Thursday, August 9, 2012

Darktown Strutters

Psychedelic girl power biker flick blaxploitation surrealist craziness! Welcome to the weird, weird world of Darktown Strutters!
Whatta poster! Our heroine is Syreena, played by Trina Parks, who was so very memorable as Thumper in Diamonds Are Forever. She and her all-woman biker gang have come to Watts in search of Cinderella, Syreena's mother. And this is not just any ol' biker gang. Their rides -- somewhere between trikes and choppers -- are customized beyond all human reckoning or probably driveability and their outfits are a hybrid of Elvis jumpsuits, showgirl headresses, variety show Cher and Diana Ross' drag in Mahaogany.
Eventually they meet up with a bumbling male motorcycle gang, the Batch, gang led by Mellow, who rides a Vespa dressed up as a Pirate of the Carribbean and is played by Roger E. Mosley, better known as T.C. from Magnum P.I. I think one of 'em might be the guy who played Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnatti. After some partying Sweetback-style, she tracks down her brother, who is enacting the "kung fu school in the ghetto"  trope that makes any movie better.
The world of Darktown Strutters is cartoonish in the extreme. There's the over-the-top bikes and costumes of the characters, while the sets are primary-colored and reminiscent of a children's television playhouse. The acting makes the work of William Shatner look sublte and, when that's not enough, scenes are overcranked to silent-movie speed and plenty of boing, zap and ooga ooga. And sometimes there's dance breaks. The whole movie stops so people can dance. And not in a choreographed "this is a musical" way. No, it's a "let's put on a record and dance" way.
Syreena dresses up as a nun, a policewoman, a flapper hooker using her natural poise and take-charge manner to stomp along in her quest to find her mother. It is to Trina Parks' credit that she seems to simultaneously roll with the insanity around her, yet remain slightly above it.
It also helps that the villains are even more ridiculous than the ostensible good guys. The police crash around in cars with sirens that cover the entire hood, put on blackface and drag to chase killers, frequently get stuck in their cop cars, and Syreena easily plays them like Obi Wan plays the Stormtroopers. In Darktown Strutters we have the classic pulp/noir plotline of protagonist returns home, searches for missing family member by asking many questions and visiting many character actors before finally coming to the top of the conspiracy.
After battling the KKK on a merry-go-round, following the Cowboy to the Pot-Sicle Factory and watching the Dramatics sing "What You See Is What You Get" in full spangly jumpsuits and choreography, but behind bars in a papier-mache dungeon we come to our final showdown. It seems that the Colonel Sanders-like head of the Sky Hog rib franchise, has kidnapped Cinderella as part of his plot to kidnap and brainwash Black leaders. (A plot concept also used in Undercover Brother.) At home, he likes to dress up in a pig costume and watch minstrel shows. He also has a giant mechanical womb named Annie that he is trying to use to make clones. Or something. Whatever, womb-controlling racist politically right-wing fast-food guy.
On the blaxploitation scale, Darktown Strutters is definitely in the upper 20% -- people who have a need for logic and a distaste for the infeasible might not think so, but fuck them. Darktown Strutters is certainly worth watching, even more so in these times when the idea of a evil, oppressive fast-food magnate is not so hard to believe....

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