Monday 15 May 2023

Friday Foster (1975)

Director: Arthur Marks
Writer: Orville H. Hampton, based on a story by Arthur Marks, based in turn on the comic strip character created by Jim Lawrence
Stars: Pam Grier, Yaphet Kotto, Godfrey Cambridge, Thalmus Rasulula, Eartha Kitt and Jim Backups

Index: The First Thirty.

This might look like yet another Pam Grier-led kick ass blaxploitation flick, but it’s a little different from Coffy and Foxy Brown and all the copycats that sprang up in their wake. In fact, it doesn’t feel like a black movie at all, even if most of its cast happen to be black. If casting had gone for white actors instead, it wouldn’t feel fundamentally different and that couldn’t be said for any of Grier’s earlier blaxploitation pictures. They all felt black, not colourblind.

Initially, this one feels like it’s a newspaper story with a plucky young photographer (who used to be a model) taking on a big story. It’s a throwback to Torchy Blane in the thirties, but with a black actress in the lead.

She’s Friday Foster, of course, and she works for Glance, “the picture magazine”. Her boss, Monk Riley, in the form of Julius Harris from Live and Let Die, calls her on New Year’s Eve to handle a big job because he can’t reach his star reporter, Shawn North, and Blake Tarr is back in town and that’s a big deal because he’s the “black Howard Hughes”.

So, she’ll have to do the job. Get down to the airport, shoot your pictures, get out. He’s very careful with instructions. Don’t. Get. Involved. What he doesn’t expect is for Carl Weathers and his buddies to attempt an assassination as Tarr gets off his private plane and Friday to be right in the middle of it, snapping pictures like there’s no tomorrow. What she doesn’t expect is to recognise Weathers when the photos are developed. This is journalistic gold.

Now, while she doesn’t realise yet why she recognises him (and, no, this isn’t a sequel to Bucktown, even if all three of these actors were in that movie earlier the same year), we know because the moment Friday got off the phone with her boss, her friend Cloris Boston rang to ask for help. It’s a matter of life and death, she says, but Foster’s off to the airport. When she calls from the darkroom the next day, Cloris has changed her tune. Don’t come over, she reiterates. Take a wild stab as to why.

Unlike Coffy, Foxy Brown, Sheba Shayne et al, Friday Foster isn’t an original character who was created for this film. This is a comic strip movie, of all things, based on a character who appeared in newspapers that were part of the Chicago Tribune syndicate. She debuted in 1970 and ran to 1974, so was done at this point in time. She wasn’t the first African American character to have her own comic strip, but she was one of them and she had a massive reach.

While Friday Foster was a soap opera strip in which an assistant photographer/supermodel travels to exotic places, this adaptation throws her into something more because it gradually shifts from that plucky newspaper yarn into a fully fledged seventies thriller.

And that’s how it proceeds, with all the best and worst aspects of the movie tying to a very complex plot. Initially, the question everyone is asking is “Who?” Who tried to murder Blake Tarr in cold blood? Sure, we know it was Carl Weathers, playing Cloris’s boyfriend Yarbro, a far more prominent role than the one he had in Bucktown, but who else is he?

That question takes up much of the picture, with Friday following the story to the fashion show by Madame Rena that she happens to be photographing, to Cloris’s funeral—like you’re not expecting that—and eventually all the way to Washington, DC to mix it up with senators and preachers and whoever else.

Eventually, of course, we start to wonder if there’s a more important question that should be asked, namely “Why?” And that’s when the film deepens far more effectively than by just confusing us for an hour with delicate strands of plot whisking this way and that for Friday to clutch at.

It’s an interesting role for Pam Grier. She’s a go getter but in a very different way to usual. She has pluck and moxie and all the other out of date terms to describe the journalists of the thirties who led so many Hollywood movies. However, she’s also a more grown up version of those characters who were inherently held back by the Production Code. She has a habit of sleeping with suspects that parallels James Bond, for a start, but it’s still always about her, even if her bed partners happen to be senators or billionaires.

Once the plucky journalist becomes the lead in a thriller, she gains a sidekick in the capable form of Yaphet Kotto, as Colt Hawkins, such a glorious detective name. He was born for this sort of role, whether as sidekick or lead, but he had a far more varied career in blaxploitation. He’d be back for Grier’s next film, Drum, and a TV movie down the road, Badge of the Assassin.

Other notables include Thalmus Rasulala for the third time, after Cool Breeze and Bucktown, as the very confident billionaire, Blake Tarr; a return for Tierre Turner from Bucktown as her younger brother; and a host of others in tasty character acting spots.

Eartha Kitt plays Madame Rena delightfully as a haughty fashion designer who knows she can get away with anything; her show is called The Four Seasons of Sex. Godfrey Cambridge has an absolute blast as Ford Malotte, living it up in a gay bar in DC surrounded by muscle men in maid outfits. He plays Malotte rather like a black Tim Curry, who had debuted in The Rocky Horror Picture Show a mere four months earlier. Best of all is Scatman Crothers, as Revd. Noble Franklin, who isn’t very noble at all, merely a dirty old man in a priest’s outfit who invites Friday to his “retreat” called Jericho.

I liked this film but, unlike almost any other movie ever, I wanted less detail in the plot and more showcase for the characters. What loses us is how convoluted it all is, so complex that we lose the ability to care. What keeps us is an abundance of moments, like Cloris’s death on the runway or the most seventies black man in the history of cinema attempting to run Friday over but driving into a transformer instead.

I’ll also highlight the music. The score is by Luchi de Jesus, who I believe started as Louis de Jesus and was on the A&R staff at Mercury Records a decade prior before moving into TV and film work. She composed the scores for Slaughter, Lady Cocoa and Black Belt Jones, and delivered a highly ominous thriller score here with a funky blaxploitation twist.

This could have started a series but lost its way and ended up as just a fun standalone.

No comments: