In Judge Bill Gibron's mind, nothing shouts "social commentary" better than this pair of drive-in delights that deal melodramatically with race relations, personal bigotry, and the inclusion of completely gratuitous sex scenes.
Eugenics as Entertainment?
It's the early 1960s. Gangs like the Ebonies, Caballeros, and Royals run ramshackle over their turf, committing all manner of petty (theft) and major (drug running) crimes. Eventually, murder takes up residence in this respectable California burg and it's up to a pair of "youthful" looking cops to go undercover, high school style. Turns out the leader of the Royals, a bastard named Buck, hates just one race…call it "the human." As part of a plan to corner the pot market, he and his obese pusher pal devise a foolproof plan. They will get the Hispanics mad at the blacks and, while the minorities are having their half-assed Helter Skelter, the need for weed will supposedly skyrocket (remember, this is marijuana-based logic). Anyway, Buck does things like picking fights with the leader of the Caballeros, giving wacky-tobbacy to the leader of the Ebony's little brother, and harassing the pretty Mexican mamacita Lola, who just so happens to be the non-gringo gang boss's sister. As our two pretend teens get more closely involved with the case, they discover that Buck is a heartless thug who thinks nothing of beating a buddy to death, and soon, everyone—including the Black Rebels—wants this bigoted butthead dead.
When a carload of Northern agitators hits the tiny town run by Sheriff Engstrom, they think they're in for a pretty uneventful stay. After all, their intentions are noble. They simply want to instill the minority population with a sense of self-worth—and the right to vote - but the corrupt cop has other plans. Bringing them in on trumped-up charges, our jaundiced justice of the peace reads these do-gooders the rural riot act. Get out of town or there will be some of his hell to pay. When they refuse, the bodies start piling up like cordwood. One boy is shot, while another is beaten and then strangled. While taking the corpses out to be buried, the sheriff's men decide to spare the life of the lead young lady. She promises that her famous actor sibling will pay $10K to get her out of trouble. When this smooth-talking thespian arrives, brother boy learns that this racially-divided district is one shady rest stop. Backstabbing, castration, and intimidation continue until the FBI steps in—not that it makes much difference inside this gangrenous good ol' boy network that fosters Murder in Mississippi.
Sadly, the above basic plot synopsis doesn't do Black Rebels justice. This erratic, electrifying film is so much fun, so filled with the kind of kinetic craziness that one comes to expect from the classic juvenile delinquency genre that you can't help but be won over by its wackiness. Nothing is out of bounds here. All manner of ethnic slurs and racial epithets make their way into the seemingly normal dialogue, yet skin color is not the only personal parameter under the microscope. Class is also part of the package and the standard "parents versus their progeny" dynamic is also under exploration. Add in the 21 Jump Street stuff and you've got a film with guilty pleasures that are almost too many to mention. One that should have been done away with, though, is the unnecessary addition of some stunted skin flick footage.
The original movie (under the This Rebel Breed title) with its constant threat of race-based rioting was apparently too limp for producer William Rowland. So he grabbed an ancillary actor, tried to emulate his look from the first film, and placed him into all manner of insipid sex scenes. No, our perplexed participant isn't "doing it" with the local lotharios and ladies of the evening. This stunt stand-in simply opens a door, looks in the direction of the action, and utters his supposedly comic catchphrase—"excuse me." Thankfully, these stupid additions don't dominate Black Rebels, though they are wildly out of place. All the acting is top notch, with special nods going to Rita Moreno (as the angry Latina Lola), a young Dyan Cannon as a gal with a scandalous secret, and Al Freeman, Jr. as the leader of the Ebonys. As a matter of fact, all the performances lift this film from merely delightful to absolutely demented. Had the proto-porn been cut, this would be one of the best infantile offender flicks ever. Instead we get something great, goofed up by unnecessary smut.
You've got to hand it to director Joseph P. Mawra. The same heavy, unsettling hand that helmed the brutally unblinking adventures of S&M queen Olga, instills the same level of unrelenting viciousness into Murder in Mississippi's quasi-true story. It is safe to say that no other racial exposé has the level of bleakness and bravado of this film. What other movie would flaunt its main characters cravenness so. Our sullied sheriff here is probably the cinema's most hissable villain, a vile man spewing out power-protracted epistles of bigotry as he bullies and beats the local populace into obeying his stance on segregation. Certainly, a film about this crime needs to be confrontational, but Murder in Mississippi wants to offend everyone. It paints the protestors as opportunists or, worse, uncaring rich kids with a bank account substituting for a sense of commitment (and backbone). Rape is mentioned with regularity, and our humbled heroine is assaulted six ways to Sunday. Even the federal official overseeing the case is in the pocket of the local lawman, meaning our desire for vengeance will never be sated. As an acerbic old coot of a commissioner sits in "judgment" over the facts of the case, she argues with the lawyers, badgers the witnesses, disallows testimony, and more or less does a pretty damn good impression of obstruction of justice. Even a last-minute montage featuring national protests and President Johnson discussing the Civil Rights Act can't cure this painful cinematic scar. Such an aggravating anti-climax only makes Murder in Mississippi that much more infuriating—and unforgettable.
Something Weird usually soars in the monochrome arena and in at least one case, the black-and-white 1.33:1 full-frame presentation is dynamite. Black Rebels is a stunning study in contrasting concepts—love and hate, shadow and light. There is a real attempt to make something artistic and moody here, and the near pristine transfer helps said strategies. Murder in Mississippi, on the other hand, is a dark, dire mess. There are lots of defects and scratches present, emulsion destruction is visible, and several of the night scenes are so gloomy and dim that you can't see the action. The Dolby Digital Mono makes the jazzy, jerky soundtracks resonate with real hep daddy dandiness and the collection of racially tense trailers is excellent. The only true bonus feature offered is a horribly insensitive look at The Negro Farmer, a U.S. Government film discussing the poor people of the South and how crop rotation, canning, and community sorghum sharing will lead to financial soundness. If it weren't so sickeningly true, you'd be laughing at the Third World wasteland the short portrays. Along with the standard SWV gallery of Drive-In Exploitation Art with audio rarities, this is one intense presentation.
As a matter of fact, these films will definitely function as a likeability litmus test for the entire grindhouse experience. Individuals anxious for a little more adult action in their exploitation experience will probably flee in fear once they see that the black-on-white wantonness here is more or less left to the imagination. The braver of the bunch should stick around and, perhaps, learn a little something about the disgraceful segregation that ruled the country for centuries. Though they won't be mistaken for wholly honest history lessons anytime soon, this sensational double feature from Something Weird is a reminder of how far our country has come in four decades—and how much further it actually needs to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Something Weird Video
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