Sunday, May 29, 2011

Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975)

Also known officially as Soul Vengeance and unofficially as "that penis strangulation movie", Welcome Home, Brother Charles is a strange little blaxploitation oddity that's marries via shotgun a social realist story about a black man (played by Marlo Monte, who should have been in more movies) trying to make a life for himself after an unjust prison sentence and a typical exploitation movie revenge scenario in which our hero kills the crooked members of the justice system who sent him away; and on top of all that, he does so by hypnotizing their wives with his enormous penis, which he then uses to strangle them. I'm not kidding.

Jamaa Fanaka is a somewhat unappreciated black filmmaker (is there another kind?) who studied at UCLA where he made three feature films as student projects, an unheard of feat before or since. Of the three, Welcome Home, Brother Charles came first and the third, the prison boxing flick Penitentiary, became the top grossing independent film of 1981. All of his films are focused on the problems of inner city blacks in California in a way that is more socially conscious and even grittier than the average exploitation movie, with more exploitation elements than the average social realist film. Certain scenes in Welcome Home, Brother Charles even echo those in the masterpiece Killer of Sheep, which is not surprising since director Charles Burnett did the camera work on this movie. Like Killer of Sheep, Welcome Home, Brother Charles is an invaluable documentation of Watts and Compton at a time not long after the riots. It's also a record of some truly great, nearly lost soul, jazz, and funk music; the soundtrack is pretty incredible. But how to reconcile all of this with the giant strangling dong?

Okay, let's start from the beginning: the story tells of a small time dope dealer named Charlie who gets busted in the beginning of the film by two undercover cops, one of whom is insanely racist and works over Charles in the back of the cop car, nearly castrating him with a straight razor. During the escape, Charles had hurdled over the cowering cop and humiliated him, but this doesn't really explain why he would attempt castration. We, and he, soon discover the underlying issue: the officer's wife has been cheating on him with a black man, which drives him so crazy that he nearly strangles her! It's hard not to wonder if this bit of information shouldn't have come before the castration scene though. After it just seems ironic instead of important information. Also, the castration never comes up in the trial for reasons that are explained at one point, but not really believable.

The trial scene itself is amusingly sardonic, with the prosecuting attorney delivering a spot on speech about bleeding heart liberals allowing criminals to roam the streets bashing honest people with their "devilish bricks". The incarceration sequence, meanwhile, is effectively nightmarish, with slow pans down an empty prison hallway and black and white photos of Charles in his cell set to avant garde music by the director. Monte does an effective job anchoring the film, although , as the white cop/bomb disposal technician/racist wife choker is not much of an actor.

The storyline also loses a bit of coherence after the incarceration, splitting into three different directions: Charles learning that his friend N.D. (Jake Carter) took the opportunity of his incarceration to hook up with his girlfriend Twyla (Jackie Ziegler) and turn her into a stripper, Charles starting a new relationship with the cute-as-a-button ex-hooker Carmen (Reatha Grey) and attempting some sort of domestic existence, and Charles strangling his enemies with his twelve-foot schlong. Probably the N.D. storyline could have been excised. There are also the usual problems associated with student filmmaking, such as overly long takes, awkward transitions, weak acting, and so forth. Honestly, most of this can be overlooked; but the story leaves some strange questions: why doesn't Charles mention during his trial that the police officer who arrested him nearly castrated him? Didn't the police have to take him to the hospital at some point? Why is the undercover cop also assigned to bomb disposal duty that calls him away at weird times? Why didn't we hear about the girlfriend before Charles went to jail?

And, seriously, what is with that 12-foot cock? How does that make sense in the context of the story? Does it relate to the African demon statuette with a similarly giant dick in the opening credits? Is it a hallucination or real? I have three theories here: the first is that some of this might make more sense in the uncut version of the film. The Xenon DVD, which is about the only way to see the film right now, is at least seven minutes shorter than other prints of the movie and several people who have seen the film during its original release claim it was longer and more shocking. At the very least, there really must have been another scene in which the racist cop was more graphically killed, one of the most disappointing scenes in this version of the film. It's hard to believe that Fanaka would have dispatched the true villian of the film through a few off-camera screams. But a second theory is that the giant killer dick was added after the movie was made to give the thing a more "exploitation" commercial hook. Honestly though, it's hard to imagine a director like Fanaka changing his movie to make it more commercial.

Finally, I think the dick-strangling subplot might all be a very clever play on old white racist myths about blacks. The old story of the black man who dominates white wives with his giant cock originated in slave-owning days and is still fairly popular with white racists and fetishists today. To my mind, Fanaka is saying, "You want that Mandingo bullshit? Well, here you go!" Taken as such, it's actually pretty funny, although most reviews of the movie seem to take a shallower, "black Ed Wood" approach that strikes me as complete nonsense.

Similarly, a white cop trying to castrate a black suspect out of jealousy over black sexual superiority makes little sense on a literal level, but it works as a fairly potent metaphor for a racist justice system that often does seek to constrain or cut off the power of black men- a power that the movie suggests whites really do associate with black dicks. Now, only Freud could say if Fanaka really believes that societal racism can be boiled down to white sexual insecurity, or if racism instead creates sexual insecurity in whites; and I sure as hell can't answer that. But, as a metaphor, it's both outrageous and pretty great.

The sad thing is that much of this confusion would be cleared up by a better DVD release, and yet the movie isn't likely going to generate enough demand for that. It's pretty uneven with some scenes working much better than others: the sequence of Charlie walking about Compton after being freed is a truly wonderful time capsule of the mid 70s black culture; a seduction scene between Charlie and Mrs. Freeman (Tiffany Peters) is laughably awkward. In the end, the movie has too many good aspects to be "bad" and too many clumsy aspects to be really "good", and is just too singular and strange to have any sort of mainstream success. And yet, so what? Art should provoke mixed feelings!

1 comment:

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