Film Review: Shaft (1971)

Release Date: June 25th, 1971 (Los Angeles)
Directed by: Gordon Parks
Written by: Ernest Tidyman, John D. F. Black
Based on: Shaft by Ernest Tidyman
Music by: Issac Hayes, Johnny Allen
Cast: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 100 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t let your mouth get your ass in trouble.” – John Shaft

When I was a kid, two movies introduced me to the blaxploitation genre and black cinema of the ’70s. Those films were Dolemite and Shaft. Since that time, I have gone on to immerse myself in the genre and to try and soak up all it has to offer. While I still like Shaft, it feels like diet blaxploitation, as it is pretty light when compared to some of the edgier and less commercially marketable stuff of the era.

But the thing is, Shaft really kicked the door down and left it wide open for all the other movies to come rushing in right after it. It wasn’t the first film of its kind but it was the first to make a massive impact and to help these films crossover with a bigger audience. Shaft went beyond the inner city theaters and bled into suburban America and eventually, it grew beyond that as well. Today, it’s widely considered to be a classic from its time period.

Shaft is just a really refined picture for what it is. It feels bigger and larger and less grindhouse-y. It was put out by a major studio and when compared to the blaxploitation films before it, it just has a sort of professional touch and a magic about it. That’s not to take anything away from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and Cotton Comes to Harlem but Shaft had a feel of Hollywood legitimacy to it. Granted, I prefer a lot of the lower budget blaxploitation stuff like Dolemite but I have to respect Shaft for what it accomplished and what that meant for its era in black filmmaking.

Plus, Richard Roundtree is perfect as the super cool, no nonsense, badass John Shaft. There aren’t a lot of men that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Roundtree and have his sort of presence. Okay, maybe Fred Williamson and Jim Brown but you get the picture, Roundtree is one badass MFer.

Moses Gunn is also in this and he has a strong presence as well. Gunn is a well versed actor that can be tough as hell and also quite sweet. He’s great as a domineering gangster in this film yet he was also incredible in The NeverEnding Story, which saw him play a role that was really the antithesis to his role here. I just love seeing Gunn in things and he also has these very powerful looking hands that draw attention to themselves and add an extra bit of mystique to his characters.

Shaft has good action elements to it but not as much as I’d like in an action crime film. Roundtree’s attitude and swagger certainly makes up for the lack of gun play and fisticuffs though.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: The Shaft sequels and TV series, as well as the Shaft reboot with Sam Jackson. Also goes well with SuperflyCotton Comes to Harlem and Detroit 9000.

Film Review: Bucktown (1975)

Also known as: Bucktown, USA (alternate title)
Release Date: July 2nd, 1975
Directed by: Arthur Marks
Written by: Bob Ellison
Music by: Johnny Pate
Cast: Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Thalmus Rasulala, Tony King, Carl Weathers

Essaness Pictures, Plitt Theaters, American International Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

“You’re not going to kill me. News travels fast. It’s bound to get to the state troopers. If they ask any questions, you’re gonna tell your black mayor to tell them that you’re holding the chief of police for breaking thew law. No, you’re gonna keep me alive. ‘Cause I’m gonna keep you black asses from burning in hell! ” – Chief Patterson

This is probably my favorite Fred Williamson movie after Black Caesar. Plus, it also has the always dynamite Pam Grier, Thalmus Rasulala, who I enjoyed in Blacula, as well as a small role for a young Carl Weathers, just before he’d go on to be immortalized as Apollo Creed, a year later, in Rocky.

The plot for Bucktown isn’t wholly original but that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad one either. Fred Williamson comes to town after his brother’s death in order to bury him and settle his estate. He learns of the deep corruption in the town, which was instrumental in his brothers death. He decides to call in some friends to help him clean up the town from the dirty cops and politicians. While they succeed, these friends decide to rule the town themselves, making things even worse than they were to begin with.

The narrative has a lot in common with several westerns, which I know Williamson was a fan of and he even went on to make a few. This just had the blaxploitation twist to it, where the corrupt officials were bigoted racists and the people being oppressed were black. But it is clever in how it shows that the immediate solution, having a town run by their own people, faces the same challenges when it comes to power, greed and control.

Fred Williamson really commanded the screen in this. Not that that has ever been a challenge for him but his presence here is powerful just like in Black Caesar and Boss Nigger. Pam Grier obviously carries her own and adds a level of gravitas that enhances the badass nature of this motion picture. Man, I love Grier and Williamson and seeing them come together, being on the same page, fighting for the same thing is a real treat.

The finale of the picture sees Williamson take on his former friends in a S.W.A.T. tank. He blows up a car by smashing into it, crashes through the enemy’s stronghold wall and unloads bullets into the thugs that he was responsible for bringing to town.

While not the greatest film in the blaxploitation genre, Bucktown is still a high octane affair that felt tailor made for all of Williamson’s strengths and none of his weaknesses.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Black CaesarHell Up In HarlemCoffy and Foxy Brown.

Film Review: Detroit 9000 (1973)

Also known as: The Holy Hill Caper (working title), Detroit Heat (video title), Police Call 9000 (Canada), S.O.S. Black Guns (France), Call Detroit 9000 (UK & Ireland)
Release Date: August, 1973 (Detroit)
Directed by: Arthur Marks
Written by: Orville H. Hampton
Music by: Luchi de Jesus
Cast: Alex Rocco, Hari Rhodes, Vonetta McGee, Herb Jefferson Jr., Ella Edwards, Scatman Crothers

General Film Corporation, Rolling Thunder Pictures (1998 re-release), 106 Minutes

Review:

“Was this a honky caper to keep black power from taking over the state Senate?” – Reporter

Detroit 9000 was originally marketed as a blaxploitation film during the height of that genre’s run. In reality, it is less blaxploitation and more urban crime thriller.

It was never hugely successful but it had a resurgence in the late ’90s when Quentin Tarantino helped to get it in the public eye by sampling it on his Jackie Brown soundtrack and by helping to get it redistributed into some theaters. A DVD release followed that.

The film stars Alex Rocco and I love seeing him in his younger days. He’s a guy who I’ve appreciated in just about everything he’s done. Here, he plays a cop trying to do things by the book in a town full of corruption, crime and racial tension. His partner is black and played by Hari Rhodes. The two of them had a dynamic relationship that works well on screen.

You also get to see Vonetta McGee, one of the queens of blaxploitation cinema, and Scatman Crothers as a charismatic preacher.

The one thing that this film had working for it was the action. Sure, there are some flaws, like a noticeable squib on a guy’s neck before it blows open and that same guy firing an assault rifle in the most nonsensical way possible, but this picture is action heavy with a lot of gravitas.

It also feels gritty and real. While that was normal for urban movies of the era, this one just has an extra level of authenticity. It was filmed on location in Detroit and the city really is a character in this film in the same way that New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles really came to life in some of the top film-noir pictures of the 1940s.

I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would. I’m a fan of blaxploitation flicks and while this isn’t a true blaxploitation picture, it was kind of better than that style’s average offering due to being more of a straight up crime picture. Yes, racial issues were at the forefront but this felt less like a political and social statement and more like a buddy cop action movie that just happened to take place in that cinematic landscape.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Cotton Comes to HarlemBlack CaesarThe MackTruck Turner and Bucktown.

Film Review: Slaughter (1972)

Also known as: Massacre (France), Masacre (Mexico), Kill Julian Drake (working title)
Release Date: August 16th, 1972 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jack Starrett
Written by: Mark Hanna, Don Williams
Music by: Luchi de Jesus
Cast: Jim Brown, Stella Stevens, Rip Torn

American International Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

“You’re really far out, you know that? I mean we go out to that house and let them know we are lookin’ to get killed, and all of a sudden your sittin’ on top of the world like your King Shit! Man, you’re weird Slaughter, I mean goddammit, you’re just weird!” – Harry

Jim Brown is a badass and there is no question that the man could pretty much beat the crap out of anyone else in his presence. However, he never seemed to have the command of the screen in the same way that Fred Williamson, Issac Hayes, Jim Kelly, Rudy Ray Moore and Richard Roundtree had. He was sexy, had a certain panache and could carry his own but it had to be hard to compete with the more charismatic male stars who were also making their mark in the blaxploitation era. Regardless, Brown still has an acting career that has lasted longer than the others.

I think that the reason why is because what you see is what you get. I think Jim Brown just plays Jim Brown. Sure, from film to film he has a different occupation or a different purpose. At the core of all his characters though, is authentic Jim Brown.

I feel like Brown’s vehicles also weren’t as good as the other blaxploitation stars. In all honesty, this is probably his best film of that era and it isn’t very good. It’s also not bad but it’s pretty tame and just lacks the style and energy of the other films in the genre.

I do like that this primarily takes place in Mexico though. It isn’t a rehash of the American urban blaxploitation shtick and gives us something refreshing while keeping a familiar formula. Jim Brown plays an ex-Green Beret that has to avenge the murder of is parents. This takes him to Mexico where he must take on an Italian drug cartel and get to a final showdown with the great Rip Torn, who makes a solid heavy in this.

The finale of the film was pretty good but just about everything else is fairly mundane. One thing that was annoying about this movie is that it often times used these weird fish-eye effect action shots that felt like they were cut into the editing just sort of randomly. These shots looked bad and were a distraction to the flow of the action.

Slaughter just isn’t very exciting or engaging. You want to really like Jim Brown’s character but he just never seems to turn the volume up enough.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: Other Jim Brown ’70s pictures: Slaughter’s Big Rip-OffBlack GunnI Escapred From Devil’s IslandThree the Hard Way, etc.

Film Review: Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

Also known as: Blacula II, Blacula is Beautiful, Blacula Lives Again!, The Name is Blacula
Release Date: June 27th, 1973
Directed by: Bob Kelljan
Written by: Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig, Maurice Jules
Music by: Bill Marx
Cast: William Marshall, Pam Grier, Don Mitchell, Michael Conrad, Lynne Moody, Richard Lawson

Power Productions, American International Pictures, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Your bread, man, all of it! Or are we gonna have to become anti-social and kick your ass?” – Pimp, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any ‘bread’ on me, and as for ‘kicking my ass’ I’d strongly suggest you give it careful consideration before trying.” – Blacula/Mamuwalde

Blacula was a better than decent attempt at merging blaxploitation cinema with classic horror. It also did fairly well for American International, so a sequel was pretty much a no brainer.

William Marshall came back but that was it. But if you need to find someone to replace Vonetta McGee, one of the queens of blaxploitation pictures, you hire the other queen, Pam Grier.

This film also brings in a voodoo twist and its a voodoo ritual that resurrects the bones of Blacula and brings him back into the world once again. Grier also plays a voodoo practitioner that becomes the apple of Blacula’s eye since his beloved African princess isn’t in this tale. All things considered, while I loved Marshall and McGee playing opposite of one another, I really liked Marshall’s chemistry with Grier too.

The gist of the story is about how a voodoo priestess, Lisa Fortier, chooses an apprentice to be her successor that isn’t the man destined to be her true heir. The rejected heir becomes outraged, buys the bones of Blacula and uses his powers to bring the vampire back to life. The evil voodoo heir needs Blacula to help him get revenge but Blacula turns him into a vampire and enslaves his spirit. As the film rolls on, Blacula ends up with a large vampire horde that is hard for him to control and after being smitten with Grier’s Lisa, he must protect her from his own children of the night.

While this isn’t as good as the first Blacula, it isn’t a huge step down either. I liked Grier, a lot. I also liked the voodoo element and the fact that it came with its own twists and powers that could be exploited in this tale of hungry rogue vampires. Plus, William Marshall just looked so comfortable in the role. While he isn’t the traditional Dracula, he brings a certain gravitas and legitimacy to the Dracula mythos and holds his own against some of the greats. He’s certainly better as a Dracula-esque character than the vast majority of actors who stepped into the role of a vampiric aristocrat.

Scream Blacula Scream was good enough to at least warrant another sequel but alas, this was the last film in the short-lived Blacula series. There have been rumors of a remake for years but nothing has ever actually materialized. But I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Blacula as the undead never truly stay dead.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Blacula, of course! I also like watching these paired with those two Count Yorga movies from the same era and also put out by American International.

Film Review: Black Mama, White Mama (1973)

Also known as: Chains of Hate (alternate), Women In Chains (Canada), Hot, Hard and Mean (UK), Chained Women (Philippines), Frauen in Ketten (Germany)
Release Date: January 19th, 1973
Directed by: Eddie Romero
Written by: H. R. Christian
Based on: an original story by Joseph Viola, Jonathan Demme
Music by: Harry Betts
Cast: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov, Sid Haig

Four Associates Ltd., American International Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“Some jive-ass revolution don’t mean shit to me!” – Lee Daniels

This film has been on my radar for years but I never had the opportunity to watch it until recently. I expected it to be a “women in prison” film but with the girls on the run and chained together while they spit racist shit back and forth at each other. However, it is a much better movie than that and to be completely honest, I was surprised about how good this movie actually is.

But really, I shouldn’t be surprised about the film’s quality, as Pam Grier has “the thing”. I can’t really define “the thing” but it’s this quality certain actors have that just makes them standout and rise above everything around them, as a beacon of absolute awesomeness, even if they are in a film that is total shit. Luckily, this film isn’t total shit, so it’s even better than just it’s great star.

Grier does have some help though because Margaret Markov, the white girl chained to her, is really damn good in her role too. You actually care about these girls and their separate agendas where in any other movie like this, you really wouldn’t give a shit and just hoped that violence or a titty were going to pop into the next shot.

Black Mama, White Mama also features Sid Haig in what is now one of my favorite roles he’s ever played. He’s basically a white cowboy criminal kingpin that wears colorful shirts, a sweet hat and rules his particular island of the Philippines with a big posse and big guns.

This starts as a standard “women in prison” movie, except that it takes place (and was shot) in the Philippines. Then there is an escape when the prison bus carrying the girls is attacked. One wants to go one way, to reach a boat with a lot of money, the other wants to go the other way, to her boyfriend and to help fight a revolution to free the island from tyranny. There are police in pursuit, a Filipino kingpin in pursuit, an American kingpin in pursuit, revolutionaries in pursuit, dogs in pursuit and a whole lot of sexy women running away from all of it.

Black Mama, White Mama is exceptional when looking at it within the context of being some throwaway, run of the mill, sexploitation, grindhouse, “women in prison” movie. It feels less grindhouse-y and more like something Cannon Films would make in the ’80s.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: Other Pam Grier movies from the era. It’s not a standard “women in prison” film and it’s not an urban action drama but any Grier film will still probably flow well with this regardless.

Film Review: Blacula (1972)

Release Date: August 25th, 1972
Directed by: William Crain
Written by: Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig
Music by: Gene Page
Cast: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas, Gordon Pinsent, Charles Macaulay, Thalmus Rasulala, Elisha Cook Jr.

American International Pictures, 92 Minutes

Review:

“You shall pay, black prince. I shall place a curse of suffering on you that will doom you to a living hell. I curse you with my name. You shall be… Blacula! ” – Dracula

Most people don’t seem to know that William Marshall was a damn good opera singer. However, Blacula is still what he is most known for. That’s cool though, because Blacula is an awesome mashup of blaxploitation and classic horror.

In this film, we see an African prince and his bride go to Dracula’s castle to convince him to help in stopping slavery. Dracula laughs this off and makes jokes about enslaving the prince’s wife. Eventually a scuffle breaks out and Dracula turns the prince into a vampire. A few hundred years later, the prince’s casket is sold to this gay couple from Los Angeles. They bring it home and inadvertently unleash Blacula on the city. It doesn’t take long, however, for Blacula to discover a woman that is the spitting image of his long dead wife. He falls head over heels in love with her and after some time, she feels the same way.

Other than Marshall, the film stars Vonetta McGee as the apple of his eye. McGee was in a ton of blaxploitation films and has had a pretty good career because of how prominent she was in B-movies in the 1970s. There is also Thalmus Rasulala, who plays a doctor that suspects vampiric activity. Rasulala was in other blaxploitation films Cool BreezeWillie DynamiteBucktown and Friday Foster. He also starred alongside Dean Martin in his last leading film role, Mr. Ricco. Rasulala was also in RootsAbove the LawNew Jack City and a few other notable movies.

As a horror film, this fits well within the style of a typical American International offering from the early ’70s. Sure, it’s low budget but it’s the kind of low budget that has some style and substance to it. It’s a really good B-horror film with a decent cast and some hokey fun.

As a blaxploitation picture, the film is a little light. It has some political and social commentary but it is far from heavy handed and really just serves the purpose of setting up the film. After that, it just goes on to keep the film in a setting populated by mostly black characters. There are some club scenes and a hip urban ’70s vibe but ultimately, this falls more into being a horror film in the vein of AIP’s other offerings.

I really liked William Marshall in this role and Vonetta McGee is always great to see, as she knows how to hold her own and is just as tough as the men she used to share the screen with.

Blacula is just an enjoyable, cool, fun and entertaining film for its era.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Scream Blacula Scream, of course! I also like watching these paired with those two Count Yorga movies from the same era and also put out by American International.