Blaxploitation

The Watermelon Man (1970)

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What happens when a racist goes through a radical change and is forced to live life as the same type of person he is totally against? Melvin Van Peebles may just have the answer in this raucous comedy that tackles a very sensitive matter that still exists today.

Jeff Gerber is a Caucasian insurance agent who loves to spend his mornings working out and running past the local bus in order to make the bus stop that takes him to his job. His wife Althea watches the recent riots in the city while Jeff doesn’t care what happens to the rioters. He makes wisecracks towards anyone who is African-American much to the chagrin of his fellow co-workers, bus patrons, and even his wife. However, on this fateful day, Jeff’s life is about to change.

That night, he wakes up to go to the bathroom and when he sees himself, he inexplicably becomes African-American. Suddenly, his life takes a turn for the worse. He gets accused of stealing, virtually gets a promotion at work because of diversity, gets an admirer in co-worker Erica, and becomes the ridicule of the community. When Jeff’s attempts to change his skin color back to white fail on a consistent level, he soon learns the hard way that his old ways of being a racist has caught up to him and he must learn to adapt or face some dire consequences.

The tagline of this 1970 film is “A funny thing happened to Jeff Gerber. This won’t happen to you so you can laugh.” Screenwriter Herman Raucher intended this to be a comedy and while it is quite a funny film for its time, it can be considered sensitive due to the topic of the film: racism. In reality, racism is truly not a laughing matter, but director Melvin Van Peebles decided to make light of the situation with this film. Eventually becoming a pioneer in the “Blaxploitation” genre, Van Peebles does pretty well in terms of directing the film.

What Van Peebles came up with can be considered ingenious. When producers first thought of the idea, they had planned to cast a Caucasian actor dressed in blackface. This has been done to death since the days of Amos and Andy and some of the early Hollywood films as well. What Van Peebles offered was to have the producers cast comic actor Godfrey Cambridge, an African-American, dress in whiteface for the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film before becoming Jeff Gerber, the African-American, by being himself. This would be one of only few lead roles for Cambridge, but he does a great job here. The comedy really comes from his attempts to become white again with at times, disastrous results and his racing against the bus in the opening of the film.

The supporting cast does quite well, especially Estelle Parsons (who later gained fame as playing Roseanne’s mother on her hit television series in the 80’s and 90’s) because we get her point of view on the matter involving her husband. It is apparent that while she knows her husband is white, the fact he becomes black begins to affect their marriage. However, it can be considered strange because she seems to watch the riots as if she supports African-Americans yet she doesn’t feel comfortable being married to one. There are some of the classic derogatory terms towards African-Americans as well as the attitudes at that time, just when equal rights have just become known.

If you are truly sensitive to racism, The Watermelon Man may not be your cup of tea. However, director Melvin Van Peebles truly gets his point across with this tale. The film would become influential on later films such as Soul Man and perhaps, Women from Mars, with what can happen when one must change and learn to somewhat adapt with the intention of learning a very hard lesson in life.

WFG RATING: B

A Columbia Pictures production. Director: Melvin Van Peebles. Producer: John B. Bennett. Writer: Herman Raucher. Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley. Editing: Carl Kress.

Cast: Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons, Howard Caine, D’Urville Martin, Mantan Moreland, Kay Kimberly, Scott Garrett, Erin Moran.

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Death Force (1978)

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1978, Cosa Nueva

Director:
Cirio H. Santiago
Producer:
Robert E. Waters
Writers:
Cirio H. Santiago (story)
Robert E. Waters (story)
Howard R. Cohen (screenplay)
Cinematography:
Ricardo Remias
Editing:
Gervacio Santos
Robert E. Waters

Cast:
James Iglehart (Doug Russell)
Carmen Argenziano (Morelli)
Leon Isaac Kennedy (McGee)
Vic Diaz (Crime Boss)
Joe Mari Avellana (Japanese Soldier)
Joonee Gamboa (Japanese Soldier)
Jayne Kennedy (Karen Russell)

The tagline for this action film involves former couple Leon Isaac Kennedy and Jayne Kennedy in key roles. However, the promotion is a bit misleading.

Doug Russell is a former Vietnam veteran who goes to the Philippines with two of his friends from his war days, Morelli and McGee. They steal a gold cache for a local crime lord, who pays the trio nicely for their effort before they head back home. Morelli plans to rise up in the underworld upon returning to Los Angeles and wants McGee to join him. However, to do so, they betray Russell by stabbing him, slashing his throat and sending him overboard.

Russell is washed up ashore on an island where he is rescued by two Japanese soldiers who have been living there since World War II. They nurse him back to health and teach him both karate and the ways of bushido. As he trains, back in L.A., Morelli and McGee have made their way to become the top underworld bosses. McGee has eyes for Karen, Russell’s wife and closes in on her. What will happen when Russell makes his way back to Los Angeles and goes to both find his family and avenge his betrayal?

This film was re-released in 1982 as Fighting Mad to capitalize on the success of former couple Leon Isaac and Jayne Kennedy. Leon Isaac had become well-known in 1979 for his role of “Too Sweet” Gordon in Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary films while Jayne Kennedy had a successful spread in Playboy magazine. However, while they play very pivotal roles in the film, Leon Isaac Kennedy is not the actual star of the film yet he does play a charismatic scumbag of a villain while Jayne plays the typical damsel in distress.

The film’s real star is James Iglehart, who starred in the 1974 Filipino-made action film Bamboo Gods and Iron Men. Iglehart does quite well in this film. Many will see him as a Blaxploitation action star because he does fit the mold. While the first half of the film sees him as someone who just wants to get the job done so he can go home to his family, the second half turns him into a very angry man who while caring for his family, also wants revenge on his former war brothers. Bloodfist star Joe Mari Avellana is great as Russell’s martial arts teacher while Joonie Gamboa brings a little comic relief as the other soldier, who constantly bickers with Avellana as if they were still in the War. As the scheming Morelli, Carmen Argenziano does quite well yet at the same time, one is just waiting for him to get his.

Now, the surprising factor comes in the form of the film’s action. Normally, with a mix of 1970’s Blaxploitation and Filipino action, one would expect a slow pace in the fight scenes. However, in this film, it is the opposite. The action scenes are very fast-paced and nicely edited. The first training scene where Avellana uses a bamboo kendo stick against Iglehart is maginificent for its era. This is just a tip of the iceberg as while some of the stunt guys don’t seem up to par with Iglehart, a standout scene takes place in a martial arts school. The master of the dojo is quite a martial artist and shows a nice array of hand work and some decent kicks and Iglehart himself isn’t bad in the fight department, showcasing moves that are reminiscent of Fred Williamson. When Iglehart dispenses “samurai justice” on the bad guys as well, it is apparent that Iglehart did his training. While the stunt coordinator is uncredited, one can guess that possibly someone like Fred Esplana or Ronald Asinas could have done the stunt coordination. Whoever it was, kudos for making this a very watchable action film.

A bit of quick trivia: The Russells’ son is played by current TV actor James Monroe Iglehart, the son of our hero James Iglehart himself, making his film debut.

Death Force is an underrated mix of Blaxploitation and Filipino action thriller. James Iglehart makes for a bankable action hero of that era while future “Too Sweet” himself, Leon Isaac Kennedy, does well as the charismatic villain of the piece. Definitely worth a rental and for hardcore cult film fans, a worthy purchase.

WFG RATING: B-

DVD

REVIEW: Surf Nazis Must Die (1987)

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1987, The Institute/Troma Entertainment

Director:
Peter George
Producer:
Robert Tinnell
Writers:
Peter George (story)
Jon Ayre (story and screenplay)
Cinematography:
Rolf Kestermann
Editing:
Craig A. Colton

Cast:
Gail Neely (Eleanor Washington)
Robert Harden (Leroy Washington)
Barry Brenner (Ricky “Adolf” Johnson)
Dawn Wildsmith (Eva)
Michael Sonye (Mengele)
Joel Hile (Hook)
Gene Mitchell (Brutus)
Tom Shell (Smeg)
Bobbie Breese (Smeg’s Mother)

A combination of post apocalypse, horror, and Blaxploitation, this 1980’s film has become an underrated cult classic with the help of the Troma Team.

After a big earthquake has hit, the California beaches have been ruled by various gangs. However, one group intends to take over the beaches. They are known as the Surf Nazis and members have named themselves after the World War II Third Reich. They even have their own following amongst children with Adolf being the leader of this band of surfing terrorists.

Meanwhile, the result of the earthquake leaves Eleanor Washington homeless, forcing her son to take her to a nursing home until he can provide enough to get them their own home. However, one fateful day, Leroy is murdered by the Surf Nazis. When Eleanor discovers that her son has been killed, she begins a quest for revenge. While Eleanor prepares to avenge her son, the Surf Nazis have waged war with the other surfer gangs, eliminating everyone in their midst. Just when the Surf Nazis think they now rule the beaches, they are about to face an even bigger threat: one really ticked off mother!

New York-based Troma Entertainment may now be known as one of the top independent film studios today with their meshing of horror and comedy made to have quite a following. However, not only are they are a production company, they are responsible for distributing indie films as well. In 1986, they picked this film up from a small company called The Institute, founded by this film’s director, producer, and editor. And in true Troma-tic fashion, their marketing has given the film the push it needed to become an underrated 80’s cult classic.

The film is highlighted by its story of bringing a modern day version of the Third Reich and replacing World War II Germany with a post-apocalyptic California. While the Surf Nazis are named after the likes of Hitler, Braun, and Mengele, only Adolf’s real name is revealed when rookie member Smeg’s mother berates her son about being a member of the team. The opening of the film reveals Adolf giving a talk to his “youth” about ruling the beaches. They think they are the ultimate power and use extreme methods to show that power towards the other surfers.

However, the film’s major twist is that instead of having the other surfer gangs forming the Allied Powers to stop the Surf Nazis, the film’s central protagonist is that of an African-American mother who is out for revenge when the Surf Nazis kill her son. In a twist that truly pays homage to the classic 1970’s Blaxploitation action films, Gail Neely is exciting to watch as she transitions from heartbroken mother to heroic avenger as her son’s death sets a raging fire within her waiting to come out. Armed with a pistol and grenades, the final twenty minutes of the film revolves around Eleanor ready to give the Surf Nazis some of “mama’s home cooking”.

Surf Nazis Must Die is truly an underrated 80’s mix of classic 70’s Blaxploitation, horror, and action that is highlighted by Gail Neely as the revenge seeking mother and Barry Brenner as the leader of this modern-day Third Reich.

WFG RATING: B

DVD

The film is also available to view on YouTube for free on Troma Entertainment’s TromaMovies channel as a Thank You to fans for their support in Troma’s 40-year history.