"It’s her eyes I remember best. They were large and brown. Exotic, to me anyway. Haunting. Or haunted. Either way, they burned right through you but not in a witchy, malevolent way. They were kind, her eyes. Hopeful, even. On Saturday, July 10, 2010, Vonetta McGee’s eyes closed forever."
So begins Richard Harland Smith’s beautiful, poetic tribute to Vonetta McGee, an actress who was underrated and frequently dismissed because of the films she made, films which included Blacula, Shaft in Africa, Detroit 9000 and Thomasina and Bushrod. McGee also appeared in Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction, as well as Dan Curtis’ well-regarded TV film The Norliss Tapes. To these eyes, growing up in the ‘70s and watching her whenever I got the chance (though I grew familiar with her at first largely from published stills from the movies I was either still too young to see or which never played my hometown), she was as lovely as it seemed possible to be. But when I started catching the movies themselves, I discovered that she had a flinty spirit about her, an appealing toughness to contrast the softness of her beauty which made her an interesting screen presence even when her talent outshone her roles (which it most often did). She made quite an impression on me as Prince Mamuwalde’s bride, whose reincarnated self becomes Blacula’s romantic target, but perhaps even more so as the African princess who guides Richard Roundtree’s Shaft round about the true motherland experience in John Guillermin’s punchy and unusual Shaft in Africa.
When I found my way to Richard’s tribute over at Movie Morlocks this morning, I was stricken with sadness at seeing the gallery of photos he has provided, each one testifying to the woman’s sensitivity and spirit, and now in retrospect to her vulnerability. McGee, 65, died Friday at a hospital in Berkeley after experiencing cardiac arrest and being on life support for two days, according to family spokeswoman Kelley Nayo. Although McGee had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 17, Nayo emphasized that her death was not related to the disease. I highly recommend a visit to Richard’s lovely piece, the better to remember Vonetta McGee with sadness, yes, but also with an eye toward the vital and talented actress and human being she was. Richard’s words capture her contribution to the movies and to our hearts far better than mine ever could, and he has my thanks for sending her off in such a moving fashion.