Here's an ever-growing list of some of the best blaxploitation films I reviewed during Black History Month and in Unstreamable, a weekly column about films not currently streaming. Check back periodically as I'll be updating this list as I watch more. Have one to recommend? Email me.

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FRIDAY FOSTER
USA, 1975, 90 min, Dir. Arthur Marks

Pam Grier as Friday Foster in Friday Foster. Shes a Gemini, FYI.
Pam Grier as Friday Foster in Friday Foster. She's a Gemini, FYI. Courtesy of American International Pictures/MGM
By the time Pam Grier played Friday Foster in 1975, she'd already become the leading lady in the blaxploitation genre, starring in films like Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Black Mama, White Mama. Her characters were always smart, courageous, and strong. And definitely sexy. Grier acts with a sort of off-the-cuff nonchalance that makes her characters seem like women you may actually know.

In her last film with American International Pictures (the company behind some of the best films in the blaxploitation genre), Grier plays Friday Foster, a fashion photojournalist sent on an assignment to photograph the Los Angeles arrival of the richest Black man in America, Blake Tarr (Thalmus Rasulala). But Friday gets caught in the crosshairs of an assassination attempt, becoming a target herself. She teams up with a private detective Colt Hawkins (Yaphet Kotto!) to find out who exactly would want to kill Tarr, uncovering a giant conspiracy to murder America's most important Black (mostly male) leaders.

Friday is notably much less salacious than her other films (though Grier still appears nude in a couple of scenes), but is still a lot of fun to watch, especially if you're a Pam Grier fan and want to see her steal both a hearse and milk truck in the pursuit of bad guys. There are also so many cameos! Eartha Kitt plays a purring fashion designer, Carl Weathers (of Rocky fame) has hardly any lines (!!!) as an assassin hot on Friday's trail; Scatman Crothers briefly pops up as a handsy preacher; Isaac from Loveboat (real name Ted Lange) plays a pimp trying to woo Friday into working for him.

It should be noted that the film was actually based on a comic strip by writer Jim Lawrence and artist Jorge Longerón about the life of a former model-turned-fashion photographer, which ran from 1970 to 1974 on the Chicago Tribune Syndicate. It was one of the first mainstream comic strips that featured a Black main character but ended by the time this movie hit theaters (though it looks like it was revived last year). Longerón's illustrations are wonderful and you can check out a panel or two of it here.

Available for rent or purchase on Prime Video, iTunes, Netflix DVD, and Scarecrow Video
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THAT MAN BOLT
USA, 1973, 104 min, Dir. Henry Levin, David Lowell Rich
Fred Williamson kicks as all over the world in That Man Bolt.
Fred Williamson kicks as all over the world in That Man Bolt. Courtesy of Universal Pictures
While watching the first 20 minutes of That Man Bolt, I thought to myself: Is this the best movie I've ever seen? No, it is not the best movie I've ever seen, but it really had me for a second there. I think I was just mesmerized by blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson and his role as courier Jefferson Bolt, a black superspy-like character in the vein of James Bond. His karate moves! His perfectly picked out 'fro! The respect he commands as a black man in a white man's business! His immaculate condo in Macau! In the film, he's tasked with transporting a briefcase of $1 million cash from Hong Kong to Mexico City. Bolt is then thrown into a situation where hordes of dangerous men try to pry that briefcase away from him. The plot is hard to follow and strung together by little more than exciting action sequences, but what are you watching it for, anyway?

Available for rental on DVD at Scarecrow Video and Seattle Public Library.

***

TROUBLE MAN
USA, 1972, 99 min, Dir. Ivan Dixon
God, the mirror scene at the end is great.
God, the mirror scene at the end is great. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Trouble Man is a whole lot of fucking fun. No, it's not the best blaxploitation film of all time, but the soundtrack is composed by none other than Marvin Gaye himself, fresh off the success of What's Going On. It's funky as hell and one of the only albums where Gaye was given full creative control, composing the title song (which is oh so sweet) and the score. Go into it for Marvin Gaye.

In terms of plot: Robert Hooks plays Mr. T, a no-nonsense private detective who has a $10,000 car, a $600 suit, a gun in his waistband, a tricked out apartment, and ladies all over town. He's beloved by the streets of Crenshaw, too, being the go-to guy when you're having trouble with a shitty white landlord or need someone to spot you bail. Mr. T is a hero, but that doesn't stop two assholes named Chalky and Pete from trying to frame him for a murder he didn't commit so they can take down a rival crime kingpin, Big (Julius Harris). Mr. T vows revenge once he gets wind of Chalky and Pete's plot, and those guys aren't ready for the—wait for it—trouble they're about to get themselves into.

Available for rental on DVD at Scarecrow Video, Seattle Public Library, and Netflix DVD.

***

BLACULA
United States, 1972, 93 min, Dir. William Crain

Id let him bite me, TBH.
I'd let him bite me, TBH. Courtesy of MGM
Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall), the center of William Crain's 1972 blaxploitation horror film Blacula, has one of the most compelling villain origin stories I've seen.

In the late 18th century, the African prince travels from his native country to beg Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) for his help in stopping the slave trade that's ravaging his people (nevermind what Dracula is doing in the slave business). Offended by this request, the count turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, locking him up in a coffin underneath his mansion for eternity while his mortal wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) starves to death beside him. Dracula christens his creation Blacula before locking this poor couple up for centuries. All for asking for a helping hand! Capitalism and white supremacy make me sick!

The prince then ends up in modern-day Los Angeles when an antiquing gay couple buys up the inventory in Count Dracula's house, including the coffin that contains our Prince of Darkness. Mamuwalde then makes his way out, acting on a centuries-long thirst for blood while a handsome pathologist, Dr. Gordon Thomas, tracks him down. Marshall plays the prince with such Bela Lugosi-inspired gravity and dignity that he seems more awkward than menacing. It's honestly kind of cute to see him stooped over with his cape in a disco club next to shimmering girls in sequins. And he's so sweaty—do vampire have sweat glands?

Despite it clearly being filmed on a shoestring budget and essentially abandoning the promising slave trade plotline, Blacula was one of the highest-grossing films of 1972 and went on to win Best Horror Film at the very first Saturn Awards. Being one of the first representations of a black vampire, the film's success inspired a wave of blaxploitation horror films despite Blacula's lack of blood, sex, and, well, exploitation. In any case, Blacula has a lot of heart, great scenes, and compelling performances that make it an excellent late-night watch.

Available for rent or purchase on Prime Video, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes, Scarecrow Video and the Seattle Public Library.

***

BLACK CAESAR
United States, 1973, 87 min, Dir. Larry Cohen

Fred Williamson is Tommy Gibbs in Black Caesar.
Fred Williamson is Tommy Gibbs in Black Caesar. Courtesy of American International Pictures
I love watching Fred Williamson. The football player-turned-actor occupies the screen well—his natural charm, stature, and ability to wear the fuck out of a suit makes him perfect for roles in blaxploitation films like Black Caesar. The movie—adapted from 1931's Little Caesar—was originally written for Sammy Davis, Jr., who yearned for a badass starring role as opposed to being a minor player in Rat Pack films. But by the time the script by director/screenwriter Larry Cohen had been written, Davis had run into problems with the IRS and was unable to take the role. Seeing an opportunity for a Black action vehicle, American International Pictures hired Cohen to do the film with Williamson.

Assaulted as a teen by a viciously brutal white cop McKinney (Art Lund), Tommy Gibs (Williamson) turns to a life of crime, running the streets of Harlem as the head of the Black syndicate of New York mafia. He starts to set his sights too high, aggressively expanding his empire by targeting some Italian mobsters. Slowly, people become disenchanted with this fine man in a fedora hat and his successes. Things get a little Caesar-esque up in Harlem and Tommy soon has to look out for his own life as his friends and enemies begin to turn on him.

The film was a huge hit with audiences when it premiered, leading to a less-celebrated sequel, Hell Up in Harlem. There are two things to watch for in Black Caesar. The first is the score done by James Brown—it's incredible. The soundtrack is the origin of "The Boss," whose guitar and horns are sampled on several rap songs, like Nas's "Get Down." I paid the cost to be the boss, Brown croons. The second is the sequence when Tommy gets shot in Manhattan. He's trying to make his way through crowded New York streets, past theaters playing The Godfather and real people are standing gawking at the cameras as the crew had no shooting permits. In addition to some interesting camerawork, it becomes a nice little preserved slice of NYC at the time.

Available on Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, and Scarecrow Video. Also heads up, about half way through is an upsetting scene of sexual assault. And if you're interested in learning more what went on behind the scenes this interview with Larry Cohen is illuminating.

***

ABBY
USA, 1974, 89 min, Dir. William Girdler

Me when a demon possesses my body and I become sexually liberated.
Me when a demon possesses my body and I become sexually liberated. Courtesy of American International Pictures
Poignantly, I watched this while getting into my Halloween costume. I was transforming myself into a devil—kinda like what happens in Abby to Abby (Carol Speed), a marriage counselor who just wants to live a good Christian life, until an evil African spirit possesses her. The spirit was accidentally released by her archaeologist/bishop father-in-law (William Marshall who also played Blacula) during one of his expeditions in Nigeria. Still following? The Yoruba spirit-trickster makes her foam at the mouth and engage in lustful extramarital sex with random dudes. Her reverend husband, Emmett (Terry Carter), is perturbed by her behavior and calls on the aforementioned clumsy archaeologist/bishop father-in-law to perform an exorcism to free Abby of the demon spirit. Hot.

The film plays like a blaxploitation horror version of The Exorcist—so much so, that the film went out of circulation for years because Warner Bros sued Abby's production company over similarities in story. Creepy shit purportedly even happened on set like The Exorcist: whenever Speed showed up in her demon costume the generators would go out, the production set was hit by multiple tornadoes, etc. Though I'm opposed to the idea of West African religions as being inherently evil needing to be rooted out by Christ, Abby is a good forgotten gem of a horror movie. I just wish they'd let the demon have a good time!

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Available for rental on DVD at Scarecrow Video.

***

THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR
United States, 1973, 102 min, Dir. Ivan Dixon

Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) playing pool and planning a takeover of white society.
Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) playing pool and planning a takeover of white society. Courtesy of United Artists
"I can't figure you," says a member of a radical Black paramilitary group to Dan Freeman, the group's leader. "You want power or you want revenge, you know... what is it?" In his perfectly picked-out 'fro and denim suit, Freeman solemnly tells the young man, "It's simple Willy. I just want to be free."

Freedom—true liberation—is one of the central themes of Ivan Dixon's The Spook Who Sat by the Door, a clear-eyed and extremely political blaxploitation film that came out at the height of discussions around Black revolutionary power. It's kind of incredible that it got made. And if it were up to the Powers That Be, you would never have the chance to see it.

Based on Sam Greenlee's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name (who also co-wrote the screenplay), The Spook Who Sat by the Door revolves around Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), the C.I.A.'s first Black agent. He is smart and even-tempered; his old white bosses hate his intelligence and athleticism, only begrudgingly accepting him into their agency. They stick him in a windowless basement office for several years, trotting him out whenever they need to show their "progressiveness." He's a regular Uncle Tom. But the story turns once Freeman heads back to Chicago and immediately starts to organize Black people (read: men) in his neighborhood into a guerrilla group using his training from the C.I.A. He's going to overthrow whitey after all!

This was Dixon's second movie as a director after Trouble Man (which I wrote about in Unstreamable a couple of weeks ago). It was also his last. The film was independently produced and distributed by United Artists, but was quickly pulled from theaters, its prints destroyed, and negatives stored under another title. Greenlee even accused the F.B.I. of suppressing the film so that people wouldn't have a chance to see it. This suppression is a shame for many reasons, the least of which is that Cook gives an excellent performance as a level-headed revolutionary leader and could have absolutely become a star if given the opportunity.

With a quirky soundtrack by Herbie Hancock and cinematography by Michel Hugo (who also worked with Jacques Demy on Model Shop), there's a stylishness and clarity of vision to the movie that I find missing in other blaxploitation cuts. While it's uneven in parts (especially in its treatment of women), Spook clearly enunciates the problems facing Black people in America at the time, making it obvious to the viewer why organized revolt is more necessary than "Uncle Tom-ing" our way into power. Freedom is not given, but taken, after all.

Available for rental at Scarecrow Video.

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