Whites: Smug. Culturally unaware. Bad dancers. We’ve learned to live with them, but not so long ago, there was a time when Hollywood was unafraid to shine a righteously disapproving light on their anemic shenanigans. In this edition of Vault of Secrets, we sift through some of the year’s best manufactured-on- demand releases that take the white trash to the dumpster, where it belongs.
Dir. Ralph Nelson / 1970 / Warner Archive - Remastered Edition
30 years before George W. Bush became our nation’s ﬁnal caucasian president, Jim Brown played the deep south’s ﬁrst black sheriff in a searing action drama of small town bigotry. He’s elected to his position by the black 51% of his community, which heats the other 49% up something awful. Among them is the former sheriff (Cool Hand Luke’s George Kennedy), who’s shocked at the ousting but leaves ofﬁce quietly. The rest of the pastier locals -- some of whom are proud KKK members -- don’t handle the change with as much aplomb, organizing violent ambushes for the sheriff and his deputy. These rumblings erupt in a geyser of race-rage when a powerful white man’s son is jailed for the vehicular manslaughter of a child.
Jim Brown was only a few years out of the NFL and into his acting career when he was cast as the lead here, but his performance is just plain outstanding. Constantly showered in truly palpable tension, his character Price is more human than heroically noble, strong but completely and openly terriﬁed. In one of the movie’s many unforgettable moments, he addresses a room full of seething racists: “I’m not a black sheriff. I’m not a white sheriff. I’m THE SHERIFF.”
Sharing top billing with him is George Kennedy, a lumbering, persevering Hollywood giant who’s possibly best remembered by our generation as Leslie Nielsen’s partner Ed in the Naked Gun movies. From there, his professional career dovetailed further into straight-to-VHS action, but his character’s emotional transformation here shows that he should seriously be considered one of the most impressive actors of his era. Also tearing up the south are silver screen legend Fredric March as the elderly-but-sharp mayor, 007 alumnus Clifton James as a gun-toting good ol’ boy, and a young n’ mean Bernie Casey. All of them perform like they’re up for an Oscar, and they all should have been. The word “masterpiece” is easily thrown around, but this is a ﬁlm that absolutely deserves it. Nab a copy of this gorgeously remastered transfer while you can.
Rated G for severe violence, child death, statutory rape and 22 uses of the word “nigger.”
PRAY FOR DEATH
Dir. Gordon Hessler / 1985 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
The 1980s were a cornucopia of low culture wildness. Breakfast cereals, cartoons, punk rock and cocaine hit unimaginable apexes of popularity. And if you focused on the crest of this no-brow wave, you’d see it was being ridden by ninjas. The VHS boom opened the ﬂoodgates for shot-on-video horror, low budget action and an unbelievable number of ninja epics released by and for an endless array of blue-eyed suckers. Leading the charge were mini-titans TransWorld Entertainment, who released dozens of silent assassin epics with “NINJA” in the title, as well as a few winners that didn’t.
Among these is Pray for Death, a heavily Americanized shoot-n-punch revenge tale that feels like it was shot in the alleys behind Disneyworld. Star Sho Kosugi had already spent a decade selling undiscerning US audiences on his martial arts prowess, but the ‘80s ninja boom kicked his career into overdrive. The performer suddenly found himself packaged as a screen star and readymade karate icon, with this ﬁlm receiving a particularly heavy promotional push from its money-minded backers.
Kosugi plays Saito, an honorable family man who relocates from Tokyo to follow his wife’s western dreams. As soon as they arrive in Florida, it becomes clear that he may be tempted to revisit his secret training as a master ﬁghter. He makes every attempt to resist, but after the kidnapping of his youngest son and increasingly severe offenses, Saito eventually sets out on the ninjammin’ path of total retribution.
It’s as basic a plot as you can get, and that’s nothing to frown over. Story complexity is exchanged for torture, melodramatic villainy, and some rewardingly brutal child-on-child karate. Also, Pray for Death features a heapin’ helpin’ of those great, bygone white collar thugs, almost always played by pudgy mustachioed dads with reﬂective sunglasses. Their leader is a 55-year-old gym teacher type named “Limehouse Willie,” played by undetectably British performer James Booth, who also wrote this ﬁlm’s script...as well as American Ninja 2.
The opening credits sequence is a heart-stopping assault of ‘80s imagery and high ninja kitsch, which opens immediately into total combat. The big box VHS art was similarly electrifying, but is replaced for the DVD release with something that looks like it would’ve been painted on the side of a rusty van on the last page of the Thrifty Nickel.
Dir. Jack Arnold / 1974 / Warner Archive
A year before they made Boss Nigger, action god Fred “The Hammer” Williamson teamed with the director of Creature from the Black Lagoon to unleash this modest, refreshingly raw detective thriller. Williamson stars as Stone, a suspended police lieutenant with a bottomless loathing of the underworld. He stumbles across a rabid murderer who’s just knifed a hooker and stolen an unusual antique cane. The silver-tipped walking stick was formerly the property of a deceased silent ﬁlm icon, but now every lowlife in Hollywood wants it for themselves.
Though it was the early ‘70s and the villains are uniformly white, ethnicity is a mostly unspoken issue here. Blaxploitation cinema was riding high, but the smart and unusual Black Eye doesn’t feel the need to lean on a race crutch to provide its jolts. Instead, one baddie answers his telephone by saying, “Hello, you old faggot!” Stone visits a horny priest and then has a relaxing meal at “The Pooh House.” Fistﬁghts are played realistically, as clumsy and exhausting rather than effortless displays of power. Religion is mocked; a vapid Christian hippie girl warns Stone to “get with Jesus. That’s where it’s at! The devil’s waiting to eat your ASS, man!” Finally, when Stone dispatches a pusher who’s just dealt drugs to a pack of adolescents, it’s one of the most knee-slappingly hilarious narcotics deaths in ﬁlm history.
In some ways, Black Eye is shockingly progressive. Stone’s girlfriend is openly bisexual, but it’s never once handled in a bullshit male fantasy sense. She discusses her other relationships frankly and without salaciousness, and the quietly jealous Stone interacts regularly with her girlfriend. There’s never a moment where his masculinity threatens to “change” her. This may sound like a minor detail, but for the movie’s era and genre, it just wasn’t done. And that’s especially impressive considering she’s opposite Williamson, who is -- in every way -- a Real Man. A slow motion romantic scene of the pair frolicking on the beach shows what appears to be a Cinnabon tucked in his Speedo.