'Coffy' (1973), directed by Jack Hill
Brian Says: "Released by Roger Corman's American International Pictures, the home of some of the best blaxploitation ever made, 'Coffy' made Pam Grier a star. AIP opted to make 'Coffy' over another blaxploitation film: 'Cleopatra Jones.' 'Cleopatra Jones' ended up making less and costing more. Interesting tidbit: the mobster's house, featured at the end of the film, is actually the home of American Western icon Roy Rogers."
Our Titular Hero: Coffy (the legendary Pam Grier) is an operating room nurse by day and "the baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit the town" by night. After her little sister overdoses on drugs supplied by evil Mafia types (of course), she infiltrates a prostitution ring (using the worst ever fake Jamaican accent in Hollywood's long history of horrible fake Jamaican accents), gets into a massive topless food fight with a bunch of other hookers and finds herself promptly found out and captured. This is a pretty big snafu on her part, but she more than makes up for her poor planning by turning things around and effortlessly wiping out every one of those nasty mobsters. Coffy doesn't have the brash confidence of many of Grier's other characters (a trait that would go on to define her) and her lack of a decent revenge plan is irritating, but when she smashes her car through the front door of a house to take down a Mafia henchman, all is forgiven.
Race Relations: Like in 'Slaughter', the villains in 'Coffy' are nasty mobsters, but it's a bit more of an international crew. You've got your Italian ringleader, your brutish Russian (played by Sid Haig!) and the cowboy hat wearing Texan type. We also can't forget the one-eyed, silent henchman, whose sole character trait is that he has one eye, so you know that he's especially evil. Like most white villains in these movies, they're big stereotypes (but let's face it, white people deserve it), but 'Coffy' also finds time to condemn black community leaders who let themselves be taken in, bribed and corrupted by The Man. Coffy's answer to such traitors? A shotgun blast.
Thoughts: 'Coffy's not exactly what I'd call a good movie, but damn, it's a lot of fun. It's never boring and often hilarious and completely worth watching, but certainly not good in the traditional sense of the word. Like so many exploitation movies, there are a number of amazing moments, but all of them are separated by large chunks of nothing much at all. The film gets off to a roaring start, with Coffy seducing and executing two local gangsters, but there's a good twenty minutes of padding, most of it preaching about social justice, until the next great moment (the above mentioned topless food fight, which has to be seen to be believed). The fact that 'Coffy' seems to have a genuine desire to expose the drug problems facing lower class black youth is interesting, but it's essentially canceled out by the ludicrous amount of nudity and violence that follows. I'm not complaining -- you will certainly never me complain about a film containing too much violence or nudity -- it's this odd juxtaposition that makes this entire genre so darn endearing.
'Truck Turner' (1974), directed by Jonathan Kaplan
Brian Says: "Isaac Hayes actually auditioned for the title role in 'Shaft' and, though he didn't get the part, impressed the filmmakers so much that they asked him to do the score and he eventually landed the role of bounty hunter 'Truck Turner.' Yaphet Kotto, in one of his many blaxploitation appearances, is sensational."
Our Titular Hero: Truck Turner is played by Isaac Hayes, which may be all you need to know about him. He's a bounty hunter (you can tell because he carries Dirty Harry's gun) with a heart of gold (you can tell because he has a pet cat). Hayes really can't act, but he makes up for that little setback by being so full of incredible personality that you really don't notice. When he's not gunning down rogue pimps or participating in extended car chases (extended because Turner is sort of gleefully incompetent despite being a crack shot), he's using fried chicken to win back the heart of his estranged girlfriend -- while Hayes himself performs on the soundtrack. As it was pointed out to me by a friend: "Isaac Hayes provides the soundtrack to his own sexual encounter." How cool is that?!
Race Relations: Most of Truck's adversaries are black pimps out for his head so they can claim the lady stable of a fellow pimp Truck recently iced (Seriously! The pimp army is even led by Yaphet Kotto!), but there is an incredibly uncomfortable scene early on in the film when Truck and his partner attempt to enter a military base to apprehend a wanted pedophile. There's an awkward, racially charged scene with the gate guards. There's an even more awkward, even more racially charged scene between Truck and the base commander. It all culminates with Truck beating the tar out of the (white) pedophile himself. In the world of Truck Turner, white folks are either pedophiles or harboring pedophiles. No word on whether or not they're Italian.
Thoughts: In short, 'Truck Turner' is kinda' awesome. In long: 'Truck Turner' suffers from the various problems that also plague most blaxploitation movies, namely sluggish pacing, cheap camerawork and a lead actor who, despite his best efforts, isn't playing a real character. It may not have the crazy action of 'Slaughter' or the intense personal focus of 'Trouble Man,' but 'Truck Turner' has a one-eyed pimp. It has a prostitute cattle call. It has the greatest surprise shotgun death scene of all time. It has Issac Hayes bribing his girlfriend with a kitten. It has a Yaphet Kotto flinging elderly people out of wheelchairs and using children as human shields during a hospital shoot-out that would be the craziest hospital shoot-out of all time if 'Hard Boiled' didn't exist. What 'Truck Turner' lacks in the broad strokes, it more than makes up with the little details. Whatta' movie.
Interlude: Despite 'Truck Turner's efforts to jar my mind into action using the soulful power of Isaac Hayes, I'm officially starting to feel the wear and tear of this marathon. You reach a point where it all starts to blend together: whether it's cops, vampires or bounty hunters, all of these movies are about revenge and sex. Not that I'm complaining. I heart revenge and sex.
'Boss Nigger' (1975), directed by Jack Arnold
Brian Says: "Eventually re-released with its less racially tumultuous title 'Boss,' 'Boss Nigger' is basically 'Blazing Saddles' with less intentional comedy. Fred "The Hammer" Williamson had three rules that filmmakers had to follow if they wanted him in their movie: 1.) You can't kill him 2.) He always wins. 3.) He always gets the girl. Considering the screenplay was written by Williamson himself, his first, those rules are unsurprisingly adhered to."
Our Titular Hero: Yes, the title is the character's name. Yes, I will do my best to not repeat it, but we'll deal with that in a moment. What can be said about the titular hero, a black bounty hunter operating in the Old West who rides into a lawless town, takes up the mantle of sheriff and proceeds to kick ass and take names? Well, he's played by Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, so you know that he's kind of awesome, but he's also a bit of a jerk -- he changes all of the laws, locks up anyone he possibly can for minor offenses and pockets their bail money. His shuffling of the system also gets a ton of innocent (at least as innocent as stupid racist white folks can be in a movie like this) people killed. However, Williamson's inherent charm wins the day and we can't help but love this guy. After all, maybe he has a right to a little casual revenge after a lifetime of slavery.
Race Relations: The DVD for this film opens with a quote from Williamson himself, who wrote the film as well as starred in it. He admits that he used the slur in the title because he knew its sensationalism would lead to bigger box office, but he also asks us to note what happens to everyone who calls him that word in the film. And note it I did: they're shot, arrested, beaten up, stabbed, ridiculed, humiliated and generally treated like the scum they are, especially when compared next to the undiluted cool of Williamson. Although this film is ostensibly a comedy, playing as a parody of westerns and other blaxploitation films, there is an underlying anger to the whole thing, a sense that the only way to fight racism is to respond with physical force. Of course, that may be reading too much into it -- after all, snobby racists getting thrown behind bars by their new black sheriff is surefire recipe for yuks.
Thoughts: Let's get this started right. Watch the trailer and listen to the theme song. Just don't do it at work and make sure you have headphones on. I'm making you do this because it's one of the best trailers ever cut and the song will not leave your head for days (just don't sing it in public). The trailer does a fine job selling you on what you're in for - a ridiculously silly movie that never takes itself too seriously and is a helluva lot of fun if you can get past the title. Heck, it would make a fine double feature with the incredibly similar 'Blazing Saddles' (which came a year earlier). As expected, it has its fair share of rough patches and it's sloppily made, but Williamson, looking thoroughly modern with his black leather coat, carries this film with impeccable tough guy grace. It's difficult to put this one up on any kind of pedestal, but it has a nice spot in the "I Can't Believe This Movie Exists" hall of fame.
'JD's Revenge' (1976), directed by Arthur Marks
Brian Says: "Of the films on this list, this is the most legitimately well-done. The story is compelling and the performance from lead actor Glynn Turman is unbelievably good; not surprising, as he got his start in theater playing opposite Sidney Poitier. Look for a standout supporting performance from future Oscar-winner Lou Gossett Jr."
Our Titular Hero: What we've got here is a double header of a protagonist. On one hand, he's Isaac, a mild mannered law student with a loving girlfriend and a part-time job driving a taxi. On the other other hand, he's possessed by the ghost of JD Walker, a slightly evil gangster who's thirty years in the grave. On occasion, JD will take over his host's body, commencing a spree that includes rape, knife fighting, terrorizing old ladies and lots of fedora wearing, all in the name of taking down the man who killed JD back in the day. Naturally, Isaac's friends find his peculiar behavior off-putting, putting our nice guy protagonist between a rock a hard place. Glynn Turman's work straddles a fine line, managing to be over-the-top without going overboard, letting Isaac's transformation into the brutal JD play as equally horrifying and hilarious.
Race Relations: Isaac is an anomaly among blaxploitation heroes in that he's not a pimp, gangster, drug dealer or cop -- he's a normal guy, pursuing a higher education and involved in a healthy relationship. He's a hard worker, a genuinely good guy. Then the ghost of JD gets involved, transforming him into one of the darkest and meanest characters of the marathon. Is this a commentary on African American youths being pulled into a life of crime despite their best efforts to escape the ghetto? Probably not. This is the rare blaxploitation movie that concentrates solely on the mechanics of its plot without a single notable tangent on race.
Thoughts: After a rough first half hour, 'JD's Revenge' gets real good, real quick. While it lacks the rough and tumble craziness of a 'Slaughter' or a 'Truck Turner,' it more than makes up for that by being a legitimately fine film that relies on stellar performances and a twisting, exciting story to keep things interesting. Is it safe to say that this is proof that blaxploitation didn't vanish, but rather grew up, evolved and became absorbed by the mainstream? It's a bit of a double-edged sword to say that 'JD's Revenge' could've been remade entirely with white actors without dulling its impact; one one hand, that's a testament to the film's raw power, but on the other hand, it's evidence that the weird blaxploitation energy born out of pure anger in the early 1970s was on its way out. Still, if you're going to go out, you better go out in style -- wearing a fedora, twirling a switch blade and dicing some sucka' to pieces.
Conclusions and Such
2. 'Truck Turner'
3. 'Trouble Man'
4. 'JD's Revenge'
6. 'Boss Nigger'
Best Blaxploitation Hero: This was an incredibly tough choice. This could easily be Blacula or Slaughter, but I've got to give it to 'Trouble Man's Mr. T, who eschews macho posturing and delivers a true thinking man's action hero, a character that I wish had gotten a series of films.
Worst Blaxploitation Hero: Sorry, Pam Grier, but Coffy ain't no Foxy Brown. She's pretty weak sauce as far as tough blaxploitation chicks go.
Most Interesting Racial Commentary: If there's one thing I learned from this marathon, it's that you shouldn't turn to blaxploitation films for thoughtful commentary on race. However, I'll give this award to 'Boss Nigger' for having the raw nerve to tackle this not only head-on, but in a silly, comedic fashion.
Most Uncomfortable Racial Commentary: The racist soldiers and the pedophile at the beginning of 'Truck Turner' provide easily the squirmiest moment of the entire marathon.
Best Theme Song: Yeah, the theme from 'Shaft' is iconic. Yeah, the theme from 'Slaughter' kicks ass. But did you listen to the theme from 'Boss Nigger'? Because it not only wins the day, it wins every day.
Just How Awesome Are Black People: Very awesome! Superfly TNT!
Just How Horrible Are White People: Very horrible! Whitey poisonin' the neighborhoods!
Marathon High Point: As tempted as I am to give this to 'Slaughter's amazing car versus plane chase, no scene gave me more pure delight than 'Truck Turner's climactic hospital shoot-out, which gives Yaphet Kotto his greatest death scene of all time (and considering how often Yaphet Kotto has been killed in the movies, that's saying a lot).
Marathon Low Point: This one is unfair, because even the weakest of these movies still manges to be a ton of fun, but I'd have to say minutes 11-35 of 'Coffy,' where the film stops dead in its tracks to deliver nothing but mind-numbing exposition.
(And while I'm here, one final thanks to Brian Salisbury, whose expertise and DVD collection made this marathon possible. Be sure to check out his own reviews of blaxploitation classics over at Film School Rejects.)
Eight Versions of 'A Christmas Carol'
The 'Harry Potter' Series
The 'Saw' Series
The 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' Series