5.05.2011

Three Honkies: The Final Comedown (Williams, 1972)

Billy Dee (whose Billy Dee Williams Enterprises co-produced) plays Johnny Johnson, an embodiment of the conflicted yet determined nature of late 1960s, early '70s black militants after hundreds of years of their race's oppression. Following a montage of galvanized black power, police cruelty and retaliation seemingly artistically influenced by "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song", we open on Johnny suffering a potentially fatal wound for the cause. As partners attempt to help him amidst a siege of pigs, Johnny reflects on events that flesh out the "hows" and conversations that exemplify the "whys" including altercations with complacent parents and irresolute acquaintances, conspiration with white liberals, being presumed a thief simply for operating a vehicle licensed to his Jewish boss, and checking the views of an old, white, unemployed man with a sign reading, "I am a brother too". Openly addressed are the acceptance and self-loathe many brothers and sisters were subconsciously taught through white media. D'Urville Martin ("Black Caesar", "Hell Up in Harlem", the "Boss Nigger" trilogy and more) and the luscious Pamela Jones ("Lamont Goes Karate" from the Redd Foxx-less stretch of season three "Sanford & Son") co-star in strong supporting roles.

Though I've yet to see director Oscar Williams' '78 "Death Drug", I'm ready to call "The Final Comedown" (based upon Jimmy Garrett's play "We Own the Night" and also unfittingly known as "Blast!" following a '76 re-cut) Williams' most important film. The man went on to make '73's heritage-heavy "Five on the Black Hand Side" (based upon Charlie L. Russell's eponymous play) and '76's "Hot Potato", a highly amusing departure of a sequel to the formulaic yet groovy-as-hell Jim Kelly and Scatman Crothers-starring "Black Belt Jones" (which he wrote and supervised). "Comedown" is easily the most powerful of these (not that the chopsocky lite of "Hot Potato" was going for as much, exactly) and thus far the only of this cinematic wave to make me want to weep (on multiple occasions, at that).

Fresh out the thread gate I'm already questioning whether a film is actually "blaxploitation" or not (a question I, coincidentally, also maintain for "Five on the Black Hand Side"). On the basest of levels I suppose yes, "The Final Comedown" must be, as it features strong black leads and certainly would not have been able to be put in the mainstream pre-"Sweetback". The obvious "exploitation" root of "blaxploitation" implies to me that something is being blatantly exploited, sometimes to a point of relative ridiculousness, for the sole purpose of entertainment, for example biker counter-culture, graphic sex and/or gore in any number of '60s and '70s flicks from the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Al Adamson (who also directed Jim Kelly in '77's "Black Samurai"). Here we have serious subject matter carried out so to educate about the black and white liberal plights and perspectives of post-Civil Rights Movement militants. Johnny Johnson is no "black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks", he's a Panther wrestling with what's right and what needs to be done to achieve it within a very real urban landscape. This is not unlike Melvin Van Peebles' son Mario's '95 film "Panther", chronicling the Black Panther story and profiling its leader, Huey P. Newton (who appears on a propaganda poster on Johnny's wall early in "Comedown"), yet we don't call that "blaxploitation"… why, because it came out in the '90s? "The Return of Super Fly" also came out in that decade and what do we call it (granted it was the very early '90s)? The more I examine it the more I agree a rebranding is indeed called for. Confining the genre to a certain timespan is appropriate, however, as continuing to label films based on their leads' skin color too far beyond the initial call is unthinkable. Of course there's much more to what can classify "blaxploitation" than just skin color, but that's what got me questioning here in the first place, isn't it?

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