O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
This came up at the comics shop this week and I thought I’d share it with all of you.
I was picking up this week’s comics. Since roughly half my pull list is canceled or about to be– am I bitter? Well, yes, a little– there was very little to pick up, which usually means I’m willing to try something new. Then I saw there was a new Black Dynamite comic, and I was immediately cheered.
I picked it up and took it and the rest of my purchases to the front counter. When Casey, who was ringing me up, got to Black Dynamite, he tapped it and said, “This is awesome.”
“I know. I love that stuff anyway. We’ve got a bunch of it on DVD. Shaft In Africa, Trouble Man, Slaughter… they’re amazing. I mean, people call them blaxploitation or whatever but really they’re superhero movies.”
“Not even a little bit kidding. Seriously. If you loved the old 1970s Marvel books like Deadly Hands of Kung Fu or the old Luke Cage– tiara and yellow-shirt Cage, I mean– then these movies are absolutely for you, it’s where that stuff was coming from. So many comics were feeding off exploitation movies back in the day, you wouldn’t believe it… I swear to God I think the entire 1970s Marvel Bullpen was in love with Enter the Dragon. But it went both ways, the blaxploitation movies were even more blatant about the superhero riffs they were using. I wish I could take them to class, my students would love them. But they’re mostly rated R.”
“Really? Your kids would be into this stuff?”
“Really. Black Belt Jones, especially. Most of my students are black or Asian, especially in south Seattle. These would be like superhero cartoons made just for them if it wasn’t for all the swearing and nudity. Hell, that’s practically how urban adult audiences reacted to them in the 70s, they felt pride and ownership, it was their stuff. That’s why the genre took off. It wasn’t that anybody really lived in a cartoon ghetto like you’d see in these movies, they just liked that it was for them.”
“I gotta check this stuff out.”
“Well, then, there’s this terrific DVD set that came out a while back, a four-in-one called Urban Action classics or something, but really it’s this amazing blaxploitation superhero collection. That’s what you want.”
And I went on to describe it. There were several times that Casey expressed disbelief, so I’m going to document it for you here. Not making ANY of this up.
The set is four movies. We’ll start with one of my favorites. Black Belt Jones.
The ostensible story involves our hero, Jones, played by Jim Kelly from Enter The Dragon, fighting to save Pop Byrd’s dojo. The Mafia own all the other property on the block, see, and they stand to make a lot of money because there’s going to be a new civic center or something. So they want the dojo, but it is a beacon of hope for the ghetto and Pop won’t sell. The Mafia sends evil thugs to intimidate Pop, he resists, and they go too far and accidentally kill him.
It should be noted, by the way, that beloved martial arts instructor Pop is played by Scatman Crothers. In a toupee.
So Black Belt drops his secret government agent work to come back to the Old Neighborhood because This Time It’s Personal. A great deal of ass-kicking ensues.
The midnight dojo fight is especially awesome, because when the hoods ask helplessly who’s attacking them in the dark, Jones replies, “BATMAN, MOTHERFUCKER!”
Just in case anyone hadn’t figured out this is totally a superhero movie. Clip is here for the skeptics.
Along the way, Jones hooks up with Pop’s hot mama of a daughter, Sydney, who is equally adept at asskicking.
Sydney was played by former Playboy Bunny Gloria Hendry, who some of you may remember as Rosie Carver in Live and Let Die. She was sort of sweet and stupid in that, but here she is a hardcore badass, equal in prowess to Black Belt himself.
The big showdown takes place in a car wash, amid steadily rising bubbles.
Honestly, were it not for the profanity and violence, it would be a delightful urban adventure story for my sixth-graders. Most of the film is just sort of goofy and fun– I didn’t even get to the part where the good guys recruit the trampoline girls to lead an assault on the Mafia– and as far as the feel of the thing is concerned, it’s as close to a Luke Cage movie as anyone got in the 1970s.
It had a sequel, sort of, Hot Potato, that’s also on the DVD set. Jim Kelly also stars in this one and it was from the same outfit, but Hot Potato is a terrible, terrible movie. Nevertheless, it’s hypnotic in a “I can’t believe this is really what I’m seeing” kind of way.
The story is kind of about Jones recruiting an unlikely team of mercenaries and ne’er do wells to go to Thailand and rescue a senator’s daughter.
From an evil Thai warlord named Rangoon, who has one of the worst fake beards in the history of cinema.
Except it’s not really the Senator’s daughter they end up rescuing, but rather a carefully-trained double created through plastic surgery, who’s really a prostitute that Rangoon has hired to…. oh hell, this is about where I lose track every time. The important part is that everyone knows kung fu– EVERYONE, even the obese ex-pat slob named “Rhino” — and that Jones rides an elephant.
I would never endorse such behavior, but I suspect that the viewing experience of Hot Potato might be enhanced with some moderately illicit substances. Although the resulting uncontrollable hysterical laughter might injure those with weaker constitutions.
But the second disk with the next two movies is where the superhero awesomeness really becomes a tangible thing.
First of all, you have Black Samson, the tale of the supercool nightclub owner and protector of the ghetto, who keeps the ‘hood safe by patrolling the streets with his giant wooden quarterstaff and his pet lion.
My love for this movie and its deranged parallel world where nightclub owners get to have pet lions and fight crime is really impossible to overstate. I mean, the lion just hangs out at the bar.
Where occasionally he and Samson’s girl Leslie screen visitors.
The story is about Samson’s efforts to keep evil Johnny Nappa from flooding his neighborhood with drugs. First Nappa approaches Black Samson, who is acknowledged by both the good guys and the bad guys as being king of the ghetto, to get his cooperation. Of course Samson contemptuously brushes him off.
Because even though pimps and hookers and strippers are okay, drug dealers are SCUM. Plus, folks in the ghetto have enough going on without that shit, man. So it’s ON.
There are several skirmishes where Samson beats the crap out of Johnny’s guys. You’d think he’d let the lion have a couple, but sadly he does not.
Any doubts about how scummy drug dealers are, well, all you have to do is see the scenery-chewing William Smith doing his evil thing and you are totally with Samson on this. Better a hundred new pimps invade the ‘hood than THIS guy.
William Smith is one of my favorite actors– most of you probably know him as the guy who had the epic bare-knuckle bout with Clint Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can– but he’s been in everything. I think, though, that Black Samson might have been his finest hour as a villain. He’s just so incredibly, unrepentantly, evil. My favorite part is when he sends his abused and cowed girlfriend to get the goods on Samson, one presumes by seducing him, and then beats her for it. You can’t win with this guy.
The alley showdown where Samson rallies the people is really impossible to adequately describe.
This whole movie is just plain epic in its craziness… try to imagine what it might be like if, say, Bob Haney had written Shaft and you might get a little bit of a sense of it.
And I saved the best for last. Three the Hard Way.
Because if you have superheroes, at some point they have to team up. And this is the first appearance of what I like to call the Groovy Justice League, or the Soul Avengers.
You’ve got Jim Brown as Jimmy, the tough, taciturn one… Equally handy with his gun or his fists.
You’ve got Fred Williamson as Jagger, the fast-talking ladies’ man.
And you’ve got Jim Kelly as Mister (“What kind of name is Mister?” “My mama wanted people to address me with respect.”) the designated kung fu guy.
Together they team up with three equally badass dominatrices– yes, really–
— to defeat a Neo-Nazi group intent on poisoning America’s water supply with a toxin that only kills black people.
“The ultimate purpose? A cleansing, a purification of the races.” The leader of the Nazi group, Monroe Feather, is played by Jay Robinson who was wonderfully, sneeringly evil in EVERYTHING but never more so than here.
Anyway, the structure of the thing is essentially the same as most JLA tales from the 1960s. First the heroes meet and agree to take on the common threat, then they split up to derail individual villainous parts of the plan in different parts of the country. Jim even says, “Three cities, three of us.” Fighting and danger ensues.
Then they all get back together for the big finish. It’s just so wonderfully a Fox-Sekowsky kind of Justice League story. Except with guns. And nudity. And a lot of, well, let’s call it general political incorrectness. But underneath all the R-rated exploitation stuff, Three the Hard Way‘s DNA is pure superhero team action.
So that’s the set. And it’s a pretty typical sampling of the genre. Best of all, you can get it for about five bucks right now.
But, I hear some of you asking, this is supposed to be about comics. What did you think of Black Dynamite, anyway?
Honestly? I adored it.
But if you want to consider it over-the-top parody, I have to say no.
Certainly not when you put it next to Black Samson or Three the Hard Way. There’s jokes, sure, but for the most part Black Dynamite the comic is in that same fine old ghetto super-dude tradition. Writer Brian Ash and penciler Ron Wimberley have crafted something that reads more like an affectionate pastiche to me. Certainly it’s at least as ‘plausible’ and ‘realistic’ as any of the movies I’ve described here.
For my part I’m just thrilled it exists at all. As much as I love what Bendis and friends have done with Luke Cage in the pages of Alias and New Avengers, there was a certain oddball charm to the old yellow-shirted Hero for Hire incarnation of the character, and if I can’t have that any more, well, Black Dynamite‘s comic is certainly close enough.
See you next week.
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