I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Johnny Pate-a-thon

tn_pateIn case you’ve had your fill of straight-to-video action and shit, I’ll give you an alternative. Today we’re having a triple-feature of ’70s blaxploitation movies with scores by Johnny Pate. You know, I’m trying to find one of those real accessible topics everybody can relate to.

Johnny Pate is a Chicago-born bassist and arranger. He says his first and biggest love is jazz, but to me he’s a legend because of his comparatively brief detour into R&B in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He worked with many Chicago labels of that era but most notably alongside the one and only Curtis Mayfield – Pate was an arranger for the Impressions and for Mayfield’s label, Curtom.

I’m not as detail-oriented about music as I am about movies, so I probaly wouldn’t know about Johnny Pate except that I happened to pick up his 1970 funk instrumentals album “Outrageous” when it was reissued last year by Dusty Groove. Then I found out he scored SHAFT IN AFRICA so I finally got around to watching those sequels and loved them. At least half of my love for blaxploitation movies comes from the music, and of course SUPERFLY and SHAFT are the two most legendary blaxploitation soundtracks. Here’s a guy who kind of connects them together – he arranged Superfly for Mayfield, he scored the third SHAFT movie, and even played with the original Isaac Hayes SHAFT themes when he scored the short-lived (and not on DVD) SHAFT tv series.

But SHAFT IN AFRICA is a masterwork. Okay, it’s not as deep as SUPERFLY and maybe the original SHAFT score has a wider breadth of styles on it, and also it’s hard to really compare anything to SHAFT because it’s so inescapable in pop culture it’s hard to be objective about it. But all I know is SHAFT IN AFRICA has two of the most preposterously funky themes of all time. They are the type of theme songs every badass character wishes they had, but never will. That is the sound I always wanted to hear and I figure nobody, including Pate, ever topped them. But just to be sure I decided to watch and review some of the other movies Johnny Pate scored.

BROTHER ON THE RUN (1973)

The VHS tape I found was called MAN ON THE RUN, but the original and better title is BROTHER ON THE RUN. They got MAN on the title screen but Pate’s theme song (which plays in several different variations throughout the movie) repeatedly calls him “brother on the run.” And brother is simply more accurate because the guy who’s on the run is more like a kid than a man on the run, and he has a sister in the movie so maybe the title is from her point of view. He’s her little brother on the run.

(It could be worse though. IMDB claims it was also released on video as BLACK FORCE 2, which would make it the sequel to an unrelated movie that came out two years later.)

mp_brotherontherunThe reason the brother is on the run is he and a white dude were shoplifting radios from a store when the store owner pulled a gun on them, there was a scuffle and the owner got shot and killed. These kids are actually part of a crime ring run by a white hippie preacher named Brother John, and they kind of got set up by a corrupt individual trying to cover his involvement in the whole deal.

Anyway, he runs to his sister’s house, then the cops show up there so he runs some more, and that is why he is on the run.

But the actual hero of the movie is not on the run, he’s Professor Boots Turner played by Terry Carter of FOXY BROWN and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (original recipe). We see in the opening scene that he’s a popular and somewhat lenient professor of English literature, and later he makes a reference to Fagin from Oliver Twist, and also he wears a very professorial suit and tie for the whole movie, but otherwise he’s basically Shaft. He knows how to break locks, use a gun, lose a tail, beat up a dude in a junkyard and trick the cops. He spends the movie trying to find the brother on the run because he’s worried if the racist cops find him first they’ll kill him.

He’s not a private eye like Shaft, so obviously he can’t be hired onto the case. He just found out he’s neighbors with an old hooker friend who is the brother’s sister. So he happens to be catching up on old times when the kid shows up with his white friend dying of a bullet wound. I really have no idea why they made him a teacher, that’s kind of weird. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the story. But I like it. He must be one of the all time toughest movie educators, up there with Indiana Jones, Tom Berenger’s THE SUBSTITUTE and Seagal’s professor of Chinese archaeology character from OUT FOR A KILL.

The filmatism is pretty crude and the story is pretty ridiculous. Boots not only beds the sister but also some white lady in Brentwood who he just meets because the kid was hiding in her backyard. But I sort of enjoyed the story which somehow was more involving than many better-made blaxploitation pictures. There are some pretty tense foot chase scenes with the kid climbing fences, hiding around corners, trying to stay quiet when cops are nearby. We can all relate to that. And he knows he’s in trouble walking through a rich white neighborhhood with his afro. Lucky for him nobody seems to lock the doors on their cars, or even their trunks. He hides in the trunk of a Mercedes at one point, a good way to catch a ride.

Musically it’s no SHAFT IN AFRICA but it’s a good one. The vocal theme song is very catchy and then there’s a bunch of funky chase music with intense drums and percussion and lots of organ solos. Also some more laidback jazzy sexy kind of tunes for the sex scenes. Not a great movie but a worthwhile one, especially for the Johnny Pate completist like you or I.

BUCKTOWN (1975)

mp_bucktownThis one’s alot like a western. Legendary badass (Fred Williamson) comes into small town by train, discovers the people are being oppressed by corrupt law officials, calls in a team of gunmen, they take justice into their own hands and execute all the cops, but then they decide to pin on the badges and take over the town themselves, so the original badass has to take them out. It’s a little different from other westerns though though because there are no cowboy hats or horses, and toward the end he drives a tank over a car and it blows up. That doesn’t happen in most of the Howard Hawks or John Ford movies.

Bucktown is kind of like South Africa during apartheid – it looks like it’s a primarily black population, but the white redneck cops control everything and abuse everybody. When Williamson steps off the train (in town for his brother’s funeral) the first thing he sees is a white cop beating up a black dude. I’m sure that’s on their postcards and souvenir t-shirts too. It might even be on the official town seal that they put on the letterhead and the checks and everything.

When Williamson calls his old friend for help he tells him to bring muscle, so he brings three dudes with him. One of them happens to be played by pre-ROCKY Carl Weathers. His character is named Hambone. Williamson and his buddies are all very cool and cocky. I like the scene where they notice a guy tailing them so they walk over and ask him to join them. These are exactly the right dudes to make some white bigots feel inadequate.

I was a little surprised that their plan just involved going around and executing all the cops, seemed too easy and straightforward. But of course when his out of town friends take over is when the story really begins. At first their friendship allows for a truce, but one of the other guys (not Hambone) gets jealous and has to fuck everything up. The message is that power corrupts, racism not necessary.

This is an above average blaxploitation movie, but I do have to deduct points for Pam Grier’s role. She had already been Coffy and Foxy Brown so it’s not very cool to give her this character where she just whines and gets upset about shit. She’s the standard woman-who-is-hostile-to-the-hero-but-then-falls-in-love-with-him-and-keeps-hysterically-shouting-about-the-dangers-afoot. When she gets attacked she just screams. It’s kind of like in SUNSHINE, when Michelle Yeoh gets attacked and doesn’t know how to fight it’s hard to accept. But this is worse because it’s a movie where a tough Pam Grier character would not necessarily be out of place.

The theme song reminded me a little bit of the DOLEMITE soundtrack but slicker with a little bit of a Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns flavor. There’s also a real funky song with vocals at the end, that one has a little bit of a P-Funkesque sound too.

DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE (1976)

mp_drblackI was really surprised to find out that this fairly crappy attempt to cash-in on BLACULA was actually made by the same director. I don’t know how many of you hold BLACULA in the same high regard that I do, but I think it does a great job of combining the elements of its two genres (classic Hammer style horror and blaxploitation) and somehow coming off less ridiculous than that sounds on paper. I mean you still get to laugh at (and with) it a little, but I think it actually works as a horror movie with Afrocentric themes, and of course William Marshall is great in it.

To be fair, Bernie Casey is pretty good too as Dr. Henry Pride (hmm, his name is not Dr. Black, that’s weird). The standard horror movie part is that he’s a highly respected doctor working on cutting edge experiments that obsess him because of his mother’s death of liver disease. The new twist is that he’s also a progressive humanitarian type of doctor who works out of a free clinic in Watts that shares a building with a thrift shop. The two female leads are his partner at the clinic played by Rosalind Cash (Charlton Heston’s soul sister girlfriend in OMEGA MAN) and his prostitute patient played by Marie O’Henry (THREE THE HARD WAY). If you enjoy a good looking woman with an afro this is a pretty good movie to check out.

Dr. Pride’s serum causes a lab rat to turn white and kill all the other rats in his cage, and for some reason the doctor decides this would be a good time to secretly inject it into himself. As far as I could tell this makes no sense on any level since not only is the serum clearly not ready for human testing, but he doesn’t even have the liver disease it’s supposed to cure. The tagline of the movie is “A Monster He Can’t Control Has Taken Over His Very Soul!” and that is a double meaning there because the gimmick is that the Mr. Hyde he turns into supposed to be white. The makeup by Stan Winston (who had already made up Casey in GARGOYLES) is a pretty good monster/zombie type face with pale skin and white on the edge of his afro. Kind of a cool monster but for some reason everybody mistakes it for a white man.

This does make the movie sort of enjoyable, because of course you get some good laughs out of people referring to a monstrous Bernie Casey as a white dude. And I guess since the vast majority of serial killers are white it has some kind of logic to it that he would have to turn white in order to go on a hooker-murdering spree. But I’m not sure what the meaning of it is supposed to be. I like Mamuwalde in BLACULA because he was a dignified African leader given this curse by European slavedriver Dracula. He’s a monster and a villain but you also like him because he is bringing this Afrocentric world view to the American ghettos of the ’70s, transcending the stereotypes of the genre and trying to scare some sense into the other characters who fit into the stereotype more. Dr. Pride though, honestly I don’t know what the hell he’s trying to do, and that’s the bigger problem. In the middle section of the movie the storytelling really gets sloppy. To me anyway it is not clear what the rules or motives are. Is he continuing to take the serum for some reason, or does he just keep switching? Is there a reason why he’s killing people, or why he is singling out prostitutes? He doesn’t seem to be doing his experiments on them or anything. And for a while it’s unclear if he knows that he’s turning into a monster or that he’s killing people. And it seems to be inconsistent. In at least one monster scene he’s clearly conscious and in control of his faculties, other times he seems to not be.

Also, I gotta say, the title is really stretching it. Just because BLACULA worked out doesn’t mean you can just replace one word or syllable in any famous horror title with “BLACK” and be proud of yourself. A NIGHTMARE ON BLACK STREET, POLTERBLACK, THE BLAXORCIST, BLACKFERATU, FRIDAY THE BLACKTEENTH? Oh well, I guess if the best alternative I can come up with is JACKSON AND HYDE I got no right to criticize.

Musically it’s fine but not one of the more impressive Johnny Pate scores. Mostly he does standard ’70s cues, not songs but little tension-building low notes and percussion and shit. But there are several parts where it turns into your classic ’70s wah wah chase music. My favorite parts are the ballad at the end and the nice soul jazz tune that’s actually really inappropriate for a montage leading up to people finding a dead hooker.

This is kind of a funny one, but not a great one. Which nobody could’ve ever predicted from a movie called DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE. Life is just crazy that way I guess.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 at 2:26 am and is filed under Action, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

24 Responses to “Johnny Pate-a-thon”

  1. Very good,I enjoyed reading and listening to this.Nice tunes mate and some I hadn’t heard before.That trailer was class too.Keep advancing……………………

  2. Haven’t heard of any of these three films. Thanks for dropping some knowledge, homey.

  3. in trying to make sense of the title to “Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde” I’m kinda wondering if the name H.Pride is supposed to kinda sound like “Hyde”. And then his alter ego is perceived to be white, so … um… maybe its a kind of crazy ironic twist that he’s called Dr. Black? Of course, that would mean that the monster was a doctor of something (Art History, I’m guessing) and that they left the doctor off of Pride’s name to differentiate them. Have not seen the movie, so maybe there are logistical reasons this theory doesn’t work. Or maybe Dr. H. Pride becomes the slightly different “Mr. Hyde” as a monster, and there’s another Dr. Black in the movie that you didn’t mention in your summery.

    Whatever the answer, I would totally watch “Blackferatu.” But you should delete those other titles, you’re giving the Wayans brothers parody ideas…

  4. I got a question about blaxploitation movies in general: who made them? I get that alot of the actors and behind the scenes people were black, but who was actually coming up with these projects, titles and putting money and cast and crew together? If it was actual black people that’s interesting to think of, seeing as how these movies have been depicted as perpetuating racial stereotypes for decades. Can anyone shed any light?

  5. I’m pretty sure it was mostly white guys but they’re hearts were in the right place in some cases. Larry Cohen being one example.

  6. Melvin Van Peebles is generally considered to have started it all with SWEET SWEETBACK’S etc. Gordon Parks directed the first two SHAFT movies and his son directed SUPERFLY. And of course DOLEMITE was created by Rudy Ray Moore and also has a black director. And although Fred Williamson was often directed by Larry Cohen he was (and still is) a prolific independent producer, always setting up projects for himself.

    But I’m not disagreeing with Andy C. I think those guys started everything but my guess is that most of the other ones that cashed in on it were white dudes. It’s an interesting question that we should look into more.

  7. A good documentry that addresses some of these questions is BAADASSSS CINEMA. It’s on dvd but I think IFC runs it now and again so keep an eye out for that. Vern I recently saw BONE directed by Larry Cohn. It dosen’t really qualify as blackspoitation but it’s an interesting film that deals with race issues. I’m pretty sure it is Yaphett Kottoss’ first screen role. I think you might like it.

  8. Its not blaxploitation, but for my money one of the best and most culturally astute of all “race” themed movies is “Nothing But a Man.” (1964) It was one of Malcolm X’s favorite films, according to wikipedia. Interestingly, both writer and director are white. I was absolutely astonished when I watched the DVD extras and saw these two old white guys talking about making the film. I actually think they made a more racially/culturally thoughtful film than a lot of black filmmakers cranking out genre pics. It’s an interesting thing to wonder about which is more empowering… actually making the films, even if they’re sort of cheapie cash-ins, or having whitey make films which address the subject of race more directly. Or, do the blaxploitation flicks address the issue just as well in less direct ways?

  9. All right, those are good answers. But it brings me to another question: what exactly is blaxploitation? Because alot of the titles people throw out there as the first, I would argue seem to have really pro-Afrocentric (I hope that’s the word) takes on the culture. The men and women may have fit a certain kind of stereotype, but they were also portrayed as heroic, proud people fighting just causes. But when I think blaxploitation, I think really racist, grimy movies that are all about sort of rubbing the audiences faces in whatever failings were percieved to exist in the black community. And the people in them were forced to play up the cartoonish, demeaning aspects of steroetypes. So one seems to exist under the label, exploitation, and the other seems to exist somewhere else on the spectrum. Just wondering.

  10. Whenever anybody asks Fred Williamson about blaxploitation, he’s always like, “Everybody got paid. How were we exploited?” But I think the term wasn’t meant to mean that the people involved were exploited, but that the filmmakers and studios were exploiting the black audience, which had just recently been discovered as a viable money-making demographic. Either way, it must have been nice to see people onscreen that in some small way reflected your life experience, even if it was done cartoonishly and didn’t necessarily reflect your culture at its best. You gotta remember, Doris Day was a big box office draw just a few years before Sweet Sweetback came out. It must have felt like an atomic cultural shift.

  11. Were blaxploitation popular at the box office? I was under the impression that most of their draw was in grindhouses, drive ins and other run down places, and that they were pretty much ignored by mainstream audiences.

  12. I heard that Shaft was originally supposed to be played by a white guy, but that changed after Sweetback’s success.

    I could be wrong.

  13. Good reviews, as always.

    You gonna review SALVATION this weekend, right?

  14. My favorite part of Bucktown is when that little kid proclaims “Hey I ain’t no pimp! I’m Walt Disney and this is Disneyland!” A golden moment.

  15. “A NIGHTMARE ON BLACK STREET, POLTERBLACK, THE BLAXORCIST, BLACKFERATU, FRIDAY THE BLACKTEENTH?”

    Sometimes They Come Black, BLACK Christmas (which BLACK in bold and underlined), Army of Blackness…

  16. Stu — alright mate, challenge accepted. Since they no longer need to be the names of monsters, that frees up some possibilities.

    all right, lets see… BLACKENSTIEN is almost too obvious. But how about a Deep Red knockoff called DEEP BLACK? Or BLACKSPERIA? THE BLACK MUMMY. EVIL HONKEY DEAD. I KNOW WHAT YOU SOUL BROTHERS AND SISTERS DID LAST SUMMER. BLACKRASIER. ABLACKNAPHOBIA. NIGHT OF THE BLACKING DEAD. THE HARLEM CHAINSAW MASSACRE. THE BLACK WITCH PROJECT. 28 DAYS BLACKER. IN THE MOUTH OF BLACKNESS.

    Or how about a Blaxploitation version of Nicholas’ Roag’s atmospheric 1973 horror film Don’t Look Now… DON’T LOOK BLACK? Or possibly DON’T BLACK NOW. Or even, BLACK LOOK NOW.

    And of course, let’s not forget the obvious possibility of “THE INVISIBLE BLACK MAN”. No offense, Ralph Ellison.

  17. Blackenstein is an actual movie. However, I prefer Night of the Jiving Dead.

  18. The Bling, Stephen King’s The Blacking, The BlackBirds, The Hound of the Blackervilles, The Blacker Man, The Black Sense (who’s the black Bruce Willis?)
    Non-horror Blacksploitation movies, starting with Bruce’s:
    Die Black, Die Blacker, Die Black With A Vengeance, Live White Or Die Black, Twelve Honkeys, 16 Blacks, Look Who’s Black/Black Too/Black Now, The Color of Night (Is Black), The Black Boy Scout, Death Becomes Black, Black Man Standing, The Black Element, Unblackable, Blacky Number Slevin
    Seagal’s resume is remarkably resistant to Blacksploitating…

  19. BlackFrankWhite

    May 23rd, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Great reviews, Vern, I can totally relate. I think you were a little too harsh on DBMH but I absolutely agree that Pam was criminally wasted in Bucktown. Didn’t see Brother on the Run yet, looks promising.
    My top ten blaxploitations:

    1) Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973)
    2) Super Fly (Gordon Parks Jr., 1972)
    3) Black Belt Jones (Robert Clouse, 1974)
    4) The Mack (Michael Campus, 1973)
    5) Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974)
    6) Detroit 9000 (Arthur Marks, 1973)
    7) Hit Man (George Armitage, 1972)
    8) Thomasine & Bushrod (Gordon Parks Jr., 1974)
    9) Black Caesar (Larry Cohen, 1973)
    10) Blakula (William Crain, 1972)

    Almost made the finish line: Dolmite movies, Shaft movies, Jim Brown movies, Brotherhood of Death, Truk Turner, Trouble Man, Willie Dynamite.

  20. keepcoolbutcare

    May 23rd, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Vern, soul-funk lover that you are, have you ever checked out Oliver Wang’s informative, crate digging blog Soul Sides?

    http://soul-sides.com/

    I mention it ‘cuz I figure you would dig it for a couple of other reasons; the first being that O.W. got me into Johnny Pate a couple years ago when he broke down two tracks that Jay-Z sampled on his (not very surprising) comeback “Kingdom Come”. The post is here, if you’re interested…

    http://soul-sides.com/2006/10/jay-z-rulers-back.html

    For those to lazy to copy and paste, Jay’s “Show ’em What You Got” sampled the awesome horns from the Afro Lafayette Band’s “Darkest Light” (hip-hop heads will recognize those horns from the Public Enemy track “Show ’em Whatcha Got”) and Johnny Pate’s “Shaft in Africa”.

    Soul Sides isn’t all (or even mostly) about digging up the samples used in current hip-hop tracks; way back in 2006, a good year before “Grindhouse” came out, O.W. posted Smith’s (absolutely fucking jaw dropping amazing) “Baby It’s You”. Now, normally, what Q.T.drops on his soundtracks is news to me, but I was, finally, ahead of his savvy musical curve when he had his smoking hot D.J. Jungle Julia cue up the track in “Death Proof” (at the bar/roadhouse where Q.T. was the bartender).

    Anyway, Soul Sides is a great blog, very informative, and unlike a lot of cats looking for hits on the intertubes, Wang doesn’t drop whole albums, merely a song or two to whet one’s interest.

    I’m pretty sure you’d dig it, that is if you don’t know of it already.

  21. I got one: The Devil’s Blackbone. Ya!

    (also Blacolytes…)

  22. Thanks everybody. BlackFrankWhite: I like most of those on your list so I’m gonna have to check out the ones I haven’t seen, like Detroit 9000. Our tastes must be pretty similar. And damn, I actually rented Thomasine and Bushrod recently but ended up not watching it for some reason.

    keepcool: I do check out Soul Sides sometimes, but not often enough. Thanks for the reminder.

    everybody else: I don’t think I’ll ever come up with a blaxploitation horror title I’ll like better than THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK BLACK LAGOON. Whenever I try to tell that to somebody they want to change it to like THE BROTHER FROM THE BLACK LAGOON or something but to me having a black version of the black lagoon is as good as it gets.

  23. A BLAFFAIR TO REMEMBLACK with Tracy Jordan

  24. I have realized that in video cameras, special receptors help to focus automatically. The actual sensors with some camcorders change in in the area of contrast, while others employ a beam involving infrared (IR) light, especially in low light. Higher specs cameras occasionally use a blend of both programs and will often have Face Priority AF where the digital camera can See some sort of face and concentrate only upon that. Thank you for sharing your notions on this weblog.

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