Weekend viewing: The Black Godfather

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Friday marked the start of a great movie-going weekend in Chicago, one that’s filled with such regal offerings as Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye First Love. Crashing the highbrow party is the 1974 blaxploitation actioner The Black Godfather (Sat 6/30, 7 and 9:15 PM, at Doc Films), which, along with films like The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) and Trick Baby (1972), does wonders to distill the notion that the genre was all cheap thrills and big ‘fros. If nothing else, the film could provide a nice antidote for those seeking a more facile viewing experience that doesn’t require them to turn their brain completely off.

Although it does does partake in its share of 70s grindhouse crudeness—complete with the requisite gratuitous nudity and random acts of cartoonish violence—writer director John Evans pays close attention to some latent themes that similar films tend to gloss right over. Like most blaxploitation fare, The Black Godfather is a crime drama centered on themes of power, corruption, and ambition under the guise of 1970s race relations. Rod Perry stars as an up-and-coming crime lord who beefs with Don Chastain, the head of Caucasian heroin cartel that peddles their wares in his neighborhood. Perry, a drug dealer himself, claims wants Chastain out of the picture because his drugs are poisoning the black community. But here’s the kicker: once Chastain is dealt with, Perry will be free to sell his drugs to the community, a key contradiction that befalls most blaxploitation films in lieu to the aforementioned nudity and violence.

Evans, however, refuses to gloss over this contradiction. In fact, he opts to place this conflict squarely within text of the film: as the external conflict of Perry vs Chastain plays out in a maelstrom of gunfire and car chases, the internal conflict between Perry and Damu King, who plays a militant black nationalist whom Perry hires as something of a muscle man to help regulate the streets, is where the film finds its true footing. Perry and King both see independence from white influence as a key to African American success, but they different vastly on just how achieve it: Perry, the open market capitalist, asserts more than once that “poverty is a crime,” whereas King is a leftist revolutionary in the vein of the Maoist Black Panthers. Their philosophical differences make The Black Godfather a sort of sociocultural and socioeconomic examination of the post-Civil Rights black experience.

Evans sums up his argument in a climactic scene, in which Perry and King nearly come to blows when deciding how to take care of Chastain once and for all. Perry proclaims that the problem is “out there, not in here,” and calls for a resolution so that they may achieve their common goal of becoming independent of white influence. Evans moves in for a slow zoom as the two partake in an elaborate handshake, signifying a bridging of the gap between the two ideologies—which, of course, leads directly to an elaborate and bloody shootout in a hospital. This is grindhouse cinema we’re talking about, after all.

By no means is The Black Godfather what one would call master filmmaking, but it possesses a thematic and stylistic seriousness unbecoming of many blaxploitation films. The happy middle ground the two protagonists achieve rings as a sort of idealistic possibility that, considering the prototypical conclusion of violence and bloodshed, Evans might not have considered possible. It’s impossible to know for certain because, most unfortunately, Evans only had the opportunity to write and direct three other films. Two were the blaxploitation offerings Speeding Up Time (1971) and Blackjack (1978), while the other was a short documentary about Huey Newton and the Black Panther movement called What Do You People Want?—you can watch it here, thanks to IMDB.

It’s disheartening to think about the brevity of Evans’ work. His other work, though not as thematically compelling, benefits from his deft understanding of stylistic technique. He had the eye of a real classicist; his penchant for wideshots, high and low angles, and narrative economy evoke Jules Dassin at his best. Had he enjoyed a longer career, I’m sure he would have produced some true classics.

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