“This film is one I refused not to make.” –Jamaa Fanaka
STREET WARS is a 1992 movie about drug gangs, with a rap soundtrack, but it feels more like blaxploitation than BOYZ N THE HOOD. That’s because it’s, as the credits say, “A Jamaa Fanaka Picture Show.” That’s the director best known for the PENITENTIARY trilogy, but before that he did some weird blaxploitation movies like the killer dick picture SOUL VENGEANCE, aka WELCOME HOME, BROTHER CHARLES. So here he kinda takes the themes of SUPER FLY and stirs them into early ’90s black culture with some of his own weird seasonings.
It definitely falls into the outsider art type category. The awkward home-made filmatism combines with some truly strange ideas to create a surreal experience, a movie that transcends competence. The climax really doesn’t work as action or drama, but it’s so weird I forgave it. The shootouts are always confusing but enthusiastic. There are guns that blow soccer ball sized holes in the sides of cars, and send victims flying through the air looking suspiciously like dummies being sloppily tossed from off screen.
Our deep-voiced narrator, Sugar Pop (Alan Joseph, COME HELL OR HIGHWATER), is the younger brother of Frank (Bryan O’Dell, YOUNGBLOOD). Frank has a club (Frank’s), rides around in a limo, and pays for Sugar Pop’s education at Exeter Military Academy, but he funds all this by running the local crack industry. He has a crackhouse called “The Regal Social Club” that has a drive thru window, jail cells inside, a chicken wandering around, and posted daily specials. He has a bodyguard named Humungus (Clifford Shegog, a Klingon in STAR TREK VI) who always wears a graduation tassel as an earring. He’s also part of an African-hat-wearing secret council called The Knights of the Round Table. They sit at a long rectangular table, which in my opinion misses the symbolic meaning of the Round Table, but maybe their usual meeting place was booked up and this is not their regular table. I can’t be sure.
When Sugar Pop graduates as the Top Gun at Exeter and comes home for the summer before attending West Point, he stands out in the neighborhood. For one thing he rides a scooter that he rigged with a fire-spewing jet engine as a project in Pragmatics class. He’s torn between wanting to be part of his brother’s crime empire and having opportunities to be legit. When Frank is killed and he inherits everything (including Humungus as his right hand man) he tries to do both.
The movie seems a little torn between lamenting the tragic conditions of the neighborhood and celebrating the image of the cool crack kingpin. It references systemic reasons for the problems in the neighborhood – lack of employment and education – things that Sugar Pop doesn’t have to worry about. When he goes to war with the other gangs he’s treated as a folk hero by the neighborhood, even though it seems like he’s just eliminating the competition. But at the end we’re told he closes down all the crackhouses and goes legit, and we have to take their word for it.
There are tons of odd touches that make this interesting. There’s the trans woman who’s one of the top guys in the gang, accepted by all the other characters and never made fun of. There’s the black news teams who report sympathetically about the crack dealers, broadcast live from Frank’s funeral and claim that “not one innocent person was killed” in Sugar Pop’s neighborhood war. But they don’t seem to get upset when a police captain being interviewed refers to the locals as “a bunch of animals killing each other off, and good riddance.”
This is a movie where a funeral is not just an important part of the plot, it’s an excuse for a musical number. There’s a gospel choir and choreographed dance number in front of minimalist backgrounds.
The soundtrack is full of songs from rappers I never heard of, but working in the quasi-political style of the time. Some of them even perform at parties or over the credits. There’s a group who wear hats and coats like N.W.A but over sequin shirts. One of the guys is named Ice Boxx.
Also in keeping with the times, a crazy cameo: Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammed, playing himself, attends the funeral and does his the-honorable-Elijah-Muhammad spiel, telling a reporter his thoughts about Frank as if he’s a real guy. At the time Muhammad was the assistant to Louis Farrakhan, but a year after this he was removed because of a speech that was “roundly denounced as cruelly abusive of whites, Jews, Catholics, some black leaders and homosexuals” as the New York Times put it. He then became the chairman of The New Black Panther Party (which is not related to the original Black Panther Party, and mainly seems to exist to be cartoon villains for Fox News).
There’s a pretty amazing love scene: Frank and Humungus have sex with their ladies in different rooms of the same house, while a song called “I Wanna Sex You Down” is playing. Also it keeps cutting to a kid playing a drum solo. Humungus actually lifts his girlfriend onto his head and pleasures her as he carries her up the stairs. A very advanced move.
But the most unusual thing about the movie is Sugar Pop’s ultimate plan: training his lieutenants to fly ultralights and shoot their enemies with uzis, a “ghetto air force” as the news calls it.
“Looks like fun to me!” says Sugar Pop’s paraplegic buddy. “Up there I don’t need no legs!”
It’s weird that this movie actually has a vague connection to the recently-re-reviewed-by-me RED TAILS. I even found an interview where Fanaka said he wanted to pay tribute to the WWII dogfight movies he grew up on. He also had been in the Air Force for four years, so there may be a little autobiography there. Unfortunately the ultralight footage they were able to shoot is pretty limited, and they didn’t have Industrial Light and Magic to do the dogfights.
Adding to the weird feel of the movie, the whole thing appears to be dubbed. For a while I was convinced that Joseph wasn’t even the voice we were hearing. With his haunting blue eyes he looks kinda like a model, the deep voice seemed liked wishful thinking. But then I found an interview with him, and he does have that voice. I guess it’s just mixed poorly. I read that Fanaka had a lawsuit against the distributors for accidentally releasing an unfinished version “with inferior sound and other technical problems inherent in a work-in-progress print.” They claimed it was too late to fix and ended up releasing the same version on video.
This is a strange and mysterious movie. It seems simultaneously very of its time and completely out of touch with it. I guess come to think of it this was an era when there was some nostalgia for blaxploitation. Rappers were becoming superstars and they were talking up the blaxploitation they grew up on sort of the way nerd stars now would talk about BACK TO THE FUTURE or GOONIES or some shit. In 1990 there had been THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY, with a soundtrack teaming Curtis Mayfield with Ice-T and stuff. This is a less calculated, more sincere melding of the two generations, and though Fanaka seems to think it got screwed, it’s hard to imagine any release of it doing even as well as the SUPERFLY one.
I was curious about what happened to Joseph after playing Sugar Pop. He changed his name to Alan Wone to be more distinct, but he only has a couple other credits, all of them many years later. I found his Youtube Channel and an hour long 2011 interview on his psychiatrist’s public access show.
He only mentions acting in the last ten minutes. I also found references to him now being “a hip hop poet” and one biography mentions that “He branded a creative writing style that he developed as curriculum for teenagers called ‘Philosofloetry.'” I wonder if his students know about STREET WARS? Do they think it makes him even cooler, or do they give him shit about it?
Ken Steadman, who played Sugar Pop’s white friend Jerome, grew up in Aberdeen, Washington at the same time as Kurt Cobain (he was two years younger). But he also died tragically at the age of 27 while filming a role on Sliders.
Before the end credits on STREET WARS there’s “A torrid salute to African-American filmmakers, the watershed 91/19s.” It’s hard to read, maybe the number part is wrong because I’m not sure what it would mean. Anyway, he shares a list of 20 directors next to the titles of one of their movies, the last one being Jamaa Fanaka – STREET WARS. It’s mostly people we remember like Spike Lee and John Singleton, but there were a couple I didn’t know:
Topper Carew – TALKIN’ DIRTY AFTER DARK
Dr. Roland Jefferson – PERFUME
Romell Foster-Owens – THE THREE MUSCATELS
Obviously Fanaka cared deeply about black film. A graduate of UCLA Film School a few years after Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Schrader, he actually made EMMA MAE, WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES and PENITENTIARY all while he was still in school. He was part of “The L.A. Rebellion,” a generation of black filmmakers including Charles Burnett, Julie Dash and Haile Gerima, but was considered to be less political and anti-Hollywood than the others.
Of course that’s arguable. He was very political, he just liked to mix his themes with lurid and outrageous subject matter. Twenty years after STREET WARS he died from complications of diabetes, having failed to get another movie off the ground. He’d been working on a documentary “about the hope that hip hop engenders in the youth” and a script for PENITENTIARY 4, but he felt he’d been blacklisted “for suing Hollywood.”
You see, after founding the African-American Steering Committee for the Director’s Guild, Fanaka discovered a clause in the collective bargaining agreement requiring producers to try to increase the number of women and minority directors hired each year. Since the percentages had actually been going down for years, he filed a class action lawsuit against the DGA to get them to enforce it. He eventually lost on appeal, but felt the pressure of the suit had forced them to try to make changes. Of course, it wasn’t going to get him hired!
That’s okay. He got other people hired. And he made STREET WARS!