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The Black Godfather
(1974)
 

Director:John Evans                                       
Cast:
Rod Perry, Damu King, Don Chastain


The Black Godfather starts off with so much promise, that by the end I felt more disappointed than had the first part of the movie matched the quality of what was to follow. What I was promised with this blaxploitation movie wasn't the usual elements that have made other movies of this genre popular, such as violence, music, and sex/violence. No, instead this particular entry in the genre promised to tackle themes both serious and thought-provoking, like self-justification of crime, divisions within the black community, and if violence can be justified in certain cases. Everything is set up at the beginning to deal with these topics, but then it slowly peters out so by the end of the first third, the potential has completely disappeared. It's almost as if a good writer drafted the first part of the movie in the story stage, and a bad writer took over for the next two thirds and also wrote the final draft of the screenplay.

Don't get me wrong - if The Black Godfather had resigned itself to simply being a sleazy and violent exploitation flick, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it, though for other reasons. But I simply wasn't able to enjoy the movie on that level. There are some token attempts to get such material in here, but they are not only few and far between, but they are badly delivered as well. Take the shoot-out scene at the airport - can anyone tell just what the hell is going on, with the bounce-around editing and with apparently none of the electricians in the crew knowing that you have to bring enough light to see things even if it is an outdoor night shoot? You also can hardly see a thing during the one (tame) sex scene, and the leading lady (if you can call her that - she hardly does anything in the movie, only seeming to be here so the villain can -  yes - kidnap her) afterwards sits up in bed in such a posed way as if the director was thinking, well, I've got to have some breasts in this movie, I guess I'll just show some here. It's nowhere as funny as it sounds. The few examples here of the standard elements you find in blaxploitation movies come across as mechanical, with no feeling that the director, John Evans, was having any kind of fun. He seems reluctant to do anything.

Though there is a reluctance, another reason why there is hardly any sex or violence is simply because the story is so slow and minimal, there's hardly any opportunity to deliver what we want (Don't deny it - you want it, crave it, and drool for it - otherwise you wouldn't be reading this review.) Well, there is the opportunity, but the movie seems content in dragging its behind. Take a look at the central character, J.J. (Perry), a former street punk who was groomed by minor mobster Nate Williams (Jimmy Witherspoon, giving an attractive low-key performance), and is now powerful enough to have significant influence on the black community in his neighborhood.

You might think there would be some scenes showing him "pimping everything" (as one character puts it) to provide important and enlightening character development, but no - we are told what a badass he is instead. We soon learn that he's determined to crush the heroin operation controlled by the neighborhood white mobster Tony Burton (Chastain) by any means necessary. Ordinarily, it would mean that back and forth each side would strike at the other, leading to a big action climax. In this case, however, we're given a lot of almost idle threats for a long time, and afterwards just the occasional killing or beating, dully accomplished. The frequent absence of a musical score make a lot of scenes feel even slower than they really are. This isn't black or white power - it's dull as dishwater power.

The movie is not only boring with its blatant extended scenes with people doing nothing important to the plot like getting out of bed, throwing on a robe, walking to the kitchen, making coffee, walking to the stereo, putting on a record, sitting down, and listening to the music, but confusing when there is the least bit of plot. The opening fifteen minutes of the movie, detailing J.J.'s life just before and up to meeting with Nate Williams, unfold so that questions rise as soon as others are answered. First we don't know who this person is, where he is, and what he's going to do with his friend. Then we don't know who the person is that saves him, and how he happens to know his savior's name. Later in the movie, we never see just exactly how J.J. became such a big shot in the neighborhood (how much, and what kind of assistance did he get from Williams?), what exactly is his relationship with Williams' daughter (it takes a long time before we find out she is Williams' daughter, incidentally), how come she is too stupid to realize her father and J.J. are criminals, and how the bad guys are able to hold her hostage in a hospital room without the hospital staff finding out. Boring as it was, I was always able to understand the main idea of the plot, but there were always a number of unanswered little details like I've described that constantly spotlighted the weak screenplay.

As weak as the screenplay is, it does at least give some interesting insight into some of the characters, occasionally making their actions and dialogue intriguing enough to suggest that the focus on the movie should have been on this material. In an attempt to recruit people for his cause, J.J. gets into a politically charged argument with the leader of a more law-abiding black group. During the heated exchange, J.J. justifies his pimping and whoring: "Hey, it takes money to run an organization, that you can't get from passing a tin cup at a rally...People look up to me because I'm powerful!...Your idealistic s**t don't pay the rent!" In exchange, the other black leader states he  believes that J.J. only wants to get the white drug dealers out of the neighborhood simply so he can take over the business - a statement that may be true, but disappointingly is never really looked at anytime in the movie.

It's also not clear if J.J. really is angry, after finding out his mentor Williams has had an unspoken agreement to let the white drug dealers work in the neighborhood all these years, when he criticizes Williams' apparent lack of support for their people by yelling, "You stood by and let these people fill this community with dope from street to street!" On the other hand, Williams does state that he left them alone because he didn't want anyone in the neighborhood to get hurt. There are a few other times like this when we wonder if J.J. is doing the right thing, and these are among the more interesting parts of the movie.

Also interesting is the way the few white characters in the movie are depicted. The white villain in this movie doesn't, for once, seem to be racist. He does use a racist slur once in the movie, but it comes after several other frustrating incidents, and previously he referred to J.J. as a "punk" and other non-racist terms. In his dealing with Williams, he concentrates on getting down to business. Clearly, he just sees the black community as an opportunity for him, and not in any racial views. There is also Joe, a white cop (played by Duncan McLeod) in a prominent role here, and he doesn't show any signs of racism at all. He gets money from J.J. on a regular basis to be silent, but he also collects money from Burton. "I'm loyal to myself," he explains at one point, happy to be neutral and not wanting to get involved in the plans of either side. Despite this, he finds himself sucked into this mess, and had the movie taken a real look at the inability to be neutral in such a conflict, or when he suddenly gets a conscious and sees both sides going too far for him, we could have had something really interesting here.

But the movie doesn't even try. It's not interested in taking a closer look at the human side of the conflict, nor what the consequences are after everything is decided at the end. (In fact, when the last bloody body falls to the ground, the movie just ends.) And as I said before, it delivers little in the "juiciness" field as well. If you're wanting to see a more serious look at black criminal activity and its consequences, you'll have to pop Black Caesar (which probably inspired this movie anyway) back into your VCR. And if it's campiness or sleaze that you want, there's a lot more to choose from (just don't make the mistake of renting The Black Gestapo or Blackenstein.)

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See also: Hot Boyz, Out Of Sync, The Takeover

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