Femmes Fatales Jan 19 2019
VENUS IN FURS
Prepare yourself for a Sykes-a-delic experience.


Above is a rare image of U.S. actress Brenda Sykes, who appeared in cinema and on television during a relatively brief ten year acting career from 1968 to 1978. She's pretty well remembered for someone who had such a short run. Some of this is due to her being one of the era's most beautiful performers, but she was also in cult classics like Cleopatra Jones and Mandingo, as well as on television shows like Police Woman. This shot is from a 1975 issue of Playboy Japan. We've cropped it above, and uploaded the full image below.

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Femmes Fatales Dec 2 2018
YANCY FREE
From behind the microscope to in front of the camera.


You don't know U.S. actress Emily Yancy but she's been around for a long time. She started performing on television in 1963 and is still going strong as of 2018. Of her few cinematic efforts two were notable—the blaxploitation classics Cotton Comes to Harlem and Blacula. Her small screen appearances include Starsky & Hutch, The Mod Squad, and MacGyver.

The above photo is from 1961, and it was made when she was eighteen years old and competing in the Miss American Beauty Pageant, not be confused with the Miss America Pageant. Interesting story, she was a biology major and was working at NYU Medical Center operating an electron microscope when her coworkers persuaded her to give parading up and down a stage in a swimsuit a shot. She won Miss American Beauty, which gave her a chance to compete again in France.

She was sent to Cannes and finished second in the Miss Cannes Film Festival competition. After that Hollywood called and those boring old electrons were forgotten. Television, film, nightclub performing, modeling and a lot of travel followed. There's a lesson in this story, and maybe not one that should be taught to little girls—Forget science! Give us a little leg!—but you don't need a microscope to see that Yancy takes a great picture, and her career longevity suggests she made a good choice.

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Femmes Fatales Sep 29 2018
ORIGINAL SIMS
It's unorthodox for the beach, but in case you haven't noticed, I can wear anything and look good.


Above is a photo of U.S. model Naomi Sims, a pioneering figure in the world of fashion who achieved global recognition in the 1960s while still a teenager. She was the first black model to front publications as diverse as Life and Ladies' Home Journal. Hollywood of course came calling. She was offered the lead in Cleopatra Jones but turned it down because she saw it as racist. She had a point. Blaxploitation movies are culturally significant and most are fun, but they hinge on crime stereotypes. In a country where so many are willing to see the stereotypes as encompassing of an entire people the argument could be made that the films were harmful. Sims wasn't the first or last to say so. In any case, that was the end of her flirtation with Hollywood, but she went on to author books on health, beauty, and the modeling industry. This photo dates from 1971. 

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Musiquarium Aug 19 2018
G SHARP
Grier looks great fronting b-movie soundtrack.

Above, the front and rear sleeves for the original soundtrack to Sheba, Baby, with music by Monk Higgins, Alan Brown, and Barbara Mason. The tunes are nice, but we'll admit we're just posting this to be completist about Grier. We already shared the photo used for this cover but we wanted to include the nice shot on the back. Okay, all done. We'll take a Grier break for a bit.

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Femmes Fatales Jul 11 2018
VICIOUS CYCLE
Tamara Dobson is hell on wheels.


Tamara Dobson straddles a dirt bike in this promo photo from her blaxploitation thriller Cleopatra Jones. In the film she commandeers the bike at a race to chase a bad guy, and manages to catch him and whip his lame ass without so much as disturbing her queenly hair wrap. In a genre marked by cheap failures and ambitious disasters Cleopatra Jones stands as one of the most successful entries. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1973.

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Vintage Pulp Jun 26 2018
RUNAWAY TRUCK
Get in his way and he'll roll right over you.


The movie Truck Turner was originally written to star Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, or Ernest Borgnine, but none of them were available. American International Pictures exec Larry Gordon reportedly said, “Well, we can't get any of them so now it's a black picture.” Marvin, Mitchum, and Borgnine were lucky they dodged this Truck. Isaac Hayes was signed up and he plays an L.A. bounty hunter who chases down a pimp named Gator only to end up pitted against a powerful madame named Dorinda. The movie is poorly put together, which you wouldn't guess from looking at its scores on sites like IMDB, where raters give it a 7.0. But we suspect those ratings derive from copious action and an amusingly bad script, particularly co-star Nichelle Nichols' tour de force segment in which, as Dorinda, she parades her whores before a group of pimps and describes their assets in a colorful monologue that's possibly the funniest moment from any blaxploitation movie. Here it is:

Gentlemen, this is my family. These all prime cut bitches. $238,000 worth of dynamite. It's Fort Knox in panties. Candy did seventeen thousand last year. Velvet, Miss Sophisticate, did twenty. Used to be a Paris model. Jess and Annette each did twenty-two five. Show 'em your wares, bitch. [bitch licks lips, strikes a pose] See what you can get if you're good? That's Turnpike. She did twenty-six five. She's called Turnpike ’cause you gotta pay to get on and pay to get off. China, come here, baby. China did twenty-nine. Sweet piece a Oriental meat. Mmm, mmm, mmm. This is Frenchy. Gator used to call her Boeing 747. Show 'em why, bitch. [bitch shimmies] She did twenty-seven five. And that's sweet Annette. Show 'em that smile, you sweet thing. She did thirty thou last year. And where's my baby? That's Taffy. This bitch grossed thirty-seven thousand five hundred dollars working part time. Shit, her clients think she's too good to fuck. They call her Colonel Sanders because she's [bitch licks fingers] finger lickin' good.”

So that's pretty funny, in a horrible, un-2018 kind of way. The outtakes must have been uproarious. Nichols knocks this bit out of the park like a hanging curveball because she can act (in fact, watching how she makes those words sparkle is a clinic on the wide gap between screenwriting and an actor's interpretation). Yaphet Kotto as the pimp Harvard Blue makes his role work because he can act too. But nobody else can. Luckily, as action eventually overtakes dialogue matters improve considerably, with the last third of the movie developing enough momentum to sustain viewer interest. There's one other asset too—Hayes' groovy soundtrack. But you don't have to watch the movie to enjoy that, or Nichols' monologue, which you can watch at this YouTube link while it lasts. It starts about forty seconds in. Otherwise, we recommend giving Truck Turner a pass unless your sense of humor is—like ours—inclusive of semi-inept Hollywood obscurities. If that's the case, roll on. Truck Turner premiered in the U.S. in 1974.

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Vintage Pulp Jun 15 2018
FLY IN THE OINTMENT
All it takes is one to ruin everything.


Successful blaxploitation movies often spawned sequels which benefitted from more resources than were put into the originals. Super Fly was a surprise hit in August 1972, so the Hollywood suits bent their efforts toward riding the gravy train and Super Fly T.N.T. premiered in the U.S. today in 1973, only ten months later. This was a big deal production. Paramount Pictures financed it, future Roots author Alex Haley wrote the script, the shooting took place in Rome and Senegal, and West African/Caribbean funk superstars Osibisa provided the soundtrack. But the movie needed star Ron O'Neal in the title role. And in order to get him Paramount had to let him direct. We can just imagine the high blood pressure meetings on the Paramount lot when the suits realized a blaxploitation star was actually blaxploitating them. So how did O'Neal do? We'll come to that.

In Super Fly the character of Priest wanted out of the drug business. In Super Fly T.N.T. he's living in Rome off the proceeds of his big score, and the ghetto is just a bad memory. And the U.S. as a whole is a place he understands will never change. There's too much invested in the status quo of racism. But in Rome he has friends from all walks of life. He eats in nice restaurants and nobody throws him attitude. He rides horses. And living there has given him some perspective. His novelist pal tells him, while the two are strolling in the city center, “These people are all walking around living right here in the middle of thousands of years of history. And I mean their own history. That's what makes them different.”

But Priest is directionless. He has no idea what to do with his life. Eventually he's asked to help the struggling African nation of Umbria stockpile guns for a revolution and decides this could be his higher cause. From that point forward Super Fly T.N.T. becomes an espionage drama. And not a good one either. While O'Neal's direction isn't scintillating, the main problem is that the script was written by someone who understood history, politics, and anthropology perfectly, but didn't have a firm grasp of cinematic pace and action. Yep, we're laying this failure at literary icon Alex Haley's feet. O'Neal may not have been the best director, but there wasn't much to direct. It's a shame, because Priest was one of the best characters to come out of the blaxploitation wave. Super Fly T.N.T. wastes his cultural capital.

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Femmes Fatales May 8 2018
GRIER'S RULES
I'm going to be making some changes around here.


Pam Grier wears an outstanding floor length dress in this promo image from her 1974 blaxploitation flick Sheba, Baby. The dress would almost distract you from the fact that she's also heavily armed. But she doesn't need the gun—you'd willingly do whatever she said. Sheba, Baby wasn't her best film, but this photo is tops.

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Femmes Fatales May 4 2018
TO PROTECT AND SERVE
This little guy is a jailbird and he just got his parole today. Who says rehabilitation doesn't work?


Above is a photo of U.S. actress Teresa Graves, whose primary claim to fame was starring in the blaxploitation inspired television cop drama Get Christie Love. It ran for one season on ABC from late 1974 through early 1975. We've never seen it but it seems to have developed a cultish following—no surprise, with Ms. Graves in the starring role. Below you see another shot, and her signature line from the show: “You're under arrest, sugar.” Get Christie Love is being rebooted for a 2018 cable movie with a celestial being named Kylie Bunbury in the starring role, but maybe we'll watch the original first. If we do you can be sure we'll report back.

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Vintage Pulp Mar 26 2018
QUEEN SHEBA
Pam Grier was the undisputed ruler of the blaxploitation realm.


The arc of Pam Grier's blaxploitation career is interesting. To us it seems pretty clear that once her studio American International realized they had a true star on their hands the projects they cultivated for her moved toward the cinematic center and became tame and uninspiring. We noted this when we talked about 1975's Friday Foster a while back. Sheba Baby, which was made the same year and premiered in the U.S. today, suffers from the same problem. It's too cute and too palatable, too eager to please in its attempt to draw in mainstream audiences. Grier loses her grit. She plays Sheba Shayne, whose father is harassed by organized crime hoods and needs help to fight their plot to take over his business. Grier leaves her Chicago detective agency and heads down south to Louisville, Kentucky to kick ass and take names. The hoods are black men from around the way, but the real villain is a white guy on a yacht in the river. He's archetypal. He could just as well be a white guy in a mansion on a hill, or in a penthouse uptown. Whoever and wherever he is, he's going down hard and it's going to hurt.

The importance of blaxploitation is that it centered stories on the black experience—family, neighborhood, crime, racism, and the predations of America's two-tiered policing and court systems. This focus on core black issues existed even in films that represented alternate realities, such as horror and martial arts blaxploitation. The eventual sanitization of the genre was due to pressure from two directions at once: from the mainstream to avoid alienating white audiences, and from the black counterculture to avoid caricatured portrayals of blacks. Caught between these two forces, the center of blaxploitation shifted. Meanwhile, inside the subculture, initial euphoria at seeing black stories onscreen evolved into annoyance that the control and profits belonged almost exclusively to white men. It seemed like a plantation system on celluloid, and helped take the bloom off the rose. 1976 and 1977 would remain strong years for the genre, but by 1978 blaxploitation, as it was generally agreed to exist, would all but disappear. Sheba Baby is an important film in the pantheon, but in watching it you also see the genre losing its bite.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
March 27
1958—Khrushchev Becomes Premier
Nikita Khrushchev becomes premier of the Soviet Union. During his time in power he is responsible for the partial de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union, and presides over the rise of the early Soviet space program, but his many policy failures lead to him being deposed in October 1964. After his removal he is pensioned off and lives quietly the rest of his life, eventually dying of heart disease in 1971.
March 26
1997—Heaven's Gate Cult Members Found Dead
In San Diego, thirty-nine members of a cult called Heaven's Gate are found dead after committing suicide in the belief that a UFO hidden in tail of the Hale-Bopp comet was a signal that it was time to leave Earth for a higher plane of existence. The cult members killed themselves by ingesting pudding and applesauce laced with poison.
March 25
1957—Ginsberg Poem Seized by Customs
On the basis of alleged obscenity, United States Customs officials seize 520 copies of Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" that had been shipped from a London printer. The poem contained mention of illegal drugs and explicitly referred to sexual practices. A subsequent obscenity trial was brought against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who ran City Lights Bookstore, the poem's domestic publisher. Nine literary experts testified on the poem's behalf, and Ferlinghetti won the case when a judge decided that the poem was of redeeming social importance.
1975—King Faisal Is Assassinated
King Faisal of Saudi Arabia dies after his nephew Prince Faisal Ibu Musaed shoots him during a royal audience. As King Faisal bent forward to kiss his nephew the Prince pulled out a pistol and shot him under the chin and through the ear. King Faisal died in the hospital after surgery. The prince is later beheaded in the public square in Riyadh.
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