Sunday 20 December 2009

Darktown Strutters (1975)

Director: William Witney
Stars: Trina Parks and Roger E Mosley
'Any similarity between this true life adventure and the story Cinderella is bullshit,' apparently, and I wonder why the filmmakers felt they had to tell us that right at the beginning of this picture. Cinderella certainly doesn't leap immediately to mind otherwise, given that I don't remember Cinderella being a black Bond girl who rides an awesome three wheeler, wears a heavily bespangled winged helmet and eats diet lemon meringue pie. It turns out that she's actually Syreena, the leader of the Darktown Strutters, a female biker gang who don't do any female biker gang stuff and Cinderella is her mother who has gone missing along with many other prominent black folks in town. This actual story does crop up at points within this highly stylised mess of a picture, but not too often. Mostly story just seems to get in the way.

When I first saw Darktown Strutters, as part of a Midnite Movie Mamacita double bill at Chandler Cinemas a couple of years ago, I didn't understand what it was trying to do. I expected a blaxploitation flick and while it's an exploitation film full of black actors, it's certainly not blaxploitation. Only now, viewing again courtesy of TCM Underground, do I realise what it is: it's a Frankie and Annette beach movie, merely a decade later and translated into black culture by New World Pictures, produced by Roger Corman's elder brother Gene. The humour is the same, it's merely the subject matter that's different because the heritage is different, so instead of surfing, rock 'n' roll and the dating process, it's about the Klan, fried chicken and cotton picking. It's about as offensive as it could be to black people but apparently that's OK because it's mostly black people making the thing. It's just as offensive to white folks too though, so it's all in the point of view.

For instance, the first black characters we see are the Darktown Strutters, stereotypical strong blaxploitation women in their bright jumpsuits, spangles and feathers, on their way to the Sky Hog, a rib place that promises a free watermelon with every bucket. The first white characters we meet are the local police squad, so stereotypically dumb that they rival the Keystone Kops. The Man is so in the face of the blacks in this film that the squad car has one huge light on top like a giant zit. One cop wears bandoliers like Chewbacca and another is so fat that he can't get out of the car. Sure enough when the two sides meet we get a sped up slapstick fight complete with a pie for every face. We haven't even seen the station yet, where the cops have a Ghetto Alert Map with a flashing Nigger Alarm.

Our four black heroines soon hook up with four black heroes, who each have their own touch of the extreme just to emphasise how insane this story is. Raunchy has a huge afro, Wired has a starched collar that's bigger than his head and VD has diseases that need washing off after anyone touches him. Their leader, Mellow, played by Roger Mosley from Magnum, PI, is just a powerfully muscled sex machine who's totally outclassed by the girls, utterly failing to get Syreena in the sack and even losing to her at arm wrestling. He loses to her at a road race too but then she's driving her awesome three wheeler and he's on what looks like an underpowered motor scooter.

This takes us past that cop car again which is being cleaned by a large crew of uniformed black men at the car wash, men that soon get arrested. When we see them in their cells down at the station one has been hanged and one has a gorilla head on, though both are alive and just relaxing in ways that apparently feel natural to them. Did I mention this film wasn't subtle in the slightest? You just can't imagine. I haven't even described the real bad guys yet, because the cops aren't bad they're just drawn that way and playing out the stereotype they've been given. The real bad guys are the Ku Klux Klan, who are behind all the kidnappings and even run the Sky Hog restaurant.

Their leader is Commander Louisville Cross, played by Norman Bartold in a part that must have been hard to cast because who would want to play this? He runs the Louisville Cross Foundation, a charitable organisation dedicated to the welfare and furtherment of black people. Apparently it does this by making them work as cotton pickers on the front lawn or as maids in the house while the Klan members ride around in full uniform on motorcycles with crosses on the back. Somehow, however, nobody ever connected the two, so Cross, who looks like the KFC colonel can dress up in his pig costume and run his diabolical experiments in peace without even a slight fear of being rumbled. Then again most of the black folks in this film are idiots and the white folks are so dumb that 'idiots' would be an unfair compliment, so it's understandable, I guess.

And on runs the thing to its inevitable conclusion. When viewing as a blaxploitation flick this was a curiosity, a magnetic string of insanity that kept us watching through sheer amazement. Watching as a beach movie though it makes sense, in that twisted way that Frankie and Annette movies made sense, and it becomes boring. Trina Parks, whose only credit before this was as Thumper in the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever, is fine in the lead even though she's really playing Frankie Avalon's part and Roger Mosley takes Annette Funicello's. His character is as annoying as Annette's always were, which may be appropriate but doesn't help the film.

The supporting black characters are as pointless as the supporting surfers in beach movies. The other Darktown Strutters are Carmen, Miranda and Theda but none of them do anything. Mellow's gang are a little more actively annoying. There are a number of other black supporting roles, but most go to the token musical groups who get to sing their songs at us from strange locations like the underground jail at the Cross Foundation. The only one who could have been remotely interesting is Gene Simms as Syreena's brother Flash, but his role goes precisely nowhere. Flash has taken up kung fu so when Syreena goes to see him he meets her by leaping out of the window and gets back into his house by running through the door. By the time they leave again the whole front of the place is destroyed. But for some reason, that's it for Flash.

On the white side, it's even worse. The cops include Dick Miller among their number but that isn't enough to help. I wasn't offended by all the political incorrectness, given how it's liberally splashed onto the screen with equal opportunity for all, but I was offended by how a man of Miller's talents could be wasted in a role like that. Outside of Mrs Parasol, who's only in the film to play a couple of gags off, all the other white folks are either hillbillies working at the Sky Hog or Klan members working for Cross. It's hard to find a character in this film that's actually worth anything and really Syreena is about it. At least she's in almost all the film so gets plenty of opportunity to strut her stuff.

And yeah, that's a terrible pun but it's funnier than almost anything in this film. I think the high point was when Flash explains to Syreena about her mother. He reported her missing but got arrested for filing a missing persons report when they couldn't find her. When that's the funniest thing in a comedy you know you're in for a rough ride.

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