That’s Blaxploitation! 15: BLACK SHAMPOO (Dimension Pictures 1976)


Remember the Warren Beatty film SHAMPOO, about sexual and political attitudes in the Swingin’ 70’s? Well, BLACK SHAMPOO starts off as the Blaxploitation version, as super-stud Mr. Jonathan takes good care of all the follicle and sexual needs of the Horny Housewives of Beverly Hills – then veers sharply down Sleazy Street with lots of smutty scenes of simulated sex, flamingly gay stereotypes, and a violently gory finale! Yep, they truly don’t make ’em like this anymore; the “woke” crowd would never let ’em get away with it (except of course for the rich white bad guy!).

While Jonathan is out satisfying his amorous customers, his receptionist Brenda gets a visit from a trio of thugs representing Mr. Wilson, a greasy drug dealing crook who wants her back in his arms – and bed. The hoods trash Jonathan’s salon and rough up squeaky-voiced gay hairdresser Artie. Brenda goes back to Wilson so as not to cause Jonathan any more problems, but when she discovers Wilson’s secret ledger detailing his dirty deeds, Brenda runs back to the rugged Mr. J, and the two take off to his mountain cabin hideaway.

Lead henchman Maddox and the other thugs return to the salon and make Artie talk – by shoving a red-hot curling iron up his ass! They track Jonathan and Brenda down and, after running over J’s loyal old caretaker over, the chase is on. Mr. Jonathan turns badass and takes out the two lesser thugs with a chainsaw (Tobe Hooper would be proud!), but he’s overtaken by Wilson and Maddox. They try to get Jonathan to tell them where the ledger is by beating Brenda’s naked butt with a pool cue when, just before things get real nasty, the old caretaker rushes in and hacks up Maddox with a hatchet!  Jonathan and Wilson struggle, until the macho Mr. J emerges victorious by ramming that pool stick straight through Wilson’s torso!!

Yep, it’s Exploitation Heaven, chock full of 70’s-style sex’n’violence, though  the acting leaves much to be desired. John Daniels (Jonathan), who kinda-sorta resembles a Black Warren Beatty if you squint real hard, is as wooden as that aforementioned pool cue. Tanya Boyd’s (Brenda) emoting is Daytime Soap Opera level; in fact, she later had a long run as Celeste on DAYS OF OUR LIVES. Joe Ortiz (Wilson) is as stereotypical a rich white sleazebag as there is. Skip E. Lowe (Artie) camps it up mercilessly. He’s probably the best known of the bunch though; his long-running cable access show SKIP E. LOWE LOOKS AT HOLLYWOOD inspired Martin Short to create his comic persona Jiminy Glick. Maddox is played by Jack Mehoff… wait, WHAAAT?? “Jack Mehoff”?!? Geez, couldn’t actor William Bonner have come up with a more believable pseudonym, like say… Matthew Calamari!?!

Director/cowriter Greydon Clark was a graduate of the Al Adamson School of Filmmaking, having worked as an actor in the Grade-Z auteur’s SATAN’S SADISTS, HELL’S BLOODY DEVILS, and DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN. I suppose he wanted to prove he could make movies just as good (or bad, depending on your point of view) as Adamson, and despite the rock-bottom budget and amateurish cast he was saddled with, he handles the material fairly well. Many of his shots are well composed, and I like the way Clark transitions from one scene to the next by fading into a negative image. Clark continued to make films through 1998, with titles like SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS, the bizarre sci-fi WITHOUT WARNING (starring a slumming Jack Palance and Martin Landau), the totally 80’s teen flick JOYSTICKS, FINAL JUSTICE with Joe Don Baker, the LAMBADA rip-off THE FORBIDDEN DANCE, and his last to date, STARGAMES.

Is BLACK SHAMPOO a good movie? Well, considering the limitations Clark had to work with, it’s not that bad. He gives it his best shot, and though I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again, I wouldn’t change the channel if I came across it, either. It’s an artifact of another era, and as such deserves a look, especially for fans of 70’s Grindhouse/Exploitation flicks.

More in the “That’s Blaxploitation” series:

BLACK BELT JONES  – BLACULA  – FOXY BROWN  – ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN  – The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga  – TOGETHER BROTHERS  – TROUBLE MAN  – SUPER FLY  – THREE THE HARD WAY  – HELL UP IN HARLEM  – SLAUGHTER  – SHAFT  – COTTON COMES TO HARLEM BLACK CAESAR

 

 

 

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That’s Blaxploitation! 13: BLACK CAESAR (AIP 1973)

1972’s blockbuster smash THE GODFATHER began an onslaught of gangster movies released to your neighborhood theaters and drive-ins trying to capitalize on that film’s success. American-International Pictures was right in the thick of it, and since Blaxploitation was all the rage at the time, why not combine the two hottest genres? Producer/director/genius Larry Cohen already had a script written for Sammy Davis Jr., but when Sammy backed out, AIP Boss of Bosses Samuel Z. Arkoff signed Fred “The Hammer” Williamson to star as the Godfather of Harlem, BLACK CAESAR.

BLACK CAESAR is a semi-remake of the 1932 classic LITTLE CAESAR starring Edward G. Robinson, updated for the Blaxploitation/Grindhouse crowd and spun around on it’s head by Larry Cohen. You already know how much I enjoy Cohen’s work, and the auteur doesn’t fail to deliver the goods with this one. Casting the charismatic former NFL star Williamson was a bonus, and though not the greatest actor around, Fred had a macho screen presence that rivaled 70’s icons like Eastwood and Bronson, and was perfect for the part.

The film chronicles the rise and fall of Tommy Gibbs, from his days as a shoeshine boy/gangster’s little helper in the 50’s to the top of the crime heap. Along the way, he steals some secret ledgers containing the names of all NYC’s crooked politicians and cops, giving him enough leverage to take over. Tommy’s more ruthless than Vito Corleone, as he controls his turf with an almost non-stop orgy of violence that draws the ire of both the Mafia and the bent police, led by his old nemesis Commissoner McKinney (who gave young Tommy a brutal beating as a child). Tommy’s too big now, and McKinney sets him up for a fall using his ex-girlfriend Helen as bait to retrieve those ledgers.

The totally unhinged climax involves Tommy, McKinney, and a shoeshine box as a weapon of ass-whoopin’ destruction, a wild taxi ride after an assassination attempt on Tommy goes awry, and an ambiguous finish that leaves room for a sequel, HELL UP IN HARLEM (which I previously reviewed last year). Cohen is a master at hiding his budget limitations, with close-ups and lots of location footage on the streets of New York (one scene that drew a smile: a wounded Tommy passes a theater that happens to be showing THE GODFATHER!). He’s a great visual storyteller, and his off-the-hook style always holds your interest… or at least, mine!

The cast is loaded with familiar character actors: Art Lund as the racist cop McKinney, Val Avery as Mafia boss Cardoza, William Wellman Jr. as Tommy’s lawyer Coleman, Myrna Hansen as Coleman’s horny wife. Gloria Hendry, a   contender for the title Queen of Blaxploitation, plays Helen, and her LIVE AND LET DIE co-star Julius Harris is Tommy’s estranged father (who played a much larger role in the sequel). BLACK CAESAR features a score by a Godfather of another kind – James Brown, who sings the funky “Down and Out in New York City” over the opening credits. Hit it, James:

That’s Blaxploitation! 12: COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (United Artists 1970)


I’m not really sure if COTTON COMES TO HARLEM qualifies as a Blaxploitation film. Most genre experts point to Melvin Van Peebles’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSS SONG and/or Gordon Parks’s SHAFT , both released in 1971, as the films that kicked off the Blaxploitation Era. Yet this movie contains many of the Blaxploitation tropes to follow, and is based on the works of African-American writer Chester Himes.

Hardboiled author Chester Himes

Himes (1909-1984) began his writing career while doing a prison stretch for armed robbery. After his short stories started being published in Esquire, he was paroled in 1936, and soon met poet Langston Hughes, who helped him get established in the literary world. Reportedly, Himes worked for a time as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers in the 40’s, but was let go when a racist Jack Warner declared he “don’t want no n*ggers on this lot” (1). His first  novel IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO (1945) drew much praise from critics (and was later made into a 1968 film). After moving to France in the 1950’s, Himes began his Harlem Detective books, a series of hardboiled novels chronicling the adventures of New York detectives Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, whose violent methods make Mike Hammer look like a Boy Scout!

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM the film updates the novel to the 1970’s, as Gravedigger and Coffin Ed cover a Harlem rally by the Reverend Deke O’Malley, a charismatic Jesse Jackson type who’s spearheading a Back to Africa movement. Masked assassins attack and begin shooting, ripping off the 87 thousand in donations, and a comic chase ensues with a bale of cotton falling out the back of an escaping truck. The money’s gone, and so is O’Malley, who’s now Digger and Ed’s prime suspect. The bale is gone, too… seems a local junkman named Uncle Bud has picked it up and sold it for twenty-five bucks! The detectives, O’Malley, and some not-so-righteous Mafia dudes all want that bale, and the chaos begins in full…

Raymond St. Jacques plays the hardcore tough cop Coffin Ed, while comedian Godfrey Cambridge is his slightly more laid-back partner Gravedigger. They returned to the roles two years later with COME BACK CHARLESTON BLUE, a not nearly as successful sequel, due in large part to not having Ossie Davis on board. Davis directed and cowrote (with Arnold Perl) the screenplay for COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, and the actor/director/writer really nails it with his keen eye for mise en scene, dialog (and dialect), and handling his cast. Davis, a star on Broadway and television as well as films, knew what he wanted and how to capture it, and the movie, though maybe not truly within the Blaxploitation canon, was highly influential in the development of the genre’s style, from the location shooting on the mean streets of Harlem to the outrageously over-the-top bad guys to the funky R&B score written by Galt McDermott (of HAIR fame).

Calvin Lockhart shines as Rev. O’Malley, a con man out to bilk his own people. Other cast members include John Anderson, J.D. Cannon, Lou Jacobi , Judy Pace, Eugene Roche , and Theodore Wilson. Cleavon Little (BLAZING SADDLES ) makes his film debut as a junkie named Lo Boy. Also making his film debut is veteran comedian Redd Foxx as Uncle Bud, a precursor to his role as Fred Sanford on the hit TV show SANFORD & SON. Foxx had toiled for decades on the “chitlin circuit” as a “dirty” comic, and his Uncle Bud, who appropriately enough gets the film’s last laugh, got him some mainstream recognition. He was signed by Norman Lear to star in the new sitcom, and the rest is TV history.

While it may not quite hit all the ‘Blaxploitation’ buzzers, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM is an important movie in the genre’s evolution. It’s a gritty crime drama with a predominantly black cast directed by a black director, and broke down some barriers, paving the way for Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks and the birth of what we now call Blaxploitation. Plus, it’s a damn good film that deserves rediscovery, and should be on your watch list.

(1) from “City of Quartz” by Mike Davies (2nd edition, Verso Books, 2006)

More ‘That’s Blaxploitation!’:

BLACK BELT JONES

BLACULA

FOXY BROWN

ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN

The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

TOGETHER BROTHERS

TROUBLE MAN

SUPER FLY

THREE THE HARD WAY

HELL UP IN HARLEM

SLAUGHTER

SHAFT

 

 

That’s Blaxpolitation! 12: SHAFT (MGM 1971)

“That Shaft is a bad mother…”

“Shut your mouth!”

“But I’m talkin’ about Shaft”

“We can dig it!”

  • – lyrics from Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from SHAFT

1971’s SHAFT, starring Richard Roundtree as “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks”, is the movie that kicked off the whole 70’s Blaxploitation phenomenon.  Sure, Mario Van Pebbles’ indie SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSS SONG was released three months earlier, but it’s X-rating kept younger audiences out of the theaters. SHAFT reached more people with it’s R rating, and the publicity machine of MGM behind it. In fact, John Shaft not only saved the day in the film, but helped save the financially strapped MGM from bankruptcy!

The opening sequence alone makes it worth watching, as the camera pans down the gritty mean streets of New York City (42nd Street, to be exact!) and that iconic funky theme song by Isaac Hayes kicks in! There’s a couple of heavy hitters on the prowl for private eye John Shaft… too bad for them! After Shaft throws one of them out of a window, his police frenemy Lt. Androzzi (Charles Cioffi ) wants some answers, including what’s brewing up in Harlem with rackets boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn).

Shaft wants to find out too, and soon discovers Bumpy’s daughter has been kidnapped, possibly by a radical militant gang led by Shaft’s old running buddy Ben Buford (Christopher St. John). He’s hired to find her, but when some of Buford’s crew are gunned down by unknown assailants, Shaft finds himself caught in a gang war between Bumpy and the Mafia. Being the ‘bad mother’ that he is, Our Man Shaft enlists the militants to aid him in rescuing Bumpy’s little girl from the mob in a wild climax.

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft is closer in spirit to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer than PI’s like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe . Shaft’s a take-no-crap kinda guy, as quick with fists as he is with his wits, and of course the ladies all love him! He’s got attitude to spare, especially when sparring with white establishment cats like Androzzi. Roundtree went on to portray the super sleuth in two sequels (1972’s SHAFT’S BIG SCORE and 1973’s SHAFT IN AFRICA) and a brief TV series (1973-74). Some of his other films include EMBASSY (1972), CHARLEY ONE-EYE (1973), EARTHQUAKE (1974), DIAMONDS (1975), and AN EYE FOR AN EYE (1981).

Director Gordon Parks (1912-2006)

Director Gordon Parks was a true renaissance man. He first gained notoriety as a photographer for LIFE Magazine, and turned his autobiographic novel THE LEARNING TREE into a 1969 Warner Brothers film, making Parks the first black director for a major studio production. He was editorial director for ESSENCE Magazine from 1970-73, and an accomplished poet, painter, and musician. Among his other screen works are the buddy-cop pic THE SUPER COPS (1974), THOMASINE & BUSHROD (1974, a sort-of Blaxploitation Bonnie & Clyde), and the biography of folk-blues legend LEADBELLY (1976). His son Gordon Parks Jr. was director of another iconic Blaxploitation flick, SUPER FLY (1972).

Parks’ photographic eye brilliantly captures New York at its down-and-dirtiest, and handles the obligatory 70’s sex scenes with taste and discretion. The script by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black (based on Tidyman’s novel) is righteous, but I know what you’ve all really been waiting for, so here’s that super-cool opening credits scene featuring Isaac Hayes’ super-funky Oscar-winning “Theme from SHAFT”!:

More in the THAT’S BLAXPLOITATION series:

BLACK BELT JONES

BLACULA

FOXY BROWN

ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN

The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

TOGETHER BROTHERS

TROUBLE MAN

SUPER FLY

THREE THE HARD WAY

HELL UP IN HARLEM

SLAUGHTER

 

That’s Blaxploitation! 11: Jim Brown in SLAUGHTER (AIP 1972)

Jim Brown  is one bad mother… no wait, that’s Richard Roundtree as Shaft! Jim Brown is one bad dude as SLAUGHTER, a 1972 Blaxploitation revenge yarn chock full of action. Brown’s imposing physical presence dominates the film, and he doesn’t have to do much in the acting department, ’cause Shakespeare this ain’t – it’s a balls to the wall, slam-bang flick courtesy of action specialist Jack Starrett (RUN ANGEL RUN, CLEOPATRA JONES , RACE WITH THE DEVIL) that doesn’t let up until the last second, resulting in one of the genre’s best.

Ex-Green Beret Slaughter (no first name given) is determined to get the bad guys who blew up his dad’s car, with dad in it! Seems dear ol’ dad was mob connected and knew too much. Slaughter’s reckless abandon in seeking revenge lands him in hot water with Treasury agents, and he’s “persuaded” to assist them in taking down the Mafiosos, who’re using a high-tech “supercomputer” to run their illegal enterprises. He’s assigned two handlers, gorgeous but icy Kim and goofy but competent Harry, and flown to an unspecified South American country that looks suspiciously like Mexico City (where most of the movie was shot).

Mafia Don Mario Felice is level-headed, while his capo Dominic Hoffo is a stone cold killer. There’s tension between the two, especially after Felice sends Hoffo’s sexy goomah Ann to spy on Slaughter – and she winds up falling under his sexual spell! There’s plenty of action and a high body count ahead as Slaughter pummels, shoots, and jive talks his way through the movie like the proverbial bull in a china shop, right up until the obligatory car chase ending, which is particularly well-edited by AIP stalwart Renn Reynolds (PSYCH-OUT, THE SAVAGE SEVEN).

Brown is in control as the title character, commanding the film with his macho charisma. He’s kind of like a Blaxploitation Bond, only with no boundaries whatsoever. The always reliable Don Gordon plays sidekick Harry, and delivers some much needed comic relief to all the badassery happening. Stella Stevens as Ann parading around in a skimpy bikini (and less!!) is definitely a highlight, and her sex scenes with Brown torch the screen. Rip Torn shows restraint as Hoffo, until the point where, in a jealous rage, he brutally beats the holy fuck out of Stella. That scene is not for the squeamish! Cameron Mitchell has what amounts to a cameo as the T-Man in charge of the operation, and Marlene Clark (GANJA AND HESS, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS) is given next to nothing to do as agent Kim.

Composer Luchi De Jesus adds a funky music score, as he did for DETROIT 9000, BLACK BELT JONES , and FRIDAY FOSTER. Yes, there is a theme song, this one by the great Billy Preston (later used in Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), which I’ll leave you with as I search for more bodacious Blaxploitation movies for your edification and enlightenment. Take it away, Billy:

That’s Blaxploitation! 10: HELL UP IN HARLEM (AIP 1973)

I’ve covered producer/writer/director Larry Cohen’s marvelously manic work in the horror genre ( IT’S ALIVE! , GOD TOLD ME TO ), but did you know the low-budget auteur also contributed some solid entries to the Blaxploitation field? Cohen’s gangster epic BLACK CAESAR starred Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and was such a smash a sequel was rushed into production and released ten months later. HELL UP IN HARLEM picks up right where the original left off, as ‘Black Caesar’ Tommy Gibbs is set up by corrupt DA DiAngelo and shot on the streets of New York City. Tommy has possession of some ledgers with the names of all the crooked politicians and cops on his payroll, and DiAngelo and his Mafioso friends want to put him out of circulation for good. Escaping via a wild taxi ride, Tommy is back in business and out for revenge.

This enables Cohen to serve up a series of crazy/cool set pieces that moves the film forward at a dizzying speed. There’s an amphibious assault on the syndicate’s compound where the bodies pile up and the gangsters are force-fed soul food! You can’t have a 70’s flick without the obligatory sex scene, and Williamson engages in a sensuous tryst with the angelic Sister Jennifer (Margaret Avery, later an Oscar nom for THE COLOR PURPLE). A moody scene highlighting 42nd Street in its sleazy 70’s heyday (there’s even a movie poster for Klaus Kinski’s ’71 giallo SLAUGHTER HOTEL!) finds the traitorous Zach (Tony King) murdering Tommy’s ex Helen (Gloria Hendry) in a dark alley. Tommy chases Zach from New York to LA in an improbable scene that winds up in a Los Angeles airport. Tommy’s final acts of retribution include slamming a beach umbrella through the sunning torso of Mafia chief Joe Frankfurter, and other gruesome highlights!

HELL UP IN HARLEM has a massive body count, crazy cartoonish violence, tough banter, and even some brief  kung-fu action thrown in for good measure! Former NFL/AFL star Williamson was one of the genre’s most charismatic stars, looking sharp in those totally outrageous 70’s outfits, and runs through the film like an All-Pro defensive back (which he was!). Julius Harris steals the show as Tommy’s Big Papa, adding to his list of colorful characterizations in films like SUPER FLY, TROUBLE MAN, and LIVE AND LET DIE. He even gets his own theme song, the funky “Big Papa”:

The funk/jazz score by Fonce Mizell (who co-wrote many of the Jackson 5’s hits) and Freddie Perren (the disco anthem “I Will Survive”) features the gruff vocal talents of Motown’s Edwin Starr, whose hits included “Agent Double-O Soul”, “Twenty Five Miles”, and the classic track “War”, later covered by Bruce Springsteen. HELL UP IN HARLEM was obviously a rush job to capitalize on the success of BLACK CAESAR, but Larry Cohen doesn’t fail to disappoint his audience, cramming in action scene after action scene. It’s sexy and violent and complete nonsense, but somehow Cohen and his cast make it work on a shoestring budget and a warped sense of humor.

Now enjoy Edwin Starr lip-synching “War”, along with the funky gyrations of the SOUL TRAIN dancers:

That’s Blaxploitation! 9: THREE THE HARD WAY (Allied Artists 1974)

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An All-Star Blaxploitation cast barrels their way through THREE THE HARD WAY, director Gordon Parks Jr.’s ultra-violent classic that dives into action from jump street and rarely lets up on the gas pedal straight through til the end. It’s the quintessential 70’s action flick whose thin plot only serves to weave a tapestry of wild action set pieces and well-staged stunt work courtesy of stunt coordinator Hal Needham and his stellar stunt gang.

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We’re lured into the action right from the get-go in a pre-credits scene of a desperate young black man escaping from a concentration-camp-like compound. He makes it to L.A. and contacts his friend, the BMW-driving, hot-shot record producer Jimmy Lait, played by NFL great Jim Brown . The kid is then assassinated in his hospital bed and Jimmy’s girl Wendy (Sheila Fraser) is kidnapped. A scene change lets us in on the plot, as white supremacist Monroe Feather and evil scientist Dr. Fortero have designed a “scientific” final solution to the race problem by spiking the water supplies of urban areas with a poison that kills only black folks!

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Jimmy then enlists two of his old pals to help foil the fiendish plot and save Wendy. Another football player turned actor, Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson, is studly Chicago PR man Jagger Daniels. Williamson was already a Blaxploitation icon for films like BLACK CEASAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM, and he and Brown have good screen chemistry (the pair would appear together in four other films). Then it’s on to Washington to recruit Mister Keyes, played by BLACK BELT JONES star Jim Kelly, whose incredible kung-fu moves made up for his lack of acting talent. These three bad-asses proceed to take on the villainous Feather’s army, winding up in an explosive finale that’s violent, bloody, and loads of fun.

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I’ve got to mention the titanic trio of topless female torturers who pop up, riding in garbed in red, white, and blue on matching Kawasakis to dole out punishment on a captured racist. They’re Countess (Playboy cover girl Pamela Serpe), Empress (Irene Tsu of HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI and PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE), and Princess (Marie O’Henry of DELIVER US FROM EVIL and DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE)….

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…and they’re a riotous highlight! They should’ve gotten their own film!

Crazy Jay Robinson, who played Caligula in THE ROBE and DEMETRIOS AND THE GLADIATORS, bring his oily talents to the role of Monroe Feather, and wasn’t even Oscar nominated (I know, I know, but he really is good in the part)! Familiar Faces include Charles McGregor (SUPER FLY’s Fat Freddie), Howard Platt (Officer Hoppy of SANFORD AND SON), Alex Rocco (THE GODFATHER), martial artist David Chow (who joins Kelly in a wild battle against some goons), and a young Corbin Bernsen. Richard Tufo composed the score, with songs by Curtis Mayfield’s old group The Impressions. Veteran Lucien Ballard capably handles the cinematography with his usual style.

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As far-fetched and unbelievable as THREE THE HARD WAY is, its non-stop action and likable stars kept me entertained all the way, and that’s exactly what I want out of a movie. It’s one of the definitive films in the Blaxploitation canon, and if you’re a fan like me, you’re gonna love this one. Get that popcorn ready, and enjoy!