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February 8, 2012

Midnight Top Five - The "Black Action Heroes (or, Blacktion Heroes) Who Deserve More Love" Edition

It's been a long time since I (rock and) rolled out a new Midnight Top Five.  But today I was thinking about some stuff, and - lo and behold - a list popped out of my brain.  Maybe it's because it's Black History Month, maybe it's because a certain film's theme song is permanently implanted in the brain of everyone who's ever heard it (you'll know who I'm talking about), or maybe it's just because this wasn't one of the days when I think about nacho cheese.  The point is it's happening.
Black action heroes (and I absolutely hate classifying people, even as "black" or "white", but for the purpose of this list I'm just gonna say black and apologize to myself and anyone who might be offended now) are pretty few and far between.  And while past decades - especially the '70s and partially the '80s - were full of excellent black actors in excellent roles in excellent films, when you go to Google and look for "black action heroes" you're gonna find boring lists with names like Halle Berry and Will Smith and maybe even Michael Clarke Duncan as an ape in Tim Burton's awful Planet of the Apes film.  Seriously, I saw that on a list of great black action heroes.  And I cried.

Is my list gonna blow the rook off the mothersucker? No, probably not.  But it ain't gonna be that boring.  So let's hit it.
Richard Roundtree - Shaft 
(1971, Dir. by Gordon Parks.)

I know what you're thinking.  Here I am, a dude saying these are blacktion heroes that need more love, and I'm starting with the most famous blaxploitation movie ever; the film that is widely believed to have started it all.  But hear me out on this one.

Shaft came out more than 40 years ago.  It was 1971, and it's still known as the year when Hollywood embraced violence.  Films like The French Connection, Dirty Harry and (to a lesser extent) Straw Dogs, took Hollywood heroes and let them carry guns, shoot the bad guys, and bend the rules of the law as they see fit.  And so did Shaft, the African-American companion to these stars.  
And here's what makes me mad.  Each of the films listed above have had countless releases on DVD and now are all on blu-ray disc, ready for consumption by the modern masses.  But what about Shaft?  Shaft was released on DVD in June of 2000 - because the remake was due in theaters that summer, no doubt - and (aside from two pan-and-scan combo packs with its sequels) it doesn't appear anything's been done to preserve this monumental film since.  Is that OK with you? Well it's not OK with me.  I want my Shaft blu-ray with bonus features NOW.  Heck, there's no reason Warner Brothers couldn't have given this one of their awesome 2-Disc Special Editions years ago.  But, for whatever reason, Shaft and Roundtree get no love from the company behind them.  Is The Man keeping them down? I cry foul.
Fred Williamson - Bucktown
(1975, Dir. by Arthur Marks.)

Fred "The Hammer" Williamson is also not an unknown quantity - his later work in films like From Dusk Till Dawn has certainly helped his star - but a lot of his films from the 1970s have kinda disappeared from the eyes of cinephiles.  

One such film is Bucktown, a simple tale of crime and corruption that puts The Hammer in the middle of a feud with an old friend over "territory" in the title town.  The film's got some neat little turns - the battle changes from Hammer against corrupt cops to Hammer against his oldest friend (played well by Thalmus Rasulala) and a bunch of thugs.  Hammer gets the chance to use all of his trademark skills - from his furious fists to his grinning smile - here, and the result is a film that needs to be seen by a lot more people. (Plus, Pam Grier's in it.  And we all love Pam Grier.  It's science.)
Tamara Dobson - Cleopatra Jones
(1973, Dir. by Jack Starrett.)

Speaking of Pam Grier, she's not the only bad lady who used to get down in the '70s.  In fact, many refer to Cleopatra Jones as the blueprint for female blaxploitation cinema.  It's an uneven film, but what Dobson brings to the screen is a unique presence and a style that's all her own - it's truly one of those things that you can look at and say "Wow, only in the '70s...."

Cleopatra Jones' journey through her film builds to a showdown with an angry Shelley Winters, which is really all you need to know about why you should give the movie a spin.  But Dobson's work can't be discounted, and now that I know that Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold exists (Seriously, why didn't anyone tell me this?!?!) I'm excited to see what else the lady could do as this iconic femme.
Bill Duke - Commando/Predator
(1985/1987, Dir. by Mark L. Lester/John McTiernan.)

If you needed a heavy in the mid '80s and Schwarzenegger was your lead, you called Bill Duke.  And I love that about you.  

A man who's stayed busier as a director than an actor, Duke's roles in these Schwarzenegger epics allowed him to snarl like no one else ever had. He's crazy intense, yet at the same time he's kind of subdued.  He can go toe to toe with Arnold - don't act like that one-on-one battle in Commando isn't amazing - and the Predator, all while delivering manic monologues about his dead friend and chasing down a pig with a knife.  The point is that Bill Duke always makes me smile, and we don't talk about Bill Duke's baddassness enough.
Carl Weathers - Action Jackson
(1988, Dir. by Craig R. Baxley.)

Yeah, y'all know Carl Weathers too.  He was Apollo, he spoofed himself on Arrested Development, he even did this amazingly weird yet completely captivating sense of nonsensical ads that you absolutely can't not watch.  Seriously. Click on that link and behold.  I'll wait here.  Go.  I'm not typing any more until you watch them.  Go now.


OK.  Action Jackson.  People hate on Action Jackson, which basically killed Weathers' chances to be a major leading man in an era when he could have taken a place alongside his past co-stars.  But it's not as bad as people make it out to be.  It's got an evil Craig T. Nelson, it's got a young Sharon Stone, and it's got half the cast of Predator (Bill Duke's here too!).  But - most importantly - it's got Weathers chasing down a car on foot and then doing a flip over it.  And that means something.  I adore Weathers, and it friggin' kills me that he didn't get to lead more action movies.  

(Oh, and this one needs a new DVD too!  Pan & Scan is it? Eff you Warner Brothers. Give us a better Cleopatra Jones disc too.  Prove you're not racist.)
As you can see, I don't have to dig too deep to find black action heroes who deserve more than they've been given.  And if you're looking for some actiony goodness, you can't go wrong with these folks.  Not because of their race - because they're fantastic at what they do.  Which matters a lot more than skin color.

Plus they can leap over cars.

1 comment:

Marvin the Macabre said...

I'm ashamed to admit I haven't seen any Pam Dobson movies, but I heartily second all of your choices.

Great to see Bill Duke on the list. His Predator soliliquy is the best piece of acting in any Schwartzenegger film ever.

You know why iconic black action stars are pretty much absent from the modern era? Because there arent' any action stars anymore. There are action movies, and actors who appear in them, but no one on that Arnold/Sly/JCVD level. I think it's also because we noe prefer watching model-hot, skintight leather-clad actresses kicking the ass. Who knows, if she keeps making movies like Columbiana and The Losers, maybe you'll be able to add Zoe Saldana to your list.