Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Darktown Strutters (1975)

The Darktown Strutters Motorcycle Club consists of four lovely ladies: Syreena (Trina Parks), Carmen (Edna Richardson), Miranda (Bettye Sweet), and Theda (Shirley Washington).  Unlike the members of their male counterparts’ club (led by Mellow as essayed by Roger Mosley), the Strutters are far classier than damn near everyone they come across.  And they do love to have a good time.  But Syreena is also on the lookout for her mother Cinderella (Frances Nealy) who, along with many prominent members of the black community, has recently gone missing.  And somehow local barbecue magnate Commander Cross (Norman Bartold) is mixed up in all this.

If the very first thing you notice about William Witney’s film (aka Get Down and Boogie) is anything other than the girls, their costumes, and their trikes, you’re either blind or you’re watching a different movie.  Their helmets alone are so garish, even The Commodores would think twice about wearing them.  But this is how the women in this film distinguish themselves from others, specifically from men.  The men are decidedly hillbilly-esque in both looks and manners.  They wear more traditional biker clothing, bib overalls, and one even dons a coonskin cap.  They are all excessively dumb, and are lead around by their penises, and this makes it easy for the women to control them.  When Cross isn’t dressed like a natty, Southern gent he wears an outfit that makes the Strutters’ clothes look positively subtle by comparison, but Cross’ costumes go expressly to making him look overtly like an ass.  

The Strutters (their name, I assume, comes from the Shelton Brooks 1917 jazz song, The Darktown Strutters’ Ball) are in rarefied air, cinematically speaking.  They are forever in perilous circumstances (or at least Syreena is, since the film simply forgets about the others for long stretches of time), but they are never in danger.  They are forever thrust into ridiculous situations, but they are never allowed to look bad, per se.  This film is about girls versus boys, and it is strictly on the side of the girls.  Aside from making the police and their own boy toys look like blockheads at every turn, the women are in charge of everything.  Part of the plot involves women getting abortions, and it’s an element that isn’t even debated in the narrative.  It’s simply a necessity of life for some people.  That’s pretty progressive if you think about when this film was produced (hell, even today).  

Even more importantly, Syreena controls the narrative in a metatextual sense.  In fact, she stops the film dead in its tracks faster than the pod race sequence in Star Wars: Episode One just so The Dramatics can perform Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get.  Now, song and dance numbers are no big deal in films, but you need to remember several things in regards to this one.  First, they do the whole song from intro to fade out.  Second, they do it while Syreena is in the process of escaping from the bad guys (at which point she stops to – ahem – get down and boogie).  Third, the band is dressed in their stage costumes, and their cell is dressed like a lounge club.  Now, if you can picture that scene in your head, you have a decent idea of what this film is all about.  This is absurdist humor from stem to stern.  However, what makes Darktown Strutters different from something like, say, Hellzapoppin is that the latter film has some wit to what it does.  

By contrast, Witney’s film has just about zero wit going on under its hood.  The gags and jokes aim for the absolute lowest common denominator.  The characters directly address the audience to remind us just how hilarious their wacky antics are.  There’s more mugging for the camera in this film’s ninety minutes than in all eight seasons of The Cosby Show combined.  Now, you may argue that The Three Stooges were never above flinging food at peoples’ faces for a chuckle, but I think that misses the point.  It’s not what you do it’s how you do it, and The Stooges’ personalities never felt put on like masks.  Comedy of this variety is difficult to do, because I don’t think it succeeds when the characters are in on the joke, when they self-consciously wink at the viewers.  If the performers are just clowning around, having fun with their pals and so on, it may be charming to some degree, but it typically doesn’t work comically (well, not for me).  Imagine a pre-teen who very self-consciously tries to make up jokes for his or her parents’ friends or hears one funny thing that everyone laughs at and then proceeds to beat it into the ground.  This film is like that.  You have a scene where Syreena meets up with her brother Flash (Gene Simms) at their childhood home.  Flash is now into martial arts after a trip to Africa, and he and his sister completely destroy the house while grabassing around.  They do all this with grins on their faces, but these are the grins of people trying not to break scene rather than siblings having fun with one another, and that’s what makes scenes like this stick out like sore thumbs.

As you might expect from a film called Darktown Strutters, it is loaded with political incorrectness.  There are literally KKK members chasing after Syreena and company in broad daylight.  They even have a large replica of a burning cross with them when they do it.  Commander Cross’ Sky Hog barbecue restaurant is staffed by rednecks of the Deliverance variety, replete with missing teeth, scraggly hair, and permanent scuff marks on their faces.  Cross’ headquarters is set up like a pre-Civil War Southern plantation, with black people toiling away inside and out.  Cross himself is the very spit of Colonel Harland Sanders (minus the glasses).  He even has a minstrel show put on for his amusement.  One of Mellow’s buddies is named V.D. (Otis Day), and he squirts anyone he touches with (I’m guessing here) penicillin.  The police (including an all-but-lost Dick Miller) are in the classic “fascist pig” mode (also forging a link of sorts with Cross and his cohorts).  The cops have a “Ghetto Alert Map” with a built-in “N***** Alarm.”  An undercover officer gets done up in black face and drag, because he’s after a female rapist who “preys on faggots.”  Prostitution is a fully accepted fact of life (along with the aforementioned abortions).  A character sells “Pot-sicles” (and other drugs) to children, who also happen to be “Baby Crips.”  The list goes on.  Whether you find any of this distasteful or not, you have to admit that a film like this couldn’t even be brought up as an idea today without coming under a shit storm of self-righteous backlash.  So, even if I don’t love this movie, a part of me is thrilled that it exists at all.

MVT:  Trina Parks is charismatic in the film, and she most definitely has the ability to carry it.  Sadly, she never had much opportunity to do so in her short (as of this writing) acting career.

Make or Break:  As I stated earlier, you will notice the girls and their rides and not want to take your eyes off of them.  Even if it’s only to ponder what the filmmakers were smoking to come up with these things.

Score:  6/10     

No comments:

Post a Comment