Bullet Points: Black Trash aka Death of a Snowman
Bulletproofaction.com has been known to be on the vanguard of highlighting action movies that provide a meaningful social commentary along with entertainment. Somehow the powers that be behind this enlightened site have still bypassed the Blaxploitation genre of action films that provide said commentary and said entertainment. Where are the Shafts, Coffys, Super Flys, Dolemites or The Monkey Hu$tles? There is not enough Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier, Ron O’Neal, Rudy Ray Moore and especially Yaphet Kotto represented at Bulletproofaction.com. These films and others were especially important in the 1970s, but sometimes controversial, due to their role in race relations in the United States. However, these films were not limited to American cinema as you might think. South Africa in the ‘70s was still stuck in the despicable throws of apartheid, but that did not stop South African filmmakers from dipping their toes in the Blaxploitation waters as a way to speak out. In 1976 Black Trash hit the silver screen ready to “sikhombise umhlaba okukhulu Blaxploitation ifilimu.” So how does South African exploitation stack up with the rest? You’ll have to read to discover.
First of all, there is one glaring flaw that also happens to be one of Chris The Brain’s biggest pet peeves, multiple titles. There are four different titles that you might run across but they are all the same movie: Black Trash, Death of a Snowman, Soul Patrol, and Harlem Black Muscle. Luckily for you, I am not as pigheaded as CTB and I will provide some Bullet Points. So if you too can forgive the identity crisis, which is a common problem for international films with several releases from different companies, we can finally get to the heart of the matter.
- Black Trash: The movie I turn on every time I am looking for some action with entertaining South African accents (forget you, District 9 or Invictus) is called Black Trash and actually has back to back unrelated looking title screens that both say Black Trash with the first title screen even providing a voice over that says Black Trash.
Steve Chaka (Ken Gampu from American Ninja 4: The Annihilation) is a dedicated reporter and journalist for a major Johannesburg newspaper in South Africa. Chaka’s best friend is grizzled cop Ben Deel (Nigel Davenport from Nighthawks.) Right off the start we have a major difference in this film. Chaka is black and Deel is white, not a common friendship in American Blaxploitation. When a vigilante group, the aptly named War on Crime, starts taking out the major criminals in Johannesburg with the plan to help feed and clothe the children, Chaka writes favorably angering Deel’s superior, only called the Captain. The Captain has never liked Chaka, finally some racism (not that I am happy about it), and forces Deel to keep tabs on Chaka. There is not really any hate speech or racial slurs that were common in American Blaxploitation, which hopefully most of you have never uttered or been a victim of and the filmmakers allowed the action to stand on its own. Although not entirely realistic, as a young lad I heard many slurs that deflowered my virgin ears growing up on the rough and tough hardscrabble streets of Soweto, it does not distract from the auteur’s vision. Chaka and Deel do share a meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which can be viewed as a stereotype, but the scene is touching and is a much better commercial for the chicken giant than an annoying fake Colonel Sanders.
- Death of a Snowman: Many of you might know the film as Death of a Snowman, which is the title under which you can purchase the DVD. I never liked that title because I am such a big Jerry Reed fan.
It turns out that War on Crime is not in the vigilante game to save the children, but to eliminate the competition in order to flood the city with heroin and get the people hooked, just like they did in New York City. You start by giving it out for free and once the people are addicted you have them paying what you want. Business wise this is not a bad plan, but totally illegal and immoral so forget about it. The head of the syndicate is Luther Daniels aka Snowman. (Another reason not to like this alternate title is that it probably just gave away the ending. Or did it?) Snowman is an American drug dealer from Cleveland, OH who became friends with the mafia and big time player in the heroin business. Who can save the denizens of Joburg? Chaka Khan? No Steve Chaka can. Chaka and Deel work the case from their own angles leaving explosions and bodies in their wake. This is a common Blaxploitation theme, the hero helping the poor urban disenfranchised populace. The only difference with Black Trash is the color of the two hero’s skin. I don’t know if this because of the altruistic vision of the filmmakers or was a necessity for the South African movie going public, but I enjoyed it.
- Soul Patrol: Black Trash was later released in the US as Soul Patrol, which I like because it rhymes, but it doesn’t really fit the story like the other two.
Music is very important to the ethos of Blaxploitation cinema. Shaft and Super Fly are pretty much all that need to be said to prove my point. Funk and soul jazz are the backbone with the bass being a favorite instrument. Black Trash has a funky opening song that pulls you in right from the start. The soundtrack, in my aural opinion, goes a step beyond because why there is always the bass heavy funk, there is more variety, including some disco hued numbers and slower piano pieces. Black Trash even used the blind guitarist gag way before Road House (RIP Jeff Healey.) Most of this music makes sense because it happens at different types of clubs, which brings me to another tenet of Blaxploitation, and exploitation in general, nudity. The nudity at a topless club may be brief, but there is enough zeal and sex appeal throughout Black Trash to keep the Cro-Magnons in the audience excited. One of the best quotes in the movie is an adult themed double entendre. Two of Chaka’s American colleagues are discussing an upcoming date for one of them. “I want a blow by blow recap” responded by, “With any luck.” Get it?
- Harlem Black Muscle: The worst alternate title is Harlem Black Muscle because it lumps this hidden gem in with all the other Blaxploitation films that have Harlem in the title. [Cotton Comes to Harlem, The Guy from Harlem, Harlem Nights, Hell Up in Harlem to name a few, but all are still recommended viewing.] Also, the only connection to New York is that Snowman dealt some drugs in the Big Apple and Chaka’s American journalist that help research Snowman are in New York. Snowman is black, but his team of thugs, or muscle if you will, is mostly white.
A staple in Blaxploitation films is action, and Black Trash does not disappoint. There are shoot-outs, explosions, guys hanging from airplanes, and numerous car chases and car crashes. My favorite car chase features an orange Dodge Charger being chased by a cop. It is just like watching a right-hand drive version of The Dukes of Hazard. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the classic exploitation violence against women and children that peeks its ugly head into Black Trash from time to time.
Overall, Black Trash is truly a Blaxploitation film that varies slightly from its more famous American cousins, but that is what makes it stick out from the crowd. It shouldn’t be hard to find, you have four titles to find it under so give it a gander. And as my good friend Bill says, what’s in a name? That which we call a Blaxploitation film by any other name would be as sweet. You are right, Bill, it doesn’t matter what you call it. A sweet Blaxploitation action flick is a sweet Blaxploitation action flick.