Richard Pryor (1940-2005) has been hailed as a comedy genius, and rightly so. But Pryor could also more than hold his own in a dramatic role. Films like WILD IN THE STREETS, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, and BLUE COLLAR gave him the opportunity to strut his thespic stuff, and GREASED LIGHTNING gave him top billing as Wendell Scott, the first African-American NASCAR driver. Pryor plays it straight in this highly fictionalized biopic about a man determined to break the color barrier in the predominantly white sport of stock car racing.
We see Scott returning to his rural Danville, VA hometown after serving in WWII. He tells everyone he wants to drive a cab and someday open a garage, but his secret wish is to become “a champion race car driver”. He meets and falls in love with Mary (Pam Grier, who’s never looked more beautiful), and they eventually marry. Meanwhile, Wendell and his friend Peewee (the always welcome Cleavon Little ) begin running moonshine, eluding local Sheriff Cotton (Vincent Gardenia) for five years before finally getting busted.
A local race promoter (Noble Willingham) who’s heard of Wendell’s driving skills bails him out, wanting to put him in a car and “make some money offa his black ass”, believing blacks will turn out in droves to cheer him on, while the whites will want to see him crash and burn – literally! With loyal mechanic Woodrow (singer Richie Havens) and white ex-driver Hutch (Beau Bridges) as his pit crew, Wendell battles the odds, not to mention redneck rival Beau Wells (Earl Hindman, neighbor Wilson of TV’s HOME IMPROVEMENT), as he races in Darlington, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Daytona, and other famous tracks, until becoming a bona fide star. A serious crash puts Wendell out of racing, but he stages a miraculous comeback (really, is there any other kind in these films?) against Mary’s wishes, entering the Grand National and winning the checkered flag!
Pryor plays the NASCAR legend with grit and determination, not letting anything stop him from achieving his dream, including the prejudice of the era. He and Pam Grier began dating around the time of GREASED LIGHTNING, and the affection the two had between them shows onscreen. The supporting cast is terrific, and Hindman’s Beau Wells is a composite of several NASCAR drivers, including legend Richard Petty. Others in the cast include civil rights activist Julian Bond in the small role of Pam’s first boyfriend, Lucy Saroyan (daughter of writer William) as Bridges’ wife, and Bill Cobbs as Pam’s dad.
Director Michael Schultz keeps the pedal to the metal, and has quite a decent resume himself: COOLEY HIGH, CAR WASH, the Pryor comedies WHICH WAY IS UP? and BUSTIN’ LOOSE, and KRUSH GROOVE (we won’t talk about SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND or DISORDERLIES!). The real stars of GREASED LIGHTNING may be stunt coordinator Ted Duncan and his team of drivers, who make the track action look real, along with some skillful editing by Randy Roberts and Bob Wyman. Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG) is among four credited writers.
GREASED LIGHTNING may not be entirely factual, but it is entirely entertaining, and was obviously a labor of love for Richard Pryor. The story of a man overcoming all obstacles to achieve his dream is something Richard Pryor could definitely relate to, and through all his real-life trials and tribulations and, like Wendell Scott, he did just that.