My Top Six favorite Blaxploitation Films!
February is such an important month for various reasons! Be it President's Day holiday and Valentine's day for all you lovebirds who pay extra for dining at a restaurant during a pandemic no less.
And while, it's still February, as in Black History Month, ironically the shortest month in the year. (Go figure.) I thought I would list my favorite films of the Blaxploitation genre. What is "Blaxploitation" for the uninitiated? Well, here's a brief history lesson for ya: When the Motion picture Industry was tanking during the late turbulent sixties and early Seventies, films with an all-black cast starting with Melvin Van Peebles, Sweetback Badass Song made a decent amount of profit thanks to the unwavering support of Black moviegoers. Hollywood paid attention and but not before independent filmmaker, Larry Cohen recognized the potential for Black oriented films starting with Black Caesar followed by its sequel Hell up in Harlem. American International Pictures saw this opportunity to crank out a copious amount of these movies, while many were cheap exploitative grindhouse check your brain at the door, there were some that contained striking social commentary especially during the post-Civil Rights era. Oh, and plenty of the films were labeled "Black " as in Black Six, Black Godfather, Black Gunn, Black Shampoo, Black Gestapo, Black Mama White Mama black,black,black,black,blackity black!
When Major studios like MGM and 20th Century Fox jumped on the bandwagon, there was a severe pushback from Black activists who found the portrayals of black protagonists, i.e. The Mack or Superfly very offensive in an environment rife with Pimps, hustlers and hos. Core the Congress Of Racial Equality, lambasted the films and studios who produced and released them, forcing the Film studios to drop the genre altogether. No love loss from Hollywood since they made quality films like The Exorcist and The Godfather after recouping their losses. So in a sense, Black Cinema saved the Motion Picture Industry!!
Lesson over. Now let's get to my list of favorite films from that bygone era!
Tagline: They said it would take an army to get the mob out of Harlem. This is the army! This is Gordon's war!
Vietnam veteran Gordon Hudson returns to the world, only to find out that his wife Roberta has died from a heroin overdose. Now Gordon with the aid of his Nam buddies, fight a new war and this time, it's the Drug pushers in Harlem and the Corporate businessman who profit from the poison that's being peddled.
Before the Punisher and even prior to Death Wish, Gordon's War was the first template of a Vietnam veteran protagonist who becomes a vigilante after a tragic incident. The film us straightforward but still weighs an emotional impact, when Gordon reminisces about riding in Central Oark with his wife accompanied by Barbara Mason's "A Woman in Love " but it's the intro song; " Come on and dream of paradise" that gives off that pure Blaxploitation effect!
The violence is brutal while the cinematography and narrative overlay at times bears a Comicbook aesthetic. The stuntwork is impressive especially the Car motorcycle chase that predates the French Connection.
Prior to being this trope of a Black Man getting killed off in science fiction films, (Damnation Alley, Wraith of Khan and The Terminator) actor Paul Winfield is cast as an action hero who performs close quarter combat when not blasting drug dealers with a sawed-off shotgun. The stoic Gordon, has a no-nonsense approach when strategically taking down the organizations from the suppliers all the way to the criminal mastermind, Spanish Harry (Played by Gilbert Lewis) who arrives later on in the movie.
The pushers aren't the only ones benefitting from poisoning Harlem, as we find out later on. Let's just say how life imitates art or vice versa.
Gordon's War is another breakthrough film from the genre that doesn't glamorize negative portrayals like Pimps and Drug Dealers. Yes, The Mack and Superfly, I'm looking at you!
Ironies of Ironies: Actor Gilbert Lewis replaced William Marshall (Blacula) for the role of "King of Cartoons" in Pee Wee's Playhouse.
Tagline: The Baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad that ever hit town!
Underneath its grindhouse tropes of nudity and violence, 1973's Coffy is a smart Crime thriller. Directed by Jack Hill, and starring the legendary Pam Grier, as the titular character who is a nurse out for revenge after drug dealers and a mob boss gets her younger sister hooked on drugs.
(Coffy, along with 1973’s Gordon’s War preceded vigilante concepts within Pop Culture like Death Wish, Taxi Driver and Marvel Comics’ The Punisher.)
Although the dialogue and acting can be sluggish at times, there is an interesting dialogue between Coffy and her Police Officer friend about vigilantism. Coffy goes on a trail of revenge from Mob bosses, pushers and pimps to corrupt politicians.
It's a well-paced film with all the features, you might expect from the Blaxploitation genre y'know, guns, catfights, nudity, swear words, nudity, etc.
Coffy's box office reception warranted a sequel titled "Burn Coffy, Burn!" Unfortunately, the planned sequel was scrapped in favor of..
Tagline: Don't mess aroun' with Foxy Brown Don't mess aroun' with Foxy Brown - She's the meanest chick in town!
Pam Grier is back and this time, she's out for once again, revenge! After her government-agent boyfriend is killed by members of a drug and white slavery syndicate
Foxy Brown, connects her boyfriend's murderers to a "modeling agency" run by Steve Elias and Miss Katherine.
Foxy then poses as a prostitute in order to infiltrate the Prostitution ring which leads Foxy to a tour de force of revenge-themed scenarios from cremating sex slave pimps to castrating a White Slaver and presenting his severed member as a "farewell gift!"
Foxy Brown was more of an exploitative film than its predecessor Coffy. Its straight forward revenge, betrayal and a rape scene without the philosophical debate of drug pushing or the ramifications of taking matters in one's own hands, ergo Director Jack Hill tries to capitalize from Grier being a sex goddess of modern cinema
Tagline: Meet SUGAR HILL and her ZOMBIE HIT MEN...The Mafia has never met anything like them!
This was perhaps my first introduction to Horror films depicting Voodoo prior to Fulci's Zombie and Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow.
When Diana "Sugar" Hill's boyfriend Langston is murdered by mobsters for refusing to sell his lounge club (Club Haiti) to ruthless underboss Morgan, Sugar (Played by the beautiful Markey Bey) is pissed and bitter!
This is where the ol proverb "don't get mad, get even!" comes in. And with that in mind, she enacts her revenge with the aid of Voodoo priestess, Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully y'know George's Mother from The Jeffersons), and Baron Samedi who prior to this movie, was played by the actor listed as "Negro" from Beneath the Planet of the Apes?!?
Anyway, Sugar makes a deal with the "devil" in exchange for the promise of wedlock when all is said and done.
This is where the fun begins as the Baron dispatches his army of undead silver eye cobwebbed soldiers to kill Morgan's flunkies be it devoured by hogs or chopped with machetes.
Of course, Morgan and his wife are saved for last. What's funny is how Sugar fulfilled her end of the bargain in regards to being Samedi's bride.
Instead of running off with the Voodoo sorcerer, Sugar offers him "the White Prize" as it was referred to back in the day.
Sugar Hill is more than your average revenge trope, which is practically the core of most Blaxploitation films, its sophistication lies in the protagonist who is empowered not by baring skin, instead utilizing her wrath and acumen as a means of retribution.
Sugar makes light of her prey when they fall helpless to the undead Zombies. Despite a PG rating it's still delivers the frights without the need of being graphically violent. In comparison, Coffy's shotgun head blowing scene alone, is more violent than most of Sugar Hill.
If the Director's name Paul Maslansky sounds familiar, well it should since he was responsible for the Police Academy films.
Taglines: Blacula! - Dracula's Soul Brother!
Rising From the Echoing Corridors of Hell, An Awesome Being of the Supernatural - With Satanic Power of Sheer Dread. Chained Forever to a Slavery More Vile Than Any Before Endured...
He"s black! he's beautiful! he's Blacula!
Warm, young bodies will feed his hunger, and hot, fresh blood his awful thirst!
His bite was outta sight!
Bloodsucker! - Deadlier than Dracula!
African Prince Mamuwalde along with his wife Uva was dispatched to Transylvania as ambassadors of the Ubani tribe for the sole purpose of having Dracula put an end to the barbaric slave trade. unfortunately for them, the count himself refuses to comply-instead he curses the Prince with his name; "Blacula!"
After century of a deep slumber, Mamuwalde awakens with a thirst for blood and in the midst of death and carnage inflicted upon those unfortunate, Mamuwalde is "reunited" with Uva, but how long can this reunion last when Dr. Thomas is hot on the trail of bodies left in Blacula's wake?
In the trend of Blaxploitation films of old, Blacula was more than just some novelty project. Compared to what the original concept was, I tip my hat to the late great actor William Marshall who refused to have his character mistaken for one of the many stereotypical tropes often found we within the Subgenre.
It was Marshall's suggestion that Mamuwalde would come from a 3rd royal aristocratic background (akin to Marvel's Tchalla) Marshall delivers a very Shakespearean performance as far as the film's narrative goes, there is a modicum of Shakespearean elements to accompany and complement his acting talents.
Blacula is no doubt, the best horror offering from the Blaxploitation genre thanks in part to the soundtrack, a predominately all-Black cast with a tragic love story horror film that proceeds Clive Barker's Candyman.
Three the Hard Way
Tagline: Sometimes the ONLY way to get it done is the HARD WAY!
The big three are on this case! They're the only ones who can save their race!
Directed by Gordon Parks Jr. (Superfly)
It seems like "The Man " is up to his low-down rotten tricks again! In this 1976 action hit that Action cinema historians can refer to it as "The Black Expendables", Three the Hard Way is about three buddies who come together to stop an evil plan hatched by a paramilitary White Supremacist organization under the command of Monroe Feather.
(played by Jay Morrison of Sid and Marty Kroft's Dr. Shrinker.)
Feather's Chief scientist concocted a toxin capable of indiscriminately killing people of color, as in Black People! And in order to carry out their plans, the Neo Nazis attempt to unleash the genocidal formula in the water supply in three cities, Los Angeles, Washington and Detroit!
But things get really personal when Jimmy's Girlfriend Wendy Kane, is kidnapped. Can a three-man army prevent genocide and take down Feather's terrorist organization?
Despite some bad editing and overreaching moments, Three the Hard Way is a fun actioner mirroring Comicbook elements and filled with cool gunfights, stunts, martial arts and explosions that rival Mikey Bay's!
While some of the acting looks as if it came from the ol ABC Afterschool specials, especially during Hollis' cringe inducing hospital scene, Actor Howard Platt as Neo Nazi flunky Keep, plays against type if you're familiar with the likeable but goofy Cop, Hoppy from Sanford & Son.
The soundtrack courtesy of soul group The Impressions is one of the best from thus genre without the "Waka, waka" guitar riffs and you get a few cool songs like "Brother, Brother" along with the trios' outro theme.
The funniest albeit, unintentional scenes, involve
- Keep using a cherry picker of all things, to kill an escapee two floors above.
- Keep being as anxious to kill Jimmy, to the extent of shooting his partner several times!
- And, how a tortured Keep dies from fright after Mr. Keyes grabs him by the throat.
Best scenes: Aside from the Dominatrix trio of interrogators-Countess, Empress and Princess, the assault on the Neo Nazi compound goes to Mr. Keyes taking down the popo who was trying to set him up as many police officers have done to innocent black men throughout history.
Sure, the plot may seem a bit far fetched, however there's that Flint water crisis that occurred in Michigan, and White Supremacist groups like The Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Atom Waffen etc. giving much credibility to this film's foreshadowing!
With the emphasis of Black emboldened characters, being socially conscientious, drug abuse and unearthing conspiracies of white supremacy and systemic racism, these were some of the films that made me.