Produced by Ronald K. Goldman (the man who brought you previously marginal blaxploitation classics like Sweet Jesus, Preacherman and The Black Gestapo), the typically crude, rude and violent Brotherhood of Death (1976) hitched its wagon to the tail-end of the first wave of low-budget, African-American-centric action pictures of the ‘70s, cruising straight through rural Southern drive-ins and urban fleapit cinemas, where it was a minor hit, and into relative obscurity. From there it was eventually rescued, its reputation revived somewhat courtesy of Quentin Tarantino’s evangelistic pursuit of genre cinema’s dimmest, dankest corners, to live again on DVD and now as one more choice you didn’t know you had to make on Netflix Streaming.
Taken strictly as a time-capsule specimen, of a popular film trend as well as a hazy glimpse back at life in the still turbulent post-Civil Rights Movement South, Brotherhood of Death definitely has a pulse. The movie opens on a montage of scenes seen from a car driving through a small Southern town—we see the black citizenry at work in the fields, milling about outside their less-than-modest homes, their children playing in the streets. The relative peace of their business can’t conceal the air of oppression that still hangs in the air. Without a whiff of art (and not much craft either), the soundtrack that accompanies these images is what raises a viewer’s expectations. As they observe the wary faces which we also see, we hear the voices of two white men as they drive past, chewing the gristle about changes in the South they’re none too happy about:
“I was readin’ about what Johnson’s doing for these niggers down here. None of the niggers down here didn’t want none of that free stuff till the federals started spoon-feedin’ ‘em. They was happy. They took it easy. They didn’t work too hard. They had plenty of work when they needed it. They see ‘em out in the fields and they feel sorry for ‘em— ‘Oh, look, they’re workin’ too hard!’ They don’t realize all that breedin’ in Africa made ‘em fit for all that physical labor. They like it! ‘Course pickin’ bananas off all them trees made ‘em lazy.”
Those who still harbor the illusion that we’re living in some ill-defined “post-racial America” and would watch this opener wagging fingers from a perch of assumed enlightenment need only be reminded of how fundamentally similar these observations are to the ones which got that thought-impaired duckhead Phil Robertson in so much temporary hot water a few months ago, and how quickly his reactionary support base jumped to his defense. Within the social context of its time the sequence packs an unexpected punch. And maybe even because of our knowledge of how these festering feelings, thanks to social media, are now often brought out, wriggling and spewing into the open, it’s even more wrenching. In the contrast between the images of beaten-down glances, of toil only a few generations removed from that of slave labor, and the smug, self-righteous entitlement of the white boys behind the wheel, Brotherhood of Death grabs onto a little power and casually gives it a good shake.
Unfortunately, that’s only the first five minutes. Post opening credits, you can practically hear the air leaking out of the movie as it lurches into its setup. Three African-American pals (Le Tari, Haskell Anderson and Washington Redskins wide receiver Roy Jefferson, all three only as good in their roles as the circumstances require), fed up with the continued violent influence of the Klan in their hometown, somewhat illogically decide that volunteering for army service in the jungles of Vietnam (or in this case, some wooded park area outside of Washington, D.C.) is the better option for healthy, sustained living. It’s here where they learn the guerrilla tactics that they will eventually take home and put to use against their local grand wizards and the sheriff’s corrupt deputies. (As depicted here, the Viet Cong prove much less resilient than your average bloodthirsty redneck, easily dispatched after having interrupted our heroes hanging out in the woods—er, jungle, toking on some really good Vietnamese shit.)
Once back home, they try to channel their new sense of empowerment into helping battle the various social injustices in their town. But soon enough one of their buddies fall victim to a Klansman who doesn’t take too kindly to their uppity behavior (recruiting black folks to vote??!!), and the friends realize that the only effective way to fight a cross-burning racist is with punji sticks, land mines and other really aggressive countermeasures.
The prevailing aesthetic in Brotherhood of Death is, as you might have guessed, bare-bones. Outside of that opening sequence (and a glimpse of a Ku Klux Klan billboard-- see above-- spotted outside Smithfield, North Carolina, the image of which is repurposed for the end credits), the movie’s low-down verisimilitude is almost entirely staged, having been shot in the rural areas outlying Washington, D.C. rather than the South. But no matter. First-time director Bill Berry doesn’t have much solid storytelling sense to spend on establishing atmosphere or geography anyway. No sooner than the men hatch the idea of going to Vietnam, it’s just a couple of stock battle shots before we’re suddenly with them (and noticeably few other soldiers— darn low budget) deep behind enemy lines. And after the obligatory rape scene back home to get the vengeance juices flowing, there’s no scene of the woman reporting the crime or her reaction to it—the news that she’s been assaulted is dropped over drinks at the local bar where the friends and other locals are hanging out, and she’s never heard of or seen again. So it goes. At a length of 77 minutes, there’s really only time for the good stuff.
The one place the movie doesn’t skimp is on sleazy white villainy. The local sheriff (think a poor man’s William Shallert) is apparently the only decent white man in town, and he’ll still call a 6’5”, 250-pound man “boy” to his face without even thinking about it. But then there’s a murderous deputy with a hairbrush mustache that would put Wilford Brimley to shame, the wild-eyed local Grand Wizard, who just happens to be the town district attorney—his post-raid speech to the faithful must have had Charles Laughton frantically trying to reach his lawyers from beyond the grave— and various uniformed and sheeted minions of terror who exist mainly to get blown up real good.
It’s entirely possible that I might have enjoyed Brotherhood of Death a whole lot more if I’d seen it in a drive-in in 1976, and even on Netflix it’s an agreeable way to kill time filling in the blanks as you attempt to check one more title off the list on your way toward Compleat Blaxploitation Expert status. But beyond the sense of community it displays in the scenes back home-- some of which might be due to the fact that the actors were largely recruited through a local talent agency run by the fellow who plays the ton preacher—the movie doesn’t have much to add to the lexicon of outrageous blaxploitation outrage. The action is at times so lethargically paced and cobbled together that I found myself pining for the rickety directorial vision of Ferd and Beverly Sebastian, who at least had a mighty heap of conviction to add to their sleaze. Even the obligatory Brotherhood of Death funk theme song-- “Get off your high horse!”-- is sorta lame.
All due respect to Tari, Anderson and especially Jefferson, who does have a couple of good moments, but ultimately the movie is sorely lacking a dynamic personality around which all the revenge and carnage can coalesce. By 1976 we already knew that Coffy was the color and that one must render unto Black Caesar what is Black Caesar’s. By comparison, the gents at the heart of the Brotherhood of Death are just a couple of black dudes sittin’ around, talkin’… and tokin’… and knifing… and shooting… until all the money and the film runs out.
This piece is my entry in The 2014 White Elephant Blogathon being shepherded by Philip Tatler over at his blog Diary of a Country Pickpocket. In this blogathon event, which is one of my favorites of every year, writers like myself submit a title—something good, something disreputable—that they’d like to read one of the other participating writers expound upon. Then each writer is assigned a movie from that pool of titles, and the fun begins. Philip will be keeping tabs on all the submissions at his blog, and I hear tell he’s also going to compile a little “best-of” collection from years past as well. Hop on over there and check out all the rampaging white elephants on display beginning tomorrow, June 1.