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.
2nd Amendment, motherfucker. If you say it's your right, then it's my right too.
Bernie Casey exercises his right to bear a chrome plated Colt Super .38 automatic in this cool promo photo made for his 1972 blaxploitation flick Hit Man. We love Casey. He died just last year, and was pretty much unheralded, but he appeared in a lot of fun movies, including Sharky's Machine, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Cleopatra Jones, Boxcar Bertha, and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. He also had the good fortune to get naked with both Pam Grier and Claudia Jennings. The Jennings scene is flat amazing, but the Grier scene, which is actually from Hit Man, is hilarious. As Grier climbs atop him and presses her naked body full length onto his the expression on his face reads something like: “Oh. My. Freaking. God.” That's probably the only time in his life he wasn't 100% cool.
Sometimes you have to write your own second act.
This shot shows the beautiful Denise Nicholas, who as an actress is known for Let's Do It Again, Blacula, A Piece of the Action, and the television series Room 222. After all those credits she became a novelist and wrote Freshwater Road, which was selected as one of the best books of 2005 by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and several other papers. That's a feat—not just writing a novel but writing a widely acclaimed novel—we don't think very many other film performers have managed. At the moment Nicholas seems to be retired, but you never know when it comes to writers. The above image is from around 1975.
Grier tries to foil an assassination plot.
It's Christmas day, and what is the main thing everyone does today? They go overboard. So in that vein we have more posts for you than you could have rightly expected, though we'll admit we wrote them in advance and right now we're nowhere near a computer. We're starting the X-mas treats with this vintage poster for the Pam Grier blaxploitation flick Friday Foster, a film that opened in U.S. today in 1975. After successes with Coffy, Foxy Brown, et al, American International Pictures steered Pam a bit more mainstream with the PG rated Sheba, Baby and learned from that mistake. So they turned the heat back up, scheduled a Christmas release date, and gave Grier fans a movie with twice the action, twice the humor, and twice the tongue-in-cheek factor as usual, plus three steamy Grier nude scenes rather than the usual two.
Grier plays a photo-journalist who tries to get a sneaky paparazzi shot of a reclusive millionaire only to find herself photographing an assassination attempt-turned-bloodbath. While American International kicked things up a notch, the customary Grier grit is missing, as too many wisecracks and camp moments leave the film without any heft. It almost seems as if, with a full blown international star on its hands and costs rising, American International decided to cut corners in pre-production. Script-wise Friday Foster is too formulaic and self-conscious. Soundtrack-wise, instead of songs performed by a viable R&B artist, it has cheeseball wacka wacka interstitial music, with chick singers trilling, “Hey Friday, whatcha doin' girl, hey, whatcha doin' girl whatcha doin'.” Direction-wise, four-time Grier collaborator Jack Hill has been tossed in favor of Arthur Marks, who came up directing episodes of the television show Perry Mason.
Friday Foster was Grier's last go-round with American International, and a good thing, because somebody forgot she became popular playing a streetwise, ass-kicking, So-Cal soul sister. Her turn as a middle-class photo-journalist might have worked, but not with the support she needed chopped from under her. American International wanted to mainstream her, except it had no idea how to do it. But Grier's still Grier, and even stuck in what feels like a washed out version of her better films, she remains as watchable as any star of her era. After another couple of years the work would come in spurts, a small part here, a television show there, an occasional lead role, and bit by bit, appearance by appearance, Grier would stitch together a career spanning four decades and counting. Friday Foster is isn't the best entry on her résumé, but even midding Grier is worthwhile Grier.
The only rehabilitation going on here is by the poster artist.
Above you see a striking color poster for the Roger Corman produced women-in-prison flick Women in Cages, one of the many sexploitation epics filmed in the Philippines during the 1970s. For an entertaining ninety minutes on that subject, by the way, you should watch the documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed. It's the final word on the chaos of Philippine movie production and covers everything from Savage! to Apocalypse Now. Women in Cages is one of the earlier Philippine women-in-prison flicks, coming after The Big Doll House.
Despite the fact that the poster is signed R. Engel and dated '72, it's actually a piece of modern pulp made within the last several years. The person behind it is German artist Rainer Engel, who put it together borrowing the DVD box cover art from Subkultur-Entertainment's 2013 re-issue of the movie, which in Germany was called Frauen hinter Zuchthausmauern. We ran across the re-styled poster on the artist's website, decided his mock-up beats the hell out of the 1971 original art, and thought it was worth sharing.
When we wrote about the film a while ago we said we thought it was a bit much. Specifically, it's relentlessly grim. Of the trilogy that includes The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage this middle entry is the one that forgot the first rule of the 1970s women-in-prison genre—the movie should be absurd and fun. When it isn't—i.e. when it shades into depressing realism—you come away wondering if there's something wrong with you for having watched it in the first place. You can read our post on the film here, and you can visit the artist's website here.
So that flimsy excuse I said I had for inviting you over? I'm wearing it.
We featured a very nice shot of U.S. actress Marilyn Joi last year, but she deserves a rerun, so here she is again, chilled out, sporting an afro, and looking like she has something naughty on her mind. The shot was made in 1973 as a promo for the blaxploitation flick Coffy. The fact that the photo exists is a bit is unusual due to the fact her role in the film was so brief she never got screen credit. She was one of the prosties in the pimp King George's stable, competition for an infiltrating Pam Grier, who was on a revenge mission. Joi probably got fifteen seconds of screen time, which may be why this photo is often misattributed. It's Joi, though. As proof there she is below in a screen grab from the movie.
This woman is simply dynamite.
U.S. actress Annie Lee Morgan used a couple of pseudonyms in her career. When she broke into celebrityhood as a nude model for Playboy she was Jean Bell, and later as an actress she was often Jeannie Bell. By whatever name she was one of the most beautiful performers of the 1970s, which makes it a shame b-movies and television shows were the extent of her career. Her best known role? Probably the blaxploitation actioner T.N.T. Jackson—which you can read about here. The above shot is undated but probably from around 1973.
The mafia are no match for Jim Brown.
In the blaxploitation flick Slaughter Jim Brown plays Slaughter—no first name—a former Green Beret captain whose underworld connected father is killed by a car bomb. He vows revenge and guns down some of the responsible parties at an airport. That's when the government steps in and turns Slaughter into an operative in exchange for dropping murder charges. All he has to do is head to Mexico and capture the top mobster. South of the border he goes, where shootings, chases, and general mayhem follow as he pretty much turns the country upside down. There are occasional interesting visual flourishes during the violence, including hallucinatory ultra wide angle shots. Maybe director Jack Starrett heaped on the style a bit heavily, but it does set Slaughter apart, and in the end doesn't really harm the final product. Another thing heaped on is the racial insults, even more than in most blaxploitation, and if there's a lesson being imparted it's that eventually n-bombs go off in your face.
Blaxploitation is nothing without its femme fatales, and in those roles Slaughter casts Marlene Clark and Stella Stevens. Clark, though talented, is mere window dressing here; Stevens gets a substantial temptress role, and she's perfectly suited for it, a dozen years after her Playboy centerfold appearance at age twenty-two, and about twice as beautiful in her mid-thirties. According to Brown, Slaughter is one of the three favorite films he starred in. Maybe Stella had something to do with that. In an interview some years back she was asked about the love scenes and said, “I was told that in the movie he did with Raquel Welch, he had a towel put between them, because he didn’t want to touch her flesh in the love scene with her.* I can tell you, we didn’t have anything between us except good feelings and fun.” Well, it looks to us like they had a good time too, and why not? Stevens is hot as hell and Brown is unadulterated manhood on a level few males can hope to reach. We think this one is well worth a watch for fans of the genre. Slaughter premiered in the U.S. today in 1972.*Jim Brown is no fool, and we doubt he ever made such a request. Welch wore undergarments, which was probably always the plan, considering she has done no nude scenes during her career.
Pam Grier is as refreshing as an ocean breeze.
We have to bring Pam Grier back every once in a while. This breezy shot currently making its way around the internet certainly ranks among the best promo images ever made of a classic figure. Whoever took this photo captured Grier in a seaside mode we've never seen before, and whoever originally uploaded it deserves thanks, but only partially—Grier deserves most of the credit just for being her.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1986—Otto Preminger Dies
Austro–Hungarian film director Otto Preminger, who directed such eternal classics as Laura, Anatomy of a Murder
, Carmen Jones
, The Man with the Golden Arm
, and Stalag 17
, and for his efforts earned a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, dies in New York City, aged 80, from cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
1998—James Earl Ray Dies
The convicted assassin of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., petty criminal James Earl Ray, dies in prison of hepatitis aged 70, protesting his innocence as he had for decades. Members of the King family who supported Ray's fight to clear his name believed the U.S. Government had been involved in Dr. King's killing, but with Ray's death such questions became moot.
1912—Pravda Is Founded
The newspaper Pravda, or Truth, known as the voice of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, begins publication in Saint Petersburg. It is one of the country's leading newspapers until 1991, when it is closed down by decree of then-President Boris Yeltsin. A number of other Pravdas appear afterward, including an internet site and a tabloid.
1983—Hitler's Diaries Found
The German magazine Der Stern claims that Adolf Hitler's diaries had been found in wreckage in East Germany. The magazine had paid 10 million German marks for the sixty small books, plus a volume about Rudolf Hess's flight to the United Kingdom, covering the period from 1932 to 1945. But the diaries are subsequently revealed to be fakes written by Konrad Kujau, a notorious Stuttgart forger. Both he and Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann go to trial in 1985 and are each sentenced to 42 months in prison.
1918—The Red Baron Is Shot Down
German WWI fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron, sustains a fatal wound while flying over Vaux sur Somme in France. Von Richthofen, shot through the heart, manages a hasty emergency landing before dying in the cockpit of his plane. His last word, according to one witness, is "Kaputt." The Red Baron was the most successful flying ace during the war, having shot down at least 80 enemy airplanes.
1964—Satellite Spreads Radioactivity
An American-made Transit satellite, which had been designed to track submarines, fails to reach orbit after launch and disperses its highly radioactive two pound plutonium power source over a wide area as it breaks up re-entering the atmosphere.
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