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Blaxploitation heroes

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Now that home video and critical reevaluation are affording ’70s blaxploitation movies the respect and availability they deserve, it’s easier than ever to explore the myriad variations within the genre. We’ve long been familiar with the Foxy Fighting Female (Coffy, Cleopatra Jones), the Hero on the Wrong Side of the Law (Superfly, The Mack), and the Brothers Teaming Up to Battle an Evil White Conspiracy (Three the Hard Way). Three releases making their video debuts — Shaft in Africa, Black Samson, and Black Eye — constitute a heretofore uncited subgenre: the Bruiser Who Carries a Big Stick.

Don’t jump to conclusions. The stick in Shaft in Africa is one used for fighting by an African tribe that private dick John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) infiltrates in order to break up a slave-trading ring. In a nifty James Bondian touch, Shaft’s staff is equipped with a transmitter that enables his employers to track his movements. While the clothes and wisecracks have dated, recent news about African slave trading and feminist debate over tribal customs give the movie’s themes a surprisingly contemporary ring. This is trim, rough stuff — fast moving and unapologetically violent.

Black Samson, on the other hand, is unapologetically goofy. The title character (Rockne Tarkington) wears a dashiki, owns a strip club, carries around a six-foot pole with which he likes to bludgeon unruly drunks, and goes out for strolls with his pet lion. While Shaft in Africa is absorbing on any level, Black Samson (an early effort by Chuck Bail, now directing Baywatch Nights) will likely be best appreciated by B-movie mavens who’ll watch anything that features classic tough guy William Smith (Red Dawn).

Black Eye‘s wooden accessory in question is a silver-handled cane owned by a recently deceased actor. A detective (Fred Williamson) doesn’t get to carry it around much, but he does find out why many want it so badly they’ll kill for it. Less a genuine blaxploitation film than a policier featuring a standard-issue ex-cop who does things his way, Black Eye‘s main point of interest is Williamson’s uncharacteristically bemused performance, a spiritual kin to O.J. Simpson’s Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies.
Shaft in Africa: B+
Black Samson: C
Black Eye: C-

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