Shaft In Africa

030_shaft_in_africa

1973

MGM/Warner Bros.

Directed by John Guillermin

Produced by Roger Lewis

Written by Stirling Silliphant

Based on characters created by Ernest Tidyman

For a character who is usually described as being “the black James Bond” John Shaft actually didn’t do a lot of stuff we associate with James Bond. John Shaft in his first two movies is a private investigator working cases strictly in Harlem. He doesn’t uses gadgets, he doesn’t take on world conquering supervillians. He doesn’t report to or take orders from anybody. That all changed with SHAFT IN AFRICA which turns John Shaft into an international action hero and I think it was the smartest move the producers could have done. By taking Shaft out of his turf there’s an element of real suspense and danger in this movie. We’ve seen in two movies that Shaft is unbeatable when he’s in his element. But in this one he’s halfway around the world and there’s nobody he can call for help and he can’t even really trust the people who are supposed to be on his side.

SHAFT IN AFRICA starts off with a great sequence where Shaft is kidnapped by a gigantic African (Frank McRae) and his diminutive partner. Shaft is then subjected to a number of tests to determine if he can survive in the African desert. He passes the tests and only then does he meet the men who ordered his kidnapping: The Emir Ramila (Cy Grant) who rules over an East African country and Colonel Gonder (Marne Maitland) The two of them are working together to destroy a modern day slavery ring that recruits East Africans and illegally smuggles them into France. The East Africans are promised passports and wages enough to bring their families over but instead they find they’re working in sweatshops for barely enough money to buy food.

Shaft is naturally (and quite sensibly, I think) reluctant as he thinks he’s way too Americanized to pass for a native African. But once he lays his eyes on the woman who’s to tutor him in African ways he changes his mind. And I can’t blame him. If Vonetta McGee was tutoring me, I’d change my mind in a quick fast hurry my own self.

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Armed with James Bondian gadgets such as a camera hidden in his walking stick which is his only weapon and a tape recorder in his tribal bag, Shaft gets himself placed inside the pipeline, allowing himself to be recruited and working his way up until he reaches the man in charge. But it’s a bloody trail as Shaft has been fingered by someone inside the Emir’s organization and he has to continually defend himself against assassination attempts.

SHAFT IN AFRICA actually reminds me a lot of the novel version of “Diamonds Are Forever.” In that one, James Bond goes undercover and inserts himself into a pipeline of diamond smugglers. And like Shaft he makes his way up the pipeline by killing off the folks trying to kill him. And Bond has his Tiffany Case while Shaft has his Jazar (Neda Arneric) the nymphomaniac girlfriend of the supervillain Amafi (Frank Finlay) who is the mastermind behind the slavery ring and a lot of other nastiness besides.

Richard Roundtree by now can slip into John Shaft’s skin with no problem but I like how he still brings new shadings and reveal of character. In Africa Shaft seems to become a new man. While he states flat out at the beginning of the job he’s doing it only for the $25,000 fee he’s contracted to be paid we see along the way as he follows this slave pipeline of misery that it changes him. There’s a thirst for justice and retribution that is reawakened in his spirit that has been dormant for too long.

Shaft-in-Africa-(1973)-movie-wallpaperShaft in Africa  - Richard Roundtree - Frank Finlay

Vonetta McGee is deliciously wonderful and the conversation she has with Richard Roundtree about ritual tribal female clitoridectomy has to be seen to be believed. Modern day movies love to pride themselves on how mature and adult they are. But we’re talking about a movie made back in the 70’s where a black man and black woman talk freely about ritual tribal female clitoridectomy. I don’t remember a movie made in the last twenty five years (by white OR black filmmakers) that even approached such a subject.

It’s always fun to see Frank McRae in a movie and this is one of his early roles and he’s a lot a fun to see in anything he does.  And after the urban hellscapes of 1970’s New York in the first two “Shaft” movies, the clean wide open spaces of Africa and the international flavor of France gives SHAFT IN AFRICA a truly different look and feel. After the kinda so-so “Shaft’s Big Score!” SHAFT IN AFRICA is exactly what the series needed and I think that if the movie series had continued instead of going to TV, John Shaft would have grown into the sort of international action hero James Bond is. It’s a great movie and well worth your time seeing. Enjoy.

112 minutes

Rated R

Bucktown

1975

MGM/UA Home Entertainment

Directed by Arthur Marks

Written by Bob Ellison

Produced by Bernard Schwartz

Whenever Blaxplotation fans get together and start discussing their favorite movies of the genre, I guarantee that BUCKTOWN is in the top ten, if not the top five. And with good reason. It stars three icons of the Blaxploitation genre who were able to move on when Blaxplotation died and find careers in the mainstream. And it’s an early film of Carl Weathers who went to find his own success in the “Rocky” movies as well as in “Action Jackson” and “Predator” as well television shows such as “In The Heat of The Night” and the cut down well before it’s time “Fortune Dane”.  And it’s a good story professionally acted and directed.

Duke Johnson (Fred Williamson) returns home to the small town of Buchanan, Alabama which is nicknamed ‘Bucktown’.  He only intends to stay in town long enough to bury his brother and then leave. But right from the moment he hits Bucktown, things ain’t right. The police force is openly racist and hostile. Duke finds out his brother died under seriously shady circumstances. And to make matters worse, it’ll take two months before the paperwork is done so that Duke can settle his brother’s estate.

He’s offered a solution by Harley (Bernie Hamilton) the amiable town drunk who worked for Duke’s brother.  Harley suggests that Duke re-open his brother’s bar/nightclub. After all, Duke’s got to stay in Bucktown anyway, right? What’s the harm?  The idea is met with no enthusiasm by Aretha (Pam Grier) who was in love with Duke’s brother.  Matter of fact, she doesn’t like Duke very much, period and sums up her feelings about him in one well-put sentence: “he ain’t nothin’ but a big city, jive ass spook!”

Duke re-opens the nightclub and quickly discovers that Harley left out one important detail: Police Chief Patterson (Art Lund) and his police force are shaking down everybody in Bucktown since its main businesses appear to be gambling, prostitution and drug dealing. Duke tries fighting back but it’s clear that he’s going to need help to clean up the town.

One phone call later and help diddy-bops into Bucktown in the form of Roy (Thalmus Rasulala) Duke’s oldest friend who grew up with him and served with him in the military. Roy comes with his crew: Hambone (Carl Weathers) T.J. (Tony King) and Josh (Gene Simms) and once these guys get started, there simply isn’t any stopping them.

In short order, Roy and his crew brutally and viciously slaughters the corrupt cops and I do mean slaughter. These guys do not believe in taking prisoners and once the smoke clears, there’s nobody left standing but them.  Now quite naturally everybody thinks Roy and his crew are going to go back where they came from but such is not the case.  Because after checking out the action in Bucktown, Roy sees no reason why he shouldn’t step into the vacuum he created and run Bucktown himself.  And it becomes quickly obvious that Roy and his crew are far worse than Patterson and his corrupt cops ever were.  Even though Roy orders his men to steer clear of Duke, T.J and Hambone don’t think that’s fair and they initiate their own plan to drive a wedge into the friendship of the two men and turn them against each other.  It takes Harley being beaten nearly to death and Aretha almost being raped to make Duke realize that it’s his responsibility to put things to right in Bucktown or die trying…

BUCKTOWN has got a bit more meat on the plot than most Blaxplotation movies and I suppose that’s why it’s still remembered to this day. It’s also a different movie for Fred Williamson and Pam Grier in a lot of ways.  Fred Williamson doesn’t play his usual ultra-hip superdude with a quick quip and easy smile for every situation.  He’s actually pretty reserved through much of the movie until the end when he finally gets sick of Roy’s shit and decides that no, he ain’t gonna take it anymore.

Pam Grier herself isn’t the Filmic Goddess of War she usually plays.  She acts as Duke’s conscience, pointing out to him the necessity of his doing the right thing and taking responsibility for dealing with Roy.  Thalmus Rasulala is marvelous as usual.  He was one of those actors who never seemed to turn in a bad performance no matter what role he played or what movie he’s in. Besides his many roles in Blaxplotation movies he also played the father of Kunta Kinte in ‘Roots’.  If you only know Bernie Hamilton from “Starsky and Hutch” you’ll be surprised at seeing him here as a washed up ex-pro football player who likes pulling a cork way too much.  Carl Weathers makes the most of his supporting role here and it’s interesting seeing him play a bad guy.  The only actor in the movie I can’t stand is Tierre Turner who was one of the most annoying child actors of the 70’s.  He’s since gone on to become one of the best and most respected stunt coordinators in the business and I’m happy for him since acting plainly wasn’t for him.

So should you see BUCKTOWN?  If you’re a fan of Blaxplotation, you probably already have.  If you haven’t then this movie is an excellent place to start, especially since it stars Fred Williamson, Pam Grier and Thalmus Rasulala.  Your education in Blaxplotation isn’t complete until you’ve seen them at work.

As usual, whenever I review a movie from the 70’s and 80’s I feel I should inform you that these movies were made in a time before Political Correctness and as so, racism and sexism is all over the place. And the violence isn’t played for laughs. It’s downright brutal and messy. If you have a thin skin and are easily offended then by all means, stay away from BUCKTOWN.  But if you’re made of sterner stuff and want to dip into film history and spend some time with a true classic of the genre, by all means, enjoy.

And here’s a P.S. for you: BUCKTOWN was remade in 2004 as “Full Clip” which starred Busta Rhymes in the Fred Williamson role and Xzibit in the Thalmus Rasulala role.

94 minutes

Rated R

Three The Hard Way

1974

Allied Artists

Produced by Harry Bernson

Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr.

Written by Eric Bercovici and Jerrold L. Ludwig

Here’s where we throw anything resembling objective film criticism out of the window, friends.  You see, we’re dealing with THREE THE HARD WAY here, which is a top shelf example of the blaxploitation genre that along with Kung Fu movies populated most of the grindhouse movie theatres on 42end Street during the 70’s.  Theatres that my friends and I practically lived in on Saturdays.  We’d go check out three movies for $3.00 and frequently would leave one theatre and cross the street and go into another and see three more movies.  Ah, good times…with only $10 in my pocket I was in movie heaven.

The plot of THREE THE HARD WAY is as simple and uncomplicated as a peanut butter sandwich: Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson) is the charismatic head of a Neo-Nazi white supremacist organization.  He has bankrolled the research of Dr. Fortrero (Richard Angarola) and the result is a toxin that will only kill African-Americans.  Dr. Fortrero explains that it’s based on sickle cell anemia which as he says with smug Caucasian superiority: “We all know only affects blacks!”

Dr Fortrero has been keeping a large number of black men and women imprisoned in a compound that he’s been using them as guinea pigs.  One of the test subjects breaks away and manages to reach a friend of his, a Los Angeles record producer named Jimmy Lait (Jim Brown) Feather sends men to kill Jimmy’s friend and in the process they kidnap Jimmy’s girlfriend, Wendy Kane (Sheila Frazier). Jimmy’s forced to stop work producing the next hit album of The Impressions (and yes, there was an actual group with that name…go Google it and learn something) as he tries to find Wendy and uncover the conspiracy.

He recruits two friends of his to help: the slick, smooth and totally cool public relations king of Detroit, Jagger Daniels (Fred Williamson) and world famous karate champion/martial arts expert Mister Keyes (Jim Kelly) and as the tag line of the movie boasts: “Action explodes all over the place as the big three unite to save their race!”  They get into a shootout with some of Feather’s hitmen who have been following Jimmy and by questioning one of them find out that Feather is sending squads of heavily armed men to Washington, DC, Los Angeles and Chicago to poison the water supply with the toxin.  The three heroes separate to the three cities to stop Feather’s men and then unite to rescue Wendy and bring down The Man.

Look, I’m not going to try and con you into watching THREE THE HARD WAY by attributing all kinds of socio-political subtexts and psychological levels of Black Awareness to a movie that simply has none.  THREE THE HARD WAY is about one thing: getting together the three hottest black action movie heroes at that time and turning them loose to do what they do best: kick ass.  They don’t even bother with the taking names part.  They’re too cool for that.

Jim Brown and Fred Williamson spend a lot of the movie’s running time just trying to out cool each other (Williamson wins) and surprisingly, Brown has moments where he really tries to act and show he’s not just in the movie to look tough, bark orders and dress pretty.  Fred Williamson is shameless in his rampant scene stealing which he does every time he’s on screen.  He’s clearly the best natural actor out of the three as both Brown and especially Jim Kelly look much more at home during the action scenes.  Sheila Frazier plays Brown’s girlfriend Wendy and quite frankly she’s got all the sex appeal of a broom handle.  Her role is a thankless one as she has little more to do than get slapped around by the bad guys and scream: “You just wait till my man gets here!”

There’s a bunch of fun scenes in this one: The scene where Jimmy goes to Jagger to ask for his help and Jagger turns him down because he just doesn’t believe such a fantastic story.  The two men are ambushed by a hoard of assassins and in a furious shootout at an outdoor arcade kill them all.

Standing knee deep in a pile of bodies, Jimmy asks Jagger: “Do you believe me now?”

Jagger: “Shit, you shoulda explained it like that in the first place.”

When Jimmy, Jagger and Keyes are getting nowhere interrogating one of Feather’s men, Jagger calls in The Duchess, The Countess and The Princess, a trio of women.  One’s black, one Asian and one white.  One dresses in red, one in white and one in blue.  They ride color co-ordinated motorcycles.  And they are bad. Jagger assures his friends that the three women can make the prisoner talk. There’s a terrific scene where Jagger and Keyes are playing chess and listening to the screams coming from upstairs.  The three women tell Jagger and Keyes they can go talk to the guy.  The guy doesn’t have a mark on him but he acts like he’s been dragged through Hell’s bathroom and he spills his guts.

There’s a scene where the cops are harassing Mister Keyes and they ask for his driver’s license.  One cop reads it and smirks: “What kinda first name is ‘Mister’?”

Jim Kelly responds without missing a beat: “My momma wanted to make sure people showed me respect.”

And that’s just a few of them.  THREE THE HARD WAY probably isn’t going to appeal to a lot of movie fans today.  It looks like it was filmed on weekends with a budget of about nine thousand bucks.  The plot holes are big enough to throw a pimpmobile through.  The acting is sometimes embarrassing.  The action sequences look like they were made up on the spot.  Despite having automatic weapons the bad guys seem incapable of hitting anything while the good guys pick them off with one shot apiece from their handguns.

But THREE THE HARD WAY is a helluva lot of fun if you approach it in the right way.  Jim Brown and Fred Williamson have an undeniable magnetism and screen presence.  They know how to keep your attention on what they’re doing while they’re doing it.  Jim Kelly shows his magnificent martial arts skills in several awesome fight scenes.  Back in the day, the only guy better than Jim Kelly was Bruce Lee.  Woefully, this isn’t Kelly’s best movie.  Matter of fact, he’s much better in “Enter The Dragon” or “Black Belt Jones” and he looks downright uncomfortable in a lot of scenes where he just has to stand around and react to the dialog of others but then again, THREE THE HARD WAY isn’t a movie you watch for acting chops.

So should you see THREE THE HARD WAY?  Absolutely.  It’s one of the classics of blaxploitation and notable for it’s teaming of the biggest black action heroes at the time in one movie.  If you’ve got any love at all for the genre, show some love back and the next time you feel funky on a Saturday night, watch THREE THE HARD WAY.

If you want to see THREE THE HARD WAY as well as three other blaxploitation movies of that era: “Black Belt Jones” “Hot Potato” and “Black Samson” next time you hit Target see if you can find the Warner Brothers 4 Film Favorites: Urban Action Collection. I got my copy a few years and paid $9.99 for it. I’m fairly certain you can get it for five bucks now. Even though “Hot Potato” is a big disappointment, it’s still worth your money. Enjoy.

89 minutes

Rated: R