THE BOOTLEG FILES: “DARKTOWN STRUTTERS”

BOOTLEG FILES 195: “Darktown Strutters” (1975 blaxploitation comedy that has to be seen to be believed).

LAST SEEN: The entire film is available for viewing on Google Video.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In a brief VHS release in the early 1980s.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Under-appreciated in its time and out of circulation for too many years.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Lord, I hope so!

The wonderful thing about the bootleg video genre is its ability to generate cult movie classics. Many films have achieved a degree of legendary status only because they’ve been bootlegged endlessly. Diverse productions such as “Detour” (1946), “It’s a Wonderfu Life” (1946), “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959) and “Carnival of Souls” (1962) achieved cult classic status simply because of the proliferation of public domain dupes – so many people were able to see these bootlegged gems that they were belatedly embraced by audiences.

Then there is the case of films that can only be seen as bootlegs due to copyright and intellectual property violations: “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1982) and “Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown” (1985) are kept alive on the bootleg circuit because they can’t be shown legally.

I sincerely wish the 1975 feature “Darktown Strutters” would become the next bootleg cult classic. It’s not a great film, and I can’t say whether it deserves to be considered as a good film. But it is something special: a noisy, flashy, wicked kaleidoscope that merciless parodies the blaxploitation genre and Hollywood’s miserable stereotypes of African-Americans.

Going into great detail on “Darktown Strutters” is difficult, because so much of the film is based on the element of shock – and dropping spoilers would wreck the genuine surprise that pops up throughout the film. So at the risk of being intentionally evasive, this is what I can disclose:

“Darktown Strutters” refers to an all-black, all-female motorcycle gang who wear helmets and clothing that appear to have been created by the combined forces of Liberace and Sun Ra’s costume designers. The film focuses primarily on Syreena, the gang leader, and her attempts to locate her missing mother Cinderella.

Cinderella’s disappearance seems to focus on a Col. Sanders look-alike who runs a chain of rib joints favored by African-Americans. The patrons of the rib joints seem uncommonly happy with their meals, and everyone receives free watermelon slices with their ribs. But this entrepreneur is actually responsible for a nefarious plot to kidnap the leading members of the local black community and use their genes in a cloning machine to create a new army of African-American adults that will vote him into permanent political power.

Yet “Darktown Strutters” really isn’t a sci-fi film. If anything, the film takes a broad and often vicious smack at American racist attitudes (the title refers to a now-forgotten racially-loaded tune “Darktown Strutters Ball”). Almost every possible nasty black stereotype is trotted out and hilariously skewered.

There are Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima lookalikes (complete with oversized pancakes that they fling like weapons), overall-clad cotton pickers playing “My Old Kentucky Home” on harmonicas, inner city druggies and dope dealers (an ice cream wagon is turned into a “Pot-sicle” vending center), jive-talking numbers runners, lascivious pimps and luscious prostitutes, back-talking maids, smiling old men shining shoes, and a minstrel show cast doing egregious Mr. Bones routines. Even the excesses of black-oriented pop culture is spoofed by having The Dramatics perform a “Soul Train”-worthy musical number in a dungeon cell.

But don’t think whitey is forgotten. There is also a police department full of painfully stupid officers ready to shoot up the inner city when the “Nigger Alarm” goes off. There are also Klansmen on motorcycles, as well as agitated white liberals whose concept of brotherhood has very defined limits.

Bad taste is on display throughout the film. Sometimes, it doesn’t work at all: a quick joke with lynching undertones is uncomfortably unfunny and a sequence where a group of Marines get humiliated with pies in the face is lame. However, one truly bizarre sequence involving a white detective who gets into drag and blackface to track a criminal that preys on “black faggots” is screamingly hilarious. Not only does it dare to go to the far edges of civility, but is also winds up with an unexpected punchline that redefines the concept of outrageous.

So why is such a funny and weird movie stuck in obscurity? Unlike the classic films in the blaxploitation genre, “Darktown Strutters” doesn’t have any A-list celeb power. Its star is Trina Parks, who achieved footnote status as the first black woman to appear in a James Bond movie (she was Thumper in “Diamonds are Forever”). But Parks never obtained the level of stardom of blaxploitation divas like Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson. After “Darktown Strutters,” she made only one additional film before vanishing from movies.

The only famous name here is Roger E. Mosley, a veteran film and TV actor who plays a supporting part as Parks’ less-than-helpful boyfriend. A few recognizable faces from TV show up in bit parts: Zara Cully (the cantankerous mother on “The Jeffersons”), Raymond Allen (the drunken Uncle Woody on “Sanford and Son”) and Alvin Childress (Amos from the 1950s “Amos ‘n’ Andy” series) get a few minutes of screen time.

“Darktown Strutters” was written by George Armitage, who achieved cult status of his own in 1990 by writing and directing “Miami Blues.” It was directed by William Witney, a B-Movie veteran who began his career at the helm of low-budget serials in the 1970s. Gene Corman produced the film, which was distributed twice by his brother Roger through New World Pictures (once as “Darktown Strutters” and then a few years later as “Get Down and Boogie”).

Unfortunately, the film did not have a wealth of admirers. The New York Times noted that it “clattered aimlessly” into theaters and panned its “gnarled plot.” Roger Ebert huffed that the film “bites off about two more genres than it can chew, and never quite works as anything.” And TV Guide fumed that “this purported comedy is truly among the worst musicals ever made.” (That’s pretty strange, since it isn’t a musical.)

Over the years, the film found its cult movie experts who celebrate outlandish flicks (Michael Weldon, Steve Puchalski and Shane Burridge have written in praise of the flick). But it hasn’t been enough to push the film to a higher level of audience involvement. Outside of a brief early 1980s VHS release on a now-defunct label, “Darktown Strutters” has been out of commercial release for too long.

However, bootleg videos can ride to the rescue. It’s not hard to locate good quality bootlegs, and the entire film can even be found for unauthorized viewing on Google Video. Unless there is a problem with music clearance rights for The Dramatics’ performance, there is no obvious reason why “Darktown Strutters” isn’t available.

My advice: seek out “Darktown Strutters.” Show it to your friends, or encourage them to buy bootleg copies. And if you can write a blog, post your opinion of the film online. Let’s get this wacky and weird little movie out of oblivion and high into cult movie heaven.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at
Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on August 24, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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