Soul Team Six

Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment

Jul 09, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


The realm of blaxploitation is a murky yet highly entertaining one. It equally broke new ground in representation in moviemaking upon its inception in the early 1970s, while continuing to reaffirm deep racial stereotypes overly prevalent United States media - though the direction and marketing for these films would bank on their incendiary natures in order to sell seats. After the one-two punch of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Gordon Parks’ Shaft in 1971, blaxploitation was viable entertainment across the country, with an avalanche of devoted acolytes and shammy imitators pouring a veritable ocean’s worth of movie material into the subgenre. This is where Mill Creek Entertainment’s Soul Team Six comes into play - a presentation of six stand-out feature films from across the 1970s which exhibit some of the best and worst of the category.

In the early 1970s, drive-in theaters were obsessed with road movies and biker features after the successes of The Wild Angels (1966) and Easy Rider (1969), it only seemed natural that there would be a similar entry tailor-made for black audiences who shared the love of rebellion on the open road. The Black Six stars several prominent NFL players in title roles, including Gene Washington, Carl Eller, and ‘Mean’ Joe Greene. The film revolves around a Vietnam War veteran (Washington) returning home to find that his brother (Robert Howard) had recently been killed by a white supremacist motorcycle gang. He then sets out with his gang, the Black Six, to avenge his brother's death.

While one of the first black biker films ever made, that distinction doesn’t mitigate the unbridled mess running about inside the screenplay - something that the actors themselves famously denounced. The story moves from one easy set-up to the next, poking fun and the incredulously ridiculous nature of white supremacy and racial superiority, but does little with its themes or its identity as a biker film. Jigsawed together rather haphazardly, the story doesn’t translate well from the page, and oftentimes alternates between a slog of meandering driving sequences and exposition-laiden dialogue scenes between actors who do their best with what they’re given. Due to its amateurish production and shaky foundation, the lasting impact of The Black Six is extremely minute and short-lived.

Secondly is The Black Gestapo - a title that intrigued me greatly considering its possible implications. However, no this isn’t a World War II revisionist film about black nazis, but an urban drama about the Los Angeles neighborhood Watts beset by outside and inside organized crime. In reaction, General Ahmed (Rod Perry) creates a People’s Army to protect themselves and clean up the streets. However, his second-in-command Colonel Kojah (Charles Robinson) has plans of his own, and begins acting out independently, extorting neighborhood businesses, running drugs, and violently taking down any opposition. While the name of the People’s Army is publicly dragged through the muck, an ultimate confrontation is inevitable between Ahmed and his usurper.

The nazi iconography in this film is as subtle as the apocolypse, with the appearance, mannerisms, and morality of Kojah and his troops going the extra mile in trying to convince us that he’s the bad dude on the block. While the use of gestapo uniforms and decoration drive the overt villainous air, there is little else to link the titular group with the events in the movie. Also released under the title Ghetto Warriors in 1975, the film is a highly entertaining power play where everyone is seemingly corrupted one at a time, and even the righteous are flawed and prone to major mistakes - which makes sense, since this was written and directed by exploitation pioneer Lee Frost. From the fight choreography, to the music, and the cinematography, everything about this film screams 70s action schlock, and it never tries to be anything different. While there are scattershot moments of interesting introspection, the movie keeps the dial cranked up and keeps cheap thrills coming its entire runtime. While not a great movie, it is a wild ride all the same.

The earliest film on this release, even before Peebles and Parks got their movies in theaters, is Black Brigade, which is the home release title for the 1970 ABC Movie of the Week, Carter’s Army. It sports some of the biggest star power on this disc, including Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams, Robert Hooks, Moses Gunn, and Stephen Boyd. On one hand, this is a pretty generic race-bait set-up with a prejudiced commanding officer (Boyd) going on a secret mission during World War II with a motley crew of black soldiers and learning what truly matters along the way - produced and co-written by Aaron Spelling of all people. However, what the film lacks in originality, and suffers as a result of heavy-handed cliches, actually it makes up for in a genuinely entertaining experience.

Bolstered by some engrossing performances (especially by Pryor and Williams), competent production values, and a brisk pace, we’re given a run-of-the-mill action film that isn’t as tired as the description may seemingly denote. While I never wonder where Black Brigade is going, or who will be there at the end, I found myself easily putting the overbearing critic in my mind aside and enjoying this short seventy-minute romp that honestly deserves more attention than its gotten. Not a conventionally good film by most standards, but it is one with some redeeming value as a time capsule and a by-the-numbers action ride with some great character actors.

By far the most “obscure” film on the release is the 1974 feature Black Fist (also known as Bogard), which currently exists in the public domain. Following Leroy Fisk (Richard Lawson) as he slugs his way through the Los Angeles underground as a street fighter, he soon partners up with a local mobster (Robert Burr) and a crooked cop (Dabney Coleman) to snag some big paydays. Fisk soon buys his own night club but the joy is short-lived as his family soon becomes the target of the mob he had helped make rich. Revenge ensues.

This is an extraordinarily mixed bag, because the narrative’s set-up, most of the performances, and the overall production quality provides such a strong foundation to the film. I was genuinely intrigued about where the movie was going as the first act scooted along. Though, like many of the films on this list, the story soon takes a backseat to funk-infused scenes of Lawson kicking ass. While I came into the movie expecting this detail to define at least half of the experience, the segue into these scenes makes little sense, and hardly acts as a catalyst for the latter half to even take place. If there was a bit more time to let the characters evolve further, allowing a stronger bridge to connect the introduction and the action, and adding more context to existing scenes, Black Fist had potential to be one of the better blaxploitation films of the mid-70s.

By far my favorite entry in this collection is the 1974 feature, The Black Godfather. Despite being a rip-off of every gangster movie that came before it, it manages to inject its own unique vigor and sardonic satire into this revenge-and-justice-fueled crime thriller - though don't get it twisted, there’s a lot wrong with this movie too. Rod Perry is back, this time as JJ, who is taken under the wing of the local black crime lord Nate (Jimmy Witherspoon) after his friend Tommy (Herbert Jefferson Jr.) is killed in a robbery. While he climbs out of the gutter and through the ranks, he soon consolidates power over the locals, effectively becoming the new boss of the neighborhood. However, the ruling mafia family over the region doesn’t take kindly to unsanctioned gangs taking control of their territory - while making moves to unseat JJ, JJ fires back shot-for-shot.

Since so much of the light used on set seems to be natural or from already existing sources (table lamps and ceiling bulbs), the film is almost consistently underexposed, and numerous scenes are difficult to discern anything taking place. Mixed together with exposition dumps, awkward editing, meandering direction, and a constantly disjointed narrative, you have a recipe for a poor film. However, the enthrallment comes from the panache of the anti-heroes, the over-acted honky villains, the (visible) action sequences, the funky soundtrack, and Perry’s lines, “what I’m rapping to you about is power, baby!” and “nobody asks you where you got your dollar, they ask you, do you have it.” It’s as if The Black Gestapo had fused with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and we threw in a little sociopolitical soapboxing, a hostage, and a shoestring budget for flavor. It’s just a whole lot of fun.

Fighting Mad is the final entry on this two-disc release, and I feel (though have no information to prove this) that this could have been one of the bigger possible influences for Michael Jai White’s iconic Black Dynamite (at least the final act). Also known as Death Force, this film was directed by the legendary Cirio Santiago and centers on the American soldier Doug Russell (James Iglehart) heading home. When he’s inexplicably betrayed and abandoned by his fellows, he is rescued and trained by two Japanese soldiers who still believed World War II was going on. He uses his newfound way of the samurai to act out his revenge. See the constant themes at play here?

Besides the performances by the Japanese soldiers, there isn’t much that’s memorable in this one, compounded by every narrative turn being overly predictable and played out, even by the standards of the era. While the other films on this release have had aspects that make them stand out from the rest of their blaxploitation fellows in some way, this one slides into the background as one of the more easily forgettable entries for the genre and for Santiago’s mind-boggling career. Overall, this one could be skipped and you’d still get the fullness of this release with the other features.

The Mill Creek DVDs have no special supplements, sound or subtitle options, or even chapters. Each movie is a badly pixelated copy of a previously existing digital transfer of each heavily degraded print, so when scenes are too dark, they devolve into a mess of blotchy field of murky colors. It somehow makes some of these films feel even cheaper than they already are, and it is borderline insulting - it impresses as a cheap cash-in and nothing more. While there are many things to like about these films, and the genre in which some have become iconic, but finding them for free online will be just as fulfilling, and you’ll save yourself fifteen dollars.

(www.millcreekent.com/soul-team-six-6-blaxploitation-film-collection-dvd-digital.html)




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