Bite Size: The Baron (1977)

All Jason (Calvin Lockhart, Cotton Comes To Harlem) wants to do is make a movie. In a lifetime of bullshit artistry and constant hustle, he’s finally hit on something that works. Everyone who has seen the completed portion of his film very much enjoys it, a family friendly adventure about a well to do race car driver named Baron Wolfgang Von Tripps. Unfortunately, he is running out of money to finish the film.

Desperate to see his creation on screen, he borrows a large sum from a local drug dealer known only as The Cokeman (Charles McGregor). What Jason doesn’t realize is that The Cokeman borrowed that money from the mob. Heading to the coast to negotiate for a negative pick up deal, Jason finds out backers are only interested in the film if he replaces himself and his all Black cast and crew with white actors. Heading back to New York defeated, Jason is left with an unfinished film and one very pissed off mobster (Richard Lynch, God Told Me To) looking to recoup his $300,000 by any means necessary.

The Baron was written and directed by Phillip Fenty (writer of 1972 smash hit Superfly), and was released toward the end of the Blaxploitation boom, with a leading man easily recognizable to fans of the genre. Yet for all of its crime procedural elements, moviegoers looking for a high stakes actioner full of gun fights, karate chops and dramatic comeuppance were likely to be sorely disappointed. The Baron plays the bulk of its runtime in more drama fueled territory, with an interesting meta element regarding the perils of making an indie film likely drawn from the director’s own experience.

For all of the shaggy, scattershot plot beats and distinctly flat visuals, The Baron is never less than watchable, due to a herd of better than average performances, and a mellow score by jazz/spoken word legend Gil Scott-Heron. Calvin Lockheart’s Jason is by alternating turns a believable charming trickster and tunnel visioned dreamer. Even when the silliness of the plot demands he do something incredibly selfish, incredibly stupid or both, he never manages to become entirely unsympathetic. Here is a man so incredibly desperate to succeed at something, he’ll do just about anything to be a hero, even if it is only on celluloid.

Jason doesn’t have the constitution for violent robbery or dealing drugs, even when The Cokeman strongly suggests he do so by virtue of some well trained attack dogs. Instead, Jason leaves his loving wife Caroline (Marlene Clark, Night Of The Cobra Woman, as usual turning in some fine moments in an underwritten role), and becomes a gigolo for the wealthy white jet set who are ever so eager to exoticize him. With his breezy charm and elegant lines in a sharp cut suit, he’s soon being kept by the very old and very rich Mama Lou (1930s Hollywood queen Joan Blondell, doing a rather fun oversexed dowager). She may refer to him as her “hot dog”, but she also pays all of the bills.

However, The Cokeman is dead, and it isn’t long before Richard Lynch’s Joey shows up at her mansion to collect from Jason instead. Richard Lynch was always excellent at playing human excrement, and his sleaze coated homophobic and racist hit man steals every scene in which he appears without getting a single spot on his immaculate white suits.

Unfortunately, the movie fails to utilize some of its strongest themes or performances as effectively as they could have been, particularly the systemic racism of Hollywood and the upper class environs Jason inhabits in his brief stint as a gigolo. Some of the film’s best bits are when Jason is subtly sticking it to the upper class snobs in posh clubs and department stores, using his hustler skills and some well placed malicious compliance to make their prejudices pay out in cold hard cash.

The ending is also more than a touch rushed, and lands with a bit of a whimper. Given the obvious lack of resources and a coherent central focus, the fact that the ending feels unsatisfying is a testament to the quiet appeal and good will the performances managed to generate in the first place. While The Baron never quite reaches top speed, there’s a certain charming pluck in the fact that it ever managed to get onto the track.

Bite Size: Lola Colt (1967)

Multi-hypenate Lola Falana worked her way up from small club engagements and chorus lines with the sort of dogged determination one would expect from a woman headstrong enough to drop out of high school and move to New York on the slim chance of an entertainment career. A chance Atlantic City meeting with Sammy Davis Jr. led to a long term personal and professional relationship, a featured role in 1964 Broadway hit Golden Boy and a 1965 record deal over at Mercury Records.

The single was only a modest success, but her popularity in the London production of Golden Boy, her European gigs as a nightclub performer and some well received appearances on Italian television helped cement her rising star status overseas. Though 1967’s Lola Colt was only Falana’s third film role (after supporting parts in Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle A Man Called Adam and the somewhat slight Italian musical Quando dico che ti amo), she was given top billing on the movie.

The plot of the film is the sort of cookie cutter oater pumped out by Poverty Row studios throughout the 30s and 40s. Lola Gate (Lola Falana) and her troupe of traveling showgirls are forced to stop in the tiny border town of Santa Ana when one of the performers falls ill. The ladies make a residency as the entertainment at the local saloon while their friend recovers. In between performances, Lola finds herself caught up in both a budding romance with med student Rod (Peter Martell), and the townspeople’s battle with a robber baron nicknamed “El Diablo” (Germán Cobos).

At first retrospective glance, a western with a side of musical numbers seems an odd choice of star vehicle for a Black American singer/dancer/actress. However, the spaghetti western trend was at its peak in 1967, and Lola Falana’s song and dance tours were a proven hit in Italy. It isn’t inconceivable that the producers thought they had a “two great tastes that taste great together” potential success on their hands.

It’s also a stark contrast to many of the other roles in Lola’s later feature film work (which speaks to the limitations of the scope of parts offered to Black actresses, particularly during this era) in that the plot doesn’t hinge on her race. When she’s greeted with a sneering “We don’t like your kind here” upon exiting her stage coach at the beginning of the film, the comment is in reference to the supposed loose morals of showfolk rather than the color of her skin. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this film progressive (a flashback to Lola’s childhood and the loss of her family is inexplicably cast with white actors, which is both incredibly lazy and incredibly telling), but it is a notable departure from the dominant modes of the period.


In any case, Lola Falana’s charisma sparkles in Lola Colt, making it readily apparent why she later became a much larger star. The character of Lola Gate brightens up the rather humdrum proceedings whenever she appears. She looks impossibly lovely throughout, be it in her Barbarella at Ye Old Tyme Saloon stage gear or well fringed Western kitsch and a snow white cowgirl hat. The musical numbers, while blithely anachronistic and a bit bare bones in term of production value, are a high energy showcase for her considerable talent as both a dancer and a singer. Her acting doesn’t look goofy even in the face of a truly execrable English dub. There’s a capable, cheerful athleticism to her single action oriented scene.

Unfortunately, despite her billing, Lola Falana isn’t on screen all that much. The bulk of the 79 minute runtime is spent with the residents of Santa Ana, a pile of uninteresting stock types. It is Peter Martell’s square jawed cardboard cut out turn as Rod that gets the hero build up and music cues. This is made even more ridiculous by the fact that the bulk of his role in the film comprises of idle bickering in a procession of near identical drawing rooms. It’s Lola who formulates the perfectly workable plan of attack against “El Diablo”, and reveals that the mysterious hostage holding raider is less of a devil than he is a greedy schmuck named Larry. Despite singing, dancing and hatching the plan for the town’s liberation, Lola only gets to pick up a gun in the final 20 minutes of the flick. The firepower dispatches exactly one bad guy and a particularly pesky lock.

Lola Colt was not a hit, and the film didn’t receive a US release until 1976, when Falana had reached a much greater level of success stateside. The newly christened Black Tigress was a direct attempt to cash in on both Falana’s appearance in 1975 Blaxploitation effort Lady Cocoa and her groundbreaking status as the spokesmodel for Faberge’s Tigress perfume.

Given that Lola Colt is a very minor effort even on the scale of its spaghetti western counterparts, American audiences were doubly disappointed when the the promotional push attempted to position the film as an action packed Blaxploitation epic. A second, even more ridiculous retitling as Bad And Black failed to improve matters. Lola Colt dropped from the bottom of a double bill, and rode off into the sunset of obscurity.

Bite Size: Ganja & Hess (1973)

In an era littered with unscrupulous producers and distributors who hijacked both finished products and profits from filmmakers, Ganja & Hess is the rare inverse case. Director Bill Gunn received financing to make a budget conscious cash in on the success of Blacula. Instead, Gunn used the funds to turn out a film that has more in common with the “New Hollywood” arthouse inflected movement than Blaxploitation tropes.


Wealthy anthropologist Hess Green (Duane Jones) is attacked by his suicidal research assistant, George Meda (director Bill Gunn) with an ancient African ceremonial dagger. The dagger carries a disease that gives the infected near eternal life, and an unceasing thirst for human blood. When George’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark), comes to the estate looking for her deceased husband, she instead joins Hess in both marriage and his cursed state (though not his personal ideologies).

It’s a slight plot, but the pretext of vampirism allows for a dizzying array of allegory and subtextual commentary on the nature of addiction, Black assimilation in America, and the hypocrisy of Christianity. It’s a shimmering shape shifter of a film to begin with, doubly so for those prone to analysis, and I’ve done a previous deep dive of the movie’s thematic elements right here.

The visuals and sound further the fever dream, with title cards and tilted angles joining lushly shot runs through sun dappled fields, and queasy, almost POV style kills. Sam Waymon’s score burbles both underneath and on top of the dialog, African chants, church hymns and a narrative soul croon given equal weight to the words being spoken by the characters. The cut and paste, collaged aesthetic is both disorienting and deliberate.

The disappointed producers of the film quickly pulled it from distribution for a hatchet job of a recut/retitling(Blood Couple), despite it winning a prestigious prize at that year’s Cannes film festival. Ganja & Hess has very little to do with the easy to sell Blaxploitation conventions that they were hoping for. There are no oversized heroes or easy villains, no action sequences, no clever catchphrases or catchy theme tunes.

Instead, just a slow, purposeful introspection. For all of the larger questions Ganja & Hess raises, there’s no easy catharsis to any of them, no through line of linear narrative, right and wrong. Just two characters, and how they individually navigate their status as othered outsiders, even before you factor in the newly found bloodlust.

*Note from your Midnight Movie Monster: There’s a bit of a break from my usual tone from this post, which marks the end of my break from regular updates(which will continue on their usual schedule from here on out). With the pandemic and the protests against racism and police brutality still ongoing, I took some time off and focused on being useful to the larger issues at hand, rather than cracking wise about B cinema.

Usually, I reserve bite size pieces for films of lesser merits, but this film is actually one of my absolute favorites of the grindhouse golden age, and an excellent piece of arthouse horror. I just wrote it up as a bite size piece being that I had previously covered it for an outside venue.