Some references list Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) as the first Blaxploitation movie. If that's so, it's true mostly in hindsight, in much the same way 1954's Gojira relates to the "Godzilla movie". Both were movies that had a serious side to their obvious entertainment value; both were aimed at an audience that had endured hardship — in the case of the Japanese, the humiliation of their defeat in World War II, the lingering consequences of the atomic bombs, and the more recent horror of the "Lucky Dragon #5" incident — but which had not seen that hardship reflected in popular entertainment that was supposedly meant for them. Both movies were enormously successful, in part because they broke through the barriers — of American censorship in Japan, and of neglect, indifference and contempt on the part of the white mainstream in America. Both went on to influence a whole new genre of commercial exploitation cinema, which ended up following a completely different path from the original.
(If the comparison between Ossie Davis's film and Honda Ishirô's seems forced, well... I'm a middle-aged white Internet horror-movie critic. I'm about as qualified to talk about the Black experience in America as I am about theoretical astrophysics. I have to couch these things in terms I can understand myself.)
Cotton Comes to Harlem reached Black audiences at a time when the major Hollywood studios were rapidly losing their momentum. The studio system seemed outdated, and hard-pressed to compete with television in the turbulent social environment of the early 1970's. Even in hard times, though, Hollywood hadn't given much thought to Black audiences — and why would they have? Hollywood had been vigorous in promoting the stereotype of the Lazy Shiftless Negro from the earliest days of film. Many talented Black artists had to accept demeaning roles in white people's movies (and sometimes, as in the case of Willie "Sleep 'n' Eat" Best, even entire new demeaning identities) in order to practice their craft. Even when a mainstream movie actually acknowledged the struggles of Black America, it usually portrayed that struggle from the point of view of its white actors. Add to this the growing racial unrest of the late 60's and 70's; the turmoil for and against the Civil Rights movment; the headlines screaming about Black violence, Black drug abuse, the staggeringly high rate of Black unemployment... and it's no wonder white Hollywood considered Blacks a lost cause.
The came a movie like Davis's — based on a book by a Black author, scripted and directed by a popular Black entertainer, featuring a brilliant cast of Black actors genuinely speaking the language of Black American culture. For once, Black folk in America saw themselves represented on-screen, and they went to the theaters in droves.
Even so, Hollywood might not have paid serious attention, had it not been for Mario van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song (1971). Van Peebles's film almost didn't get made. It was confrontational and visceral in a way that made Cotton Comes to Harlem, blunt as it was, seem abolutely tame by comparison, and consequently the studios refused to fund it. Van Peebles paid for the production himself, and when the distributors in turn refused to handle it, he got the finished film booked into a mere two theaters nationwide. Within days, the two theaters were filled past capacity with the crowds who came to see it The movie was a staggering success.
Then Hollywood took notice of the Black audience. Individual Black consumers, they realized, may be poorer than their white counterparts... but when millions of them, starved for entertainment that was meaningful to them, went to the theaters en masse, then the only color Hollywood would have to worry about was green, baby; Sweet Greenback's BAADASSSSSSong.
Here's the thing, though: Davis's and Van Peebles's movies, though markedly different in their styles and approaches, were genuine. The same cannot be said for a great many of the Blaxploitation flicks that followed. Many — most even — were either written or directed (or both) by whites. Practically all of them were produced by white producers — essentially, the guys who'd collectively walked away from Sweet Sweetback... when they had a chance. As a result, the Blaxploitation movies are a mixed bag.
Some white writers and directors had a much clearer, much more respectful view of the kind of cinema they were being asked to create. Jack Hill, for example, when he was first approached about making Blaxploitation movies, immediately thought of Pam Grier, with whom he'd just worked on the Women In Prison movies The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage. He wanted to give Grier the kind of starring role that would really showcase her talent, and not just subordinate her to a male hero. He also wanted to upset some of the other conventions that had already begun to establish themselves in the genre. So rather than present pimps and drug dealers as (at best) anti-heroes or (at worst) merely part of the urban landscape, in Coffy (1973) he has Grier's heroine coming after them with gun barrels blazing. But in addition, he tried to show that this over-the-top violence was having a negative effect on his heroine's psyche. Coffy seems to be held in higher regard today by white film buffs than contemporary Black viewers, but it's still a clear example of a Blaxploitation flick made with thought and care and skill — regardless of the skin color of the writer/director.
But all too often, Black actors and technicians found that when they tried to add their perspective to a script already approved by their white producers — adjust things to reflect their real concerns, using their real language, and not some white writer's approximation — the reaction they got was sadly typical: "You're just a dumb (expletive deleted). What do you know about making movies?"
If there was one Black actor who wasn't about to put up with this attitude, it was William Marshall. Intelligent, dignified, classically trained, and extremely experienced on stage and screen, Marshall was approached by American International Pictures about doing a Blaxploitation take on the vampire film: Blacula. AIP had had an unexpected success with a gritty modern-day vampire movie —Count Yorga: Vampire — in 1970, and it must have seemed only natural to bring their contemporary take on the vampire legend into even more contemporary context. Marshall agreed to do the movie, but on one condition: changes had to be made to the script. Marshall insisted that this Black vampire be more than just a boogeyman. "Blacula" must be a fully-developed character with a distinguished African background.
The version of the screenplay Marshall accepted cast him as Prince Mamuwalde of the Igbani, who travels to Europe in 1780 to enlist the aid of the white European nobility in ending the slave trade. Unfortunately, he ends up in the care of a particular Wallachian Count. Dracula makes a wonderful living-dead metaphor for the commercial concerns that made (and continue to make) trafficking in human beings commercially respectable: he's a member of the powerful ruling class who lives off the blood of others both literally and figuratively. After behaving like the quintessential racist bastard in the face of Mamuwalde's request for help, he attempts to rape Mamuwalde's wife; and when the Prince fights back, Dracula turns him into his vampire slave — yes, slave, in the truest sense, for Dracula has taken over not only Mamuwalde's body, but his very soul, and forced him to follow in the footsteps of his oppressor. How's that for a symbolically-loaded setup? And all this goes down before the opening credits!
Blacula is particularly successful, and remains powerful today, because of Marshall's refusal to accept half-measures. At first, he ran into the usual resistance from the producers, but eventually they gave in and accepted his vision of the vampire prince. It probably didn't hinder Marshall's cause that AIP had chosen William Crane, a Black director, to helm the project — though Crain remained a studiously non-confrontational director throughout his career, confining himself mostly to TV and genre work. Marshall's instincts were right. Blacula was such a success that it started a new wave of Blaxploitation horror flicks, including an official sequel. Yet for Scream, Blacula, Scream! (1972), AIP chose to replace Crain with another white guy: Bob Kelljan, the director of both Count Yorga movies (though I have to admit: the thought of Blacula vs. Count Yorga — Marshall as the reluctant vampire fighting Robert Quarry [Sugar Hill] as the white dude who's fine with the status quo, makes me drool over the possibilities. Shame, really). Clearly AIP was still thinking more about the Vampire part of the franchise that the Black part. Nevertheless, Kelljan's film remained respectful, even though it's not nearly as good as the original. Scream, Blacula, Scream! includes one potent scene in which the vampire kills two pimps for making slaves of their Sisters; in other words, for having learned nothing from their history and followed in the ways of their oppressors. The irony here is that is exactly what Blacula himself has been forced to do by Dracula's curse — and he's very much aware of it.
At the way opposite end of the scale of respect for the audience, there's 1974's Blackenstein. According to legend, Blackenstein was rushed into production after AIP's Samuel Z. Arkoff made an offhand remark about a potential follow-up to Blacula. Blackenstein is sometimes erroneously credited as being an AIP picture, but even at AIP's most threadbare, low-budget stage it never put out anything quite as shoddy as this. The movie's only concessions to true Blaxploitation are: 1.) a blues number sung over the opening credits; and 2.) a nightclub scene that gives us two feeble jokes from comedian/emcee Andy C., and another blues number by the same singer who crooned the title song. As for the rest of the movie? Every black character could easily have been replaced by a white actor, and it would have had no impact on the story. That sad fact not only reveals how much of a failure as Black cinema Blackenstein is... it also tells you how useless the movie is as a whole.
Allow me to illustrate: as Blackenstein begins, Dr. Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) goes to visit her old mentor, Dr. Stein (John Hart). Stein is an expert in the field of restorative gene therapy — OK, actually, I'm doing the movie a huge favor by skipping the bogus science, but after all,that's not really germane to the point I'm trying to make... (ahem). Anyway. Dr. Walker needs Stein's help, because her boyfriend Eddie has just returned hopelessly maimed from the war in Vietnam. He'd been blown up by a land mine, and is now missing his arms and legs. She hopes Dr. Stein can help — I am not making this up — grow them back.
Now: is their any kind of plot tension to be drawn from the fact that Stein is white and Walker and her boyfriend are Black? Is Stein in fact a mad racist, conducting twisted experiments on Black subjects? Does he, perhaps, become infatuated with this ebony goddess, to the point where he sabotages Eddie's recovery? No. The relationship between Stein and Walker is exactly what it appears to be on the surface. Then what about Eddie? Does he resent being crippled fighting the white man's war? When (inevitably) he gets turned into a monster, does he rise up and defend the Black community, like some sort of Afro-Golem? No. Not at all. There's no socio-political aspect to his character... nothing about race, the war, his wounds, the drugs that turn him into a killer: nothing. It's an exaggeration to call Eddie any kind of character at all: he exists only to become the monster, and after he becomes the monster his "character" is 100% rote.
And get this: the real reason Eddie becomes "Blackenstein" is that Stein's butler Malcolm has a crush on Dr. Walker, and wants to get Eddie out of the way. For heaven's sake: a guy named Malcolm makes the crippled Black man stand up for himself... urges him to violence, and thus creates a monster. And yet this is played perfectly straight, without even the slightest hint of subtext. How do you make a Blaxploitation film with a setup like that, and still do nothing with it?
The one point at which race really does intrude into Blackenstein, almost in spite of itself, is in the Grand Finale (such as it is), when the police use dogs to bring Eddie/"Blackenstein" down. Coming as the climax of such a thoroughly colorless (pun intended) attempt at a Blaxploitation flick, this reference to something that happened all too often when white police went into Black communities is a real shock. Sweet Sweetback... also used a dog attack at the climax, specifically because it was such a sensitive subject for the Black community. It was a real surge of euphoria for the audience when Sweetback actually survived the encounter and made his escape — in contrast to the transgressive Black characters of white-dominated cinema, who always ended up paying for their challenge to white authority. If more viewers had made it to the end of Blackenstein without falling asleep, perhaps it might have stirred a little more controversy.
But it's hard to be too angry at the movie's director, William Levey: this was his first film, and it's clear that at this point in his career he had more ideas than technical skill. Levey went on to ever-so-slightly bigger and better things. Believe it or not, it's also hard to be too upset with the movie's writer/producer, Frank Saletri, who pointedly did not go on to better things. Saletri's script is thoroughly incompetent, not just as Blaxploitation, but as entertainment of any kind. He so completely missed the point of Blaxploitation that you might almost think he's naïvely looking forward to a harmonious post-racial future, where skin color really doesn't matter... At least that's what you'd think, until Blackenstein's bombastic 1940's-style orchestral score wakes you up again. Then you'd realize you're watching a bad imitation of a late Universal monster mash, scripted by someone with so little imagination he makes Edward D. Wood look like Edgar G. Ulmer. Saletri wasn't so much color blind as he was tone-deaf — utterly incapable of appreciating what made Blaxploitation such a strong phenomenon, or of contributing to it in any meaningful way.
If Blacula represents the best of Blaxploitation horror, and Blackenstein the nadir, a movie like Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde falls solidly into the middle — and a tepid middle it is, too. William Crain, having been left behind by AIP for the Blacula sequel, went literally across the street to Lawrence Woolner's Dimension Pictures (no relation to the contemporary Disney affiliate) to make Dr. Black.... Following in the style of putting a strong Black actor in the lead, Dimension cast Bernie Casey (Gargoyles) as the movie's Jekyll. But Casey, good as he is in the part, lacked William Marshall's passionate persistence in convincing the producers to make something of the film's antihero. And Crain, for his part, stayed as relentlessly uncontroversial as always. The result is a movie that promises an even richer source of metaphorical social commentary than Blacula, and yet is so anxious not to offend its white audience that it pulls every one of its punches.
Casey plays Dr. Henry Pride, a brilliant doctor who works at a Los Angeles hospital with his sometime-girlfriend Dr. Worth (played by Rosalind [The Omega Man] Cash; Dr. Self-Respect wisely declined to participate in the film). Dr. Pride's research focuses on diseases of the liver, and unfortunately the alcohol and drug problems in the local community give him plenty of data to work with. One of his patients is a hooker named Linda, who's recovering from hepatitis — she may have been off the job for a little while, but old habits die hard: when she goes for a simple recheck with Dr. Pride, she strips completely naked first. Pride tries to talk to her for a moment about finding a safer, less degrading line of work, but Linda turns the argument back on him. Here he is, the doctor in his white coat — but what does he really know about her life and her choices? "You dress white, you think white," she says; "You probably even drive a white car!" (That last shot really hits home with Dr. Pride, because he drives a Rolls Royce...)
So here we have a prostitute taking the high ground with a respected doctor, on the argument that he has lost his connection to his people — this, in spite of all his work in the community. And she's winning. There's material here for a great Blaxploitation flick, and considering the direction the plot's about to take, you'd think this would have been a crucial theme to develop: what compromises has Dr.Pride had to make to get the big house and the fancy car... to succeed as he has in a white-dominated profession? Has he lost touch with his Black identity? We never really find out. The movie is more interested in the obvious, if much less controversial, attraction between Pride and Linda.
(Later on, we do find out what has driven Pride to succeed at any cost: his mother had been a maid in a whorehouse, and had suffered from cirrhosis. When she collapsed and died, young Henry had run through the halls of the brothel, begging the girls for help... and not one of them had even bothered to open the door. This led to his decicions, first of all to conquer liver disease... but also to sever his ties with the disreputable world he'd grown up in. This back-story serves more to illustrate his obsession with his work than any race-related issues; it also helps establish his attitude towards prostitutes, which complicates his feelings toward Linda even more than his attachment to Dr. Worth.)
Linda's right about one thing: Pride's clinical work in the Black community takes a definite back seat to his research. He's on the verge of developing a serum that helps regenerate damaged liver tissue. There's one small problem, though: when he injects the test serum into a lab rat, the animal loses all its pigmentation and becomes extremely aggressive. Clearly more data is needed, and — this being a horror movie — Pride determines that the data needs to come from experimentation on a human subject.
And what do you know? In comes a patient with critical liver damage: poor Emily Johnson, abandoned by a nursing home, with no next of kin... no emergency contacts... nobody to sue if the treatment goes wrong. She's lost so much of her identity that the hospital (or the screenwriter) doesn't even get her name right: on admission, she's called Emily Johnson, but afterwards, without any explanation, she becomes Emily Harris. And — here's the kicker — she has absolutely no hope of survival under normal circumstances. So Dr. Pride pushes aside his ethical qualms and injects her with the experimental serum.
And — big surprise, right? — this is the result:
Old Mrs. Johnson/Harris dies immediately after attacking a nurse. But once she's dead, her unnatural pallor disappears. Only the nurse saw what happened to her; and since nobody other than Dr. Pride (and the horrified Dr. Worth) knows he injected her, nobody bothers to investigate.
Clearly the liver serum isn't ready yet. Also clearly (again, since this is a horror movie), Dr. Pride needs to test it on more human subjects, because, well... that's just science. But it's unethical for him to keep testing on hospital patients. Besides, truly anonymous victims — ahem: subjects — like Mrs. Johnson/Harris don't come along nearly often enough. The next step is for Dr. Pride to take a dose of his own medicine.
Does this really make any sense? We haven't really seen Pride make any adjustments to his formula since the disaster with Mrs. What's-her-name. It's also unlikely that Pride himself is suffering from serious liver problems, so exactly how does he plan to evaluate the serum's effectiveness? Furthermore, the circumstances under which he "tests" himself aren't particularly clinical... he just gives himself an injection in his bedroom and waits for something to happen. But hey — we don't have any other motivation for our Dr. Jekyll to turn into Mr. Hyde, so we'll have to go with it. Dr. Pride collapses in a fit after injecting himself; when he stands up again, his skin has turned pale grey, and his hair — well, some of his hair — has gone white. Also, there's a pale blue cast to his eyes.
And he's very, very angry.
True to his Hyde nature, the transformed Dr. Pride is a creature of pure Id looking for some trouble. Naturally, his first thought is about Linda. The old Dr. Pride might have been constrained by the doctor-patient relationship, or by his commitment to Dr. Worth; but the new Pride has no such reservations. Later on, when we learn about Pride's story (and his resentment of prostitutes) in greater detail, we'll wonder if his intent was to rape her, or kill her, or both. But in any case, Linda is uppermost on his mind, so he drives down to a rough part of town to find her.
Clearly the serum has transformed him in some profound way, because once he gets Downtown, he stops in front of a record store... to ask for directions.
As if that wasn't enough to strain credulity, things get even stranger. The three men in front of the record store see this man approaching them:
... and come to the conclusion that he is Caucasian.
Granted, his skin is pale. Granted, there's some white stuff in his hair. Granted, he's wearing bluish contact lenses. But... was this the best that Stan Winston — the Stan Winston, who'd put Bernie Casey in that memorable Gargoyles makeup a few years before — could do to suggest Pride had turned white? Was this a case of the filmmakers not wanting to put Casey in obvious "whiteface"? Were they afraid of offending someone — Black audiences by obscuring Casey too much, or even replacing him with a white actor (it was 1975-6 — Lou Ferrigno would have been available), and white audiences by giving them a glimpse of their own habit of ethnic caricature? What ever they might have been thinking, they weren't thinking enough, because the effect is ridiculous. First Pride gets into a fight with the three men at the record store, who think he's a white guy in the wrong neighborhood. Pride wipes the sidewalk with them. Then Pride goes to the bar where Linda hangs out. Linda doesn't recognize him, and when she refuses to leave with him he gets into a fight with a pimp and ends up starting a brawl. When he's injured by a knife, Pride flees the bar; the effects of the serum wear off, he turns back into his old self, and the angry bar patrons run right past him... because they were looking for a white guy.
OK, it's true that Casey is made to seem even larger than normal during his transformation. And let's be charitable, and leave out the fact that Pride drives one of the most recognizeable cars on the planet, and that he's has just driven that very expensive piece of machinery into a part of town where it's certain to attract attention. While we're at it, let's ignore the fact that Pride's wearing the same clothes as the man who just reduced the bar to matchsticks. How does anyone mistake Pride-Hyde for anything other than a very pale-looking Black dude? Now, maybe Casey looked a lot paler in person that he turned out on film. As Tom Savini learned doing Dawn of the Dead, certain shades of cadaverously grey makeup show up blue when you photograph them. Nevertheless, it's hard to believe anybody would look at the Monster and conclude that he was Caucasian.
But that's really the least of the movie's problems. Consider: we've got a respected Black man who's becoming a slave to the Needle (and I use the term "slave" fully aware of its implications). We've got a Black man, striving to succeed in a white man's field, who becomes a violent criminal... only after he turns white. We've got an amazingly rich source of social commentary, or satire, or any kind of commentary on the Black experience in America. And the movie doesn't take advantage of any of it.
Things get bewildering when Price decides to take Linda out for dinner, in what we think is a development of the subplot of his attraction to her. In fact, when he takes her back to his place afterwards, what he really wants is for her to try his experimental serum, too. This makes very little sense. He knows what the side-effects are, and yet he wants to turn her into a snarling, rabid albino She-Hulk... right there in his living room.
Unsurprisingly, Linda is a little freaked out that her Doctor has taken her home to inject her with some unspecified, untested drug. So Pride decides to show her there's really nothing to be afraid of (facepalm) by taking the injection himself (double facepalm). Price turns into Mr. Hyde, and (naturally) Linda runs screaming into the night. Frustrated, Pride-Hyde embarks on a killing spree, stalking hookers other than Linda and murdering them.
It's blazingly obvious to Linda who the killer is, but Pride takes the whole issue completely in stride. Noticing blood all over the front of his Rolls from the pimp and his girls he ran over the night before, Pride scratches his head for a moment — then switches to driving his Mercedes. He banters with Dr. Worth as though nothing has happened, brushing off her concern over his odd behavior recently, and making plans for a romantic getaway. At one point, he stares into the mirror for a long, long time, telling himself that his memories are no nightmares... that it's too late to go back. And then he grins. He likes being the white-faced killer (perhaps he knows that if he's caught, he can just take a swig of his Hyde juice before the trial — statistics suggest he'd end up with a significantly shorter sentence). It feels like there ought to be some symbolic significance to this, or at least some kind of emotional resonance to Dr. Pride's deterioration. There isn't. The whole thing is as superficial and unconvincing as Casey's Hyde makeup.
Things come to a head when Linda meets Price at the famous Watts Towers and threatens to go to the police if he does not give himself up. Even then, Pride seems bafflingly unconcerned. He doesn't try to deny his guilt. Instead, he gives her an "Aw Shucks, Hookers Let My Mom Die" speech, as though he expects her to forget that he's just strangled people she knew. By this point, the movie has run into the depressingly-familiar Blackenstein rut: it's merely marking time until the end. At least in Crain's film, the climax generates a reasonable amount of suspense, as Pride-Hyde drags Linda back to the Watts Towers for a final showdown with the police. Pride-Hyde even has a Blackenstein-esque encounter with police dogs, but things go quite differently this time.
About those Towers, now... There is an academic argument that 1933's King Kong is a reflection of white fear or envy of the Black Man's sexual prowess — that everything from the monster's abduction of Fay Wray to his ascent of the superphallic Empire State Building represents the anxiety of white men over their inadequacy (and the relative tinyness of their penises). That's the thing about images in film: pretty much anything is valid, as long as you can support your argument. I'd just like to point out that Kong is the beloved, tragic hero of his movie... which is a little incongruous if you think he's supposed to be a product of racist insecurity. Yet it's hard to see the climax of Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde as anything other than a reference to the racialized interpretation of King Kong. Pride-Hyde, now reduces to a howling beast, climbs up the Watts Towers and is shot off by the police. It's true he doesn't end up carrying Linda to the top of the Towers — I'm willing to bet they considered it, but that would have been logistically difficult and dangerous; as it is, Bernie Casey's fall is a breathtaking stunt, even if we're aware in the back of our minds that the Watts Towers aren't really as tall as they seem. But if the end of Dr. Black really is a reference to the racist Kong thesis, then what does this version say? It seems like there should be some significance to a white monster being shot off a tower in a Black neighborhood... but it's tough to come up with anything meaningful. It's really just another wasted opportunity.
Nobody seems to have done their best work with this film. Casey does reasonably well, as usual, in a role that's sadly underwritten. But Casey's Dr. Pride is Hamlet compared to Rosalind Cash's Dr. Worth, who seems to exist only to give Dr. Pride a woman to betray through his interest in Linda. Supporting actor Ji-Tu Cumbuka (Blacula) is also given short shrift as a tough detective; though he gives an eerily prescient Samuel L. Jackson impression, he really has very little to do with the story. Director William Crain acquits himself with his usual professionalism... but this is no Blacula. As for the makeup effects by Stan Winston — well, let's put it this way: maybe Rick Baker has less to be ashamed about having Octaman in his early career than we thought... Winston's Mr. Hyde could have been just a little more recognizeably white, just as the screenplay could've been a little more recognizeably Black. And if I did not know from the credits that the film had been shot by Tak Fujimoto (Silence of the Lambs), I would never have guessed that anyone as talented as he was involved.
Bottom line? It's not as bad as Blackenstein; but then again, few movies are as bad as Blackenstein. Funny thing, though: Frank Saletri, the creator of Blackenstein, had planned to follow up on the success (!) of his movie by making yet another Blaxploitation flick: Black the Ripper. The movie was announced in the trade magazines, but was never made. Saletri, who was a criminal lawyer in his day job, ended up being murdered gangland-style in the 1980's, and Black the Ripper died with him. But Saletri's abortive follow-up provides yet another unwanted connection between the mediocre Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde and the very worst Blaxploitation horror film: given Pride-Hyde's fixation on prostitutes, and several references in the script to Jack the Ripper, Dr. Black... could easily have been retitled and released as Black the Ripper. That's as good a title as any of the others the movie was given during its release: Dr. Black, Mr. White... The Watts Monster... and worst of all, Decision for Doom: a title more appropriate for, say, a classic film noir from the early 1950's. Maybe somebody should have explained to Dimension Pictures that just because film noir literally means "black movie", that doesn't mean it has anything to do with Soul Cinema.