That’s Blaxploitation! 16: Pam Grier is SHEBA, BABY (AIP 1975)

The Blaxploitation Explosion was beginning to wind down by 1975, but genre superstar Pam Grier had a few more aces left up her silky sleeve. One was SHEBA, BABY, a film that doesn’t get much love, probably due to its lower-then-usual budget restrictions, but I found it a more than passable entry, mainly because of Pam’s charisma. She carries the movie on her sexy shoulders and makes it watchable, budget be damned!

In this outing, we have gangsters terrorizing local Louisville, KY businesses, including Andy Shayne. Enter daughter Sheba, a Chicago PI who comes home just in time to help. The cops refuse to get involved, so when Andy’s gunned down by hoods, Sheba’s on the case, and there’s no stopping her from getting revenge on those creepy criminals…

Pam is again one bad sista, decked out in stylish 70’s fashions as she pursues the villains with aplomb. In fact, SHEBA, BABY is a Totally 70’s Time Capsule, from the properly funky score by disco/jazzman Monk Higgins to Sheba’s fire engine red Mustang to a scene set at the local Louisville Burger Chef! Sheba is a Liberated Ass-Kicker who’s not afraid to take matters into her own hands, as we see when she tortures information out of the pimped-suited, jive-talking Walker (a funny Christopher Jay) in a car wash. Another effective scene has Sheba being chased through a carnival by bad guy Pilot (an over-the-top D’Urville Martin ) and his goons, turning the tables so the hunted becomes the hunter. The  climax finds Sheba a One-Woman Aquatic Assault Force, chasing down the smarmy, rich, white, narcissistic main villain Shark (Dick Merrifield) first on a jet ski, then in a speedboat, putting an end to the rotter with a spear gun!

Director/writer William Girdler was no Hitchcock or Welles, and he didn’t pretend to be. Instead, the Louisville native cranked out films that may have had low budgets, but were highly entertaining. His Kentucky-lensed proto-slasher THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1972) caught the eye of AIP honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff, who signed Girdler up for a series of horror films. ABBY (1974) was a Blaxploitation EXORCIST ripoff featuring Carol Speed and William (BLACULA) Marshall that did big box office, but his most famous flick is 1976’s GRIZZLY, a sort of JAWS-in-the-woods about a 15-foot prehistoric bear on a rampage, with Exploitation stalwarts Christopher George, Andrew Prine, and Richard Jaeckel among the cast members. Girdler only made nine films before his untimely death in a helicopter crash while scouting locations in the Philippines in 1978 at age 31, and though his filmography isn’t exactly Oscar caliber, genre fans may want to look deeper.

Pam Grier starred in one more AIP Blaxploitation flick (FRIDAY FOSTER) before her contract with the studio ended. She spent the next twenty or so years working in lesser roles until Quentin Tarantino reintroduced her to audiences in 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, reviving her career and putting her back in the spotlight, where she belongs. SHEBA, BABY isn’t her best action film, but it puts Pam front and center in a showcase for her talents. And Sheba’s got plenty of talent, Baby!

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

 

 

 

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 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

 

Halloween Havoc!: SUGAR HILL (AIP 1974)

The worlds of Horror and Blaxploitation intersected frequently during the 70’s, beginning with American-International’s BLACULA . The vampire tale spawned a subgenre of black oriented riffs on familiar themes: BLACKENSTEIN (man-made monsters), DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE (Stevenson’s classic novel updated), ABBY (demonic possession), and SUGAR HILL, a crazy voodoo-zombie revenge tale that’s creepy, outrageous, and entertaining as… well, as hell!

Foxy lady Marki Bey plays foxy lady Diana “Sugar” Hill, whose boyfriend Langston runs the voodoo-themed Club Haiti. Southern-fried gangster Morgan (Robert Quarry) wants to take over the club, and sends his goons to ‘persuade’ Langston. When he refuses, they stomp him to death in the parking lot, leaving Sugar no recourse but to return to her ancestral home and ask ancient voodoo queen Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully of THE JEFFERSONS) for help. Mama conjures up voodoo god of the dead Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who gives Sugar control over an army of zombies to enact her revenge on Morgan and his cohorts.

A series of weird set pieces follows, as Sugar and her zombies kill off the gangsters one by one. The machete-wielding zombies mutilate and decapitate one, feed another to hungry pigs (!), lock a goon in a snake-filled coffin, and give a zombie massage to lead goon Fabulous (Charles Robinson, NIGHT COURT). Sugar’s ex-boyfriend, police detective Valentine (Richard Lawson) suspects Sugar’s doing that voodoo that she do so well, but can’t prove it, and winds up hospitalized when he gets too close to the truth. Sugar saves the best for last as Morgan and his racist ho Celeste (Betty Ann Rees) get their just desserts.

Colley’s over-the-top Baron Samedi makes a great supernatural villain (Geoffrey Holder played the Baron in the James Bond film LIVE AND LET DIE). Miss Bey, if not the greatest of thespians, sure does looks sweet as Sugar. In the middle of the film, there’s a wild cat fight between Sugar and Celeste that serves no purpose but is a lot of fun! The zombies are appropriately eerie-looking,  and the murders are done well, though not as gory as later zombie flicks.

SUGAR HILL was filmed in Houston, standing in for New Orleans. The backlot swamp is peppered with stock footage of gators, crawling snakes, and assorted swamp critters, and some familiar film sound effects, including that classic kookaburra that pops up in every jungle pic:

Too bad the kookaburra is only indigineous to the wilds of Australia! This was Quarry’s final AIP film; the studio had tried to build him into the next Vincent Price in COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE, RETURN OF COUNT YORGA, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN , and DEATHMASTER without much success. Director Paul Maslansky shows a steady if unspectacular hand; he went on to produce the POLICE ACADEMY movies, which were a horror of another kind! And we can’t have a Blaxploitation flick without a funky theme song, “Supernatural Voodoo Woman” by Motown’s The Originals:

SUGAR HILL is a sweet (sorry) entry in the Horror/Blaxploitation  field, and it’s overblown insanity, sense of fun, and downright spooky atmosphere makes it a worthy Halloween treat for lovers of both genres.

 

 

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! 7: TROUBLE MAN (20th Century-Fox 1972)

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One of the earliest Blaxploitaion films is TROUBLE MAN, a 1972 entry about Mr T…

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…no, not THAT Mr. T! THIS Mr. T…

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Thank you! This Mr. T is played by Robert Hooks, a tough talking private eye who drives a big-ass Lincoln Continental and “fixes troubles” on the mean streets of L.A. T gets hired by gangsters Chalky Price and Pete Cockrell to protect their crap games, which are getting ripped off by masked gunmen. Things go awry when Chalky shoots one of the heisters, a dude named Abby who works for rival gangster “Big”. Abby’s body is dumped and word is on the streets T did the killing. Police Capt. Joe Marx puts the heat on T, as does “Big”, so T arranges a late night summit between “Big”, Chalky, and Pete at Jimmy’s Pool Hall .  “Big” arrives, but before Chalky and Pete do, some cops raid the joint. These cops aren’t what they seem, and gun down “Big”. T is framed again, and figures out the two hoods have set him up, so he goes out for revenge in a violent and bloody climax.

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TROUBLE MAN is noted for its score by Motown legend Marvin Gaye and not much else. It didn’t do well at the box office, but it’s not as bad as some say.”Routine” would be a good word to describe it. Robert Hooks was primarily a stage actor who’d broken the color barrier as the first black to star in a weekly TV dramatic series, N.Y.P.D (Bill Cosby in I SPY notwithstanding, which had as much comedy as drama). The cast is full of seasoned pros like Paul Winfield (SOUNDER, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN), Ralph Waite (THE WALTONS), Julius Harris (LIVE AND LET DIE), William Smithers (PAPILLION, DALLAS), Paula Kelly (SOYLENT GREEN ), and Bill Henderson, a jazz singer who acted in dozens of films and TV episodes. Others in the cast are Gordon Jump (WKRP IN CINCINNATI), Nathaniel Taylor (Rollo in SANFORD & SON), real-life pool shark Texas Blood, and former welterweight champion Danny “Little Red” Lopez.

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The problem lies in John D.F. Black’s script, which “borrows” heavily from his script for SHAFT, transplanting the character to the West Coast. Some of the dialogue is pretty lame: “You fuckin’ A-right I’m right!”, declares T at one point (Although my favorite line is when one of the henchmen says things went “like sippin’ whiskey… smooth as fuckin’ silk”).Black did much better work on the original STAR TREK series. The direction by HOGAN’S HEROES actor Ivan Dixon is pedestrian at best, only coming to life at the movie’s bloody climax. I think 20th Century-Fox had high hopes for TROUBLE MAN, but when it tanked at the box office no sequels were made.

TROUBLE MAN is just okay, but could’ve been much better with more inspired direction and a stronger script. It’s just kind of mediocre; take out the swearing and the blood, and you’ve got your basic TV detective show. Maybe that’s the route they should’ve taken, and turned it into a weekly series. As it stands, it’s one of the lesser entries in the Blaxploitation catalogue.

 

That’s Blaxploitation! 6: TOGETHER BROTHERS (20th Century Fox 1973)

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Many Blaxploitation films of the 70’s feature super-bad ass-kickers like Shaft, Superfly, or Cleopatra Jones, but the heroes of TOGETHER BROTHERS are a motley crew of street punks in this unheralded but well done film. Shot in Galveston, Texas, and featuring a cast of unknowns as the gang, TOGETHER BROTHERS is a gritty urban thriller about some boys in the hood on the hunt for a psycho cop killer. The movie gives a realistic look at ghetto life and street culture that’s as relevant today as it was forty years ago.

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Black patrol cop “Mr. Kool” is respected around the ghetto for being fair with its denizens, including young HJ and his posse. When he’s brutally shot to death by a mysterious assailant, HJ’s little brother Tommy witnesses the killing, and is so traumatized he’s rendered mute. HJ and the others (Mau Mau, AP, Monk) feel “the street owes Mr. Kool”, and begin their own investigation. With the aid of rival Chicano gang leader Vega, the two crews stage a fake rumble while HJ and Vega sneak into the police station and steal Mr. Kool’s arrest files, hoping for mug shots to show Tommy. No pictures are provided, so the gang takes names and search the streets, hitting the pool halls and whorehouses of Galveston for leads. They find a connection through drag queen Maria that leads them to Billy Most, a recently paroled convicted kidnapper and child molester. Billy Most became unhinged during his last prison bid, and he goes after Tommy, violently stabbing HJ’s prostitute girlfriend to death in the process. Now the chase is on as Tommy is stalked by the madman, with HJ and the others in hot pursuit to save the child and avenge Mr. Kool.

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As I said before, TOGETHER BROTHERS features unknown actors in the leads, and despite their relative inexperience, they do quite well conveying the bleak world of street life. Ahmed Nurradin is especially good as HJ, the gang’s leader. He’s tough on the outside, but shows tenderness toward little bro Tommy, who idolizes him. Among the more familiar faces, Mr. Kool is played by Ed Bernard, known for his television work on POLICE WOMAN and THE WHITE SHADOW. Glynn Turman (COOLEY HIGH, JD’S REVENGE) has a small part as a child psychologist. Lincoln Kilpatrick (THE OMEGA MAN, Soylent Green , THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER) is Billy Most, and his portrayal of the twisted, tormented killer is a tour de force that’s worth the price of admission.

William A. Graham got his start in episodic TV (NAKED CITY, 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, THE FUGITIVE, even a two-part BATMAN), before directing his first feature, the James Coburn Western WATERHOLE #3. Graham only directed a handful of theatrical movies, but truly made his mark in the TV Movie genre during the 70’s and 80’s, helming over fifty of them! Some of his better known titles are THIEF!, BEYOND THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE, THE AMAZING HOWARD HUGHES, CONTRACT ON CHERRY STREET (starring Frank Sinatra in a comeback role), WOMEN OF SAN QUENTIN, and CALENDAR GIRL MURDERS.

The funky score is by 70’s disco/soul maestro Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra. White was born in Galveston, and knew a thing or two about the streets before becoming the velvety smooth bass voice of young lovers everywhere. TOGETHER BROTHERS is more raw and down-to-earth than your average Blaxpolitation film, with solid street cred and no jive, and a memorable villain in Lincoln Kilpatrick. It’s well worth your time, and deserves a chance to be rediscovered.

Other “That’s Blaxploitation!” posts:

That’s Blaxpolitation! 5: The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

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Standing six-foot-two, the beautiful former model Tamara Dobson was Warner Brothers’ answer to Pam Grier. The first female action star, Grier was killing it at the box office with hits like COFFY and FOXY BROWN, and Warners’ cast the Amazonian Dobson in the title role of CLEOPATRA JONES (1973). While Dobson made a foxy badass mama in the role, she wasn’t a very good actress. Which is alright in the world of action films, as long as the violence comes fast and hard, and CLEOPATRA JONES delivers in that department.

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Our girl Cleo is a special government agent in Turkey helping to wipe out some large poppy fields (“Thirty million worth of shit”, says Cleo). This causes drug smuggling crime boss Mommy to freak out and seek revenge. Mommy is played by Shelley Winters in one of her patented over the top roles, wearing a series of bad wigs and screeching at the top of her lungs. Mommy sics her goons on Cleo’s pet charity, a rehab for addicts run by her boyfriend. When Cleo gets back stateside, there’s hell to pay as she takes down Mommy’s gang of cutthroats with the aid of her street friends.

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There’s plenty of car chases, kung-fu fighting, and close calls here, along with plenty of familiar faces. Antonio Fargas plays Mommy’s rival Doodlebug, a flashy dresser looking to cut in on her turf. Bernie Casey is Cleo’s love interest, Brenda Sykes a hooker, Bill McKinney as a corrupt cop, and Esther (GOOD TIMES) Rolle as a diner owner whose two sons, Malcom and Melvin, are kung-fu experts that help Cleo take down Mommy and her thugs. Even SOUL TRAIN impresario Don Cornelius makes a cameo appearance. CLEOPATRA JONES didn’t cover any new ground in the Blaxploitation field, but it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel two years later.

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1975’s CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD came next, and it’s one of the rare instances where I liked the sequel better than the original. This time around, Cleo’s in Hong Kong up against the villainous Dragon Lady, played by a spectacular looking Stella Stevens as a lesbian drug queen. Norman Fell is Stanley, Cleo’s liason/agent-in-charge, who warns Cleo to tow the line. Maalcom and Melvin are back, but this time they’re more of comic relief than kick-ass kung-fu fighters. The action’s handled by Dobson and her co-star Ni Tien (billed here as Tanny), playing a private eye who’s more than a match for Cleo. Hong Kong cinema legend Run Run Shaw is credited as co-producer, and he definitely knew his chop-socky action flicks (FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, MAN OF IRON, LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES). CASINO OF GOLD is more a traditional action flick than just another funky Blaxploitationer, and could’ve continued as a James Bond-like series, with Dobson much better suited to the glamorous international spy role than street chick. But box office returns were poor for this entry, and Warners pulled the plug on the Cleopatra Jones series.

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Tamara Dobson’s film career went south after that. Her few remaining credits included a stint on the Saturday morning sci-fi show JASON OF STAR COMMAND, featuring STAR TREK’s James Doohan and the great Sid Haig as the cosmic bad guy. She died of MS in her hometown of Baltimore in 2006 at age 59, leaving behind her two CLEOPATRA JONES films as her legacy. Both are fun to watch, with CASINO OF GOLD especially as a precursor to what could have been. They’re definitely worth rediscovering for lovers of action and Blaxploitation movies. Thanks for the memories, Cleo.