Original Gangstas

USA 1996, 99 mins
Director: Larry Cohen

The story of Original Gangstas is built round a confrontation with the imagery of gang violence, and the first indication of its revisionist intent is the fact it’s produced by Fred Williamson’s own company Po’Boy Productions, which churned out some of the most inept Black movies of the late 70s and early 80s (Death Journey, Mr Mean). The director is Larry Cohen, who had also directed Williamson in Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem. The film is set in Gary, Indiana, where a Black youth, Kenny, is shot dead by a gang, the Rebels, after he wins a bet at a basketball game. The owner of the local corner shop reports the drive-by car’s licence number to the police, and is shot and wounded in his turn. His son, John (Williamson), who 20 years earlier was a founder member of the Rebels, flies into town. Shocked by the violence that the gang is now visiting in its own neighbourhood, he begins recruiting his old buddies to break up the Rebels.

Though modelled on The Magnificent Seven, the plot subverts the preening macho of the 70s. As it must. When Fred Williamson’s screen father is shot and he arrives to sort matters out, you’re almost tempted to tell him to get his old ass out of there. This may be an action movie, but the old action hero is to be flanked by his even older Blaxploitation colleagues Jim Brown (Three the Hard Way), Ron O’Neal (Superfly), Pam Grier (Foxy Brown) and Richard Roundtree (Shaft). The idea seems ridiculous. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the use of the 70s stars has a deliberate and polemical purpose. All five, it transpires, were founder members of the Rebels, now run by Spiro and Damian, drug-dealing gang leaders in the New Jack City mould, who hold the local community hostage by killing witnesses, burning down houses and shooting all who get in their way. Williamson is now a famous Black football star who now lives in luxury in California – OJ perhaps? Brown is a decayed fighter who has deserted his wife and son Kenny (whose murder begins the film). Grier is Brown’s wife, mourning her dead child. O’Neal and Roundtree have remained in the old neighbourhood but abandoned all pretensions to leadership, keeping their heads down in order to survive. Williamson faces the same accusation on all sides: that he started the gang, pioneered its methods, then moved away and abandoned the old neighbourhood to its fate. ‘You’re pissed off,’ the mayor tells him, when he demands police protection for the neighbourhood, ‘because you’ve become a victim of something you started.’

‘These kids aren’t like we used to be,’ everyone tells him. ‘They don’t even want to get out.’ So Brown, when he arrives, is faced with the parallel charge of having created a culture of violence around him, then leaving his wife and child to try and survive it.

The arguments don’t simply echo Black critiques of the Blaxploitation heroes. By implication the film aims these charges at Brown’s and Williamson’s generation of Black men. The world to which they have returned is a dysfunctional and crazy place where the lunatics have taken over, and in the sense that they themselves have created these conditions it’s their own fault. When Brown confronts the gang leader and accuses him of murdering his son, the boy replies, ‘I am your son. You created me, and now you want to kill me?’

Framing this discussion about the role of Black fathers and their relationship to ghetto violence is another argument about employment and the economy. The first frame tells us Gary is a steel town where the industry has collapsed. Williamson’s father talks about the life he’s given to his job in the steel mill, and how the decline of the local economy has affected the town. The gang members dance the night away in an abandoned warehouse, and another gang occupies the former steel mill. Everything is rusting and dilapidated. The mayor manages crimewaves by negotiating to contain their gang activities within their neighbourhoods.

The use of the five former Blaxploitation stars creates a curious dialogue across time, as if the actors were personalities arguing with younger, more naive, less sensitive versions of themselves; which in a sense is precisely what’s happening. This is a debate which has been heating up among African Americans, sparked off partly by Louis Farrakhan’s lectures, partly by the challenges of Black women, partly by the sickening parade of violence and addiction among young Black men. In comparison with their younger selves the five are racked by doubt, uncertainty and the consciousness of failure. Nevertheless, the film signals an interesting indication that the core of Black opinion, bolstered by groups like the Muslims, is preparing to wrestle with the contemporary heroes of gangster chic for control of the imagery of Black identity.

As a result I suspect that Original Gangstas will be seen in very different ways by Black and white audiences. What’s extraordinary is that Cohen, its white director, has entered the argument in a more or less unselfconscious mood, so that (as with all the better Black films of recent years) it delivers arguments and debates with its core audience’s interests in a way which can sound crudely polemical to whites untouched by the emotional resonances. On the other hand, its five big names were once the hottest items in town – and stars never quite fade, even in the movies. In all the years since I last saw Williamson and Brown on the screen it never occurred to me that they could be touching, but when the old warriors end the movie by walking off into a metaphorical sunset I swear I was moved.
Mike Phillips, Sight and Sound, August 1996

Director: Larry Cohen
Production Companies: Po’Boy Productions, Orion Pictures
Producer: Fred Williamson
Line Producer: Linda Williamson
Unit Production Manager: Bob Manning
Location Manager: Scott Jager
Post-production Supervisor: Judith Blume
2nd Unit Director: Paul Kurta
1st Assistant Director: Forrest Futrell
2nd Assistant Director: Brian W. Boyd
2nd 2nd Assistant Director: Tim Christenson
Script Supervisor: Linda Leifer
Casting: Craig Campobasso
Casting (ADR Voice): L.A. MadDogs
Screenplay: Aubrey Rattan
Director of Photography: Carlos González
B Camera/Steadicam Operator: David McGill
Special Effects: Bob Shelley
Editors: David Kern, Peter B. Ellis
Production Designer: Elayne Barbara Ceder
Costume Designer: Lisa Moffie
Wardrobe Supervisors: Deborah Araya, Sandra Jensen
Wardrobe Supervisor: Susan Kaufmann
Key Hair/Make-up: Connie Kallos
Titles/Opticals: Cinema Research Corporation
Music: Vladimir Horunzhy
Executive Music Producers: David Chackler, Eric Brooks
Music Editor: Lisé Richardson
Music Scoring Mixer: Andy Mackenzie
Sound Mixer: J. Byron Smith
Recordist: Mark Harris
Re-recording Mixers: Steve Pederson, Scott Ganary, Jim Fitzpatrick
Supervising Sound Editor: Richard Taylor
Dialogue Editors: Dennis Gray, Ben Beardwood, Ralph Osborn
Sound Effects Editors: Joseph Earle, Mitch Getlleman, Myron Nettinga, Kenneth Johnson
ADR Editor: James Hebenstreit
ADR Mixer: Greg Steele
ADR Recordist: Tami Treadwell
Foley Editors: Eric Erickson, David Hankins
Foley Artists: Alyson Dee Moore, Nancy Parker
Stunt Co-ordinator: Bob Minor
Utility Stunts: Tony Brubaker, Walter King, Ousaun Elam, David Hernandez, Dwayne Mcgee, Angel Devalle, Gerard Williams, Darren Bond, Carlos Murray, Bob Stuart, Thomas Boone, Orvell Sterling II, Joseph Caballero

Fred Williamson (John Bookman)
Jim Brown (Jake Trevor)
Pam Grier (Laurie Thompson)
Paul Winfield (Reverend Dorsey)
Isabel Sanford (Gracie Bookman)
Ron O’Neal (Bubba)
Robert Forster (Detective Statten)
Charles Napier (Mayor Ritter)
Wings Hauser (Michael Casey)
Frank Pesce (Detective Waits)
Richard Roundtree (Slick)
Christopher B. Duncan (Spyro)
Tim Rhoze (Blood)
Eddie ‘Bo’ Smith Jr (Damien)
Godfrey C. Danchimah (Marcus)
Oscar Brown Jr (Marvin Bookman)
Seraiah Carol (Thelma Jones)
Dru Down (Kayo)
Shyheim Franklin (Dink)
Dawn Stern (Princess)
Timothy Lewis (Kenny Thompson)
Lisa Marie Bright (Lisa Bookman)
Kevin Watson (Bobby)
Anthony Snowden (doctor)
Nick Edenetti (TV announcer)
Jacqueline Swike (TV news reporter)
Kimberly Shufford (lady in gym)
Idella Haywood (2nd lady in gym)
1st Baptist Church Choir (Christian Chapel Choir)
Raymond Taylor (boy left in street)
Scarface (rebel guard at party)
Bushwick Bill (party cigar smoker)
Dani Girl (dancer at party)
Luniz (customers at Thelma’s cafe)
The Chi-Lites (themselves)

USA 1996
99 mins

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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