Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Junesploitation 2022 Day 14: Blaxploitation!



    Arthur Marks's FRIDAY FOSTER (1975, TUBI, 90 min.) for the first time.

    Pam 'Motherfucking' Grier stars as the titular character, a take-no-shit investigative photographer for Glance Magazine (which makes Stan Stratton's Shawn her James Jonah Jameson! :-P) that manages to get the scoop on an attempt on the life of the richest black man in America, Blake Tarr (Thalmus Rasulala). Fingers eventually point at Washington D.C. Senator David Lee Hart (Paul Benjamin) as the likely mastermind of Tarr's assassination, so naturally Friday ends up sleeping with both men during her investigation... both because she wants to and because it deepens her appreciation of Private Investigator Colt Hawkins (Yaphet Kotto) always having her back.

    While there's a serious backstory about black people in America rallying behind a leader at its core, "Friday Foster" is lighthearted enough to never take itself so seriously that it gets boring (a major problem with the next blaxploitation feature reviewed below). If there's not a young Carl Weathers as an unlucky hitman or Eartha Kitt hamming it up as a fashion diva there's always something goofy (Friday stealing a hearse, the police captain always saying 'I want a beer!' :-P), politically incorrect (the LGBTQ sex club in DC, Scatman Crothers' sexually-aroused-by-Pam preacher, etc.) or just plain nuts (Friday's young brother filling a closet with all the gifts from a pimp chasing after Foster to become his newest/best hoe) to carry us over to the next scene. Most importantly, "Friday Foster" keeps getting better and more entertaining as it goes along, culminating in a great shoot-out with actual stakes for all involved. Wish more Pam Grier 70's vehicles were as fun as this one. 4 "PLASTIC FAGGOTS WHO COULDN'T DESIGN A HANKERCHIEF" (out of 5).

    Fred Williamson's MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS (1975, TUBI, 83 min.) for the first time.

    The war in Vietnam ending and dumping thousands of veterans in America's unemployment lines isn't a fun subject matter, but it's the main focus (to a fault) of the first half of this Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson vehicle. After being dishonorably discharged for daring to punch a white officer after being used as a guinea pig to disarm a live mine without him knowing it, Johnny Barrows (the Hammer) gets robbed as he arrives to Los Angeles to look for work. A funky Greek Choir constantly reminds us that 𝄞 Peace is Hell 𝄫 as we watch Johnny be mistreated by cops, abused by a gas station owner (R.G. Armstrong) withholding his salary, given a pep talk by 'special guest star' Elliot Gould's homeless professor and pretty much be a dumping bag to the world as he looks for work. While I admire that Fred isn't pandering to audience expectations, all of the above is as fun to watch as it sounds... which means none at all.

    Luckily the 'B' plot about Fred being pursued to become a hitman for hire by Italian mobster Mario Racconi (Stuart Whitman) takes center stage for the second half, when the New York family Da Vince muscles into L.A. to use a flower shop as cover for its expanding drug operations. Hey, "The Godfather" movies were super popular by '75, what do you want? At least we get to see Roddy McDowall play the blaxploitation equivalent of a smarter-than-he-seems, wig-wearing Fredo. :-D Sure, Fred's direction is his typical shitty helming of a profitable low-budget investment, but we get to see him wear some sharp clothes and impress a hot chick (Jenny Sherman's Nancy) as he singlehandedly wipes out the Da Vince clan. Starts slow, but rights itself just before ending with a bang... literally. 2.75 BOUQUETS OF FLOWERS HIDING DOPE BAGS (out of 5).

  2. Top of the Heap (1972)
    Super surreal daydream sequences in which our authoritarian cop character pictures himself as the first black man sent to space. Picture The Ninth Configuration as a blaxploitation movie about a cop instead of a psychiatrist. Not sure this fully works but man will it stick with me. What a singular and angry movie.

  3. Jackie Brown (1997)
    The real star is the Hair and Makeup Department.

  4. Blacula (1972, dir. William Crain)

    A loose adaptation of the classic Dracula story, but transplanted to 1970's L.A. and with Black leads. The silly title may lead you to expect a parody, but it's a really good vampire flick with good actors, fine directing and a solid script.

    Scream Blacula Scream (1973, dir. William Bob Kelljan)

    The sequel is at least as good as the first one in every regard, but it also has Pam Grier as a voodoo priestess, which automatically makes it better than the original.

    1. I watched the first one two Junesploitations ago and the second one during the last Scary Movie Month. I agree 100% with everything you said.

  5. J.D. 's Revenge (1976)

    Much like the Italian western, after so many years and so many movies, the blacksploitation film needed to not simply be comedy or crime. Horror — witness Blacula, Sugar Hill and Abby, as well as Ganja and Hess, Scream Blacula Scream and Dr. Black and Mr. White — could also be made for black audiences.

    Isaac “Ike” Hendrix (Glynn Turman, who is absolutely incredible in this movie) is a hard-working taxi driver and law student in New Orleans who takes a break studying for the bar and heads out with his girlfriend Joan Pringle (Christella Morgan) for an evening. He’s hypnotized at a show and immediately after, everything is different. That’s because he’s become the host for the spirit of murdered hustler J.D. Walker, changing completely from a quiet man struggling to change his life to a love machine ready to slay on the dance floor, in the bedroom and on the killing floor. The transformation is astounding as is the back story, as J.D. was once tied in with Elijah Bliss (Louis Gossett Jr.), who is now a preacher, his older brother Theotis (Fred Pinkard) and the woman they all loved.

    There’s a powerful scene at the end as brother battles brother and J.D. — fully owning Ike — dances and laughs like a demon who has taken this proud holy man and city leader back to their roots as simple criminals, a microcosm of the black experience of attempting to climb out of the horrors of poverty reduced to falling back down the chasm of violence. It’s really something else.

    Director Arthur Marks also made Detroit 9000, Friday Foster, Bonnie’s Kids and Bucktown. The script is by Jaison Starks, who also wrote The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh. It also has a doctor who tells his patient that he’d probably get better if he smoked some weed, which is quite forward thinking for 1976.

    There’s also the absolutely wild scene where J.D. picks up a woman at a bar — this is after he’s dominated Joan, who Ike had such a sweet and mutually giving relationship, having rough sex with her, saying “Daddy’s doing you good baby” and then beating her just to show who is in charge — and gives her “the best fucking she ever had” before her boyfriend gets home. She’s in a panic. J.D. simply says, “You better go talk to him then” before grabbing a straight razor and slashing the man’s throat with no effort at all.

    Everything wraps up way too neat and clean, but who cares? Getting there has some great performances and an interesting story that had to have been an influence on later black horror like Bones.

  6. Black Caesar (1973, dir. Larry Cohen)

    Fred Williamson rises from the streets to become a mob boss and wage gang warfare in NYC. Larry Cohen sure can make an entertaining and thought-provoking movie. This is no exception. I really liked how Williamson's character is not a perfect hero, but a flawed leader who is capable of just as much evil as those he's fighting against. Worth watching for an extremely powerful scene where Williamson confronts the racist cop who broke his leg as a kid. Highly Recommended, although I enjoy the sequel: Hell up in Harlem even more.

  7. PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)
    In a fluke, an advertising company's only black executive is named CEO. He sets out change the place for the better, but can he? This is heavy on the satire, and it's rather sad that a lot of what is satirized is still true in 2022. Director Robert Downey Sr. dubbed over lead actor Arnold Johnson himself, for an odd effect. (The makers of Sorry to Bother You must have been watching closely.) Beyond that, though, there's a lot to like here. The movie has some good goofs, great music, and is smartly made.

    Bonus Lloyd Kaufman-sploitation, day 14: TROMEO AND JULIET (1997)
    Nostalgia! This is the first Troma movie I ever saw, and watching it this morning transported my brain right back to the late '90s in a big way. You know the story, it's Shakespeare, but retold through the Troma lens. We're back to the style of every scene being all extreme and shouty. Wacky sound effects added to fill any gaps in dialogue, in an effort to fill every scene with outrageous content. The movie is an exhausting experience, but there's a lot of fun to be had along the way.

  8. Sheba, Baby (1975)

    Another June, another Pam Grier movie. This time The Queen plays an ex-cop private detective who takes on a gang of scumbags trying to forcefully take over her father's loan business. But the suckers have no idea who they're messing with.

    The movie is a fun action romp from beginning to end. It even glosses over what should be a serious downer beat halfway through to keep things breezy and loose. It's cool to see Pam fully in the central hero position, without any victimization whatsoever - at times this almost plays like a James Bond movie, especially in the third act which is set on a villain's yacht and capped off with a wild motorboat river chase (all done in that vintage semi-competent blaxploitation style, of course). Pam brings all of her trademark swagger, but also gets a chance to show her more vulnerable side. Interestingly, the last scene seems to be a clear source of inspiration for the bittersweet ending of Jackie Brown (I see what you did there, Quentin).

    1. I'll just comment here, since I've seen the same movie.

      Sheba, Baby (1975 – William Girdler)
      This movie would also fit very well the “Lethal Ladies!” category of this month. Last year I watched Foxy Brown, and since I have good memories towards that film, I thought I would stick with Pam Grier to do no wrong. I wasn’t disappointed. While top film critics didn’t like this movie, I had a good time with this Blaxploitation “classic”. Grier’s body features aren’t exploited as much as in Foxy Brown. The plot is in general less gritty and sinister than in FB, which I personally found pleasing, because this way Grier could show off more of her acting and action skills. There are some pretty decent action scenes, especially towards the end. It is not a great movie, so I guess it was appropriate to not rate this movie very high back then, I still think it’s a good one for this month.

  9. Black Caesar (1973) dir. Larry Cohen

    Between Fred Williamson’s powerhouse performance, Larry Cohen’s true give-no-fucks approach to filmmaking, and James Brown’s thundering soundtrack, I’m pretty sure Black Caesar would be a standout even if it wasn’t also a thematic feat (I have a feeling Hell up in Harlem is a test case for that theory). Borrowing the classic “rise and fall” story at the center of so many gangster stories (yes, including The Godfather, which came out just a year prior), Larry Cohen reframes those familiar narrative beats by putting race at the forefront of the story. Well before Williamson is the one portraying him, you are rooting for Tommy Gibbs to rise up and make the racist pieces of shit he suffers at the hands of pay, which makes it all the more crushing to watch his inevitable fall, aided of course by his ambition, but also inextricable from his experience in a racist society that he can never accumulate enough power and influence to overcome. As Gibbs strong-arms his way through the opposition, they almost uniformly refuse, even at gun point, to grant him respect on account of his race, instead they mock his assent and insist that what ever he gets will be short lived for “someone like him”. It’s rough stuff, which makes Cohen and Williamson’s ability to sell it as a whole lot of snappy action all that more impressive.

    Hell Up in Harlem (1973) dir. Larry Cohen

    An direct sequel that wasn’t even planned until the extremely stand-alone Black Caesar became an unexpected hit, Hell Up in Harlem was somehow shot and released before the the year was out to cash in on the previous film’s wave. Cohen later said that he was still writing whole scenes while they were filming, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t show. That said, it’s a lot better than it has any right to be, thanks largely to most of the cast and crew returning, making for unexpectedly quasi-cohesive story continuity- at least for a movie centered on a character we all saw die at the end of the first entry. Tonally, this is a much different affair, all but abandoning much of the thematic elements for a more traditional by-the-numbers crime/action flick that’s still elevated by Cohen’s frantic approach and Williamson’s inability to be anything less than captivating on screen. Watched back to back with Black Caesar, the effect is a little like following up a steak dinner with Eentenmann’s- you know there’s a qualitative difference, but it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable in the moment.

  10. New Jack City (1991, dir. Mario Van Peebles)

    I had been wanting to watch this for awhile. It's like a blaxploitation version of Scarface. Set during the exploding crack epidemic in NYC, there wasn't any lightheartedness to it, but well made and very tense at times. Snipes and Ice-T were both great. As was Chris Rock in an early film role. Some fella called "Dutch Angle" should have been top billed.

    I also realized that I have only been watching "first viewing" movies so far this month, but unintentionally. I think I'll keep it up for the remainder of the month.

    1. What exactly is "Regional Horror!" day supposed to be? Should I be watched a Canadian horror because I'm from Canada? Or is something else meant by this?

    2. That is a good question, Paul. I do not think there is a single definition of regional horror, but it seems to involve a horror film made outside of any studio support. Does that mean any independent horror film qualifies? I guess the regional term comes into play when a film is made in a particular area. It could be Pittsburgh for Night of the Living Dead, Michigan for The Evil Dead, or Florida for the William Grefe films. As for Canada, does a tax-shelter film from the 1970s and '80s count?

    3. So something that is completely independent and usually set in one locale. I found a list on letterbox which will be useful to select a movie.

      Regional Horror https://boxd.it/gkc0

  11. Foxy Brown (1974)

    Woke up way too early and couldn't get back to sleep, so I was able to squeeze in some Junesploitation before work this morning.

    I dug Foxy Brown. It's got great music, fun fight scenes, a pretty raw, dangerous-feeling car stunt opener, and some good comedic beats sprinkled in. Pam Grier kicks ass as the titular hero (pun not intended, but acknowledged). The tone of the movie was pretty light and goofy and fun for most of the runtime, but Grier is so instantly charismatic that when Foxy is put into a few real moments of peril, that tone manages to shift pretty quickly into a much more serious gear... and then back into a fun action feel as soon as she's out of harm's way. That was one of the things that most struck me as I watched this.

    The cast of villains is pretty fun, and the intense, almost creepy romance between lead villainess, Miss Katherine, and her lead hunky enforcer, Steve, felt fun an unique. The payoff of how Foxy Brown exploits that relationship for her ultimate revenge was pretty great, too.

    I didn't totally vibe with one of Grier's other blaxploitation flicks, Coffy, when I watched it a few years back, so I was glad I was able to get on Foxy Brown's wavelength a little better. I need to rewatch Coffy sometime--I'm hoping maybe it just caught me in a weird/distracted mood, and I might enjoy it more the second time around.

  12. IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO! (1968)
    D/W/P: Charles Martin / M: Harry Sukman
    Escaped convict Raymond St. Jacques (THEY LIVE, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM) hitches a ride with a chatty Kevin McCarthy who knows more about the situation than he lets on; he’s got his own plan for hitcher. But St. Jacques claims his own innocence & is on the path to clear his name. The southern cops, vengeful locals & the unique circumstances put in motion by McCarthy keep this proto-blaxploitation flick suspenseful. St. Jacques has flashbacks of how he was falsely convicted of murder & how he met girlfriend Barbara McNair (Jess Franco’s VENUS IN FURS), who also sings the theme song. Dana Wynter (the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with McCarthy, AIRPORT) plays McCarthy’s wife, Royal Dano is the murdered girl’s father, Steve Sandor (BONNIE’S KIDS, STRYKER) is the girl’s beau, Clark Gable-type John Russell (RIO BRAVO, PALE RIDER) is the sheriff & Ann Prentiss (CALIFORNIA SPLIT) remembers St. Jacques. The legal conclusions are probably as airtight as any ‘60s adventure, but St. Jacques is a righteous lead & it’s tough not to get behind his cause. Based on a novel by Chester Himes.

  13. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

    I have been wanting to watch this one for YEARS and I finally decided today was the day!

    After establishing Sweetback's brothel background, we quickly get to see Sweetback take on The Man. I will have "Run Sweetback! Run Motherfucker!" In my head for days.