18th Jul2018

Review: Xenon Pictures ‘Blaxploitation’ VOD line-up

by Rupert Harvey

xenon-pictures-review-header

Stars: Rudy Ray Moore, Carol Speed, D’Urville Martin, Melvin Van Peebles, Lady Reed et al. | Written by Frank R. Salteri, J. Robert Wagoner, Cliff Roquemore, Melvin Van Peebles et al. | Directed by Melvin Van Peebles, D’Urville Martin, J. Robert Wagoner, William A. Levey et al.

Following their success with 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, and the debut of some of their line-up on Blu-ray, Xenon Pictures are releasing a series of classic (a broad term) Blaxploitation movies on VOD this month.

We should begin with the film that started it all. Melvin Van Peebles writes, directs and stars in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), a film that seeks to confront and challenge from the moment you try to read the title aloud. When the first scene depicts a preadolescent boy having sex with a grown woman, you know Van Peebles isn’t messing about. “This film is dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man,” reads the title card. But Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is an atypical Blaxploitation movie, quite avant garde at times, and more in keeping with the ‘60s psychedelica movement.

In adulthood, Sweetback is a male prostitute, performing live sex shows for sleazy LA audiences. One day the cops bring him in for routine questioning. En route to the station, the cops apprehend a Black Panther and beat him down. Sweetback snaps, killing the cops. The rest of the movie is about Sweetback on the run, and the help he gets from Brothers and Sisters as he makes his way to the border. The justification for Sweetback’s rampage is not altogether convincing, but it is undeniable that the movie is a raw and powerful expression of rage. Looking at it today, while it is clearly empowering from the perspective of black men, others are not treated so well: women are only there to have sex, and there’s a cringeworthy scene involving a trio of “militant queen” stereotypes.

Sweetback himself is more of a lover than a fighter. At one point he avoids a confrontation with a biker gang by publicly having sex for their entertainment. Bum gleaming, it’s not quite Tommy Wiseau levels of self-indulgence, but it’s close.

We’re assured that the final VOD offering will be available in 2K or 4K, although I wonder if this might detract from the weird, hallucinogenic quality of Van Peebles’ film. The image quality and focusing is all over the place, the camera is drunk, and the film is edited with shears. Van Peebles zooms in, zooms out, jump cuts between dreams and reality, and sometimes plays two records with different tempos at once. This scrappy, lo-fi rawness plays into the deep underground mood of the film, aided by the location shooting and the use of non-actors.

Not so much rough around the edges as rough all over, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the real granddaddy of Blaxploitation, pipping Gordon Parks’ Shaft to release by a matter of months.

Cashing in on 1972’s Blacula comes Blackenstein (1973), an inept update of Mary Shelley’s novel. Dr Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) comes to visit her old tutor, Dr Stein (John Hart), in the hope that he can help her husband, Eddie (Joe De Sue), who lost his limbs in Vietnam. Dr Stein, who apparently won the Nobel Peace Prize for “solving the genetic DNA code”, agrees, and soon Eddie is having limbs attached using “laser fusion”. Only problem is, Stein’s jealous assistant has injected Eddie with a contaminated fluid which will make him devolve into a violent primal state. By night, Eddie goes on zombie-like rampages, hugging his victims to death.

The fact that Eddie is black is of no consequence, so it’s questionable whether this is Blaxploitation at all. Near the start, a hospital nurse delivers a bizarre rant (the single longest monologue in the film) but it isn’t racially charged. There is no original score (the “Music by” credit goes to Cardella Di Milo, but this is just an excuse for some footage of a live show) so we get a bunch of stock scary music which doesn’t match the action on screen. And the action is terrible. There’s a lethal script combination here: it needlessly complicates the original story whilst also being immensely stupid.

The film starts with some interesting photography (there’s a brilliant circling shot around a spotlit dinner table), but as the gore-free kills mount up, all the lights go out and you can’t tell what’s happening. Blackenstein isn’t scary. It’s also not funny; not even bad-funny.

Chronologically, Dolemite (1975) is the first of Xenon’s Rudy Ray Moore offerings. (They are also releasing the 1976 follow-up, The Human Tornado.) Dolemite was an alter ego of Moore’s, so the musician and comedian decided to make a movie about his nightclub-owning pimp character. Dolemite is imprisoned for a crime for which he was framed by his rival, Willie Green (D’Urville Martin, who also directs). Dolemite is released on the proviso that he helps clean up the neighbourhood. So off he goes, takes his club back by force, and starts a gang war. “Remember, we want Dolemite dead!” Willie barks, in case his henchmen forgot. Of course, the real baddie is the corrupt white mayor, for whom Willie is a puppet.

Dolemite just wants to hold a big party in the club. This means funky music, great dancing, and a chance for lots of martial arts when the rival thugs turns up. With scores more often settled with fists than guns, and prisoners quietly playing dominoes in their very clean cell, it all comes across as a rather quaint depiction of LA’s underworld. Ultimately this is a showcase for Moore’s talents – of which acting isn’t really one, to be honest. But he gives himself a couple of lengthy, pre-hip hop raps to entertain the locals (it’s basically beat poetry). Flabby Rudy is more like Denzel in Flight than Denzel in The Hurricane, bless him, but he’s a magnetic screen presence, full of hypermasculine charisma.

Dolemite is refreshingly positive with regard to women. Queen Bee (Lady Reed) is a very capable leader in Dolemite’s absence; all of the girls know karate; and it is a woman who triggers the baddie’s demise. It’s also unusually positive about law enforcement, albeit when the black FBI agents are on screen. Thankfully, the agents are very accommodating when it comes to Dolemite’s benign brand of violence. Dolemite is a lot of fun, with plenty of fights, both physical and verbal, and it has some wonderfully tongue-in-cheek performances, particularly from West Gale as Reverend Gibbs, and Hy Pike as Mayor Daley. Ernie Hudson debuts here somewhere, but I must have blinked and missed him.

Moore returns for 1979’s Disco Godfather. aka Mr Disco, aka Tucker Williams, he’s a DJ at the Blueberry Hill club. One night his nephew Bucky falls in with bad crowd, takes angel dust, and freaks out. Tucker starts a campaign to get PCP off the streets. The “Attack the Wack” movement begins.

Doctor Fred (Jerry Jones) gives Tucker a tour of his PCP recovery facility. Fred’s basically running an asylum, or possibly a zoo. As the drug’s victims try to chew off their own ears, the doc explains the mania of the users with the air of a PSA from the 1960s. One woman, apparently, roasted her own child and served it to dinner guests. “PCP is a new drug… beyond modern medicine!” Strangely, the only kid we actually see being cured is done so through a religious “exorcism”. But it’s not for want of Tucker trying the hard way. Tucker is an ex-cop and he gets help from his former colleagues, who don’t seem to mind him doling out his own vigilante justice on the evil drugs gang, led by a cackling fiend named Stinger (Hawthorne James).

Despite its subject matter, Disco Godfather is an oddly sweet-natured and wholesome film. Moore, early 50s by now, is avuncular and moral. He never leers over women. On the contrary, he dresses like Liberace, all ruffles and sequins, and hangs around with a buff male bodyguard.

The film is a swift, efficient piece of storytelling. It’s lit well and the music sequences are fantastic. Some lines are brilliant: “Anyone move, they get their afro blown off!” There are visual jokes, too – check out the pile of cocaine strewn upon a Saturday Night Fever LP. There are also some surreal drug trip sequences, which are always fun, even if they are coming ten years too late. Climaxing with some crappy kung fu fight scenes, Disco Godfather is the ridiculous hoot the title promises. Coming long after the Blaxploitation heyday, it holds up rather better than many in the genre by embracing its own silliness, and in the universality of its message.

Also coming to VOD are 1977’s Petey Wheatstraw (not to be confused with the ‘30s blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw), in which Rudy Ray Moore plays “the Devil’s son-in-law” and wields a magic pimp cane; and 1976’s women-in-prison film The Muthers, directed by Filipino Cirio H. Santiago, a favourite of Quentin Tarantino.

In addition, we’re getting another chance to see Welcome to Death Row, a documentary about Death Row Records, the hip hop label made famous by the likes of Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. Marketed as a “sequel” to Straight Outta Compton, it’s actually a pretty run-of-the-mill talking heads piece from 2001. It is utterly crippled by the absence of music rights to its subject, so a tricky sell for anyone except those fan enough to already hear the tunes in their head. For the rest of us, it’s just a lot of “he said/she said” over some listless, royalty-free drum tracks.
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You can find Xenon Pictures Blaxploitation line-up, which also includes Penitentiary, Penitentiary II, Death Force and Lord Shango, on VOD via the likes of iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and more.

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