Black Samson

Director: Charles Bail 
Rockne Tarkington, William Smith, Connie Strickland

It is entirely possible that in the more than a decade I have spent maintaining this web site, some people might get the wrong idea about me in some regards. While it's true that for many years the web site was sponsored by those good folks at Stomp Tokyo, they left it up to me as to what was to be done with the site, from the frequency I reviewed movies to the kind of movies I selected to be reviewed. With that news, it is understandable that some of you might conclude that in my private life, I am a take-charge kind of guy, a person who likes to be on top and totally in control. But actually, apart from my web site, I am not that kind of person. When it comes to employment that pays the bills, I much prefer to be a follower than a leader. I love my job, but at my place of employment, I see the stress and great responsibility that my managers go through every day, and from that alone I have no desire to be any kind of boss. That certainly goes for the option that occasionally crosses my mind of quitting my place of employment and starting my own business. Quite frankly, I am amazed and in awe of people who start and run their own business, because of all of the challenges that come up during the way. More likely than not they started out by the challenge of getting a big enough loan from a bank for all the start-up costs. Once they got the money, next comes the challenge of finding a suitable location for their business - and they say the three most important factors of a new business are location, location, and location. Then after getting a suitable location, next comes the challenge of renovating the building chosen for their business - or building right from scratch. Then come the headaches of finding reliable and affordable suppliers for the products they need to showcase in their business.

All during those and other challenges of starting one's own business, there always lies the possibility that despite all of your hard work, not enough people will patronize your business once it has opened, and you will eventually have to close up shop. As you can see, there are a whole bunch of different problems that can come up during the construction of a business, but there are also various problems that can come up once your business starts and becomes a successful one. I would like to talk about one of those potential problems, one I have seen in a number of movies and television shows. The problem I am talking about is when mobsters see a cash cow of a business and subsequently try to muscle in, forcing the people who run the business to pay money for "protection" against various "accidents" or damage that might happen. As I said, I've seen this happening in many movies and television shows, but for a long time I have wondered how often this happens in real life. To shake down the owners of a small convenience store, for example, seems like a lot of effort for what has to be limited funds. I can tell you that if I were a leader in the world of the Mafia, I would be getting my henchmen to look into illegal activities that pay off a lot more than shaking down small business owners, such as drug dealing or money laundering. Oh, I am sure that many decades ago, when there wasn't the trafficking of illegal substances, that many mob families did get a substantial income extorting from small business owners. But nowadays it doesn't seem to make that much sense.

Over the years watching various movies and television shows that depict innocent business owners threatened by the Mafia, I have also seen a number of different plans the business owners in these stories have enacted in order to fight back. Some plans have made sense, like Black Samsoncontacting the police who subsequently enact some sort of sting operation to capture the extorters in the act (though it always seems that the mob families always get some kind of subsequent revenge for this despite the presence of the police.) Some of them have been pretty outlandish, like hiring four people who travel around the countryside in a van who will act as mercenaries for you for a price that would probably rival the amount of money the Mafia is extorting from the business owners. I have to admit that often I get a kick out of outlandish plans like those, so you may understand why I was attracted to Black Samson, which involves one threatened business owner deciding to take on the mob all by himself. If you guessed by the word "black" in the title that the movie is a blaxploitation movie from the 1970s, you are right - and it's another reason why I was attracted to the movie. It probably goes without saying that Black Samson concerns itself with an African-American by the name of Samson, who is played by Rockne Tarkington (National Lampoon Goes To The Movies). Samson is a strong-headed fellow who, when not keeping his Los Angeles neighborhood free of criminal elements (especially drugs), is a very successful business owner, owning a very popular bar. The bar has become so popular, that it has got the attention of a mobster by the name of Johnny Nappa (William Smith, Seven). Nappa drops by Samson's bar and lets Samson know in no uncertain terms that Whitey wants to take over the bar and the entire neighborhood in order to sell drugs and increase the mob's power over the city. But Samson is having none of that. Helped by literally carrying a big stick with him everywhere he goes, Samson proceeds to foil each and every attempt Nappa and his goons enact to try and take control of the neighborhood. Eventually, Nappa kills a friend of Samson and kidnaps his girlfriend Leslie (Carol Speed, Abby), which gets Samson to realize that in order to defeat Nappa, he can't do it alone - he'll need the entire support of the community.

From that above plot description, I have a pretty good idea of what you are now thinking. You are thinking that you have seen this same basic story countless times in other B movies, as well as in television shows. Of course you are right. Yet a familiar plot such as this doesn't mean the movie is instantly sunk. With a little creativity, merit, and freshness thrown in, it could still work. There is some of that in Black Samson. When it comes to the depiction of the villain, the movie is at its strongest. As Johnny Nappa, William Smith gives it all that he has got. He seems to be really enjoying himself, sometimes using his trademark wicked grin as well as laughing out loud at several points, even during times when his character is trying to conduct his dirty business. These jovial touches are by themselves entertaining, but the screenplay at several points also allows Smith to show a much darker side to his character. In those parts of the movie, the character of Nappa instantly changes from an easygoing guy to one that will push one of his goons into a pool and dive in right afterwards to give the unfortunate fellow a good beating and half drowning. Later in the movie, when he thinks that his girlfriend is lusting for Samson after sending her in as an undercover spy, he abruptly pushes her out of a moving car and speeds away. Wisely, though, the movie doesn't have Smith going apes*it a great number of times, nor does it have him constantly joking or kidding around. Both of those things would make Nappa a villain who is hard to take seriously. Most of the time, the character of Nappa takes the situations he's in very seriously. And in these moments, Smith seems just as comfortable and credible. To sum up, Black Samson has a great scripted antagonist who is well interpreted by the actor playing him.

There are a few other exaples of good acting and colorful characters in Black Samson. Titos Vandis (National Lampoon Goes To The Movies) has a couple of scenes as Nappa's uncle that may be brief, but are memorable thanks to a serving of humor, both by the script and Vandis' performance. Michael Payne also does well as "Arthur", the king of a neighboring district who although dabbles in drugs and crime, we all the same get the feeling he isn't really an evil person. And as Samson's girlfriend, Carol Speed well interprets her character's multi-dimension, showing love to her man but also expressing fear (as in one impressive crying sequence) that Samson may be well over his head. By now you may be wondering when I am going to get to the character of Samson as well as the actor playing him, Rockne Tarkington. I wish this was a case where I was saving the best for the last, but unfortunately it's far from that. To be fair, Tarkington does instantly bring something to his role. At nearly six and a half feet tall, he does look like an imposing figure. However, his acting skills are often something to be desired. When it comes to showing great emotion, Tarkington doesn't seem able to express it well. Sometimes it seems his character is about to burst into tears instead of showing toughness. There seems to have been a realization of Tarkington's limited abilities by at least one important player connected with the movie, because director Charles Bail (who later did Choke Canyon) wisely has Tarkington playing in a soft spoken manner akin to Chuck Norris, which does at times hide his limited range. Though at times even with this technique, he comes across more as bland than someone who speaks softly but literally carries a big stick.

In fairness to Tarkington, the script didn't exactly give him a lot to work with. The character of Samson is one that is difficult to understand with what's going on in his brain. Why is he so protective of his neighborhood? Why would he rather fight back than capitulate? Questions like those keep coming up and remain unanswered. The movie seems to feel that the audience would rather see a protagonist in action rather than express himself with words. I know there are some audience members who wouldn't mind that, and I admit that sometimes I want to sit down and watch some mindless action. But when it comes to action, the movie greatly disappoints. The first misstep is that the movie doesn't contain as much action as you might think. The movie was clearly made on a low budget, and with limited time and resources the movie is padded with a great deal of scenes with character talking that advance the movie to little or no effect. It also means that almost all of the (limited) action is on a small scale, mostly people beating each other up instead of more complex stuff like gun battles. (This eventually makes the movie silly, since none of the bad guys get the idea to simply shoot Samson until the final few minutes.) And this hand to hand combat isn't that spectacular. While these fisticuffs doesn't look overly choreographed - there is an appropriate sloppy touch, like many fights are in real life - it all the same comes across as extremely unexciting. These sporadic fights for the most part don't shake the viewer up from the near slumber he falls in from the talky and boring remainder of the movie. However, the climactic action sequence is something different entirely. I won't spoil what happens in the climax, except to say that the action that happens in this sequence is energetic, complex, and a great sight to the eye. It's also clear that this sequence blew a lot of the limited budget that was given to this movie, probably explaining why the majority of the rest of the movie is so uneventful and cheap-looking. While the severe problems with Black Samson don't sink the movie enough to make it the worst blaxploitation movie ever made (that award would have to go to Blackenstein), they all the same make the movie a dull and tedious experience that even a great villain and climactic sequence can't redeem.

(Posted June 29, 2015)

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See also: The Big Score, The Black Godfather, Trouble Man