Anyone hoping for a relaxing weekend should probably choose a different place.
We've featured several blaxploitation posters by George Akimoto, so you could be forgiven for thinking the above effort was also painted by him, especially because it's in a similar photo-realistic style, but it's actually the art of Robert C. Kinyon, a new name to our website. He painted it for the Fred Williamson actioner Bucktown, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1975. We've uploaded close-ups below so you can see some of the nice elements Kinyon included, especially the urban street scene with its overlapping, multi-colored neon lights. We'll be keeping a watch for more art from him.
Obviously we watched this movie, and plotwise Williamson arrives in the eponymous Bucktown to bury his brother, who died of pneumonia. Included in his estate is the local nightspot Club Alabam. Williamson wants to sell it and get out of town, until he discovers his brother died of pneumonia alright—after being beaten and left in the freezing rain for refusing to pay off the local cops. Turns out Bucktown is crooked from the top of the police department all the way down to the bottom of the county clerk's office. Only the mayor is clean, but he's helpless.
The Bucktown cartel tries to shake down Williamson for money owed by his brother, as well as for future nightclub profits, but he isn't the type to be intimidated, so he calls in some out-of-town help. A trainload of northern hustlers arrive and soon it's open warfare as Williamson's backup crew starts shooting down crooked lawmen. It's pretty clear, though, that he's going to have trouble with his helpers. That trouble is worse than he imagined. Once the local law is eliminated his pals take over the town and Williamson is basically back at square one. Lesson: power corrupts.
Pam Grier is in this, which is only half the reason we watched it. The other is Williamson, who we've come to regard as a great screen presence. Grier co-stars as a justice-minded local girl who quickly falls into bed with him. Her early roles usually allowed her to play it tough, but here she's a worried girlfriend—a part that doesn't fit her well or use her talents properly. Even so, she's still the lovely Miss Grier and she gets plenty of screen time. Also aboard is the reliable Thalmus Rasulala as head of the out-of-town invaders, and Carl Weathers as of one of his gunmen.
In the end you wind up with a movie the resides somewhere in the middle ranks of blaxploitation in terms of quality and entertainment value. It's low budget, and only passably acted, but it offers up a vision of smalltown corruption right out of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest. In both cases the hero might have been better off heading down the road, but in both cases they're required to stick around and beget some brutal violence. Bucktown barely survives the onslaught, but it's just another day in the realm of blaxploitation.
Shaft comes out swinging in the third entry in his revered blaxploitation franchise.
This poster of Richard Roundtree brandishing a massive shillelagh or whatever was made for the third film in his iconic Shaft trilogy, Shaft in Africa, which was released today in 1973. Film series often try to go bigger with each entry, so it's no surprise that this one went clear to Africa during the height of the blaxploitation wave. Looking at the poster, we wonder if the stick gimmick influenced the next year's Black Samson, in which Rockne Tarkington carried a shillelagh of his own. Cinema being generally referential, we're guessing yes. But the similarities between the movies ends there. Black Samson was exclusively concerned with urban Los Angeles, while Shaft in Africa spans three continents and touches on some unusual subject matter.
The story revolves around New York City private dick John Shaft being asked to bring down a modern slavery ring. We should note, for any who don't know, that this evil thrives in 2022. In modern slavery, people desperate for work are offered foreign jobs that turn out to be brutal and pay so little—or nothing—that its victims are trapped. They can neither escape nor go to the police, because they soon learn that their work papers are fraudulent, and are told by their enslavers that the police will imprison them for illegal immigration. Operations of this sort have been broken up in recent years in New York, Georgia, and Texas, where a sex slavery ring was uncovered in Dallas. Elsewhere, slavery rings have been busted in the British Midlands, Australia, and perhaps most notably in Dubai, where Amnesty International says forced labor was used to prepare Qatar for the upcoming World Cup.
Shaft is tasked with traveling to Ethiopia, where he will pose as a local and allow himself to be recruited by slavers so he can gather evidence for French authorities, who have learned that the victims end up in Paris. Unfortunately, Shaft quickly realizes his cover has been blown and that he can't trust anyone. In a classic American cinema example of vigilantism becoming the last best option, he decides that rather than gather evidence against the slavers it'd be better if he went human tornado on the whole stinking lot of them. He becomes, in essence, the classic cop out of control, leaving chaos in his wake as his erstwhile handlers survey the damage and occasionally go sacre bleu!
In an interesting subplot, Vonetta McGee plays Aleme, tasked with teaching Shaft local ways and a bit of language. Shaft is dismayed to learn that she's on the cusp of receiving her clitoridectomy, a coming-of-age ritual generally referred to these days as female genital mutilation. Shaft: “Listen, baby, how in the hell are you gonna know what you're missing unless you give it a little wear and tear before they take it away?” It's glib, but there's a serious undertone—probably not enough for anyone horrified by the practice, but you really can't expect more for the time period. It's actually amazing it was mentioned at all. Because this is a Shaft movie, Aleme has a hands-on experience with the hero's big brown stick and decides she better hang onto her clitoris after all.
What can you say about a movie that features Roundtree reprising his immensely popular and groundbreaking private eye, and that deals with two hot-button social issues decades before they were on the minds of the Western public? The budget is big, the pace is fast, and the international setting in and around Addis Ababa, with some scenes shot in Massawa, Eritrea, and a climax staged in Paris, offers plenty of appeal. In addition, there's McGee, a very beautiful actress who in this outing looks even better than usual, while Serbian actress Neda Arnerić plays a ridiculously horny femme fatale who'll do anything to get Shaft in the sack. Action, commentary, sex, and a bit of humor—those are excellent ingredients, but even with all that and the virtual kitchen sink thrown in we don't think Shaft in Africa is as good as the original. But that's no surprise. There's really nothing like the first time.
Hand over all your disco albums right now or you're dead meat.
We don't know if this low-cut kaftan or whatever U.S. actress Rosalind Cash is wearing is suitable garb for a machine gunning, but who's going point that out to her? She's probably going to Studio 54 later. The image was made for 1971's The Omega Man, which starred Charlton Heston and was based on Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, a book we discussed a while back. Talk about getting your career off to a good start. Cash's first role was a small part in the classic drama Klute, with The Omega Man coming out months later and featuring her third billed in what was at the time considered a big budget sci-fi epic. From that point Cash worked steadily for twenty-five years, finishing her movie career with 1995's Tales from the Hood. We've also seen her in Uptown Saturday Night and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, two blaxploitation movies we may talk about later. Cash is good at looking tough. For confirmation, check out this shot.
He's a complicated man—nobody understands him but his mechanic.
This is about as chill as you can get. The above shot, which has been floating around online for a while now, was first published in Custom Bike-Chopper, aka Custom Chopper, in 1976, and shows the legendary Isaac Hayes astride his turbocharged Kawasaki chopper on a sunny Southern California day. With the sandals and socks, it's like he never left his sofa. His bike has one-of-a-kind handlebars, a filigreed gearbox, a gold-plated roller chain, and more. It's extravagant, but the guy wrote the massive hit song, “Theme from Shaft.” He had to do something with all that royalty money. As the lyrics explain, nobody understands him but his woman—who we assume built his bike.
We've talked about Hayes before. He starred in a number of films, but of the ones we've seen so far, the most interesting is the 1974 blaxploitation flick Truck Turner. We talked about it at length a while back, and long story short, it's terrible but amusing. He also appeared in the fun John Carpenter b-movie Escape from New York in 1981, and was a running character on the animated show South Park. We'll get back to Escape from New York later, probably. In the meantime, you can see U.S. and Italian Truck Turner posters here and here, read our thoughts about the film at the first of those links, and check out a promo image of Hayes in considerably less relaxed mode here.
You can build a kingdom with bullets but you might not rule it for long.
This poster for Black Caesar was painted by George Akimoto, who probably needs a bit more recognition for his movie promos, particularly those from the blaxploitation cycle. We've featured his work before, on this poster and this paperback cover, and they're worth a look. The star of Black Caesar is ex-NFL cornerback Fred Williamson, who decides to take over the Italian rackets in New York City. The story arc is pure Scarface. What results is a bloody gang war—well, more of a massacre, since the mob is so taken by surprise by Williamson's bullet-riddled offensive that they can't effectively fight back at first. But as you might expect, la cosa nostra get their shit together and rebound hellbent on Williamson's destruction.
Black Caesar is ambitious, a shift in tone from most blaxploitation efforts, which tend to have large portions of humor. The entire feel here is darker and more dramatic, with brutal interpersonal interactions and ear-melting racial discord. Even Gloria Hendry, whose physicality and beauty made her a popular choice for action-adventure roles throughout the seventies, mines some ugly emotional depths here. She has the bellwether role as the woman whose mistreatment by Williamson marks the moment when we know he's a bad guy. Not bad-but-good in the style of an anti-hero, but bad within the film's moral universe.
Black Caesar, in addition to its foreboding tone, offers pointed commentary about generational violence, entrenched police corruption, and the role of religion within black culture. This latter is embodied by D'Urville Martin's holy roller minister, who, when asked for practical help in a life-threatening situtation, resorts to prayer—of no immediate use whatsoever when someone is gutshot. We don't know how the movie was received when released, but it certainly must have ruffled a few feathers. But then most blaxploitation movies did. Within the genre we think the uncompromising Black Caesar is a must-see. Plus it has a killer James Brown soundtrack. It premiered today in 1973.
Jim Kelly takes on the mob in hit-and-miss karate adventure.
The blaxploitation/kung fu flick Black Belt Jones premiered in the U.S. today in 1974, but we're sharing the Italian poster for two reasons: this Ermanno Iaia effort is more interesting than the U.S. art; and it's another example of African American stars being erased from Italian promo art. We assume it happened because Italian distributors figured many Italians wouldn't knowingly choose to see a film with a black star. Well, this one featured one of the biggest black stars—martial arts sensation Jim Kelly. He's not widely known today, but during the height of the martial arts craze he was an icon because of his screen charisma and cred. And by cred we mean he won four martial arts championships in 1971 alone, including the world middleweight karate title.
There's no release date for Black Belt Jones in Italy, but probably it played there during the summer of ’74, retitled Johnny lo svelto, or “Johnny quick.” Plotwise the mafia have learned that city of L.A. plans to erect a new civic center, and have bought up all the land at the prospective building site except a karate dojo owned by a martial arts instructor named Papa Byrd—and Papa won't play. Meanwhile, somewhere across town, Kelly is asked by cops to investigate the L.A. mob, who are getting cozy with local politicians and building up so much power they might soon be untouchable. In the tight knit local martial arts community, Kelly and Byrd know each other, so when Byrd turns up dead Kelly is motivated to get to the bottom of the murder.
The movie is partially a burlesque, with bits of slapstick, some salty slang, and many of characters constructed as pure stereotypes—Italian gangsters crying, “Mamma mia!” and that sort of thing. Viewed in a certain frame of mind it's funny, and considering it features an ass-kicking Scatman Crothers (long before getting axed in the chest in The Shining), the red hot Gloria Hendry, and Love Boat bartender Ted Lange as a minor league crook, there's plenty worth seeing here. That includes Kelly's martial arts, which are fun to watch, once you get past a bizarre opening fight shown entirely in slow motion. Kelly's abs are also on regular display, which made the Pulp Intl. girlfriends happy. So Kelly knows martial arts and looks great, but can he act? Considering the constraints, he does okay. These low budget ’70s movies didn't give stars much chance to sharpen their performances, and they're nearly always poorly paced in terms of dialogue, but he has charisma and his acting matches that of Bruce Lee or any other of the action stars from the period. They weren't hired to do Hamlet, after all. With Kelly at its center Black Belt Jones is worth a watch. And as we said, viewed in a certain frame of mind, it's even sort of good. But by frame of mind, we mean one in which you don't take it too seriously—the filmmakers certainly didn't seem to. We mean that as a compliment.
The best defense is a good offense.
Above: the original promo art for Hell Up in Harlem, a blaxploitation classic starring former NFL defensive back Fred Williamson, along with Gloria Hendry and others. This masterpiece was painted by Robert Tannenbaum, a promo art icon whose website you can check out here. You can read about the movie here. Hell Up in Harlem opened in New York City today in 1973.
William Marshall's creature of the night has a killer debut in Paris.
Above: a French poster for Blacula, known in France as Blacula le vampire noir, starring William Marshall as an African prince-turned-vampire awakened in modern Los Angeles. As concepts go, it was pure genius. The final result has its problems, but it was a huge hit in the U.S. and abroad, and for blaxploitation aficionados it will always be a mandatory film. It premiered in Paris and elsewhere in France today in 1972.
Coffy gets scalding hot in explicit novelization.
A novelization of the blaxploitation classic Coffy? We had to buy it. Paul Fairman was tapped to bring the iconic character of Coffy to literary life, and we were surprised to discover that the result is x-rated. We assume Fairman's marching orders came from Lancer Books or/and American International Pictures, and in a way it's a clever gambit—readers had no choice but to imagine Pam Grier dispensing the blowjobs and sizzling bed sessions described. Unfortunately, the other edge of that sword is Fairman has Coffy raped, which didn't happen in the movie (though she was seriously threatened with such). Except for the kicked up explicitness, the tale hews close to the motion picture, with Coffy seeking bloody revenge against the degenerates who addicted her eleven-year-old sister to heroin.
Fairman writes with as much soul as he can muster, but it's quickly discernible that he doesn't exactly have his finger on the pulse of the black community. Some of his attempts at African American vernacular are cringeworthy, especially the constant interjections of, “Sheeee-it!” We really don't think many black authors would have made that choice, and Fairman, who's not black and is no Toni Morrison, should have rethought it. The book has this and numerous other flaws, and isn't well written overall. We're particularly let down that Fairman never solved the mystery of Coffy's real name. Her last name is Coffin, but we don't learn a first name in the movie, and we don't here either. Her sister calls her Flower Child, but we feel like that's understood to be a nickname.
We managed to get Fairman's Coffy for seven dollars plus shipping. We've seen sellers ask for a lot more, even as much as eighty dollars, but we'd caution against extravagant expenditure. You get less than you expect. The book has extra large type to help pad it into a normal sized paperback. With regular type, leading, and kerning we think it would run maybe 120 pages. Instead of typographic tricks, a more detailed portrayal of No-First-Name Coffin would have been better, but no such luck. Even so, we're glad we bought Fairman's novelizationsploitation. If we hadn't, we would have wondered about its contents forever. The cover art on this is uncredited, but it comes directly from the film poster. That art, in turn, is rarely attributed, but it's by George Akimoto. Excellent work. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
NBC radio broadcasts the cop drama Dragnet for the first time. It was created by, produced by, and starred Jack Webb as Joe Friday. The show would later go on to become a successful television program, also starring Webb.
1973—Lake Dies Destitute
Veronica Lake, beautiful blonde icon of 1940s Hollywood and one of film noir's most beloved fatales
, dies in Burlington, Vermont of hepatitis and renal failure due to long term alcoholism. After Hollywood, she had drifted between cheap hotels in Brooklyn and New York City and was arrested several times for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. A New York Post
article briefly revived interest in her, but at the time of her death she was broke and forgotten.
1962—William Faulkner Dies
American author William Faulkner, who wrote acclaimed novels such as Intruder in the Dust and The Sound and the Fury, dies of a heart attack in Wright's Sanitorium in Byhalia, Mississippi.
1942—Spy Novelist Graduates from Spy School
Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, graduates from Camp X, a training school for spies located in Canada. The character of Bond has been said to have been based upon Camp X's Sir William Stephenson and what Fleming learned from him, though there are several other men who are also said
to be the basis for Bond.
1989—Oliver North Avoids Prison
Colonel Oliver North, an aide to U.S. president Ronald Reagan, avoids jail during the sentencing phase of the Iran-Contra trials. North had been found guilty of falsifying and destroying documents, and obstructing Congress during their investigation of the massive drugs/arms/cash racket orchestrated by high-ranking members of the Reagan government.
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