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Best Of Netflix: Blaxploitation Classics

Director Barry Shear’s rough-edged crime drama takes place in Harlem (of which 110th Street is the unofficial boundary line), where the straight-laced Lieutenant William Pope (Yaphet Kotto) and the gruff, racist Captain Frank Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) are searching for three suspects wanted for stealing $300,000 from a Mafia-owned Harlem bank — and for murdering seven people during the robbery, including three black gangsters, two Italian gangsters and two cops. The two detectives must also contend with Mafia bigwig Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa), who’s also out looking for the criminals — and certainly has no intention of “arresting” them. Across 110th Street received praise for transcending the limitations of the genre with its complex characterizations and smart plotting, with Kotto, Quinn and especially Franciosa all giving excellent performances; the latter has an especially harrowing scene where he beats the holy hell out of the robbery’s getaway driver (Antonio Fargas) in a whorehouse. The groovy title tune by Bobby Womack and Peace was a Billboard hit and later used in Quentin Tarantino’s and Ridley Scott’s respective odes to the genre, Jackie Brown and American Gangster.


Sure, the original Blacula might be the better flick, but the sequel has Pam Grier, so it kind of wins by default. Scream, Blacula, Scream! features Foxy Brown herself as Lisa Fortier, an adopted apprentice of a dying Voodoo priestess who’s named her mistress’ successor — a gesture that, not surprisingly, enrages the true heir, Willis Daniels (Richard Lawson), who resurrects Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall, once again playing it straight) with the hope that the vampire will do his bidding. The fool! Blacula once again goes on a rampage with his vampire hordes, which gets the attention of Justin Carter (Don Mitchell), an ex-cop and occult aficionado, even as the bloodsucking Prince asks Lisa to help rid him of his vampire curse. This was the first and only sequel to Blacula and, like its predecessor, it’s filled with amusing and clever bits that don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole — in fact, the best thing about the movie may be its working title, Blacula is Beautiful (really, why didn’t they just go with that?). Grier is, as always, distractingly gorgeous, with Lawson giving an amusing performance as the Renfield stand-in.


“You’ve been Coffy-tized, Blacula-rized and Super-flied — but now you’re gonna be glorified, unified and filled-with-pride. . . when you see Five On the Black Hand Side.” Obviously, the makers of this family drama were selling a different kind of “blaxploitation” movie than the ones that had come before it — or were at least trying to lure the audiences that made Coffy, Blacula and especially Superfly box office hits. Five On the Black Hand Side, which Charlie L. Russell adapted from own stage play, follows John Henry Brooks (Leonard Jackson), a barbershop owner and patriarch of a family that includes wife Gladys (Clarice Taylor) and grown children Gail (Bonnie Banfield), Preston (Glynn Turman) and Booker T. (D’Urville Martin), as he juggles the various complications in both his professional and personal life — which include his wife threatening to leave him, his daughter’s impending marriage and his youngest son getting harassed for dating white women — all while coming to terms with his own African roots. The script is a bit chaotic and haphazard, but the performances are terrific, particularly those of Jackson and Taylor; the former would go on to play Pa Harris in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple and the latter would make another big impression as Cliff Huxtable’s sassy mother on The Cosby Show. The film was rediscovered somewhat in the ’90s after being parodied in a “Mr. and Mrs. Brooks” sketch on In Living Color.


“Wham! Bam! Here Comes Pam!” Friday Foster, while not as popular a Grier showcase as Foxy Brown, Coffy or even Sheba, Baby, has the distinction of being one of the few blaxploitation political thrillers as it follows foxy Friday (Grier), a magazine photographer who has a knack for getting emotionally involved with her work; she’s soon marked for death after she witnesses an assassination attempt on the nation’s wealthiest African American, an event that uncovers a large-scale conspiracy to wipe out the country’s entire gamut of African American leadership. Luckily, Friday hooks up with private detective Colt Hawkins (Across 110th Street‘s Yaphet Kotto) and the two are on the case to expose the villainous plot and shut it down forever, sugar. Based on the syndicated newspaper comic strip that ran from 1970-1974, Friday Foster is a total blast that doesn’t let its heavier sociopolitical agenda get in the way of having a good time; the awesome supporting cast includes Scatman Crothers, Eartha Kitt and Carl Weathers, though Ted Lange steals the show as Fancy Dexter, who “took a fancy to Friday but his hustle had no muscle!”


While not an official installment in the blaxploitation canon, Women in Cages is still considered a spiritual sister for its rowdy racial and sexual themes — and for the presence of Pam Grier as Alabama, a sadistic lesbian prison guard with a knack for torture. Cages follows poor Carol ‘Jeff’ Jeffries (Jennifer Gan), a nice enough girl who’s set up by her criminal boyfriend and sent to a hell-on-earth lockup, where she forms an uneasy alliance with her cellmates Stokes (Roberta Collins) and Sandy (Judith Brown) whilst trying to steer clear of her third cellmate, Theresa (Sofia Moran), who happens to be Alabama’s girlfriend. Busting out and making a run for the surrounding jungle isn’t a good idea, since local poachers are paid to shoot would-be refugees — though Theresa soon claims she knows the jungle well, launching a daring escape attempt involving all four women. Quentin Tarantino, who named Patricia Arquette’s character in True Romance after Grier’s, is a huge fan of the film and of the work of director Gerardo de Leon in general, citing the Filipino filmmaker as a major influence on his Grindhouse contribution, Death Proof (with Women in Cages itself heavily featured in Robert Rodriguez’s installment, Planet Terror).


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