When African-American filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka passed away in 2012, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive Jan-Christopher Horak stated that Fanaka was dismayed that his films
were picked up by a video distributor and distributed as blaxploitation films. He did not like that moniker because he said even though they’re made like blaxploitations – cheap and all of that – his goal was not to exploit anyone, and they were a more serious intent than most blaxploitation films.1
Among those released by this video distributor were the Penitentiary trilogy (1979, 1982, 1987) that were Fanaka’s most financially successful films and the work for which he is best known. Two earlier titles were also reissued – Soul Vengeance (1975) and Black Sister’s Revenge (1976). With their lurid DVD covers illustrated with the iconography of the cycle (afros, guns, prison bars, scantily clad women) these films certainly look and sound as if they were relics of the blaxploitation era.
Older aficionados may be puzzled as to why they cannot remember these films screening at their neighbourhood grindhouse at the time of their original release: it is possible that they did, but under the respective titles of Welcome Home Brother Charles and Emma Mae. When the first of these films was released in 1975, Hollywood was washing its hands of the blaxploitation cycle, leaving low-budget independent hustlers to extract what they could from the cycle’s diminishing audience. This included purchasing and distributing Welcome Home Brother Charles and Emma Mae, made by Fanaka when he was a student (the latter film his Masters thesis) at UCLA, partially financed with grants and made with the assistance of fellow members of the film school’s L.A. Rebellion. This group was founded in the late 1960s by students with the mission of creating a new film movement that reflected the minority experience in America at the time that they believed could not be found in the blaxploitation features. Fanaka’s exasperation that his films were being packaged as blaxploitation for a new market is therefore understandable considering their mode of production, and their difference is starkly apparent on viewing. While a broader survey of Fanaka’s work would be a worthy addition to film scholarship, this article with confine its focus to his feature debut. Out of respect to Fanaka’s rejection of the blaxploitation label, it will therefore be referred to by its original title, Welcome Home Brother Charles (for those wishing to view it, however, it is widely available as Soul Vengeance.)
Welcome Home Brother Charles begins with African American Charles Murray (Marlo Monte) being pursued by police across a rooftop. With no means of escape, he climbs upon a ledge, ready to jump to his death. The police bring his girlfriend to the rooftop hoping she can coax him down. As Charles looks to her for an affirmation of what to do, the narrative then relocates to the past: Charles was a drug dealer being watched by two white detectives on stakeout waiting for him to complete a deal. They also see that Charles is sleeping with a white woman, the wife of one of the detectives. After Charles is arrested, the furious, racist cop attempts to castrate Charles, whose penis is then reattached in hospital. Treated with disdain by the judge at his trial, Charles is sent to prison. Although he attempts to go straight upon release, he finds it impossible to reconnect with his neighbourhood or to find gainful employment. His anger drives him to seek revenge: he kills the racist cop and the court prosecutor, but is thwarted by police as he attempts to murder the judge. After a chase, the film returns to the rooftop where Charles waits for his girlfriend – a former prostitute he saved from the streets – to guide his next action. She yells “Jump!” and the credits roll over the freeze-frame of her screaming face.
As a bitter revenge drama alone, the ghetto despair of Welcome Home Brother Charles is not enough to gain the film the contemporary notoriety it now maintains. This reputation lies in Charles’ weapon of choice for dispensing with those that wronged him: he strangles them with his enormous cock. This may sound like the ultimate blaxploitation film – the apex of the cycle’s fetishisation of black sexuality repurposed to avenge the racist white establishment – but instead, Fanaka’s film acts as a commentary on cinema and society’s fascination with black male sexual prowess and the mythology that surrounds it. Welcome Home Brother Charles therefore may not be a blaxploitation film, but the politics of the latter is fundamental in framing Fanaka’s film and its potency at the time of its release.
Revolutionary Sex: Blaxploitation and Male Sexuality
Observing the reaction of America’s black community to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971), psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint wrote:
The black man is America’s fearsome male sex symbol, and many black men love the image. “Don’t destroy the belief that we are sexually superior to white men,” they wryly insist. “That’s the one thing we’ve got going for us!” White society’s fantasies and fears created the stereotype of the black stud and today many black men feel they can use it to their advantage.”2
Van Peebles’ film was – and remains – a cultural and industrial touchstone for a variety of reasons. Although in hindsight the temporal context provided the febrile atmosphere for Sweet Sweetback’s existence – the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jnr. and Malcolm X, the rise of the Black Panthers and the urban unrest that plagued the period – and its appearance in American theatres in April 1971 ruptured the established order of cinema. Shot with an arthouse aesthetic with an emphasis on jump cuts and montages, the narrative of a male black sex worker who is both framed and brutalised by police and his escape across the Mexican border to freedom is bookended by a pair of taboos: close to the beginning is a glimpse of Sweetback’s semi-erect penis, and the film’s climax has the anti-hero escaping to freedom. Sweetback (played by Van Peebles himself) is framed, arrested, harassed and brutalised because of the colour of his skin; it is the size of his penis and his prowess with it that allows him to escape each time he is captured. With his final bid for freedom successful, the film challenged narrative orthodoxy that governs the protagonist must die, martyr-like, within sight of their goals (the futility of their quest quelling the desire for revolutionary action within the audience). Sweet Sweetback was different: his success justified the preceding action, including offering sexual favours in exchange for release.
The Black Panthers’s leader Huey P. Newton lauded the film for this philosophy,3 while n stark contrast, Ebony magazine’s editor Lerone Bennett was starkly opposed. In an essay titled “The Emancipation Orgasm” (1971), he stated that it “is necessary to say frankly that nobody ever fucked his way to freedom. And it is mischievous and reactionary for anyone to suggest to black people in 1971 that they are going to be able to screw their way across the Red Sea.”4 As Poussaint noted, although many black males enjoyed being viewed as ‘natural’ super studs, the stereotype was borne of a mythology created by whites as not only as a means of sowing the seeds of fear of black men mixing with white women, but also perpetuating a stereotype of sexual prowess being associated with inferior intellect, indolence and poor morals.
This ugly attitude has a history that of course predates cinema. Two hundred years earlier, Swedish botanist and explorer Peter Kalm published an account of his 1748-1751 expedition through North America. Amongst the descriptions of flora, fauna and the lives of the New World’s inhabitants is the relating of this incident, occurring near Albany involving a young girl on a country trip accompanied by her African-American servant. This serves as an early example of a fear of the black phallus emerging in the American psyche:
She sat down in the wood…and before she was aware a black snake being disturbed in its amours ran under her petticoat, and twisted round her waist, so that she fell backwards in a swoon…The negro came up to her, and…lifted up her cloathes, and found the snake wound about her body as close as possible; the negro was not able to tear it away, and therefore cut it, and the girl came to herself again; but she conceived so great an aversion to the negro, that she could not bear the sight of him afterwards, and died of a consumption.5
Kalm relates this in a matter-of-fact manner, being more concerned with the dangers posed by the local wildlife than analysing the correlation between the servant’s actions and the unfortunate young woman’s eventual fate. However, within his description is woven with sexualised language: the black snake disturbed in its “amours”, the girl falling into a “swoon”, the “negro” who “lifted up her cloathes (sic)”. The “negro’s” actions were those of a loyal servant offering assistance, yet the girl’s new-found aversion to her saviour speaks of a sense of revulsion – one borne of shame – and, in the reading, one that possibly contributed to her ill-health and death from Tuberculosis (the arcane term ‘consumption’ does aptly apply in this instance). The book’s section featuring this passage was widely reprinted, more for salacious reading no doubt than its herpetological musings.
This fear passed through American folklore and into film. In D.W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation (1915), Flora (Lillian Gish) would rather throw herself over a cliff than accept the marriage proposal of the leering recently freed slave, Gus (Walter Long, a white actor performing in blackface). When Hollywood was ready to tackle the difficult topic of miscegenation in 1968 it was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, but director Stanley Kramer’s limp liberal approach focused strictly on the love between characters played by Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton whilst deftly erasing any hint that the two of then actually enjoyed sex. Although made after the collapse of the Production Code, the hand-wringing in-laws (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) emit a stronger sexual chemistry.
It would be an easy yet exaggerated claim to suggest that Hollywood was heavily influenced by Sweet Sweetback, as MGM already had Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971) in production concurrently to Van Peebles’ film. Shaft opened on 2 July that same year, and this tale of the eponymous sexy, stylish black private detective (played by Richard Roundtree) was an immediate hit. MGM assisted its bookings into major theatres, however by this time the once-venerable studio was a shell of its former self and crippled by debt. Looking for a quick cash injection, the company greenlit a number of low-budget actioneers that could be shot fast and on the cheap. For a studio not versed in exploitation, few managed to turn a profit except Shaft. Shot on the street by veteran photographer Gordon Parks, Shaft had an energy, a vitality and a sense of the ‘now’ that the average studio production lacked. Part of that ‘now’ related to Shaft’s appeal to the female characters in the film and, although he appears to be in a relationship with a black woman, he casually enjoys sex with a white woman who offers herself to him, and he just as casually throws her out the next morning when he has work to do. Shaft may have reworked the genre to suit a ‘70s sensibility of racial diversity, but it barely updated the black phallus myth. The film’s success initiated a wave of studio produced black-themed films that, while initially popular with audiences were not unanimously embraced by black community’s leaders. Former head of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Junius Griffin, declared, “the transformation from the stereotyped Stephin’ Fetchit to Super Nigger is just another form of cultural genocide. The black community should deal with this problem by whatever means necessary.”6
If Shaft’s release marks the beginning of the major studio’s blaxploitation cycle, then the final entry of the Shaft franchise surely marks its end. On 19 February 1974, “The Machine Murder” went to air in the US on CBS’s television network, the seventh and final in the TV movie series of Shaft that the network had aired. It had screened in rotation with Hawkins, starring James Stewart as a folksy, down-home mid-west lawyer. In a misjudged piece of programming, CBS folded the audiences for Jimmy Stewart, Richard Roundtree (and alternating TV movies) into the one Tuesday night timeslot, alienating all demographics, resulting in both stars’ series to be cancelled.7 In those 944 days between Shaft’s big screen debut to the cancellation of its small screen offspring, Shaft had been a phenomenon. In that time, it had been a box office smash, and its sequels Shaft’s Big Score (Gordon Parks, 1972) and Shaft in Africa (John Guillermin, 1973) had enjoyed healthy, although declining popularity. The 1973-74 TV series had been a failed attempt to repackage the brand for a mainstream audience – diluting the sexuality, tempering the anger and calming the violence. From anti-establishment box office superstar to failed prime-time sleuth, the Shaft cycle mirrored that of the blaxploitation cycle. Within this period, not only did Black Caesar (Larry Cohen: 1973), Super Fly (Gordon Parks Jnr., 1973), Blacula (William Crain, 1972) and Slaughter (Jack Starrett, 1972) come and go from theatres, so did their sequels. Hollywood’s major studios lost interest in blaxploitation cinema, rationing out their African-American casting quota to the more acceptable faces of OJ Simpson, Bill Cosby (didn’t they work out well?) and Richard Pryor (in the process diluting the latter’s piercing stand-up fury). Even Poitier – the one bankable African American actor of the ‘60s – had given up acting, preferring a career behind the camera. For some African American actors and filmmakers, the blaxploitation era had produced gainful employment and artistic expression. Yet as Daniel J. Leab states, “for the most part it was not blacks who profited. Whites packaged, financed and sold these films and they received the bulk of the big money.”8
Beyond Blaxploitation: The L.A. Rebellion and Welcome Home Brother Charles
With the blaxploitation genre dead to Hollywood, the remnants of the sub-genre’s audience was picked on by the scavengers: the independent distributors. Crown International specialised in titillating tales of women in peril, but invariably enacting revenge in films that had the requisite amount of nudity and action for the drive-in market. From late 1975 to early 1976, their slate for release included such titles as Las Vegas Lady (Noel Nosseck, 1975), Pick-Up (John Winter, 1975), Hustler Squad (Cesar Gallardo, 1976) and The Pom Pom Girls (Joseph Ruben, 1976). In the middle of that standard fare, appearing in November 1975 was Crown’s only foray into black-themed cinema, Welcome Home Brother Charles. With an advertising tagline of “Big Charlie’s back in town to get his piece of the action!” accompanying an image of a black man swinging an indeterminate weapon (knocking a couple of white men into unconsciousness), the film appeared undistinguishable from the number of low-budget blaxploitation leftovers that stumbled in and out of theatres in the mid ‘70s. However, in terms of production and content it shared little with these films and even less with its distributor’s regular output.
Although released by a grindhouse distributor, Welcome Home Brother Charles was a film school project, directed by Fanaka and crewed with a number of his fellow students at UCLA’s Film School. More specifically, these students were all members of the L.A. Rebellion group within the school, founded in the late 1960s “as part of an Ethno-Communications initiative designed to be responsive to communities of color (also including Asian, Chicano and Native American communities).”9
In terms of an aesthetic principle, the group’s “(c)hief ambition was to rewrite the standard cinematic language of cuts, fades, frame composition, and camera movement in order to present their own ‘non-standard’ vision of black people and culture.”10 However, the political dogma of the L.A. Rebellion never adhered to a single political ideology, with the strands of cultural, revolutionary and African Marxism woven – often heatedly – through the group’s dynamic.11 A binding antipathy to Hollywood’s production mode and representation of people of colour was a binding commitment of the group, influenced by Latin America’s Third Cinema and Cinema Novo movements which “revealed a dynamic relationship among regionalism, national culture, history and class struggle”.12 The L.A. Rebellion produced a number of notable filmmakers including Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, 1978), Larry Clark (Passing Through, 1977), Halie Gerima (Bush Mama, 1979) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1992), all of whom created important documents of the black experience without ever exploiting it.
Welcome Home Brother Charles had a low-key release and contemporary reviews are difficult to find, with even the trade paper Variety (usually painstakingly thorough in its coverage) failing to provide a critical assessment. Sold as a blaxploitation entry, the film – in line with Crown’s usual policy – was booked into drive-ins and grindhouses. One of the latter was Chicago’s Oriental Theatre which had, like so many in the city’s Loop district, taken to grindhouse screenings in the early 1970s. In 1975 the theatre screened a mixture of blaxploitation, horror, martial arts and action flicks. With a sales pitch geared towards both action and blaxploitation, Brother Charles should have been a solid performer when it opened at The Oriental on the 21st November. However, it lasted only a week, selling a “dim” $6,000 worth of tickets.13 In comparison, the genuine blaxploitation entry Mean Johnny Barrows (directed by its star, Fred Williamson) opened the following week and recorded $12,000, still regarded as “tame” by Variety.14 That Mean Johnny Barrows fared tamely is indicative of a cycle in decline; that Brother Charles was such a poor performer indicates that it was not suited to that theatre or its audience. As Benshoff has stated,
In general, blaxploitation films depicted a stronger, more militant image of African Americans who triumphed over (frequently racist) white antagonists…The effect of this change on the construction of cinematic narrative was to flip the terms of the hierarchical white-black opposition rather than necessarily oppose it.15
This explains the appeal a number of the cycle’s more popular instalments including Shaft; Cleopatra Jones (Jack Starrett, 1972); The Legend of Nigger Charley (Martin Goldman, 1972) and Black Belt Jones (Robert Clouse, 1974) in which the protagonists assumed roles within genres that were usually the domain of white performers, with narratives updated to include the overthrow of a racist white villainy. Half a century of Hollywood’s carefully crafted generic tropes and conventions were not shaken up in these films, the inversion merely enabling the genre to remain stable, with only the protagonists altered and an infusion of 1970’s post-Production Code sensibilities. These included the now requisite emancipation orgasms, with several of the cycle’s titles happily appropriating euphemisms of the black phallus myth. If Black Gunn (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1972), Black Snake (Russ Meyer, 1973), Black Heat (Al Adamson, 1976) or even Shaft were too obvious in their naming, the likes of Trouble Man (Ivan Dixon, 1972), Hit Man (George Armitage, 1972) and – in a case of doubling down – Shaft’s Big Score (Gordon Parks, 1972) let the advertising make it clear. The phallus was a weapon: political power via the gun or the cock, take your pick.
Such was the flood of blaxploitation features that by 1975 Jamaa Fanaka could smuggle Welcome Home Brother Charles into theatres in the guise of yet another entry into the cycle. In this act of stealth, Fanaka confronted the in-built audience with a film that took the cycle’s carefully flipped generic conventions and tropes and scattered them to the wind. Fanaka dispenses with American commercial cinema’s adherence to narrative logic and verisimilitude: the easily identified elderly, bearded white man negotiating with a prostitute at the time of Charles’ arrest is later the judge at his trial; the cop spying on Charles during a stakeout sees his wife visiting Charles for sex; this same policeman faces no official consequences for his attempted castration of Charles and nor does his victim receive any legal representation at his trial. Similarly, no adequate explanation is given as to why Charles’ penis can grow to such extraordinary lengths (and asphyxiate his victims) at his will. For audiences attuned to the necessities of Hollywood convention, for the purpose of narrative logic and a semblance of reality these matters would require at least a perfunctory effort from the filmmaker and the denial of this appears the work of an incompetent.
Instead, it is the work of transgression. Fanaka relays the narrative as if it were a work of folklore, with characters reduced to types and logical stretches compressed to produce shorthand metaphors of institutional racism. Such corruption is so recognisable, so obvious and so systemic that it defied explanation. Previous denouncements of the system that adhered to conventional narrative form had failed, and with the blaxploitation cycle nearing its end a new approach was needed, one which hastily distilled the dozens of plot machinations that had been played and replayed throughout the cycle to date. Any narrative gaps are filled by Brother Charles’ realist aesthetic, one in which Fanaka (with the assistance of cinematographer Charles Burnett) captures the drab existence of those living in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the mid 1970s with slow pans, tracking shots and lingering stills. Most memorably conveyed is Charles’ prison confinement that, beginning with an eighty second, slow track down a prison cell corridor is accompanied by the ominous drawing of violin strings. Once in the cell, Charles’ term is reduced to a montage of black and white photographs depicting him in various states of intense disturbance. We then cut to Charles waking in his cell from a nightmare, his mental disintegration complete as he hits the back of his head against the cell wall. It is an aesthetic spatially informed by the realist tenet of the Cinema Novo and the temporality of the French New Wave, both of whom influenced L.A. Rebellion filmmakers.
With narrative and aesthetic choices deliberately veering away from the conventions of blaxploitation cinema (be it Hollywood or independent), only the basic plot scaffolding remains: the black man’s vengeance against a corrupt white established order. Yet here there was no ‘flipping’ of the hierarchy – this was pure opposition. The ‘superior’ sexual prowess of the black man had, by now, become one of blaxploitation’s dominant tropes and in Welcome Home Brother Charles‘ early scenes as he satisfies the detective’s white wife it appears that Fanaka is not deviating from the myth. But here, instead of emancipation, this orgasm only results in castration and incarceration. This strips the mythology back to its original intent: fear, prejudice and with a result in line with the punishment metered out upon black men who dared traverse the miscegenation barrier. When Charles gains his vengeance, it is through an eruption of hatred from deep within (his “soul vengeance”, you may say), yet it is made manifest by white intervention. His enormous killer cock was the result of surgical reattachment.
Welcome Home Brother Charles holds at its core the mythology of the black phallus – created by white men and imposed upon black men to promote fear, resentment and repulsion. For Charles to gain access to his intended male victims he seduces their wives, placing them in a trance-like state in which they let him into their homes to attack their husbands. Sexual conquest is a means to a violent end. Robin R. Coleman (2011) has noted the film echoes the writings of Eldrige Cleaver, the former Black Panther who had previously spent time in prison for rape.16 Charles’ motivations in seducing the wives coupled with the look of unbridled fury upon his face as he unleashes his cock upon his victims is reminiscent of this quote from Cleaver:
Many whites flatter themselves with the idea that the Negro male’s lust and desire for the White dream girl is purely an esthetic attraction, but nothing could be farther from the truth. His motivation is often of such a bloody, bitter, hateful and malignant nature that Whites would be hard pressed to find it flattering.17
If previous blaxploitation entries had expressed the black phallus mythology as a metaphorical bulge within the narrative’s pants, Fanaka unzips and exposes it for what it is: a white man’s attachment that is designed to denigrate and segregate. In this sense, as one of the final films of the period, Charles represents Sweetback, Shaft, Superfly, Truck Turner and all his other predecessors burdened with carrying the black phallus myth and the promise of the emancipation through orgasm.
Welcome Home Brother Charles therefore acts as a form of folklore or fable, one emphasised by the opening credits unfurling over the image of an African carved wooden statue of a man with an enormous erect penis. For the film’ protagonist, the life of sexual pleasure is wrenched back to a harsher, more brutal reality. Rather than achieving any ‘soul vengeance’, the film is a genuine welcome home to brother Charles (and Shaft and Superfly, et. al.): home is where the hatred is. Welcome Home Brother Charles ends with an unattributed quote printed on the screen, the essence of the realisation and subsequent resignation of the function of the black phallus mythology: “Let them indulge their pride if thinking I am destroyed is a comfort to them; let it be.” Jamaa Fanaka was correct in being angered by his films being revived as blaxploitation relics. In Welcome Home Brother Charles he had created a crucial critique of the cycle and the myth that endowed it to its denigration. It remains the first genuine cinematic commentary on the cycle and to view it as part of the cycle is to misunderstand its intent. If one must classify this film, it should reflect its knowledge of the cycle and use of it to create its own social and political message. How about Blaxploitation-sploitaion?
- Dennis McClennan, “Jamaa Fanaka dies at 69; dynamic black filmmaker,” Los Angeles Times, 4 April 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/04/local/la-me-jamaa-fanaka-20120404. ↩
- Alvin F. Poussaint, “Sex and the Black,” Ebony, August 1972, p. 114. ↩
- Paula J. Massood “Urban Cinema” in African Americans and Popular Culture, Todd Boyd, ed. (Praeger: Westport, 2008), p. 103 ↩
- Lerone Bennett Jr., “The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland,” Ebony, September 1971, p. 118. ↩
- Pehr Kalm, The America of 1750: Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America; the English Version of 1770, (New York: Dover Publications, 1966), p. 314. ↩
- Quoted in “Blacks vs. Shaft,” Newsweek, 28 August 1972, p. 88. ↩
- Steve Aldous, The World of Shaft. A Complete Guide to the Novels, Comic Strip, Films and Television Series, (Denver: McFarland Publications, 2015), p. 14. ↩
- Daniel J. Leab, From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1975), p. 259. ↩
- “The Story of L.A. Rebellion” U.C.L.A. Film and Television Archive, accessed 9 July 2016 https://blaxploitation.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/story-la-rebellion . ↩
- James Snead, White Screens Black Images, Hollywood from the Darkside (New York: Routledge, 1994) p. 117. ↩
- Ntongela Masilela, “The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers” Black American Cinema Manthia Diawara, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2012, p. 109. ↩
- Ibid, p. 110. ↩
- “’Nest’ Smash 50G, Chi; ‘Charles’ Dim 6G. ‘Quilip’ Sluggish $11,500,” Variety, 26 November 1975, p.13. ↩
- “’Exhibition’ Socko $10,000, Chi; ‘Scarlet’ Fine 22G, ‘Nest’ 46 ½ G,” Variety, 3 December 1975, p.14. ↩
- Harry M. Benshoff, “Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?,” Cinema Journal 39 (Winter 2000): p. 31. ↩
- Robin R. Means Coleman Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 129. ↩
- Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York: Delta, 1968), p. 17. ↩