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Monday, 9 May 2016

DR BLACK, MR HYDE (1976)

“Just what do you mean by ‘somewhat experimental’?

‘Blaxploitation’ was essentially exploitation cinema but specifically ‘commercially-minded films of the ‘70s for a black audience’. In the era of Nixon and Watergate, the civil rights struggle of the 1960s had still left black people disempowered in the real world - yet on screen between 1971-1976 there was a ground-breaking new sub-genre of films featuring black representatives who won battles, effected change and were bursting with charismatic confidence. They kicked ass, looked good and were underscored by super-cool soundtracks. They portrayed aspects of the black experience but with the politics almost wholly removed for maximum box-office - hence the exploitation label rather than 'Black Cinema'. This would always be a controversial move, laying it open to accusations of degradation instead of cultural advancement.

The acceptance of African-American actors in Hollywood lead roles had taken an appallingly long time for a progressive society. After decades of relegation as utility ‘negro’ servants and other offensive, slow ‘Yassir’ drawling comic sterotypes, change was a long time coming. In the late ‘60s Sidney Poitier emerged as a black leading man without a trace of tokenism in the Virgil Tibbs films beginning with the terrific In the Heat of the Night. It wasn’t until 1969 though that Jim Brown became the first black actor on-screen to play a love-scene with a Caucasian woman (Racquel Welch) in 100 Rifles.  The success of the film at last convinced studios that there was an audience for empowered black characters in movies.

As much as it arguably exploited their heritage for white studio bosses, Blaxploitation also made money and created opportunities for black actors, film-makers and spread its fan-base to a wider audience, even more so in the decades since. Blaxploitation was no different to regular exploitation cinema; it took advantage of big box-office crazes from other genres. Urban crime flicks were supplemented by the new fashion for Bruce Lee’s imported kung-fu and Hammer horror with varying success. If it was popular, it was incorporated and no idea was too outlandish if the public queued for it. ‘Black Hollywood’ as it could be labelled briefly was driven by trends not agit-prop politics, just like the mainstream.

After Blaxploitation’s varying success with the Blacula films and then the embarrassingly poor Blackenstein, the director of Blacula, William Crain, along with Dimension Pictures gave audiences a transmutation of another Universal icon in Dr Black, Mr Hyde. It’s fitting that the studio chose the Jekyll and Hyde story as the resulting film has the split-personality of many from the genre - movies that earnestly want to represent the black community as a weapon of some integrity amidst the crowd-pleasing, whilst simultaneously shooting itself in the foot. Whilst its tone suggests a knowing humour, time and again characters are drawn with positive attributes and then the script delivers a face-palming error of representation that undoes the good intentions.

Dr Black, Mr Hyde overall has relatively decent production values, not that you’d know it from the beginning. Dr Pride (black pride? – a hint at the political conscience attempted) played by Bernie Casey spends most of his work-time at a hospital staffed apparently by just two orderlies, two nurses and only him as the MD on duty. Casey had a long career on screen following eight years in NFL American football, appearing in all genres from Guns of the Magnificent Seven, roles for Scorsese and John Landis (Boxcar Bertha and Spies like Us), to TV sci-fi in Deep Space Nine, to name but a few.

Pride starts off either weighed down by the ennui of unfulfilled life, or it’s Casey’s possible resignation about the woeful material in the opening visitor tour scene. Certainly the character is making the best of things as he moonlights part-time, sharing his skills for free at the local Free Clinic and Thrift Shop - although his prostitute friend Linda (Marie O’Henry) feels he is not being true to his people: “The only time you’re around black people is when you’re down here clearing your conscience”. To be fair, Pride probably deserves this for two reasons. Firstly, the poor girl is unnecessarily topless in the scene where all he needs to perform is a stethoscope check on her breathing from the back and a cursory inexplicable jiggle of her pelvis. (The producers’ crass bid for populism warps Malcolm X’s call to mobilisation into ‘tits by any means necessary’).  Secondly, he’s just insulted her by stating the obvious about her own work: “Obviously, prostitution’s not the healthiest job to have”. Linda tries to dignify being a hooker as a self-empowered choice rather than lowering herself to be someone’s minimum-wage toilet cleaner. This is meant as an admirable moment of social realism, but any sympathy for sex workers is poorly represented later when one of her prostitute friends decries the slow week as being bad for business and because “I’m horny too” - as though that’s another reason why she would resort to it.

Privately, the not-exactly-good doctor is less of a saint than his altruistic slumming suggests. He’s been testing a secret serum on lab animals that turns their fur pigmentation white; however it also turns them into savage beasts. Knowing the limitations of his rats and guinea-pigs, he decides he must upgrade to “A human factor”. No prizes for guessing where there’s a plentiful supply of those nearby. It isn’t long before a female patient is wheeled in sans next of kin and before you can say Hippocratic Oath, he’s injected her with the drug. Soon she develops the albino skin, pale eyes and whitened hair reminiscent of Rosalind Cash in The Omega Man, who by pure coincidence plays Pride’s colleague Dr Billie Worth here. The impatient patient attacks a nurse before changing back into normal human appearance.

Incidentally, the prosthetic make-up in the film is by effects maestro Stan Winston of Terminator, Jurassic Park and Aliens fame. Clearly, he also helped those less fortunate than himself.
Pride’s conscience thus far doesn’t bother him, despite Billie’s appeals. “I don’t know where I’m going to get another patient” he ponders, staring off into the distance in a meaningful poised close-up like a bad soap-opera. Eventually, he opts to get high on his own stash and subjects himself to the serum. As the effect kicks in, he writhes in agony, or seemingly indigestion, and rises up to reveal the same facial changes as his human guinea-pig. With the added heavy Neanderthal brow, the combined result on him is reminiscent of Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk of two years later. This is a Hyde with a difference though. Rather than simply being Pride’s bestial altar-ego, added to his primitive super-strength and rage he retains his civilised self’s articulacy and displays a nifty line in flamboyant martial arts – complete with Bruce Lee-style cawing.

Pride/Hyde gets to flex his newly-acquired skills on a trio of street pimps, not the last time in the film we see examples of this (by now dated?) caricature of entrepreneurialism. Meanwhile, inside the Moonlight Lounge club another posturer by the name of Silky parades his top-hat and cane stereotype. He’s fooling no-one though. Underneath his Mack preening, he’s a snivelling inadequate who gets his ass kicked not only by a threatening mobster, but literally so by one of his own girls. Enter the doctor, who proceeds to beat up all the thugs in the bar before transforming back just in time in the parking lot to avoid being identified.

The writer, Lawrence Woolner (who later went on to co-found New World Pictures with Roger Corman) feels the need to reinforce Pride’s virtuous credentials by showing him slipping money to a hard-up mother in the hospital who cannot afford to pay for her son’s drugs. Maybe he’s trying to pay off his latent conscience because it still doesn’t inhibit him in an argument with Billie from continuing his experiments and a vendetta against the pimping fraternity. We soon discover from a date with Linda why Pride makes such a personal crusade of erasing these ghetto lowlifes and why he has such an interest in her welfare. His alcoholic mother struggled to raise him whilst working as a cleaner to the rich, often leaving him in the care of hookers. This is Bernie Casey’s best scene in the film, a poignant confessional that has him tearing up as he recalls running to the neighbours as a boy after she collapsed.

Back at Pride’s home, he then renders the evening even more of a downer by heavily suggesting she also inject the drug. When she refuses, there is a disturbing tone to his “What if I insist?” He shoots up first, which makes her understandably less than reassured by his sudden bleached appearance and berserk anger management issues. She flees the scene with him in hot pursuit - cue ‘70s wah-wah jive on the sound-track

The finding of a hooker’s body the next day livens things up by ushering in the detective duo of O’Connor and Jackson, played by Milt Kogan and Ji-Tu Cumbuka. In real-life, Kogan was a trained MD, known for his cop namesake in the long-running TV sitcom Barney Miller. The 6’ 5” Cumbuka built up an impressive resume, mainly of TV work from a challenged upbringing without the support of a Baptist minister father who preached that acting was ‘the devil’s work’. His Detective Jackson is presented as a sharply-dressed man of self-respect in the black community, and yet his vocabulary veers from highly-sophisticated words such as ‘insalubrious’ to rough bursts of ebonics. Discovering the corpse, he tells Kogan:  “Somebody has put some shit in the game, know what I mean?” His partner is as perplexed as us. In the office, after taking some heat on the ‘phone he slams down the receiver with a street-hustler’s “Jive-ass sucker!”.

Back on those streets, Silky the crap pimp still hasn’t got the message that he’s not cut out for this line of work. Replacing Linda with a white pro prompts a brief girl-on-girl cat-fight: “Who you callin’ bitch, ho?” before Pride turns up and uses kung-fu and a car to effect a career change by running over his new employee and ramming Silky with it.

To try to balance the vicarious thrill of seeing our vigilante ‘hero’ sweeping the scum away, we see a brief split-personality inner struggle in front of his bathroom mirror a’la Smeagol/Gollum. Unsurprisingly, his commercially exploitative dark side wins out, despite Casey’s quietly effective playing: “This is real – and it’s too late to change”. Even Billie’s threat to turn him in can’t stop his confused vendetta borne of a haunted childhood. He has always been mother’s Pride.

The climax where Pride captures Billie and is corned by the police at Watts Towers is well-staged and makes good use of aerial footage as he scales the tower solo. The deliberate homage to King Kong is an uncomfortable racial issue, especially if too close a comparison is made between Kong and the doctor’s ape-like transformation. Regardless, Pride comes before a fall, and fall he does – in an impressive stunt dive off the tower.

Released in 1976, Dr Black, Mr Hyde was the last gasp for Blaxploitation as a viable economic movement for black advancement in the entertainment industry. There was never a question of film-makers lacking the talent so much as judgement.  Whenever valiant bids were made in the genre to sew in subtle references to the modern black experience, all too often they were lost in favour of appealing to the lowest and widest denominator of audience. (Did anyone really register Pride’s experiments as a metaphor for the U.S. government’s notorious covert syphilis testing on black college students in Tuskegee?).

Dr Black, Mr Hyde hints at what could have been possible, but in solely celebrating primitive fun ends up failing to do either very well. The terrific artwork of the poster campaign shows where the energy went instead.

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