I’m not a big action film fan, but I love Blaxploitation films. I consider Shaft (1971), the opening chapter of a glorious trilogy of films, to be one of the greatest crime films of all time, directed superbly by acclaimed Black photographer-filmmaker Gordon Parks. I worship at the altar of exploitation icon Pam Grier, thrilling to her outstanding work in Coffy, Foxy Brown, Friday Foster, Sheba Baby, and many other films. Forget Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee–William Marshall is my preferred cinematic vampire as Prince Mamuwalde in Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream, a character imbued with sympathy, charm, and rage (being cursed by Dracula is understandably frustrating). One of my favorite Blaxploitation entries isn’t as well known as these films, but it’s a lot of fun: Truck Turner, a low-budget 1974 actioner starring the Oscar-winning Shaft composer and singer Isaac Hayes in the titular role. Hayes is rightfully legendary as a soul and funk icon, but less so for his occasional acting roles (most people under the age of 40 probably know him best as Chef from South Park). The film will never be cited as one of the greatest films ever made, but it’s a riotous piece of raw ‘70s exploitation and Hayes handles being an action hero capably, including firing a Magnum .44 so confidently that it would make Harry Callahan weep enviously.
Bounty hunter Truck Turner’s life becomes chaotic when he and his partner chase down pimp Richard Leroy “Gator” Johnson (Paul Harris), who has skipped bail. After killing Gator in self defense, Truck’s life is now in jeopardy, as Gator’s girlfriend and madam, Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols) orders a bounty on his head. One of Gator’s competing pimps, Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto), is eager to kill Turner and claim Gator’s “stable” of sex workers. After surviving several attempts, Turner frames his girlfriend for shoplifting to keep her safe in jail, while he takes on the combined forces of Blue and Dorinda—whatever the outcome, it’s going to be violent!
The original script, written by former actress Leigh Chapman, under the pseudonym “Jerry Wilkes,” was intended for Lee Marvin and an all-white cast, but American International Pictures, having already had great success with Blaxploitation films, had the script retooled for Isaac Hayes, who was looking to further his acting career after co-starring in the Italian crime film Three Tough Guys (1974). Nobody will mistake Isaac Hayes for being a magnificent screen actor (see also his turn as the “Duke of New York” in Escape from New York), but he’s ideally suited for this rough-and-tumble action flick, set in the sun-soaked streets of LA. Most of my knowledge of ‘70s Los Angeles comes from Rockford Files reruns (in which Hayes has a recurring role of ex-con Gandolph “Gandy” Finch, tormenting the already-suffering Jim Rockford), so I appreciate seeing the City of Angels’ seedier side.
Blaxploitation movies are often criticized for having Black actors playing negative stereotypes such as pimps and drug dealers and, while it’s a valid criticism, I don’t watch ‘70s exploitation films for their realistic depictions of our lively little world. Regardless of how one feels about the thematic schisms inherent in the genre, the opportunities for notable Black actors were largely confined to minor roles in films and television, so it’s great fun to see former Bond villain Yaphet Kotto as a gleefully violent, nattily-dressed pimp, Scatman Crothers as Duke, Turner’s friend and confidante, and especially Nichelle Nichols, as a vengeful madam. It’s truly unsettling to hear the Communications Officer of the USS Enterprise describe the sex workers under her employ with vulgarity: “We call her ‘Turnpike’ ‘cause you gotta pay to get on and pay to get off!”; “Her clients call her Colonel Sanders because she’s finger-licking good!”; “I haven’t had to sell my pussy since I was fifteen and found out I could sell other bitches’ instead.” Once we regain our composure, watching Nichols onscreen, as she spits out her dialogue venomously, is memorable:
“Shut up, ya chunky whore! I’m talking to you. Those two bitches that left, they better learn to sell pussy in Iceland because if I ever see them again I’m gonna cut their fucking throats. Hey! We are a family. And that’s what we’re gonna stay. Now I got important business out there today. So when I call you, I want you to shake yo asses proper, ya hear? HUH! Now get out there and make it look good. And Raquel, take that fucking jacket off!“
Dorinda doesn’t take shit from her “employees,” Harvard Blue, or Truck Turner, and she’s one of the most memorable Blaxploitation villains I’ve ever seen. Nichols is easily one of the highlights of Truck Turner—it’s a pity her feisty, over-the-top performance didn’t attract additional film offers.
Former Corman protégé Jonathan Kaplan (Over the Edge, The Accused) directs tightly so that few scenes drag on needlessly: Truck Turner has gun battles (even in a hospital!), car chases, lovemaking, and a dynamic score, courtesy of Hayes. Though the film’s theme, “Main Title (Truck Turner),” is a memorable piece (used decades later by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill), the soundtrack album did not generate sales quite as much as the iconic Shaft soundtrack, which is a shame, but the score is still far superior to the majority of Blaxploitation scores. Hayes understands the music that’s required for his weary, lumbering titular character, and it fuels the movie’s pacing considerably.
Truck Turner is an economical, gritty action flick that is sure to entertain—it might not be on the top tier of Blaxploitation cinema, but it has plenty of the requisite violence, nudity, and wah-wah pedal one wants in a ‘70s action film. Isaac Hayes’ film career might not have taken off with this action vehicle, but he has no reason to be embarrassed by the end product–how can one say no to a bounty hunter who shows up in a 1963 Buick Skylark convertible with a six-pack of beer and a kitten? ★
Action Week continues tomorrow! ICYMI click here for yesterday’s entry on the swashbuckling classic action-adventure The Adventures of Robin Hood!