Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Black Godfather

Directed by John Evans.
1974. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Rod Perry
Jimmy Witherspoon
Don Chastain
Diane Sommerfield
Tony Burton
Damu King
Anny Green

J. J. (Perry), Not The J. J. of Good Times, and his bestest buddy in petty crime decide to break into some white dude’s place. Neither of these two geniuses thinks to bring a weapon of any sort and are promptly shot upon entering the premises. The buddy gets killed, but Not The J. J. manages to make it down the street where he is picked up by a good samaritan who just hates to see young brothers bleeding to death on the sidewalk. The good samaritan turns out to be none other than Nate Williams (Witherspoon), the numbers king of “the Black community”, we’re told. By the way, Nate’s sidekick is former boxing champion Sonny Spyder Brown. At least, that’s what he’s called in this movie. For me, the moment I saw him his name became “Hey, that’s Duke from the Rocky movies!” True story.

Anyhoo, Nate says he picked Not The J. J. up and had him nursed back to health because he recognizes talent when he sees it. Funny, I didn’t know writhing in pain on the pavement was a talent. Well, it’s not. Wait…did you think? Let’s move on. We quickly learn why Nate thinks Not The J. J. is talented. It happens that the place Not The J. J. and pal tried to break into belongs to Tony (Chastain), the local white gangster who really runs things. Now, I’m confused. Is breaking into a known gangster’s place of business, while he’s there with his goons talented, or just dumb as hell? The lights were on and you could see movement from outside, by the way. My head hurts, and we just started.

Finally, the opening credits roll over the funky 70s theme song, a very groovy tune if you were wondering. When its done we’ve skipped ahead a few years and Not The J. J. is now big-time. Not only is he Nate’s top dog, he actually runs things while Nate piddles around in semi-retirement. “Hey, that’s Duke from the Rocky movies!” seems bitter about all this since it looks like he got jumped in the pecking order. Oh well, what’s he gonna do, throw in the towel? Okay, that went over some of your heads. The rest of you probably think my humor sucks. I don’t really care.

Feeling his oats, and still more than a little bit upset about the whole getting shot thing, Not The J. J. decides he’s going to take down Tony. His own crew of thugs isn’t enough to do this so he forms an uneasy alliance with a Black militant group to help him. So yeah, the pushers, pimps and numbers runners join forces with a Black Panther styled organization to…ahem…in my most militant voice…stick it to the man!

Even though it’s achieved classic status among many Blaxploitation fans, it isn’t quite the totally bananas, anything goes experience many of these movies are. A lot of the genre conventions are present, but not the near complete lack of restraint that makes Blaxploitation extraordinarily fun. Furthermore, Not The J. J. lacks the charisma of Shaft, Superfly or the Mack. He certainly isn’t the purveyor of cool they were, either. This means we’re left with a movie that, during its own era, thrilled audiences desperate for any representation of Black power. However, in a world that’s post-Spike Lee, post-Denzel, post-The Matrix (many of that hugely successful franchise’s heroes were Black, Neo aside) and more recently and importantly, post-Obama, its major flaw is more easily discerned. It’s so glaring, it’s near-fatal. It points itself out several times as if its something that’s going to be resolved, yet never really addresses it. Many movies of its type have the same problem. This one just isn’t fun enough to overcome it.

That flaw is in its morality. What happens if/when Not The J. J. runs Tony out of town? He merely ascends to a throne built upon the same crimes the movie suggests were perpertrated on Blacks by the White establishment. As we’re told several times, Not The J. J. is no different or better than Tony. The movie is aware of its own problem and knowingly proceeds as if not to be. It dodges the question it asks of itself: what good is replacing a White devil with a Black one?

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