Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Brotherhood of Death (1976) review


Roy Jefferson (Raymond Moffat), Le Tari (Ned Tiese), Haskell Anderson (Junior Moffat), Mike Thomas (Newt Biggars), Michael Hodge (Ace), Ron David (Leroy Winniford), Rick Ellis (Harold Turner), Mike Bass (Captain Quinn), Bryan Clark (Sheriff)

Directed by Bill Berry

"Do you think that you can put on evil spirit costumes and call yourselves dragons.... and burn crosses.... and aaaaalllll the darkies will shake in their shoes! Well these darkies are about to do you in!"

The Short Version: If you could register a Drive-in movie's level of exploitation with a Geiger Counter, then the premise of Black Nam vets versus the KKK would break the damn needle. Unfortunately, exploitation levels are fairly low in this lesser known black actioner from the genres last days. At times, it's an enormous amount of fun, but the slack editing makes it drag in places where a quicker pace would've worked wonders for its brief 77 minute running time. The script is a loaded baked potato of vulgarities; if only the weak protagonists had Tough Guy one-liners to match. A mid-level entry in this genre, diehard black action and Drive-in movie fans will still wish to make a pledge to the BROTHERHOOD OF DEATH (1976). 

In the town of Kincaid, three friends have a run-in with Leroy Winniford, a member of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Fearing reprisal, the three men enlist in the Army to take their chances with the Vietcong instead. Upon returning to their hometown a few years later they learn the KKK has taken over and are worse than ever. After a black woman is raped, her boyfriend beaten nearly to death, and another brother killed, the three Nam vets try to get things settled with legal means via voter registration and the law. But when the sheriff is murdered, the war heroes decide the only way to get justice is to put their 'Nam experience to good use and Klamp down on the Klan.

First time director Bill Berry didn't do much else from a directorial standpoint, but he covers most all the Drive-in/Exploitation basics in his tale of a small town boiling over with racial tension that explodes into violence. When the black citizenry register to vote the Klan komplains and retaliates. The sheriff refuses to play ball so murder and revenge follow. Partially shot in Maryland (including a shot of an old Smithfield, NC Klan road-sign from the late 60s that was torn down in 1977), the film scores a touchdown with its nasty villains but fumbles in the area of its protagonists. For a motion picture featuring a number of Washington Redskin football players in a trashy premise, you'd expect Superbowl level entertainment. 

Berry's script (from a story by executive producer Ronald Goldman) presents the three friends as your average, everyday citizens. Unlike a Jim Brown or Fred Williamson outing, they try to solve their problems through the law--only at the end do they fight back. That Berry doesn't turn his characters into a TRUCK TURNER (1974) or a BLACK BELT JONES (1974) both works in the film's favor as well as against it; more the latter since there's barely any exposition granted our grounded-in-reality good guys. The naturalist approach is unique but this is an exploitation movie after all.

There's a good deal of dialog being spoken despite lacking in the characterization department. Then Washington Redskins Wide Receiver Roy Jefferson had a great look for Tough Guy roles. Unfortunately, his line readings evoke zero charisma; nor does the script give him much in the way of cool catchphrases. This was his only acting credit. Ironically, Jefferson's less machoistic co-stars fare much better....

Haskell Anderson, in his first movie role, really shines as Junior. He gets the film's best lines; particularly during the siege finale when the three friends use nasty traps they picked up from Charlie during their tours in Vietnam. His slight build yields a strong personality. This being an average piece of Drive-in escapism, Haskell gives a strong debut performance. He did a lot of work in television and the occasional sizable movie role like KICKBOXER in 1989.

You may have seen Le Tari on some TV shows and movies like AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987) where he played a 'black without soul'. A good actor, it's a shame he didn't have a much better, longer career. As Ned, he's both the comic relief and, arguably, the most likable of the BROTHERHOOD. One of his best moments is the film's opening sequence--where things get off to a raucous start when the boys have their run-in with Winniford. 

Sadly, an unnecessarily long 'Nam sequence (shot in what looks like a park) ruins the momentum the picture starts out with. The filmmakers get it back again, but lose it amidst poor acting and tedious sequences that could've done with some trimming.

Still, director Berry delivers some memorably hilarious bits such as when Raymond, Ned and Junior get their preacher to help coerce the entire black community to stick it to the honky bigots by registering to vote. Elsewhere, the finale is nicely done with some ironic examples of just desserts being doled out. As for the expected exploitation elements.... 

BROTHERHOOD OF DEATH possibly holds a record for the most times the word 'nigger', and variations of it, is uttered onscreen. The bad guy's are so over the top with the language it borders on parody; especially when they're spouting off dialog like, "Hey, boy! Don't you know there's a white woman in that car?!", and "The niggers is takin' over the town!" The saying that a film is only as good as its villain certainly applies in this case. Berry has written some doozies and found good actors who make them believable.

One other role Berry put a spin on is the town sheriff. You expect him to be the typical corrupt lawman of countless other similar movies. Berry surprises the audience by making the sheriff a likable guy. You get the sense that the sheriff may throw you a curve ball at some point. He does the right thing and pays the ultimate price for it; which again, makes the antagonists even more despicable. If only we'd gotten some stronger protagonists to complement them. Bryan Clark, lookin' an awful lot like Andy Taylor on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, is quite good as the sheriff; and a fine actor on top of it. He was absolutely hilarious as Earl, a new bartender Sam Malone hires in the season 9 episode of CHEERS, 'Rebecca Redux'.

Coming out when the genre was rapidly fading, BROTHERHOOD OF DEATH (1976) evens out the scale with its cheapness, good and bad acting, entertainment value, and a great funk main theme 'High Horse'. Essentially a 'C' movie, fans of the genre will most likely be pleased with the minimal thrills it offers. It has a great opening, a captivating middle, and a satisfactory ending--and that's recommendation enough for a movie that never quite realizes the tasteless aspirations of its plotline.

This review is representative of the Code Red bluray (limited to 1,000). Specs and Extras: 1080p widescreen 1.78:1; TV version from 16mm print; interview with Haskell Anderson; isolated music track; original trailer; running time: 01:17:35.
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