picture. Originally, studio brass wanted an exploitation type horror film, but what they got was something entirely different. The story deals with a young actress (played by Kristi McNichol) that hits a dog with her car late one night. Unable to locate the owner, she takes the dog home with her and becomes attached to the canine.
Soon thereafter, it becomes quickly apparent that there is something horribly wrong with the dog. It's discovered the animal is a 'White Dog', a dog that has been trained to attack black people. After several individuals are viciously attacked, the animal is taken to a trainer named Keys who attempts to deprogram the abused and sick dog. Things take a turn towards the shocking when the original owner shows up to lay claim to his dog as well as Keys performing his last test to see if the animal is truly cured.
Despite all the troubles this picture has had obtaining a US theatrical release (it finally saw release in 1991 as part of an art film festival), seeing it now, it's indictment against racism and the monsters that can be created by any number of hate filled 'Frankenstein's', is obvious. Though the film isn't nearly as incendiary as similar movies that present the subject of racism in a more sensational manner. Fuller treats the material respectfully and several scenes are very powerful. Possibly the tone, or the constant pervasive air of racism (the film preaches that racism is taught and not instinctive) was simply too much at the start of the 1980's?
The 70's was rife with so many daring and explosive movies that couldn't possibly be done today. By the 80's, cinema had settled into more comfortable, less salacious conventions populated by huge budgeted action adventure films. This onslaught of a more family friendly cinematic experience was led by the efforts of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Art films and those that presented controversial subject matter were rarely done at this time or received sparse distribution being edged out by the big studio products.
The treatment Fuller's film received stateside was too much for the intellectual filmmaker to handle. His cinematic swan song on American soil was well received overseas and he soon moved to France where he remained (he did appear as an actor in Larry Cohen's RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT; 1987) until his death in 1997. Around the time WHITE DOG (1982) was made, the blaxploitation genre had come to an end with the most frequent purveyor of the genre, Fred Williamson, also making the jump to Europe to continue his filmmaking ventures.
The genre thrived for nearly a decade with its best examples coming during the early part of the 1970's. Often controversial, Blaxploitation cinema not only provided violent thrills to indiscriminate audiences, it also gave African Americans heroes they could identify with and root for. As already discussed, there were also those that thought these films were detrimental to black culture. The sub genre of the race hate pictures sometimes offered more controlled (and sometimes riot stirring) views of racism in America. Most of those films were crass sensationalism and only used the racially charged subject matter for a backdrop to endless scenes of degradation and inflammatory dialog.
Blaxploitation movies will be remembered for some larger than life interpretations of smooth talking heroes and heroines that stuck it to the man and the establishment. They created a flood of popular African American actors and actresses that hadn't been seen since the 1930's, but in those examples, the films are most often regarded as defamatory to black culture. Sidney Poitier will likely be the one actor most closely associated with respectable defining roles for black performers with Jim Brown close behind him. All others will always have "the Hammer" or Pam Grier to represent what they liked most about this unique genre partial to the 1970's, a decade of daring.