The Black Godfather (1974)

Blaxploitation may be one of the most misunderstood genres.  While initial movies like Superfly and Shaft received mainstream audience and critical attention, much of the attention seemed to focus on the violent aspects of the films - so much that many devolved into self-parody over the next few years.  However, while they had their initial run, it proved two things: anyone who had some ambition, a few friends and a camera could possibly make a decent profit on an independent film, and American audiences, regardless of race, were becoming open to some of the ideals within these movies.

I understand that many of the messages about racism, second-class treatment of African-American citizens and police brutality got lost among the sex and violence, but they were there.  Many of the movies featured flawed heroes, but heroes none-the-less.  They were all human beings, and that resonated with white audiences - a little too well in the end, since it was ultimately white audiences being a bit uncomfortable with the negative aspects of Blaxploitation that helped end it.  Well, that, and the fact that Hollywood suddenly discovered it didn't need independent films to fill its coffers anymore when movies like Jaws and Star Wars were suddenly making them the huge profits that had alluded them for over a decade.

When I mean anyone could pick up a camera and make a movie, I mean it.  The Blaxploitation genre was not just a handful of films, but rather a deep well of films produced for over a decade.  Like most genres, though, you will find most of them follow a pattern, and those that did it better are well remembered while those, like The Black Godfather, that were largely paint-by-numbers, fell by the wayside.

J. J. (Rod Perry) is a small-time hood that attempts a robbery with a friend, only to have his friend Tommy (Herbert Jefferson Jr.) killed and be on his last legs himself.  He is rescued by Nate (Jimmy Witherspoon), a local numbers runner who uses a domestic agency as a front, who agrees to take him on if he agrees to do what he's told and follow his example. 

Years later, J. J. has learned much from Nate, but has begun to resent the fact that his community is divided and riddled with junkies, largely due to heroine peddled in the ghetto by a white mob boss named Tony (Don Chastain).  To go up against Tony, J. J. allies with black militant leader Diablo (Damu King), who is on his own righteous crusade to ride the community of drugs.  With Diablo backing him, J. J. sends Tony a message through Lt. Joe Sterling (Duncan McLeod), the corrupt cop that he, Nate and Tony all pay to look the other way when it comes to their dealings.  The message, in no uncertain terms, is to get lost.

Tony has no intention of doing so, and tries to put pressure on Nate to reel J. J. in.  While Nate is initially not too happy with J. J. making waves, the condescension with which Tony treats him convinces him that it is time for a change.  Free to largely go his own way, J. J. and Diablo put increasing pressure on Tony's men and, when they get word of a large drug shipment coming in, make plans to hijack it to destroy Tony's power in the area once and for all.

Things do not go as planned, and Tony has one more play: he kidnaps Nate's daughter Yvonne (Diane Sommerfield), whom J. J. is having a relationship with, demanding his drugs in return for her life.  All the disparate elements that J. J. has allied join him to both rescue Yvonne and end Tony's operation.

One problem many have with this movie is that J. J.'s motives at running Tony out of the ghetto are never really made clear.  He could have come around to Diablo's thinking, or he may just be using the militants to remove the competition.  This is never resolved, as the last act switches to focus more on Yvonne's rescue rather than the ideals of any involved. 

Muddy plots and ideals are nothing new in this genre, but The Black Godfather holds things together better than some.  Motives aside, the conflict is kept largely to a simple rivalry.  This was obviously made for practically next to nothing, but that also helps it, as it doesn't have time to go off on tangents.  It also means that location shooting was a necessity, and some of the final gun battles in quite cramped quarters work better than they would have otherwise.

Rod Perry is a solid actor, as is blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon.  Where either could have just phoned it in they give it their all, and that is largely why this film, which otherwise doesn't have anything plot or visual wise to set it apart, is remembered at all.  Problem is, when you have two guys who really know what they are doing, a wooden performance like Don Chastain's stands out in glaring contrast.  It is obvious that writer/director John Evans was looking for a more realistic, and less stereotypical, portrayal of the characters in this movie, but it really could have used an over-the-top villain to set it apart.  Not necessarily Shelley Winters in Cleopatra Jones, but at least someone who could do more than emotionlessly repeat lines.  Of course, Diane Sommerfield is given not much more to do except get naked and be a damsel in distress.

This is not a great movie by any standard, even by that of Blaxploitation cinema.  Despite that, I still found it quite entertaining.  The action sequences aren't as cringe-inducing as some and, again, Rod Perry was the perfect choice to carry this movie.

The Black Godfather (1974)
Time: 90 minutes
Starring: Rod Perry, Jimmy Witherspoon, Don Chastain, Damu King
Director: John Evans

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