Bucktown (1975)

Action, Blaxploitation, Movie Reviews

bucktown-1On paper, Bucktown is a dream come true for blaxploitation fans; although Pam Grier and ”The Hammer” Fred Williamson would go on to star in other movies together, Bucktown would mark the first time the King and Queen would share the screen.  With that being said, does a movie with such automatic high expectations deliver when it comes to living up to it’s potential?  Well fear not my funk soul brothers and sisters; not only does it live up to expectations, but it just so happens to be one of the best blaxploitations ever made.

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Bucktown opens with Duke (Fred Williamson) getting off the train in Missouri to tend his dead brothers affairs; in the will, Duke also inherited his brothers nightclub, so he decides to hang around and keep it open until he can legally sell it.  However, the cops of Bucktown are corrupt rednecks who try to extort his business for $100 a week, which only causes Duke to fight back and call in some of his friends from back in the city, led by Roy (Thalmus Rasulala).  Once Duke, Roy and the gang clear the town of the corrupt police officers all seems well and good; that’s until Roy and his friends realize the gold mine they’ve walked into and start extorting the town for more money than the cops.  Now it’s up to Duke to put a stop to the people he brought in to help him in the first place.

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In order to fully appreciate Bucktown, it’s important to leave your logic at the door, and accept that 1970’s Missouri was like The Old West; a place where the sheriffs were corrupt and outlaws could take over the town without law enforcement batting so much as an eyelid.  But we don’t watch blaxploitation for its regard for the law and consequences for breaking it; these folks are bad asses who do whatever the hell the please whenever they feel like it.  Bucktown is essentially a western; only cowboy hats have been swapped for flannel jackets and saloons have upgraded to flashy red light district nightclubs.

Pam Grier and Fred Williamson are on top form, but those used to seeing Pam as Foxy Brown (1974) or Coffy (1973) might be disappointed.  Here her role is much more subdued; opting instead to play a supporting role as Fred’s nagging love interest instead of the femme fatale killing machine we all love.  This marked a change of pace for her at the time, and she played her part with conviction still, demonstrating a versatility that would contribute to her getting the part of Jackie Brown (1997) 22 years later .  This movie is the Fred Williamson and Thalmus Rasulala show; and even though we don’t get to see as much of Pam as we’d like to, it doesn’t detriment the film at all.

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The action scenes are nice and gritty, like a 70’s action movie should be; there’s some bar fights which include pool queues being broken and bottles being smashed; the brawling is rugged and manly, with enough testosterone on show than a John Wayne movie, and a final showdown that makes you want to go build a shelf afterwards just to score man points.  Right after I watched this movie I put on a Lumberjack shirt, grabbed my axe and took to the forest to chop wood as I dreamed about being able to fight in fine clothes and bed women like Pam Grier.

So is Bucktown worth your time?  If you can track down a copy I strongly urge you to check it out.  It doesn’t break any new ground, but it delivers all the goods a gritty action movie should.  The setting of Missouri is a welcome change as well; blaxploitation movies were mostly set in cities, with the exception of a handful.  I love Bucktown and so would you.  8/10

Director:

Arthur Marks

Writer:

Bob Ellison

Starring:

Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Thalmus Rasulala, Carl Weathers

Genre:

Action, Blaxploitation

Running Time:

94 min

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Movie Review: Blacula (1972)

Blaxploitation, Horror, Movie Reviews

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The majority of blaxploitation movies dealt with pimps, prostitutes, cops, revenge and action; but every once in awhile the umbrella extended to scares as well – or they attempted to anyway.  Blacula was the first of the horror hybrids and it set the standard for the camp, funky updates of universally beloved horror tales that followed; this basically consisted of rewording ”black” into the title, thus giving us titles such as Blackenstein (1973) and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde.  But who loves blaxploitation for its subtly.  Now where as the other 2 were nothing more than trashy fun, the Blacula movies were lifted by a terrific central performance from William Marshall; an actor who made his name on the stage.  Blacula was never going to win any Academy Awards: it’s campier than being molested by a cub scout leader.  But Williams performance is strong enough to add depth, providing an emotional tragic love story to go along with the story of an cape wearing African American vampire visibly walking the streets of 20th Century New York.

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The film begins in the 18th century: William Marshall plays Prince Mamuwalde, an African prince who travels to Transylvania on a political mission to end slavery.  Count Dracula, however, is a cracker who doesn’t want to sign a treaty to end slavery, so he curses the Prince with the immortal life of a bloodsucking fiend of the night and locks him in a coffin, after bestowing him with the name Blacula, of course.  That wasn’t just a nickname he picked up along the way.  Skip to 200 years later and he wakes up in modern day Los Angeles; it’s a time of the funk and lots of punks with tasty blood to drink.  But he meets a woman who looks like his 18th century wife from Africa, so he makes it his mission to get her to fall in love with him.  However, with a police detective vampire hunter on his trail, he has a problem on his hands.

I’ve never been a fan a fan of the Dracula story, so once I got past the social commentary undertones and the African American vampire in modern times, my appreciation for Blacula ended.  It’s essentially a retelling of the classic tale; an undeniably smart, witty and fun adaptation in many ways, but overall it’s ultimately flat.  However, when you take it out of the context of its content, it can be viewed as a game changer.  As the first African American horror film, this was a case of breaking boundaries; but I don’t think that’s enough to warrant it a classic, because, at the end of the day, it lacked the scares to make it a horror film, and the laughs to make it a camp classic.  By no means is it a bad movie; it just doesn’t have enough of anything going on to make it effective or memorable, despite having a title and age old narrative you’ll never forget.  The rest is, quite frankly, rather bland.

The heart of Blacula is a love story; in horror love stories have often meant trying to survive in a world where you’re an outsider who has been shunned, maligned or hunted by those living by societies norms, and Blacula is no different.  Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent) is the Van Helsing of the story who wants to put a stake through his heart and stop him from being with his reincarnated princess.  We can sympathise with Blacula because Marshall brings humanity to the monster.

To summarise: Blacula is a ground breaking film in many regards, and a smart idea.  There’s an underlying social message of prejudice, with Dracula representing the white man who condoned slavery and the inequality of African Americans; for which I applaud this movie and give it credit it where it’s due.  The performances from the entire cast are exceptional, especially Marshall; but the material they have to work with isn’t befitting to their efforts.  All in all, Blacula is an enduring experience with a few moments of camp fun; if you want to see a better movie with a similar vibe watch Eddie Murphy’s Vampire In Brooklyn (1995), but don’t take my word for it since everyone seems to love Blacula and hates Vampire In Brooklyn.  Hopefully the sequel will be more fun than this when I check it out, but Blacula didn’t tickle my boner like I thought it would.  5/10

Director:

William Crain

Writer:

Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig

Starring:

William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas

Running Time:

93 min

Movie Review: Original Gangsters (1996)

Action, Blaxploitation, Crime, Movie Reviews

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70’s Blaxploitation meets 90’s ghetto warfare in this urban shoot ’em up co-directed by exploitation legends Larry Cohen and Fred Williamson.  The streets are mean and running amok with criminal filth; after a young basketball starlet is shot down for being hustling gang bangers, a local store owner reports the crime, but he too is gunned down by the hoodlums, which doesn’t sit too well with the neighbourhood old guard comprising of Blaxploitation icons Pam Grier, Fred Williamson and Jim Brown; expect vigilante justice.

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Social commentary about the state of America’s ghetto’s is a prevalent theme in Original Gangsters, but don’t go in expecting to leave with a deeply profound sociological awakening; this is essentially a reunion for the legends of yesteryear to get together and have a nostalgic hurrah cleaning up the streets of the trash who litter it with their crime.  Kudos is given for reapplying the classic 70’s urban vigilante tale we’ve seen from these guys countless times before to fit the Zeitgeist of 90’s African American street life stereotypes; but when you strip it to the bare bones it’s the same old song and dance.  They might be older and wiser, but it’s like nothing has changed at all.

The cast includes the aforementioned legends of Blaxploitation cinema, along with Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Ron O’Neal (Super Fly) and Robert Forster (Medium Cool), as the unwelcome and not required police detective.  It’s like getting the old gang back together on and off screen to give fans what they want and expect.  However, with age comes maturity, and every performance is that of a seasoned veteran; but that doesn’t mean they can’t still throw down.  Fred Williamson’s bruiser martial arts lands many a hood rat on their ass.

Original Gangsters is a straight up throwback to the heyday of African American action machismo; only the gangsta rap has replaced the funky soul and the villains are inner city G’s as opposed to pimps and the honkeys.  However, it ticks all of the right boxes in terms of action, performances and popcorn social commentary, so all in all; fun movie.  7/10

Directors:

Larry Cohen, Fred Williamson

Writer:

Aubrey K. Ratten

Starring:

Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Richard Roundree

Genre:

Action, Crime, Drama, Blaxploitation

Running Time:

99 min

Movie Review: Trucker Turner (1974)

Action, Blaxploitation, Crime, Movie Review

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Isaac Hayes forever left his stamp on Blaxploitation – and film as a whole – with the theme song for Shaft (1971) and the 2000 remake, starring Samuel L. Jackson.  Even if you haven’t seen either of the movies, it’s inevitable that you’ve heard the song before; unless you’ve been living under a rock your entire life, that is.  However, when Sir Isaac wasn’t writing theme songs for iconic bad asses of cinema, he was playing bad asses of his own.  The Truck might not be as well known as John Shaft, but that doesn’t make him any less of a bad mother shut yo mouth.  Trucker Turner is, without question, a stonewall classic of the Blaxploitation boom period that deserves a seat at the table alongside Coffy (1973), Black Caesar (1973) and Shaft (1971).

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Isaac Hayes plays Mac ‘Truck’ Turner, a bounty hunter who is hired to track down Gator.  When they find him, a chase ensues and Gator ends up dead; this doesn’t sit too well with his woman, Dorinda, owner of a prosperous street escort set-up, so she puts a hit out on Mac and his partner, by offering 50% of her whore profits to whoever succeeds. With the criminals unable to take down Mac, the big bad Blue brings in his own guys to do the job; and Mac and his partner must fight to survive.

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 Isaac Hayes was never trained to be an actor, nor did he possess an innate knack for the craft; but what he lacked in range and ability he made up for in charisma and cool factor.  When he enters a room, grown women turn into horny school girls and men want to be him; much of the film is spent with Hayes running around shirtless, and there’s a comical scene where he chases a would-be assailant to a roof for interrupting his post-coitus nap with his lady friend, moobs jiggling and all.  His belly might not be equipped to roll a coin down, but there’s no questioning his appeal as a bonafide stud.

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Dorinda (played by Star Trek’s very own Uhara) commands her role as a psychopathic pimp out for vengeance.  Her rage levels are through the roof as she barks obscenities at her whores and everybody who crosses her path.  It’s a marvellously unhinged performance by her and even the cities high profile criminal kingpins are wary.

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The beauty of Truck Turner lies in the execution of its simplicity.  It has everything you expect from a Blaxploitation action flick: the body is high, the scenes are action packed, the soundtrack is funky and soulful, the talk is slicker than Rick.  There’s an excessive amount of violence, car chases and gun fights.  What’s not to love?

Truck Turner is a procedural actioner that doesn’t try to be anything else.  The protagonist is a bad ass and he’s always on the go; fighting, fucking and killing.  He’s a manly men of all men and deserves to be crowned as genre royalty.

Director Jonathan Kaplan would later go on to direct some of the most popular TV shows on network television, but the exploitation gems he made during the 70’s and 80’s remain his greatest contributions to his legacy.  Trucker Turner is a raucous, rowdy romp through the mean streets of the ghetto and it’s barrels of fun.  8/10

Director:

Jonathan Kaplan

Writer:

Oscar Williams & Michael Allin

Starring:

Isaac Hayes, Nichelle Nichols, Yaphet Kotto

Genre:

Action, Crime, Blaxploitation

Running Time:

91 min

Movie Review: Cotton Comes To Harlem (1970)

Action, Blaxploitation, Comedy, Crime, Movie Review

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Variety magazine credited 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as the first ever Blaxploitation film; but the first of its kind can arguably be traced back to 1970’s Cotton Comes To Harlem, directed by the legendary Ossie Davis, who some of you will know as the African American who played JFK in Doscarelli’s cult classic, Bubba Hotep (2003).  The fact is: Cotton Comes To Harlem has all the stylistic hallmarks of a Blaxploitation movie – music, lingo, action, etc – but many would argue that it’s a simple action comedy; but that’s irrelevant when the only thing that’s important is the movie itself, and Cotton Comes To Harlem is one sweet talkin’ soul brotha of a movie.

Based on the novel by Chester Himes, Cotton Comes To Harlem follows the head busting detectives “Gravedigger” Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and “Coffin Ed” Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) as they pursue the scamming conman, Reverend O’Malley.  Along the way they encounter gangsters, militants and a host of other characters who stand between them and their target.

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The biggest compliment I can give Cotton Comes To Harlem is that it’s never boring and that it’s aged extremely well; if there isn’t a car chase there’s a shoot out; if there isn’t a shoot out there’s a brawl; and if there isn’t a brawl there’s some smooth talking exchanges between the characters, making for many moments that shift between melodrama and comedy.  The novel is regarded as an important piece of American literature, as the author was a pioneer of African American crime fiction; social commentary about race and inequality are evident in the film too, but it never gets preachy at the expense of entertainment.

I think one of the reasons that Cotton Comes To Harlem still hits home to this day is because of its social themes; with race and class issues still a problem in America, this movie still connects with people.  However, it’s not like the action and comedy haven’t stood the test of time either; these types of movies continue to find audiences because of how much fun they are, and with the popularity of Black Dynamite and even Austin Powers: Goldmember, it’s plain to see that there’s new generations continuing to be inspired by them.  Cotton Comes To Harlem was a fitting start to one of the most influential subgenres of exploitation cinema, and it’s well worth tracking down.  7/10

Director:

Ossie Davis

Writer:

Chester Himes (novel) & Arnold Perl (screenplay)

Genre:

Action, Crime, Comedy, Blaxploitation

Running Time:

97 min