Thursday 25 May 2023

Greased Lightning (1977)

Director: Michael Schultz
Writers: Kenneth Vose & Lawrence DuKore and Melvin Van Peebles and Leon Capetanos
Stars: Richard Pryor, Beau Bridges, Pam Grier, Cleavon Little, Vincent Gardenia, Richie Havens and Julian Bond

Index: The First Thirty.

Continuing her shift away from exploitation pictures, here’s something that’s a biopic just a little before it’s an action movie, albeit still with a focus on African Americans in America.

The subject is Wendell Scott, who became a stock car driver at a time when NASCAR was whites only. He drove in the Dixie Circuit, as the token black driver to draw black fans, with prejudiced drivers deliberately wrecking him as often as they could. He went on to become the first black driver to race and win at every level in NASCAR, eventually doing the same as a team owner.

He had a fascinating and action-filled life, a description that’s both accurate and too happy to gloss over the fact that much of that action was due to systematic racial discrimination. It was an obvious candidate to adapt to the big screen and the studio that did so was Warner Bros., who cast comedian Richard Pryor as the lead and tellingly gifted the project to a black director, Michael Schultz, and a set of writers who included Melvin van Peebles, who had set the blaxploitation genre into motion with his indie film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song six years earlier.

As tended to be the case with Hollywood, it turns out to be a loose adaptation of the truth, but not to play down the racial aspects, only to simplify them a little. And, while this is tame for Pryor, whose comedy routines were highly adult, it starts out as it means to go on with a boy who’s born to race. The first thing we see is a bunch of white kids challenging him to a bicycle race in the street. He wins and he does it by jumping some sort of roadwork that the rest don’t dare try. “You’re one crazy nigger,” says the leader of the white kids. I think it’s a form of respect.

Fast forward and he’s grown into Pryor who returns to Danville, Virginia from the Second World War. His friends are waiting at his home to party, including two very recognisable faces in Cleavon Little and Pam Grier. The former is his best friend Peewee and the latter becomes his girlfriend, Mary Jones.

We skip along like, well, greased lightning, a set of key moments putting wheels in motion. Wendell’s planning to open a garage but tells Mary’s dad that he wanted to be a champion race car driver. He laughs but Wendell doesn’t.

Blink! He’s a taxi driver who tears around a race track in his checkered cab. Blink! They’re married. Blink! The little he makes as a cabbie goes it into a jar for the garage. Blink! Mary’s pregnant. Blink!

There’s a great scene here in which Wendell chases after a bootlegger, even though he still has a fare in the cab, and effectively gives his job interview at high speed. Turns out Peewee works for them already, so he has an in. He’s very nervous around rednecks with shotguns, but that’s understandable. However, while the cops interrupt the operation, he gets $65 out of it. That’s a heck of a lot more than the $2.75 he earned from a full day driving a cab.

Suddenly, we’re in The Dukes of Hazzard. The cash adds up, but the cops haven’t caught him in, blink!, three years of trying. They’ve killed a bunch of vehicles but only nabbed a handful of bootleg whiskey bottles. Blink! Five years in and the Scotts have two kids.

It’s when they finally catch him that things truly kick off. Sheriff Cotton’s over the moon but Billy Joe Byrnes gives Wendell an offer he can’t refuse: race on his speedway and Cotton will drop most of the charges. All he has to do is make it round six laps of the track.

The fact that white drivers literally bounce him off that track doesn’t help his odds but he drives back on again and crosses the line. He’s not a race car driver, not really—he’s just bait—but the experience underlines why he feels that he has to make it and he gradually builds himself a team.

He finds a mechanic in Woodrow, played by Richie Havens. He finds a white driver friend in Hutch, played by Beau Bridges. And he has enough support built in the crowd to persuade officials who overtly cheat him out of a major win because of his colour into settling it, even if it’s quietly after everyone’s gone home.

And so we go. The spirit of the truth is here if not many of the particular details of it and we get to watch Wendell’s gradual rise. It’s an oddly lighthearted film, though, for something so clearly about race, even the specific scenes that go there, like when he wins a steak dinner for two at a “whites only” restaurant, but goes anyway with Hutch.

Frankly, these scenes are lot better than the ones we see on the track. He builds a rivalry with Beau Welles, and drives plenty of laps in the final race with a wheel that’s threatening to fall off because he left the pits too quickly. These scenes are clich├ęd and forgettable.

It’s not a bad film for Richard Pryor, who is appropriately the focus for almost all of it. He doesn’t have to try particularly hard, because the dramatic scenes aren’t that taxing and he could handle lighthearted comedy in his sleep, so it’s a relatively effortless win for him.

His other win is that he met Pam Grier and they hit it off enough to start dating. It didn’t work out for a number of reasons, not least his cocaine adiction, but she helped teach him to read, given that he only reached the eighth grade after a traumatic childhood; he grew up in his grandma’s brothel, where his alcoholic mother worked before abandoning him at ten. He was sexually abused at seven and expelled from school at fourteen.

Sadly, this isn’t a great film for Grier, as it’s short on opportunities for her to shine. She’s perfectly fine and she gets to age considerably because the story spans over two decades, but most of the important things that she does are back home with the kids while we’re watching him race, so all those opportunities go to him instead of her. Cleavon Little is underused too, though Bridges and Havens do get some good scenes here and there.

Opportunity may have been Grier’s biggest problem at this point, not so much because of her colour but because of her gender. Women, especially black women, have it notably tough in Hollywood. This was a major studio picture, though, so she was moving her career in the right direction, even if they weren’t yet giving her the leads she deserved.

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