Four ”blaxploitation” films on home video
By the end of the year, more than a dozen films by black directors will have opened in movie theaters — from Spike Lee’s upcoming Jungle Fever to 19-year-old Matty Rich’s much-anticipated Straight Out of Brooklyn. The last time this many African-Americans were working in movies was during the ”blaxploitation” boom in the 1970s, when heroes and heroines such as Shaft, Superfly, and Cleopatra Jones kicked butt in the name of truth, justice, and American currency.
While many of the popular black movies of the ’70s were little more than TV-movie-caliber shoot-’em-ups (including the new video releases J.D.’s Revenge, Truck Turner, and Monkey Hustle) with black casts and white producers, one film rose above the blaxploitation pack with realism and humor: Cooley High, now available on video for the first time. (Negotiations with Motown over music rights held up its release.) The episodic film is a rich coming-of-age action-comedy directed by Michael Schultz (Car Wash) and starring Glynn Turman and Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs (TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter). It burst on the scene with an exuberance that belied the Why-must-I-be-a-neurotic-teenager? underpinning of Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, while offering a side of black teen life never shown on-screen before. ”It was like American Graffiti for black kids — a real slice of black life,” says Robert Townsend (The Five Heartbeats), who made his film debut with two lines in the movie.
You laugh, you cry, you want to steal a car, as two high school buddies from the South Side of Chicago face the joys and problems of growing up: drinking cheap wine and harmonizing on street corners, cutting classes, trying to get into college and into your girl’s bedroom, not in that order. All this, plus a wild stolen-car chase sequence, is accompanied by a pulsating soundtrack of ’60s Motown music featuring Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Martha and the Vandellas.
Among the other newly released ’70s films, J.D.’s Revenge is the strongest. Glynn Turman followed his Cooley High success with this nightmarish tale of the occult directed by Arthur Marks. The talented actor plays a young law student whose body is possessed by a murdered gangster seeking revenge. Although his performance is a bit mannered, Turman is chilling as he jumps in and out of sanity: One moment, he’s the sensitive, loving hero; the next, a psychopathic rapist and murderer. Surprisingly, the odd story of J.D.’s Revenge works better than you’d expect. While there are moments of confusion as to who actually killed whom and why, the tension never lets up, as Turman moves madly through the movie. Set in the decaying streets of New Orleans, J.D.’s Revenge also stars Joan Pringle as Turman’s beleaguered girlfriend and Lou Gossett Jr. as a gangster-turned-preacher; both are scenery-chewing, full-on dramatic actors in great form.
Isaac Hayes may be a turn-on on the turntable, but he’s a switch-off on the silver screen. As Truck Turner, Hayes plays a macho, muscular detective who tracks down bail-jumping convicts. As he and his partner (Alan Weeks) search for a runaway pimp, Truck bulldozes his way past madam Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura in Star Trek) and Yaphet Kotto, head of organized crime in the city. Nichols and Kotto are talented actors who are wasted in director Jonathan Kaplan’s sexist, racist, and exploitative drivel. Even Hayes’ score is disappointing, sounding like bad outtakes from Shaft.
Kotto doesn’t fare much better in Marks’ Monkey Hustle, either. As the Fagin-like street hustler Daddy Foxx, Kotto teaches his young charges to pull scams while he and several other unsavory characters try to stop a proposed freeway from leveling homes in the black community. While films like these gave black actors a chance to hone their craft during the ’70s, the end result was lackluster then and is embarrassing now.
Moreover, of these four films, only Cooley High (the one made by a black director) vividly evokes the feeling of real black life. Let’s not forget, after all, who put the ‘ploitation in blaxploitation films — and why it’s so important that today’s black producers and directors are calling their own shots.
Cooley High: B+
J.D.’s Revenge: C+
Truck Turner: D
Monkey Hustle: D