Vintage Black Films @ Film Grove
Whole lotta’ streaming going on! Film Grove is a new company by Rayna Booker and Charmaine Clark seeking aspiring filmmakers to submit their films for a film festival competition. Filmmakers will share in the revenue as their films stream on the channel. Their mission is to add more diversity to the film and television industry. Film Grove looks to fill their online presence with up-and-coming filmmakers, especially women of color.
In the spirit of recent events, here is a wonderful collection of Vintage Black Films already streaming on the Film Grove channel. Some of these treasures have historical significance. “The Joe Louis Story” and “The Jackie Robinson Story” are about two sports legends that changed the look of sports forever.
“The Joe Louis Story,” starring Cole Wallace reminds us what a giving individual Joe Louis was. At first, Louis was taking violin lessons until someone pointed out he was built to box. His family supported his passion for boxing. Joe Louis quickly became a contender, but often bought meals for everyone.
Unfortunately, Louis wasn’t very good at keeping track of his finances and often found himself in debt. His stubbornness forced him to return to boxing no matter how much his wife wanted him to retire.
Joe Louis fought Max Baer in the mid-30s. Baer wore a giant Star of David on his boxer shorts. It was a sign of the times as Germany’s Nazi Party was ruling Europe.
Germany had its own boxing champion, Maximilian Schmeling, on the forefront of a battle of ideologies, democracy vs. nazism. Schmeling was the World Champ in 1930 and 1932, but the main events came years later when the two fighters, Joe Louis and Maximilian Schmeling, fought in 1936 and 1938 in worldwide events with global appeal. The bouts were much bigger than two men in a ring. The whole world was tuned in and had their radio dials turned up. Schmeling won the first fight in the 12th round. But Louis made a comeback in the second fight, knocking Schmeling out in the very first round. It’s one of the most talked about boxing matches of all time, but this 1953 film did not emphasize the details well.
Although not the biggest or best production, the film gives a little bit of insight into Louis’ stubborn character. Joe Louis had to fight racism when he wasn’t in the ring, but the story in the film sadly does not cover that.
A much better production and story that covers everything in depth is “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Not to be confused by the excellent 2013 film, “42” starring Chadwick Boseman, this is the 1950 earliest telling of Jackie’s story. I didn’t realize until after viewing the film that the lead actor is played by Jackie Robinson himself. The film, directed by Alfred E. Green, also stars the dashing Ruby Dee as Rae Robinson, Jackie’s wife, who would be cast many years later in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
After working as an athletic director for the army, Jackie lands a job playing baseball on an all black touring team called the Black Panthers. The bus stops at a restaurant. Being the rookie, Jackie’s teammates asked him to go inside and ask;
- if they can eat inside
- if they can wash up
- if eating inside is okay, can they get sandwiches
Jackie asks his teammates about contracts. His teammates had a good laugh. The black or colored teams were not supported well, if at all.
After a game, Jackie gets a call from someone representing the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie blows off meeting with the guy because he thought it was hoax. Finally, Jackie meets with Branch Rickey. The story of Jackie Robinson is also the story of Branch Rickey. Rickey had been scouting other black baseball players in hopes of adding diversity to Major League Baseball. Rickey’s own career is on the line if this idea goes south.
Rickey explains to Mr. Robinson, “It’ll take a lot of courage.” Rickey states further, “We’re talking about the night for any American to play baseball.” If that wasn’t enough to think about, Rickey informs Jackie, “I want a ball player who’s guts enough ‘not’ to fight back.” Rickey stresses,
Mr. Robinson tells his mother on the phone, “I can be the first negro to play organized baseball, Mom.” His mother advises Jackie to seek the guidance of a priest. Jackie talks to a priest in New York. Jackie then marries Rae. They sit in the back section of a bus. Rae is decked out in her wedding dress. It is one of the many sad images displaying segregation and racism in American society and culture.
Jackie gets hired to play for the Montreal minor team. Every step in his climb to the top has its challenges. He needs to win over not only the players that would be his teammates, but his new coach. More challenges arise when the team shows up to play and they find a sign reading:
In accordance with
City Ordinance No. 11725
relating to prohibition of
sports events between
WHITE and COLORED.
In 1946, at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey, 52,000 fans witnessed history as Jackie Robinson, playing for the Montreal Royals, stepped up to home plate against the Jersey City Giants. Regardless of the turnout, his first at bat was a first for him and a first for all people of color. Robinson grounded out, but the rest of his day was filled with excitement, four hits including a three-run home run, four runs batted in, and stolen bases.
As expected, some fans did not take kindly to Jackie’s participation in organized baseball, throwing trash onto the field. A few caucasian men tried to intimidate Jackie after a game. One says,”Hey Jackie, gimme a shine.” Jackie remembered what Branch Rickey told him by not letting it get to him.
The Montreal Royals were thrilled with Robinson. The coach, resistant at first, ended up praising him.
There was talk of bringing Jackie Robinson onto the Major League Brooklyn Dodgers team, but a small group of Dodgers were against it. There was a petition going around for players to sign to rid of Mr. Robinson. Branch Rickey meets with the small group of players. He reminds one of the players about his ethnic Italian background. No one stopped this player’s immigrant parents from working so why should that stop Jackie Robinson from playing.
Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and as they say the rest is history. Robinson’s story has been very influential in race relations in sports and American society and culture. As good as “42” is, check out “The Jackie Robinson Story” too. It’s an excellent film!
RIP Chadwick Boseman (“42”) who died at age 43 ironically on Jackie Robinson Day.
Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA
“Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA” is a 1946 film with an all African American cast. Francine Everett plays lead Gertie La Rue with a lot of spunk and spirit. Gertie belongs to a dance troupe that had been exiled from their usual locations because Gertie had a falling out with Al, her ex-boyfriend. Al manages the group.
Other dancers suggest Gertie really had it good with Al, but she expresses a different experience. Gertie very much beats to her own drum. She answers to no one. When another dancer asked about her going out the night before an early rehearsal Gertie says,
Gertie then heads to the nearby bar, Diamond Palace. After seeing a flirting Diamond Joe give Gertie a bracelet, a co-worker comments to Diamond Joe, who runs the establishment, “She’s hard to get and hard to hold.”
Gertie hangs out with two other gentlemen taken by her. She teases by kissing both of them at the end of the night.
A holy man, Mr. Christian, in a light suit, tries to talk Gertie into seeing the Lord and changing her ways. Mr. Christian goes to tell the governor to stop Gertie from performing at the Diamond Palace bar.
Gertie, feeling lost, sees a female medium who sees a bad future for her. She sees a man yelling at her. Gertie also breaks a hand mirror. Perhaps Gertie has brought all of this bad luck on herself.
The ending is very abrupt. Their manager and Gertie’s ex-boyfriend, Al, shows up to shoot her dead with a hand gun. And all Al says, “I killed her because I love her.”
It seems Gertie simply drove everyone mad and got what was coming to her. I would have liked to have learned a bit more about Al and his troubles with Gertie. I am somewhat spoiling it because there really isn’t a complete narrative story here. The interest in this film is the period it was made. It is a decently made film and adds to cinema history.
What Vintage Black Collection would be complete without a some blaxploitation films like “Mean Johnny Sparrows” directed by and starring Fred Williamson and “Lady Cocoa” starring Lola Falana.
You may ask yourself, ‘What is blaxploitation?’ It’s an ethnic sub-genre of exploitation cinema in America during the 1970s originally targeting African American audiences. These films were low-budgeted, independently produced films with subject matter about oppressed black people working for and sticking it to ‘the man,’ the white man. There is often an underlying message of black power and unity.
You could see similarities in both the character of Gertie in “Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA” and Lola Falana’s feisty, fast-talking Cocoa in the 1975 film, “Lady Cocoa.” Cocoa is also having boyfriend issues.
The film starts with Cocoa being released from Nevada State Prison for not testifying against her ex-gangster boyfriend, Eddie. Now she’s taking the opportunity to testify and get out of prison.
Ramsey, an older policeman, gathering Cocoa from her cell, asks her if she’s ready. Cocoa responds,”Cocoa’s always ready.” She enters the unmarked police car with Ramsey. Officer Doug Fuller, in the driver seat, is chosen to watch over her while staying at King’s Castle Hotel & Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. As soon as she sits in the backseat, Cocoa starts running her mouth. She looks over Doug’s quiet demeanor.
The two cops share a look suggesting ‘it’s going to be a long night.’
The group of three arrive at the hotel. Doug checks himself and Cocoa in as ‘newlyweds.’ In the hotel room, Cocoa takes one of her many showers of the day. She’s really taking advantage of the day out of prison. Doug, knowing he’s one of the few black officers around, asks Ramsey why he picked a regular patrolman to look after Cocoa when he could have hired an experienced detective? Ramsey assures Doug he chose him because he’s qualified.
After Ramsey exits, Doug and Cocoa lightly argue about politics. Doug talks about his experience in Vietnam and how he didn’t have choices there, but Cocoa is free and has had choices in America. They argue about people getting locked up for smoking grass. Cocoa loves throwing out random trivia and quotes from French philosophy, popular art and music. “Freedom’s just another word for love.” Janis Joplin.
Cocoa orders a lot of food for room service. When it arrives, Cocoa changes the order to caesar salad because according to her you can’t have a heavy meal after being in the shower. She likes being difficult and Doug, inexperienced in this position, let’s her have her way.
Cocoa decides she wants to go downstairs to buy a new dress. Doug mentions limits. Cocoa says, “Limits my ass.” Doug eventually agrees. As they arrive at the elevator, her salad shows up. Cocoa tells the same clerk he must have misunderstood and cancels order.
Feeling lucky, Cocoa gambles at one of the tables. She wins a few hands. With the money, Doug accompanies her in the clothing store to buy a dress. While Cocoa tries on a dress, Doug is met by a young caucasian man waiting for his wife in the changing room. They have a chat about being newlyweds.
Cocoa purchases some clothes. As she and Doug walk out of the store he realizes she stole a necklace and returns it. They run into the couple from the store whom invite them later for live music and dancing.
Just like the old selling point for movies is showing some skin, Cocoa asks Doug in the hotel room to apply some lotion on her bare back. Doug can’t resist Cocoa. She flirts hard time. They kiss. Doug comes to his senses and separates from her.
Cocoa talks Doug into taking her out to dinner. After all, she bought these nice clothes. When Doug and Cocoa enter the dining room Cocoa recognizes a big African American man, Big Joe, played by none other than ‘Mean’ Joe Greene who played professional football. He sits with another man. They’re not smiling.
The rest of this film gets weird. The young white couple they met earlier sets Cocoa up. The young ‘wife,’ Marie, talks Cocoa into hiding in her hotel room until the bad men are gone. Marie let’s Cocoa enter the hotel room, but closes and locks the door without entering. Cocoa finds herself alone with Eddie, the ex-boyfriend she’s supposedly testifying against the next day. Eddie sweet-talks her. He seems to be feeling her out. Cocoa tells Eddie she was never going to testify against him. She only wanted the day out of prison.
Hitmen shoot inside the hotel room window and kill an unsuspecting female hotel staff worker. Cocoa calls downstairs to find and speak with Officer Doug and Ramsey.
Doug confronts the young white couple as they seem to be working with either Eddie or the hitmen. The couple attempt to run Doug down. After driving through a wing of the casino, their car ends up in a pool. Marie, the white woman from the young couple, turns out to be a man. Doug had a shooting match in the bathroom. Doug realized Marie’s wearing a wig and pulled it off. Doug, pissed, states,
Ramsey and Cocoa find Doug and they drive away. Ramsey notices they’re being followed most likely by the hitmen. Doug tells Ramsey he knows a friend’s boat they can hide in. Ramsey pulls the car over. Doug and Cocoa get out and hide until after the hitmen’s car passes.
Cocoa finds an abandoned car and jumpstarts it. Doug and Cocoa arrive at the docks and find his friend’s boat. The hitmen were tipped off and show up at the docks. While Doug and Cocoa think the coast is clear, they let their guards down, deeply kiss and make out. Clothes come off.
The hitmen shoot into the correct boat, but Doug and Cocoa hopped into the neighboring boat because it has a proper shower. And as you’ve learned, Cocoa likes showering. Doug shoots the hitmen.
Ramsey is found to be a traitor. Lady Cocoa and Doug walk away happily ever after. I guess she testified against her ex-gangster boyfriend. It’s a fun, watchable, popcorn flick. With these low independent movies, there aren’t perfect resolves and ending wrap-ups.
Mean Johnny Barrows
From Mean Joe Greene to “Mean Johnny Barrows,” there’s plenty of blaxploitation films from the 70s. Fred Williamson, like Mean Joe Greene, was also a former NFL football player. Williamson is the lead actor and director of “Mean Johnny Barrows.” The 1975 film, taking place in Los Angeles, California, also features Roddy McDowall as Tony and a ‘special guest star’ role by Elliot Gould.
Williamson plays a down-and-out ex-army vet, discharged for punching a superior. His superior had provoked Williamson’s character, Johnny, with racial insults.
Johnny is arrested after a scuffle in the street. The police officers give Johnny a hard time. They mention ‘splitting his skull wide open.’ Finally, an older officer, their superior, recognizes Johnny as a college football star. They chat about how Johnny is a legend also for winning the Silver Star for taking on the Vietcong in Vietnam. Johnny is released to the streets.
Johnny enters a restaurant seeking work. The mobster owner, Mario Racconi, offers Johnny a hitman job. Johnny refuses. The owner tells him, “See how many meals you can buy with a Silver Star.” Music with lyrics about finding work accompanies Johnny on his request to find a job.
The Racconi family discovers that their rival mob family, the Da Vinces, may be moving drugs through a flower shop. Once again, Mr. Racconi tries to talk Johnny into joining their organization. Johnny informs Mario that he was a soldier when he killed all of those men. Racconi asks Johnny, “What are you now? A man just do what a man must do.” Nancy, a pretty, young woman working for the Racconis, asks Johnny again while walking him out to the street. Johnny tells Nancy to thank Mario.
Johnny starts a crappy job washing bathrooms and cars at a car repair shop. Another song plays on the nose lyrics, “He was a hero.” Johnny’s grouchy, horrible boss only pays him $21…for a month’s work! They get into an argument. And then it’s almost like two police officers patrolling nearby channel this potential scuffle. Sure enough, Johnny gets arrested.
The Racconi Family has a meeting with the Da Vince Family. Mario doesn’t want drugs being sold in the area even if it’s only directed at blacks and minorities. The Da Vinces shoot and kill a bunch of Racconi’s crew.
The Racconi Family bails Johnny out of jail. They offer Johnny $100,000 and some land to kill the entire Da Vince Family. They remind Johnny about how the Da Vinces are selling drugs to blacks. “You’re not only doing me a favor, but helping out your own people.”
Nancy is betraying the Racconis with a secret relationship with Tony Da Vince, played by Roddy McDowall. Tony boards a ship to escape to Mexico. Johnny, secretly onboard, throws Tony off the boat in the middle of nowhere.
Johnny gets back to land. He makes a special delivery by surprising a driver working for the Da Vince Family. Johnny and the driver speed down a driveway and crash into the Da Vince house. Johnny then lights all the drugs on fire. Johnny’s ex-army supervisor shows up out of nowhere to battle him. It’s kind of funny how army soldiers also know some form of karate. It’s not like they teach that in army training. Only movies in the 70s and 80s do that. Johnny eventually kills his ex-army supervisor by throwing his Silver Star at him. TWHACK! Perhaps there’s a message there somewhere. Don’t mess with Johnny Barrows.
Now Johnny ends up running into some hills in Malibu with Nancy. Johnny believes Nancy loves him, but she informs him she was in love with Tony. She shoots Johnny and tells him,
And then like the opening where Johnny is with his army team in Vietnam, trying to avoid the mines, Nancy steps on a mine. Why are there mines in Malibu? This is one of many questions that go unanswered in a blaxploitation film. Blaxploitation popularity filtered into other ethnic audiences.
If you’re a filmmaker seeking exposure and potentially some money for your film, check out filmgrove.com In addition, there are other categories of films in the Film Grove collection; science fiction, horror, Betty Boop cartoons and some episodes of “The Lucy Show.”