Johnnie Mae Gibson: F.B.I.

(a.k.a. JOHNNIE GIBSON F.B.I. if you go by the VHS tape)

JOHNNIE MAE GIBSON: FBI is a TV movie directed by Bill Duke. It aired on CBS in October of 1986 against a World Series game. I found a New York Times review from the time lamenting that it was routine TV formula. Accurate, but thirtysome years later the routine TV formula of 1986 has a certain retro appeal.

It’s a premature biopic of a respected FBI agent (Lynn Whitfield, JAWS: THE REVENGE) who was still on active duty at the time. Only the fifth ever African-American female agent at the bureau, she was known for extreme cool under pressure in undercover assignments and a high arrest record, many from “old dog” cold cases they dumped off on her.

We see her rise from a childhood in rural Georgia, poor family, sick mother (Veronica Redd, The Young and the Restless), mean father (Henry G. Sanders, REBEL, CHILD’S PLAY 3, ROCKY BALBOA). One scene involves a white family offering them a Thanksgiving turkey, her father refusing it, and her getting it anyway and surprising the family with it. her dad throws a fit and knocks it onto the floor. So much is established in this scene: Johnnie’s fearlessness and insistence on doing her own thing, her lifetime of dealing with angry men, but also her dad’s attempt to instill self-reliance into her, and the idea that her willingness to engage with white people makes her an outlier.

She makes it to college and in the span of a few edits she’s introduced to a burly, handsome dude named Marvin (William Allen Young, FREEDOM ROAD, LOCK UP, DISTRICT 9), marries him, has a daughter named Tiffany (Mia Simon). This rapid, surface level rocketing through life events is also criticized in that review I mentioned, but again, it’s kinda fun in this type of movie. Spending the time to really understand her husband and their relationship and what their kid is like as a human being is one way to go. Acknowledging that this is a biographical summary just needed to set up who she will be later in life is another. Duke and screenwriter James G. Hirsch (one episode of The Incredible Hulk, two episodes of Starman) go for the second one.

Uh… is that a really weird picture of Lynn Whitfield, or is that NOT a picture of Lynn Whitfield?

Marriage is bliss until the not very credible scene when she puts on a police uniform to surprise Marvin with the information that this is her new job. It’s hard to believe this came out of the blue and that she didn’t know he’d be upset about it. His objection is part disillusionment with the system (“You’re a black woman, you can’t be a police officer!”), part chauvinism (he wants her to stay home).

And if he acts this way about becoming a cop just wait until she decides to go off to Quantico and become an FBI agent and then go live in Miami and go undercover to bust an ex-NFL star Adam Prentice (Richard Lawson, THE JERICHO MILE, STREETS OF FIRE) involved in smuggling machine guns.

As far as the danger and shit goes she can handle herself pretty good. Whatever institutional prejudices there may be go out the window when they need a black woman undercover, and when it comes up she’s ready to deliver. She’s convincing in character, she thinks fast, she can knock a gun out of a hand. But the relationships are hard. She has to pretend to be dating her partner T.C. (Howard E. Rollins Jr., Virgil Tibbs on the In the Heat of the Night TV series) and it’s weird. He seems to be attracted to her but brings her to meet his wife and kids, which she finds insulting. Then she also has to pretend to be into Adam, who thinks he’s trying to take her away from T.C., and she obviously does like him and he seems to be more noble than the other criminals. So some of her cohorts question her loyalties, which pisses her off because she’s gonna bust him no matter what. (But feel bad about it.) I like the way SPOILER he just stares at her when he finds out the truth. He’s heartbroken, but he doesn’t scream at her like they usually do in these stories. I think he’s kind of impressed by her.

Meanwhile Marvin brings Tiffany to visit occasionally and he’s always pissy when he sees her, but he does have kind of a point since they’re supposed to be married and she pretty much abandoned him for work and rarely sees her own daughter.

So it’s a complicated personal life. Luckily she does maintain a friendship with her roommate from FBI school, Ginny Talbot (Marta DuBois, Tales of the Gold Monkey), who taught her to put on makeup (she grew up a tomboy) and also to persevere through training (some big dude beat her up pretty bad in martial arts class because he didn’t think women belonged in the bureau – I’m surprised that dude never reappeared to get his comeuppance). It’s always a relief when Ginny is there to give her some camaraderie and drink wine and stuff.

It deals at least superficially with the difficulty of being accepted as a woman in law enforcement. It deals a little less with the challenges of being in the FBI when you’re from a community that often doesn’t trust them and knows they spied on Martin Luther King and shit. She does have to struggle with the idea of busting this guy who is seen as a pillar of the community and for the most part is very honorable. But she realizes that if this weapons deal goes down those machine guns will be used to kill people. And she’s very clear that that’s something she wants to stop. The real Johnnie spent much of her later career working to recruit more minorities in the bureau, and I’m sure she saw this TV movie as another way of doing that. Obviously she didn’t see it as selling out to the system like her husband seemed to in the movie, but as trying to make the system more representative of the people.

I wonder what the real Marvin thought of his portrayal, though? From what I’ve read I think she stayed with him, but he seems like a real drag in the movie.

The score by Billy Goldenberg (SCAVENGER HUNT) is kind of jazzy, a little on the smooth side, but just groovy enough to be kind of good. But this is not a very cinematic TV movie. It looks like there is a cheap DVD of it, but it felt right to be renting it on VHS. It has the stiff kind of ’80s action show action, and it definitely doesn’t have that Michael Mann type of attempt at style or authenticity. A big FBI raid is, like, a bunch of sixty year old guys wearing suits and ties, hiding behind a crate holding guns, talking on walkie talkies while criminals meet on a dock. Maybe part of why I found it compelling anyway is that you don’t see too many stories like this that centralize a black woman, and Whitfield makes a good lead. She would go on to appear in many other true stories: THE GEORGE MCKENNA STORY, A TRIUMPH OF THE HEART: THE RICKY BELL STORY, THICKER THAN BLOOD: THE LARRY MCLINDEN STORY, REDEMPTION: THE STAN TOOKIE WILLIAMS STORY. But the only ones where she’s the one whose story it is are THE JOSEPHINE BAKER STORY and DANGEROUS EVIDENCE: THE LORI JACKSON STORY, and I doubt she gets to wrestle anybody in either of those.

Duke would later become well known for playing agents and detectives and chiefs, but he does not appear in front of the camera here. At this point he’d acted in a bunch of TV, plus AMERICAN GIGOLO, and he was smack between two iconic Schwarzenegger pictures, COMMANDO (1985) and PREDATOR (1987). As a director he’d been doing TV episodes for several years (Falcon Crest, Dallas, Cagney & Lacey, Hunter, Hill Street Blues, Fame, etc.) Five years later he’d cash in all that journeyman experience to direct A RAGE IN HARLEM and then DEEP COVER.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 26th, 2018 at 12:48 pm and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Johnnie Mae Gibson: F.B.I.”

  1. Great review Vern. I am digging these “zero external reviews on IMDB” series of reviews you have done recently.

    I have been meaning to recommend DEMON WIND to you. It is super fun and features some really enjoyable gore and practicle effects, and more crazy WTF moments than I can count. Including a supporting role by MMA commentator and fight coerographer “the fight professor” Stephen Qudrous as a bad ass martial artist/magician who does magic tricks and uses martial arts to combat demons. I don’t think it has had a DVD release and has only recently been remastered and released on Blu-Ray, but is now availible streaming on Amazon Prime and the transfer looks to be from the recent Vinegar Syndrome Blu release. I could hard sell it by sharing some of the other memorable bits, but I don’t want to spoil anything.

  2. To this day, I am unable to differentiate between Bill Duke, Bill Pope, and Dick Pope, and have to look them all up every time I find a mention of any of them.

  3. I’ve never heard of this movie and likely will never hear of it again after Vern’s review falls off of the front page, but: (a) I feel sorry for it sitting here with two measly comments; and (2) I want Vern to know that his review is appreciated.

    There are many reasons I like to read the reviews and other content here, but Vern’s willingness to go the extra (twenty) mile(s) and review some of the most obscure things out there is certainly one of those reasons. So, thanks, Vern.

  4. I was actually writing a comment yesterday, but then decided to cut down on the “I haven’t seen it, but here is something more or less completely unrelated or a silly joke that only amuses me” comments. But I 100% agree on Johnny’s sentiments about those reviews of obscure movies, that pop up on here all the time.

  5. I saw Bill Duke first in COMMANDO, of course. But then I started noticing him as a director on things like CRIME STORY and MIAMI VICE. And he made some kickass episodes. He’s cool in PREDATOR too, but I like him the most as David Carradine’s partner in BIRD ON A WIRE. The banter between them…

  6. Thanks guys. I’m obviously addicted to watching and writing about these random things nobody ever heard of, but the understandable lack of discussion does sometimes make me fear that I’m wasting everybody’s time. It’s very good to hear that some people like seeing reviews like this.

  7. Being told about movies that one might has never heard of before, is IMO never a waste of time.

    It’s btw always fun to see people’s reaction when you point at Bill Duke whenever he shows up in a movie or TV show and drop the fun fact that he directed SISTER ACT (with legendary German TV host Thomas Gottschalk in a supporting role).

  8. Vern, not only do I enjoy your writings on these obscure movies, but I really appreciate you highliting lesser known films that are rarely if ever talked about and you are putting in the work and time digging in the crates looking for that rare gem. You are like Indiana Jones on a quest for lost cinamatic treasure.

  9. Careful, I have dibs on the term “Movie Archeology”!

  10. CJ, in the 80s Gottschalk ruled music TV here in Scandinavia with his live show TOMMY’S POP SHOW. I still have some of them on VHS.

  11. You know what I really like? The price.

    *drives away*

  12. Ha, didn’t know that about Gottschalk and Scandinavia.

  13. I do not think you are waisting you are time. You’ve convinced me to track down some. I will definitely be watching that Tonya Harding TV Movie you reviewed a few weeks back. There are a few others on my watchlist that are there solely because of what you wrote about them.

    Most importantly if you had not reviewed I AM NANCY I may never have heard of it and if I did I probably would have been a bad fan and not bothered with it, but after your review I went to her sight and ordered a copy and watched it the other day and fell in love with that doc. It legitimately is making me rethink how I take in certain art. I can thank you for spreading the word.

  14. I think the worst thing is when you read a review and you respond with a great post about the review and then you’re the only one who commented. lol

  15. Ive often thought that you really come into your own during these reviews of the lesser popular films. I expect you to say something smart and thoughtful about something like Phantom Thread but its when you blindside me with a particularly thoughtful analysis about an obscure B movie that most other critics would snidely dismiss as people punching each other for 80 minutes that I realise why you’re one of my favourite living writers today. My failure to comment is more due to the fact that I normally have nothing interesting to add rather than you having nothing interesting to say. So keep up the good work, its meant a lot to me.

  16. The net is full of opinions about new movies. Opinions we know will change given enough time. That’s why it’s more interesting to read about older movies. Keep it up!

  17. I often skip the reviews of newer films unless I have seen them because I want to avoid any possible spoilers and so I can see the film uninfluenced without preconceived opinions or observations that could alter my experience with the film.

  18. I also want to say that Charles is absolutely right, Vern desperately needs to review DEMON WIND. It’s the WTF 1980’s creature-feature goldmine you’ve been dreaming of. But I bet it has at least a few external IMDB reviews.

  19. The other thing to remember is that the comments are always a fraction (and usually a small fraction) of the total number of views for a page/review. I’m sure people are looking up and even buying to view (physical media or streaming) or getting a copy from the library where possible things they otherwise would not have heard of without the review.

  20. Yeah Vern, I rarely comment but that doesn’t mean your reviews are a waste of time. They’re always interesting.

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