Universal has a new type of DVD distribution with the ‘Soul Showcase’. Although the films are listed as being part of a set they are at this time only sold separately. Although the only real feature that ties the films together is their predominately African-American casts, they range in genre from comedy to drama and on to crime and action flicks. There are four films in this set, ‘Bustin’ Loose’, ‘Trick Baby’, ‘That Man Bolt’ and ‘Willie Dynamite’. All four are listed together in the press release as part of the Soul Showcase but Bustin’ Loose does appear to be the odd man out, it does not have the Showcase banner on the cover art, it’s the only comedy and the only film not from the seventies. All the films are better than the average black exploitation flicks that where popular in the seventies. They stand on their own as interesting films of the period and hold as representatives of their respective genres.
Bustin’ Loose is perhaps a lesser known but genuinely one of the better vehicles for the genus of comedian Richard Pryor. Here, Pryor portrays Joe Braxton, a man whose life was full of hard breaks. An ex-con out on parole he once again makes the wrong choice and is now subject to having his freedom revoked. In the fashion only found in film Joe is given an odd way to retain his life outside of prison, he has to drive a school teacher, Vivian (Cicely Tyson) and a group of eight emotionally and physically challenged children from Philadelphia to Washington. Pryor gives his usual uneven performance here. At times the film drags as some of the same gags are almost beaten to death. For example the overly racially motivated meeting with members of the KKK is overdone and has been handled better and funnier in other films. What really manage to put the remarkable talent of Pryor on display are the moments with the children. In any film the use of handicapped children is a topic that is difficult at best to play for laughs. Take things too close to the edge of good taste and you risk offending the audience. Here, the excellent script co-authored by Pryor and Lonne Elder III (Sounder, A Woman Called Moses) and you have verbal quips and sight gags that amuse without being insulting. Pryor shows he can reel it in from his famous brand of more adult humor and create a film that the family can enjoy together. This film also portrays a more dramatic side of Pryor, some of his scenes with the children and Tyson are actually tender. Tyson is best known for her dramatic work but here she shows the audience that she can handle comedy with the same adept skill. It is a bit odd to see an actress of this caliber engaging in the silliest of slapstick comedy but the way it is handled actually works.
That Man Bolt is a very good representation of the seventies phenomena often called the blaxploitation flick. Basically, you take the film genres of action, martial arts and in this specific case the ever popular spy film, add a predominately African-American cast, shake and out came this film. When a high priority and very secrete briefcase must be ferried from Hong Kong to Mexico City with a stop over in Los Angeles there was only one man that was up to the challenge, Jefferson Bolt (Fred Williamson). Bolt is a man above most other men. Slick with the ladies, able to use his wits and flying fists to defeat any adversary he is the urban answer to James Bond. While the plot is admittedly thin, almost transparent, the film holds together due largely to the non-stop action. The largest influence here is the classic Hong Kong martial arts films. This is reinforced, especially here; buy the presence of such notable real life marital arts experts as Mike Stone, Ken Kazama, Ken Kazama and Emil Farkas. All of these men have reached the top of the fields of judo, karate and kick boxing, not easy disciplines to master. While somewhat different that the now popular wire oriented fight scenes like those used in films like Crouching Tiger, the gist remains the same, incredible fight sequences.
Willie Dynamite is part of the seventies like few films. It is one of the better representatives of the now all but extinct genre, the pimp flick. Willie (Roscoe Orman) is perhaps the most stereotypical purveyor of females in town. His choice in fashion would make Huggy Bear cringe. With his elaborate fur coats and outlandish hats Willie finds himself facing the decline of his once almost complete control of his chosen profession. Other pimps are taking over the streets and the once in charge Willie D is faced with a major change in his life. When Cora (Diana Sands), a woman that Willie knew in his past returns to turn his girls to more legally sanctioned work habits, Willie realizes that it is time for him to alter his existence. What sets this film apart from the others of its ilk is it has heart. Although often as over the top as Willie’s outfits the film has genuine moments of some excellent acting. In the scenes between Orman and Sands they display a real grasp of talent. Their chemistry is realistic, they invoke a deeper than normal emotional response in the audience and carry the film. This film incorporates the time honored redemption theme in a novel and interesting fashion that will be surprisingly entertaining.
Trick Baby is another instance of a standard genre, in this case the con-man/buddy movie, with an urban twist. Con man team Blue (Mel Stewart) and White Folks (Kiel Martin) are always on the look out for an easy score. This think they have found they path to easy riches in the form of an elaborate real estate scam that naturally goes wrong resulting in a lot of back peddling on the part of the hapless con men. The structure of the film is basically a two act play but this format is used poorly. The character development set up in the first half of the film is all but forgotten when the pay off is expected in the later half. Martin is perhaps best known as the sleazy detective in Hill Street Blues (also partnered there opposite a black actor). It would seem that his role here set the stage for that portion of his television career. Stewart also had his most recognizable performance on television as Henry Jefferson, the brother of George and neighbor of Archie Bunker. Together they work the often confusing story better than most could have. They have a natural chemistry that translates to a number of fun moments. The film has unrealized potential, a real shame since this film could have been far better than it is. It is not the fault of the central actors, they do better than average with what they where given. It is the loose script and lackluster direction that hold the film back.
Universal has decided to market these films together but they are sold separately instead of as a box set. Allowing the buying public to choose what films they want is a commendable action of the part of Universal. Marking them together does afford exposure of these films to a portion of the public that may not realize what these films have to offer.