Friday 12 May 2023

Bucktown (1975)

Director: Arthur Marks
Writer: Bob Ellison
Stars: Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Thalmus Rasulala, Tony King, Bernie Hamilton, Art Lund, Morgan Upton, Carl Weathers, Robert Burton, Jim Bohan, Gene Simms, Bruce Watson and Tierre Turner

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s an interesting one and I’m watching for two reasons, not just because it’s the next in Pam Grier’s First Thirty but because it was one of Fred Williamson’s two Make It a Double picks, so I’ll be covering it soon from his angle.

It’s a better pick for him than it is for her, a film that gives him a good introduction then builds him far more than I expected.

It initially feels like an episode of a TV show. Everything kicks right in: the opening credits, the funky music and the action. The very first scene is cops lusting after a hooker, but they rush off to beat up a black guy at the station as a train pulls in.

Getting off that train is Duke Johnson, in Bucktown to bury his brother. And that’s the Hammer, who sees the cops but does nothing, just gets a cab to the Club Alabama. “Do you believe in God?” the cabbie asks him. “Then you’re in the wrong place.”

The club’s been closed since Ben died. Duke just wants to sell it and get out of there, but he has sixty days for the estate to close, so others start feeding him ideas. Stay. Reopen the club. What he wasn’t expecting to do was stand up to the cops, who are all white and working the local protection racket. But, because he’s the Hammer, that’s exactly what he does and we settle back for a traditional blaxploitation flick with a good cast.

Thus far, it’s all been Williamson’s show, but we meet Pam Grier at Ben’s funeral. She’s his ex, we assume, Aretha by name, and she sees Duke as “just another big city jive ass spook.” She’s the one who tells him that, while Ben did indeed get found beaten and left for dead, the cops are the ones who did it, thus affecting his decision to hang around. Of course, after she gets angry and he kisses her quiet, it’s the cops who interrupt the fun by shooting at his house and telling him to get out of town, so it isn’t exactly hard to figure out.

More names promptly arrive after Duke gets on the phone. There’s Thalmus Rasulala from Cool Breeze and Blacula. He owes Duke one and Duke tells him to “bring muscle.” Muscle turns out to mean three other dudes, all in suits and ready to be action heroes: Josh, Hambone and TJ. Hambone is notable, because he’s played by Carl Weathers, earning his first credit after a brief appearance as a demonstrator in Magnum Force. And so they’re one side of this war, with the boys in blue on the other. “We’re the law,” says the chief. “God is on our side.” He might even believe that.

Even at this point, it’s pretty clear what this movie is. It’s obviously blaxploitation and it’s obviously about a bunch of big bad black men doing what they must to take Bucktown back from a force of corrupt honky pigs. Right?

Well, right for a while, and we have a heck of a lot of fun watching how it goes down, but what brings this picture real validity is that it isn’t content to just tell that story. It also has a second story to tell that follows naturally on from the first.

You see, once Roy and his men do their job and pay off whatever debt he owed Duke, they don’t leave. That’s how this ends, right, a neat twist on the always white Hollywood western where these saviours of Bucktown ride off into the sunset on the train, full of satisfaction and ready for the next town that needs saving?

Well, not this time. They stay and they don’t just open up a club. They take over every one of the rackets the cops were running and milk the town just as efficiently. They just happen to be black instead of white. In fact, the black mayor tells Duke that it’s ten times worse than before. So what’s he going to do about it?

I can totally see why Fred chose this for his Make It a Double. It’s not remotely subtle but it has a lot to say and it flips the formula. Just as we sit back, knowing exactly what this is, it becomes something else, something that we’re not expecting. And, from initially wanting to simply get out of town, Duke has to choose his path carefully, decide whether he wants to be a real hero or not.

It’s less of a substantial role for Pam Grier. It isn’t a bad part, but it’s firmly a support role at a point where she was playing leads and doing the job really well. What makes it important is that she’s constantly of two minds and she has to bring both to life through good acting.

Some of the time she’s strong, even though it’s mostly through being confident and angry and pushing for change. However, she doesn’t take part in the actual change herself, unlike a string of her recent lead characters. She does have the balls to talk to some very bad dudes the way they deserve to be talked to and that’s a lot more than anyone else was doing before Duke arrived, but that’s it.

Much of the time she’s weak, cowering back when the violence happens, like she’s a damsel in distress. That’s weird to see after a run of The Arena, Foxy Brown and Sheba, Baby, in which she didn’t cower back from anything. If I’d watched this in isolation, not knowing who she was or what else she’d done, maybe I could have bought into that. But I didn’t and I do so it doesn’t ring remotely true. It feels like she’s just a girl and this is a man’s film, right down to the cigar that never leaves Duke’s mouth, even though he never actually lights it.

It’s the only angle that spoils this for me, as it’s otherwise much better than I expected it to be going in. I like Williamson, Rasulala and Grier and they’re all good here, with Weathers a welcome bonus. There’s also opportunity for character actors to flesh out Bucktown too.

Bernie Hamilton gets an excellent part as Harley, a tough guy who’s got old but still has some moves left. Tierre Turner gets a strong opportunity too as a street hustler of a kid by the name of Stevie. I never could figure out if he was supposed to be Ben’s, Aretha’s or both, but he’s a lot of fun any which way, building on his pivotal role as Earl in Cornbread, Earl and Me. And there’s Art Lund, as the police chief as the story begins, who brings some gravitas to a seriously slack collection of boys in blue.

I liked this a lot, but I’m interested to see if I’ll like it as much a second time through when I know what’s going to happen. A first viewing certainly benefitted from the surprises, but I have a feeling that a second might play just as well anyway.

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