I think it’s safe to say that the legacy of the blaxploitation subgenre is precarious. On one hand, the subgenre included some of the first American films that featured black characters in leading and prominent roles, commented on the oppression of black Americans that was ingrained in American society, and promoted outlooks associated with the Black Power movement. On the other hand, a lot of these films would glorify some of the negative stereotypes associated with predominantly black communities, such as high crime rates and violent activity. Regardless of your feelings about the films themselves, blaxploitation has left a permanent mark on how African American life can be depicted in popular culture. In its own strange way, 1974’s Three the Hard Way mostly succeeds as both a pseudo-political, Afrocentric parable and an exciting, hardcore action flick.
Three the Hard Way was directed by the late Gordon Parks Jr., son of famous photographer and blaxploitation pioneer Gordon Parks. The younger Parks was no stranger to handling contentious subject matter, as evidenced by the fact that he directed the successful but divisive crime drama Super Fly two years before Hard Way’s release. With Hard Way, Parks makes a smooth transition into action filmmaking and does a pretty solid job of translating Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig’s provocative story of a heroic black trio’s quest to stop a sinister white supremacist plot to poison every black person in America into a well-structured film. Of the three leads, Jim Kelly gives the best performance despite having very little to do beyond demonstrating his mastery of Okinawan karate and staring intensely at his foes. Three-time American Football League All-Star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson brings some necessary charm and humor to the proceedings, while Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown acquits himself well in the action set pieces but acts a little stilted in scenes that demand more emotional weight. Sheila Frazier, who previously worked with Parks on Super Fly, does the best she can in a limited role as the love interest of Brown’s character and Jay Robinson (Emperor Caligula in The Robe) and Richard Angarola are appropriately unpleasant as the racist villains. The film’s themes of black empowerment are consistently applied, the action scenes hit all the right beats and the film moves at a quick pace, although there are a few slow spots where songs by the Impressions play over long montages of characters walking around or driving vehicles.
If you’ve only heard about Three the Hard Way, I suggest you check it out. The story may be incendiary, especially by our current standards, but its message of Black Power rings true even now.
Credit: Department of Afro-American Research Arts Culture
For Black History Month, I’ve decided to take a look at two of the strangest films starring one of the biggest stars of the blaxploitation era. The man in question is Jim Kelly, the actor and martial artist who is best known for his portrayal of Williams in the groundbreaking 1973 action classic Enter the Dragon. Most of Kelly’s roles were demonstrations of his proficiency in Okinawan Shorin-Ryu karate, which earned him the World Middleweight Karate Title at the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championships. Since his appearance in Dragon, Kelly became a rising action star during the 70s, starring in such notable films as Black Belt Jones and Three the Hard Way, but the subjects of my joint review don’t share the same amount of fanfare. Let’s take a look at 1977’s Black Samurai and 1978’s Death Dimension and see how they stack up.
Both films feature Kelly as some sort of law enforcement agent dealing with the bizarre machinations of a crazed supervillain with nothing but his wits and his martial arts prowess. The main difference is that Samurai is an adaptation of a popular adventure novel series written by Marc Olden, an African-American mystery author with black belts in karate and aikido. Besides Kelly, the other thread that ties these films together is the presence of infamous B-movie horror director Al Adamson. Although both films are structurally similar to many low-budget thrillers of the era (right down to the excessive amount of fun but pointless action scenes and gratuitous sex appeal to make up for the boilerplate story), Adamson brings a sense of tension and an affection for outlandish imagery that can only come from a director who’s honed his craft in exploitation cinema, which give the films a distinct style. The performances are more of a mixed bag, with both films relying on Kelly’s charisma and athleticism to make them something watchable. Dimension is notable for featuring two alumni of the James Bond film series, with former 007 George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) giving a formulaic performance as a police chief and Harold Sakata (Oddjob from Goldfinger) hamming it up as the ice-bomb-wielding gangster known as the Pig. For the sake of comparison, one of the biggest stars in Samurai is Felix Silla of Addams Family and Buck Rogers fame, portraying a henchman working for a Voodoo-practicing crime lord nicknamed the Warlock.
Overall, I’d say both films have something of merit. Between the two, Black Samurai has a more fascinating premise and crazier fights but Death Dimension is more focused and consistent in its storytelling. Whether you’re looking for a fun bit of campy action or a decent showcase of Jim Kelly’s considerable martial arts skills, this funkadelic duo should hit the spot.
Credit: Blazing Trailers, MT6Films
With the premiere of Marvel’s promising Afrofuturist adventure Black Panther closing in, interest in black superheroism has reached a fever pitch. However, instead of a retrospective on the impact of Blade, a reflection on what went so very wrong with Steel, or a discussion of the hidden charms of M.A.N.T.I.S., I’m going to take a look at 1977’s Abar, the First Black Superman, an offbeat offering in the rare subgenre of blaxploitation science fiction.
Billed as the “first black science fiction film”, Abar is the sole directorial effort by Frank Packard, based on a story written by James Smalley and co-star J. Walter Smith, who portrays Dr. Kinkade, a black scientist who hires ass-kicking activist John Abar (Tobar Mayo) to protect his family from neighborhood bigots. After drinking a superpowered serum concocted by Kinkade, Abar uses his newly developed mental and physical abilities to clean up the hood.
Abar is a tonally strange film, which is both its biggest boon and flaw. The movie’s a lot of fun to watch, even when it struggles to balance the multiple identities that it establishes for itself, which include a fantastical morality tale, a politically charged sermon on the African-American experience, and an action-packed slugfest in the vein of the Jim Kelly vehicle Black Belt Jones. The acting is similarly erratic, with Mayo and Smith carrying the film while the other performances range from unremarkable to cartoonishly exaggerated.
While it probably won’t be lauded for any skillful storytelling or filmmaking, I appreciate Abar for representing an early attempt to tell a bigger, weirder and more inspiring story in the realm of black cinema.
Credit: Paul Kazee