5 posts categorized "Blaxploitation"

June 09, 2013

SHAFT — CLASSIC FILM PICK

ShaftChronologically, Ossie Davis’s elaborate buddy comedy “Cotton Comes to Harlem” marks the beginning of the Blaxploitation era. But Gordon Parks’s “Shaft” (1971) is the movie that put the movement on the map. Portraying a new type of black hero, a racial mélange of Sam Spade and James Bond, “Shaft” gave urban audiences an icon: a handsome and tough-minded New York private detective who didn’t take lip from anybody.

A former football player and model, Richard Roundtree captivated the fertile imaginations of minority audiences hungry for a counterculture champion who could handle all the racism the system and the streets had to offer. He appealed to men and women alike. “Shaft” was an epic franchise, leading to two more franchise films (the relatively inferior “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft in Africa”) and seven episodes of a CBS television series between 1973 and 1974.
The film’s provocative tagline, “Shaft’s his name. Shaft’s his game,” confirmed the title’s explicit double entendre that the filmmakers used to attract audiences. Theirs was exploitation of a would-be audience’s imagination rather than its subject — a fully independent embodiment of social justice — or at least the assertion of equal time in the bravado department.

Issac Hayes’s funky original theme song, a classic in its own right, puts an equally erotic emphasis on the confrontational protagonist we first see emerging from a Times Square subway station to do pedestrian-battle with traffic and hustlers alike. All sinewy bassline and wah wah pedal guitar, the ultra hip instrumental motif finally gives way to Hayes singing, “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft! Ya damn right.” Surprisingly (considering the times), the song won an Oscar.

Shaft

The adult-minded movie arrives with a chorus of self-approval that lets its audience know where the filmmakers are coming from. The effect is that of a secret handshake unknown to mainstream media, authorities, or tourists. We’re in for a rough ride through New York’s underground with a badass anti-hero idealist who, for all intents and purposes, wears his cock on his sleeve. “Can ya dig it?”

In keeping with its pulp inspiration, the thinly constructed storyline is all tone, but not much substance beyond the way that characters comport themselves. Bumpy (Moses Gunn) is an uptown crime boss who hires John Shaft to find and rescue his kidnapped daughter Marcy (Sherri Brewer). Tensions are brewing between downtown Mafiosi and the brothers in the Bronx. Satirically, Shaft lives in a chic little Greenwich Village apartment where he frequently holds court with ladies of various races.

Shaft

The McGuffin-fueled storyline is constructed in order to highlight Shaft engaged in some unconventional acts of super-action. In one scene, he pretends to be a bartender before delivering a bottle to the side of a rival’s head. Blood pours out. The payoff scene involves Shaft swinging in through a window on a bright red climbing-rope — pistol blazing. Like the famous scene in “The Great Escape” where Steve McQueen jumps over the fence on a motorcycle, Shaft’s athletic expression of derring-do proves the point; “Shaft is a bad mother.”

Rated R. 100 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)


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November 16, 2012

THE HUMAN TORNADO – CLASSIC FILM PICK

HUMAN-TORNADORudy Ray Moore’s signature style of guerilla blaxploitation filmmaking is as defiant, ribald, and outrageously funny as anything in the genre. Moore’s alter ego Dolomite, a.k.a. The Human Tornado, acts as an avenging stand-up comic superhero whose flair for rhyme, ass-kicking, and for wearing impossibly gaudy ‘70s clothing knows no bounds.

Dolomite is a man of the people — his people. He behaves as a facilitator for self-respect in the black community. Dolomite pays nearly as much obsequious respect to his minority peers as they pay to him. His cartoonish racist white-folk creations are the exaggerated embodiment of the Republican subconscious mind.

At home, “Brother” Dolomite espouses his belief-system of social justice when he tells his party of supporters; “I think it’s a shame for anyone successful not to share it with others.” He models responsible behavior by donating his mansion to be used as a home for abandoned boys. Still, in the next breath, Dolomite the gigolo adjourns to his bedroom to bed the paying wife of the town’s white sheriff Beatty (played for laughs by J.B. Baron). A couple of outraged white-trash hillbillies take notice of Dolomite’s house party in an ostensibly white — read upper-class —neighborhood, and notify the trigger-happy sheriff. A warrantless raid sends the nude Dolomite on the run after the sheriff discovers his wife's shenanigans, and orders his deputy to kill her. Dolomite dispatches the deputy before enacting one of the film’s hilarious bits of self-reflexive humor.

Humantornado

Rudy Ray Moore (Cliff Roquemore) performs his own stunt when he hurls his nude body down a steep embankment like a bag of potatoes. Over an intertitled “INSTANT REPLAY,” Dolomite narrates, “So you all don’t believe I jump, huh? So watch this good shit.”

One of cinema’s first carjackings follows when Dolomite and his three pals commandeer a car driven by a gay white guy who is a little too happy to be held hostage for their cross-country escape to California.

The West Coast proves just as inhospitable to blacks as the rest of the country. Local mafia kingpin Cavaletti (Herb Graham) is shaking down Dolomite’s bar-owner friend Queen Bee (Lady Reed). Cavaletti’s boys have taken two of Queen Bee’s female bartenders hostage, and are holding them in a “torture chamuse” [sic] in a house on a hill in Pasadena.

Humantornado

The filmmakers throw in a surreal sex sequence involving Cavaletti’s nymphomaniac wife. Dolomite disguises himself as a ridiculous art-dealer in order to seduce her into revealing the location of the torture house in Pasadena.

The action climaxes in a display of Dolomite’s martial arts prowess when he single-handedly rescues Queen Bee’s damsels in distress. The super-action fight scenes come complete with Dolomite’s googly-moogly fighting style, including goofy vocalizations, silly head movements, sped-up sequences, and instant replays.

There is nothing sacred or politically correct about Rudy Ray Moore’s humor, which draws significantly from African-American folklore. “The Human Tornado” is meant to divide audiences, and it succeeds unforgettably.

Humantornado
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March 22, 2011

ACROSS 110TH STREET — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Across 110th StreetVeteran television director Barry Shear had already made a name for himself directing TV shows ranging from "Tarzan" to "The Mod Squad" when he helmed what was to be the grittiest Blaxploitation film of the genre. Bobby Womack’s iconic theme song supports the picture’s real-world details about Manhattan’s dividing line between the ghetto and what most people associate as Manhattan. Indeed, Bobby Womack’s rich contribution of songs such as “Do It Right,” “If You Want My Love,” and “Hang On In There,” help express the film’s persistent soulful elements.

The set-up is simple. It's the early '70s. Three black gangsters rob a pair of Italian mobsters and their three black cohorts while splitting up $300,000 in a Harlem brownstone. The heist goes bad, real bad. Much blood is spilled. Dressed as cops, the thieves kill everyone in the room with a machine gun. During their escape, the getaway driver (Antonio Fargas) runs down a real cop. What transpires over the course of the story is a race between a group of openly racist New York City detectives, and Italian mobsters to track down the three men guilty of the crime.

110th street

The local Harlem police precinct puts Lieutenant Pope (Yaphet Kotto) in charge of the case. Pope is black. This doesn't sit well with Anthony Quinn's aging racist cop character, Captain Frank Mattelli. Mattelli likes to use violence against black suspects he refers to as "boys" or with the "N" word. The filmmakers don’t sugarcoat anything.  

Across110thst

For their part, the mobsters put the boss's son-in-law Nick D'Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) in charge of locating and exacting revenge against the bandits. Nick is every bit as racist as Captain Mattelli. They might as well be the same person even though they theoretically represent opposite sides of the law. Mattelli and D'Salvio take a meeting with Harlem kingpin Doc Johnson (Richard Ward) that is notable for for so much cheap wood panelling. Both men come to regret the lack of respect they show Doc Johnson.

"Across 110th Street" slyly loads its thematic dice with the personal lives of its desperate thieves. The impoverished plight of the men reveals them to be pawns in a system they barely begin to comprehend. The economic, psychological, and physical brutality these people suffer in Harlem is effectively expressed in the eyes of the supporting characters that witness their treatment. As exaggerated as the violence appears, it is in keeping with the social climate of the time. No punches are pulled, and rightly so.

Acrossthe110thStreet

Rated R. 102 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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