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.