Film Review: The Final Comedown (1972)

Also known as: Blast! (recut version)
Release Date: April, 1972 (Chicago)
Directed by: Oscar Williams
Written by: Oscar Williams
Music by: Grant Green, Wade Marcus
Cast: Billy Dee Williams, D’Urville Martin, Celia Kaye, Billy Durkin, Raymond St. Jacques

New World Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“Billy Dee Williams…Badder than ever!” – tagline

The Final Comedown isn’t very good but it does approach the issue of race relations in post-Civil Rights America in an uncommon way. This isn’t just about urban blacks taking it to the man, this has a deeper philosophical subtext to it and while Billy Dee Williams expresses his character’s concerns, every chance he encounters an ear, the narrative sort of pulls the rug out from under any sort of real solution.

The white man is evil, especially with a badge or a lawmaking pen. The young white liberals in the film try to right the wrongs of their parents and ancestors but even their call for justice and equality is met with an extremely violent end.

I actually liked this film more than the average bear, based off of other reviews I’ve read. Others considered this to be too preachy and to just beat its message over your head, relentlessly. While I don’t disagree with their claims of heavy handedness, within the context of the film, it works.

I thought that Billy Dee Williams was great in this, even if he spent the last half of the film, shot up and bloody, sitting in an alley. The real superstar here was D’Urville Martin. I’ve seen Martin in just about every blaxploitation film he’s ever been a part of and this is the best he’s ever been. Usually, he is a comedic sidekick or a stylish villain type. In this film he gets dramatic and is more real than I’ve ever seen him. From a serious acting standpoint, this is the high point of his short career, as he sadly died way too young.

If you are a fan of blaxploitation pictures, this one is jam packed with action. The second half of the film is essentially a street war between youthful blacks, liberal white kids and the racist police force. It is heavy handed and unapologetic but I don’t have a problem with that. I just wish Billy Dee Williams had more to do in the second half than sitting in an alley, waiting to bleed out.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: Other Billy Dee Williams pictures from the era: The Take and Hit!

Film Review: Hell Up In Harlem (1973)

Also known as: Black Caesar Part II, Black Caesar’s Sweet Revenge (working titles)
Release Date: December 16th, 1973
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Larry Cohen
Music by: Edwin Starr
Cast: Fred Williamson, Margaret Avery, Gloria Hendry, D’Urville Martin, Julius Harris

American International Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

Hell Up In Harlem is the sequel to Black Caesar. In fact, it came out in the same calendar year, as they wasted no time pumping it out. Unfortunately, it suffers from being rushed. Although it isn’t a bad picture, it just doesn’t measure up to its predecessor.

The film picks up at the end of the first movie. It keeps the plot going, as the shot and injured Tommy Gibbs is wobbling around the streets carrying the ledgers from the first picture. Due to his injury and need to recover, Gibbs puts his father in charge of the gang. While he and his father have had their issues, Gibbs trusts him with the ledgers and his entire life. Tommy Gibbs and Papa Gibbs have a falling out when Tommy is told that the elder had his ex-wife murdered. Tommy, having fallen in love with Margaret, leaves Harlem in his father’s hands and moves to Los Angeles. It is discovered that Zach, the gang member that tipped Tommy off about his ex-wife’s murder was trying to undermine Papa Gibbs rule and take control of the gang away from him. Then, all hell breaks loose.

While Larry Cohen does a decent job of keeping the vibe and tone consistent with his first picture, the lack of James Brown’s music sticks out like a sore thumb. Musically, this film isn’t bad but it doesn’t have the iconic tunes of Black Caesar and the less dynamic score hurts the film. Brown sort of legitimized the first film and not having him do the second one, has the opposite effect. But this was probably a product of the movie being rushed.

Fred Williamson is still great as Tommy Gibbs and the rest of the returning cast hold down their parts as well. It was nice seeing Julius Harris’ role expand and go in an unforeseen direction. The film does have a lot of surprises and isn’t just a retread of the first one.

In the end though, Hell Up In Harlem is not the film that Black Caesar is. Had they taken their time with it, it could have been something as exceptional as the first one. It had some things that showed promise but it just doesn’t deliver in the right way.

Rating: 5.25/10

Film Review: Black Caesar (1973)

Also known as: Godfather of Harlem (UK)
Release Date: February 7th, 1973
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Larry Cohen
Music by: James Brown
Cast: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, D’Urville Martin, Julius Harris

American International Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“Pray for him, Rufus… you were always a good boy, pray for him.” – Mama Gibbs

Fred Williamson is one of the coolest actors of all-time. Black Caesar is also one of the coolest films of all-time, even if Williamson plays an incredibly deplorable character within the picture.

Teaming up with director Larry Cohen was a perfect fit for Williamson, as well as his co-stars Gloria Hendry and D’Urville Martin. These three actors would go on to have a presence in blaxploitation pictures for a couple years while leaving their respectable marks on the genre. Cohen would go on to direct and write for decades, making other explitation films as well as some memorable monster and sci-fi movies.

Black Caesar is a remake of the 1931 gangster film Little Caesar. Except this version switches out the main character of an Italian mobster with an African-American who grew up in Harlem, a victim of an evil cop, that wanted to exact revenge while rising to power in his neighborhood despite the odds against him.

The film also features an amazing score created by James Brown. His famous songs Down and Out in New York CityThe Boss and Mama’s Dead were created for this film.

Oddly, the film was originally developed to star Sammy Davis Jr. He wanted a project to make him more than a lackey behind Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and wanted to provide all the original music. Davis ran into trouble with the IRS and couldn’t pay what was his share of the production costs. Ultimately, the film was given to Fred Williamson and James Brown and we probably got a better film due to the alteration. I can’t imagine a Sammy Davis Jr. version would have been as gritty or his character, as menacing and intimidating as Williamson’s Tommy Gibbs.

The film is action packed, violent and has a certain amount of gravitas that puts it above a lot of the other blaxploitation films of the time. Williamson is just a guy that owns the screen and commands respect. Even as an unlikable murderous rapist in Black Caesar, it is hard not to have a sense of admiration for how he handles his shit: defying the man, the system and the seemingly powerful mobsters that rule New York City.

Gloria Hendry, who I have always enjoyed, has never been better. She played her darkest and most serious role out of the blaxploitation films she was in and she did a fine job. You really felt for her character and wanted her to be okay, as she was continually bullied, abused and raped by Williamson’s Gibbs. And when she found love, you wanted it to work out for her.

D’Urville Martin is typical D’Urville Martin, except he is a crooked preacher in this, which just makes him more hilarious and entertaining.

Overall, Black Caesar is one of the best blaxploitation films ever made. It also spawned a sequel that reunited the cast and director. That one is called Hell Up In Harlem, which I will have to re-watch and review in the very near future.

Rating: 7.75/10

Film Review: Dolemite (1975)

Release Date: April 26th, 1975
Directed by: D’Urville Martin
Written by: Rudy Ray Moore, Jerry Jones
Music by: Don Cornelius
Cast: Rudy Ray Moore, D’Urville Martin, Jerry Jones, Lady Reed, Hy Pyke, West Gale, John Kerry, Vainus Rackstraw

Dimension Pictures, Xenon Pictures, 90 Minutes 

dolemiteReview:

Dolemite is not the best film to come out of the golden age of blaxploitation cinema but it is hard to find another flick in the genre that is more fun.

Rudy Ray Moore is a great American! Well, mainly because he gave us the great Dolemite character. For those who don’t know, Dolemite is one of the coolest, most bad ass motherfuckers in the history of motion pictures. If you don’t believe me, he has no problem telling you.

Dolemite was created and written by Rudy Ray Moore and Jerry Jones, who both star in the film. And no, it is not Jerry Jones the blood sucking Sith that owns the Dallas Cowboys. The film is directed by blaxploitation regular D’Urville Martin, who also stars in the movie as Dolemite’s nemesis Willie Green.

The story sees Dolemite, a pimp who is behind bars after being framed by Willie Green and corrupt cops, set free in an effort to stop Green and to expose the corruption of the local police force. Dolemite then spends 90 minutes talking in rhyme, kicking everyone’s ass and banging hoes. He even has a brief run-in with the Hamburger Pimp, watch the film and see.

From a technical standpoint, Dolemite has a lot of issues. The fight choreography is mostly horrible, the acting is bad, the direction is questionable and there are a lot of big mistakes – mics in the shot and objects obstructing the view.

Technical blunders aside, Dolemite is a delightful picture. It has a charm and charisma about it. Rudy Ray Moore is just a really likable guy, even if you have issues with his lifestyle choices. He is an urban anti-hero and while he may be involved in seedy businesses, he still wants the best for his people and his community.

Like all blaxploitation films, this one rides on the idea that the system is corrupt and racist and that a black hero needs to fight back and take down the man. Dolemite spends the majority of the picture, kicking the man’s ass and putting things right.

I have always loved Dolemite. It is a fun movie in spite of its flaws. It is utterly hilarious from beginning to end and it is a film that is smart enough not to take itself too seriously. It looked like a fun experience for all those involved and it really shows.

Film Review: Boss Nigger (1975)

Release Date: February 26th, 1975 (USA)
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Written by: Fred Williamson
Music by: Leon Moore
Cast: Fred Williamson, D’Urville Martin, William Smith, R.G. Armstrong

Dimension Pictures, 87 Minutes

boss-niggerReview:

A controversially titled film, sure. But it was rated PG in the 1970s when people weren’t pussies.

Plus, it is fun as hell and if you love old blaxploitation flicks, this one is certainly worth your time. It stars Fred Williamson, who is perfect in everything he does, and it is a blaxploitation western, which there just aren’t enough of.

The film follows Williamson’s Boss and his sidekick Amos (D’Urville Martin) as they make themselves the law in a mostly white town in the Old West. They are bounty hunters in pursuit of an outlaw and bide their time in the small town, as they chase women and make the bigots pay for their bigotry.

The dialogue in this film is over the top and hilarious. The blatant racism is actually refreshing, as this film exists in a world where political correctness hadn’t infected the guilt-ridden, humorless minds of society. And the blatant racism isn’t just there for shits and giggles, it is a reflection of the times when this film was made and enhanced by the historic times it represents. There is a definitive purpose for its inclusion, as it is at the heart of what drove many blaxploitation films of the 1970s – not to mention regular films and television of that era. Hell, something like All In the Family or The Jeffersons would never fly today on prime time network television.

Boss Nigger capitalizes on the vibe and attitude during the height of the Black Power Movement. It shows black characters in a role of superiority and exploits the paranoia held by many whites during this time of social change. In fact, it uses the social struggles of blacks in the post-slavery era of America as a cultural bridge to the 1970s, following the changes brought about by social reform and the battle for black civil rights. The film makes the viewer identify with and cheer for the hero, who is challenged by the rules and societal norms of a racist white America.

Fred Williamson has never not been a complete bad ass and this is him at his best. D’Urville Martin is fantastic as the comedic relief and despite its over the top blaxploitation shtick, it is a good movie on par with many of the low budget spaghetti westerns of its day. It plays like a parody of the more famous Leone westerns but has its own raw and gritty style.

It is backed by a great soundtrack that employs a lot of soul and funk, which was customary with the blaxploitation genre.

If you want to have a damned good time for 87 minutes with a bit of comedy, creative social commentary and a gun-waving bad ass, then this is your movie.