In modern fiction, it is generally held that a hero is only as good as his, or her, villain. Blaxploitation produced a fair number of memorable heroes, however, in reviewing the Black action movies of the 1970s, it is rather difficult to name a singular villain that the genre produced. Personally, I believe this is a by-product of the audience for whom Blaxploitation movies were originally made: disenfranchised, Black, urban audiences whose circumstances told them there was no single source of their misery. They knew the crime and poverty that surrounded them was not caused by one single, scheming individual gleefully twirling his moustache. Those audiences understood that their problems were systemic, and there were a lot of SOMEONES contributing to, and profiting from, their pain.
In this void of recognizable villains, the exceptional performances become particularly notable. This week and next, WORLDOFHURTONLINE.COM recognizes the Top Ten Villains of Blaxploitation.
So, without further ado, let’s start the countdown:
#10 – SHELLEY WINTERS as “MOMMY” in Cleopatra Jones (1973)
Standing at a gorgeous 6′2″ inches in stocking feet, decked out in the fly-est gear, and driving a tricked out sports car with secret compartments bristling with weaponry, Tamara Dobson’s Cleopatra Jones was a larger-than-life superhero. However, if Cleopatra Jones was the silver screen’s first Blaxploitation superhero, then Shelley Winters’ “Mommy” was the Joker to her Batman. Winters delivers a memorable performance as the wildly temperamental, foul-mouthed lesbian crimelord who took shit real personally when Cleopatra Jones called in a military airstrike on her Afghan poppy fields and destroyed $40 million worth of heroin. The woman who had earned an Oscar nomination the year before in The Poseidon Adventure chews the scenery like a starving man tearing through a bag of beef jerky and throws caution to the wind with a wildly campy, yet tonally correct, bravura performance. A running gag involves Mommy cursing out her goons for their latest failure, only to be interrupted by her some sexy, leggy, busty beauty who brings her some needed item. Mommy always stops mid-harangue and says “Thank you [insert name]. You’re the only one around here who understands Mommy.” The beauty of the joke is that it’s a different woman each time.
#9 JOSEPH MASCOLO as “GUS MASCOLO” in Shaft’s Big Score (1973)
Joseph Mascolo played Mafia don, Gus Mascolo, as the polar opposite of Shelley Winters’ “Mommy.” Gus was a refined, dapper man of culture who seemed to view contract killings and numbers rackets as an ugly, but necessary way to finance his rarified tastes. When we first see Gus, he is arriving at his penthouse apartment via helicopter. Gus changes into a smoking jacket and ascot and has his henchman pour him a drink before sitting down to practice a bit of classical music on the clarinet. Gus demands similar refinement from his thugs, who inevitably disappoint him. He chastises them for interrupting his music and failing to appreciate the subtleties of fine cuisine. If it weren’t for the killing and grave robbing Gus engages in later in the film, he’d be a pretty classy guy.
#8 DON GORDON as “HANK” in The Mack (1973)
Hank was the ultimate corrupt cop and I’m certain that for the audiences sitting in those darkened theaters in 1973, he was a perfect stand-in for every cop who had ever shooed them along, pulled them off the street for a line-up, or tried to cave their skull in for demanding the right to vote. When the movie opens, Hank and his partner have just cornered the protagonist, Goldie (Max Julien), in a drug bust. Goldie’s car flipped over during the shoot-out, trapping him inside. Instead of offering assistance, or calling for help, Hank and his partner stand outside the car, spitting racial epithets at Goldie and casually debating whether arresting Goldie would result in less paperwork than shooting him in cold blood. Hank might just be another dirty, celluloid cop if it weren’t for the depth and inner turmoil that Don Stroud invested in him, particularly in a scene involving an overweight Black prostitute he hired to blow off some steam. The sight of the inebriated Hank baring his soul to the disinterested prostitute while he paws her breasts and confesses his fat fetish (”I like women of substance. Big. Meaty.”) using racially charged metaphors is creepy, repugnant, and pathetic in equal measure.
#7 GEORGE MURDOCK as “FATMAN” in The Mack (1973)
You’ll recognize George Murdock the minute you see him. He’s the type of reliable character actor that makes audiences say, “Oh! THAT guy,” because he’s been in everything from Barney Miller (where he played recurring character Lt. Ben Scanlon) to The X-Files to Star Trek: The Next Generation. As Fatman, he plays Goldie’s former employer; a crime boss who fancies himself as something of a mentor to Goldie during his time in the drug game. Although Goldie has carved out a comfortable niche for himself as a pimp, Fatman wants Goldie to come back into business with him. I appreciate Murdock’s Fatman for his complexity, because his interest in Goldie is both profit driven and paternalistic. Goldie earned a lot of money as a drug runner for Fatman and he dismisses Goldie’s earnings of “$2,000 a week” from his hookers as “chicken feed.” However, when Goldie refuses to come back into his employ, Fatman is forced to confess that Goldie’s operation is drawing too much attention from the Powers That Be, so it may be best to fold his business and come back under Fatman’s protection. Fatman turns out to be correct, but his Devil’s bargain was no deal for Goldie, who needed to make a clean break from the criminal life.
#6 KATHRYN LODER as “KATHERINE WALL” in Foxy Brown (1974)
Kathryn Loder playes Katherine Wall as a cool, calculating, drug dealing madame with a firm grip on her criminal empire. The only weakness in her formidable, icy exterior are her feelings for her pretty-boy boyfriend, Steve Elias (Peter Brown), who offsets Katherine’s calmness with hot-headed bravado and bluster. Foxy Brown is out to avenge the death of her boyfriend at the hands of Katherine’s men, so she engineers a perfect moment of poetic justice against Katherine by depriving the madame of her boyfriend…or at least the “boy” part of him. Kathryn Loder’s Katherine becomes increasingly unhinged and erratic throughout the course of the film as Foxy’s plan unfolds, so in the final confrontation between the two women, Katherine’s primal wail at being left “to suffer” becomes a fitting metaphor for her fragile, unraveling mental state.
Next week, the countdown of the Blaxploitation’s Top Ten Villains continues with the top five fiends. See you next week, and enjoy the opening weekend of college football.