Jim Brown, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Dick Butkus, Bubba Smith, Howie Long, Brian Bosworth–the National Football League has been the cradle of action stars for decades, more than any other sport. And nowhere is that more apparent than in this week’s film, The Black 6, starring six of the best NFL players from 1973: the 49ers’ Gene Washington, the Vikings’ Carl Eller, the Dolphins’ Mercury Morris, the Steelers’ Mean Joe Greene, the Lions’ Lem Barney, and the Chiefs’ Willie Lanier.
The Black 6 is basically yet another remake of Seven Samurai, but this time with a black biker gang instead of samurai or gunfighters (of course, in typical fashion, the man wouldn’t let them have seven), which seems brilliant on paper. Director and co-writer Matt Cimer manages to combine the qualities of two great subgenres in exploitation films: blaxploitation and biker gangs. The novelty of this film, along with a humorously handled anti-racism message, manages to overcome most of its flaws, which include a weak script, incompetent directing, bargain basement production values, and some pretty amateurish acting.
The Black 6 are all Vietnam vets who’ve banded together to ride their motorcycles around the country, living off their VA benefits and whatever they can make from picking up odd jobs here and there. When we first meet them, they are lobbing hay bales into a barn loft for a farm widow. As evidence of the film’s production values, the bales are clearly painted styrofoam blocks that the athletes have to pretend to be heavy. Actually, only Gene Washington and Carl Eller are lobbing the bales–the others are lounging around, and Willie Lanier is even petting a goat.
The gang stays the night in the old lady’s barn, and as they leave the next morning, they pass the mailman on his delivery route. He rushes to the old lady to ask if she’s okay, since a gang of black bikers just left her property. “You know how they are,” he explains. “Yes, I do,” she responds, looking at the freshly repaired barn the Black 6 worked on overnight.
This sets up an anti-racism theme that the film spends about 30 minutes dealing with before actually getting on with the plot. On the road, the gang stops at Flora’s Beer and Truck Stop, and one jokes that he could drink a truck, which is an insightful comment on the odd syntax in the establishment’s name. Also, Mean Joe Greene could actually drink a truck.
Inside, the place is cracker central, and the gang finds out that Miss Flora is out of beer and food, despite the fact that she’s pouring drinks for other customers and a dude is carving a ham behind the counter. This denial of service leads to further racial conflict where the Black 6 just totally destroy Miss Flora’s business, leaving the whole building completely flattened on the ground.
Soon enough, the plot gets going when, at the next stop, Bubba Daniels (Gene Washington) finds a letter addressed to him at general delivery, informing him that his brother has been killed. We know from the film’s opening scene that his brother was killed by a white biker gang because he was dating a white girl. And so, like 90% of all blaxploitation films, the prodigal son Vietnam vet has to return home to avenge his brother’s murder, and the rest of the gang goes with him. For the rest of the film, Washington is the only one of the six who gets what anyone might call a “character” to play–the others are just kind of hanging out for the rest of the film.
From here, the plot gets a little muddy. Bubba attempts an investigation, but finds that the locals, including the police (led by the awesomely named “Detective Octavias”), aren’t talking. However, he also spends a lot of time looking for his ex-girlfriend, Ceal. After learning that Ceal is hooked up with some guy named “Copperhead,” Bubba tracks the man down to the ubiquitous local pool hall. There, he learns that Copperhead isn’t Ceal’s boyfriend–he’s her pimp. Bubba decides to track her down anyway so he can convince her to go straight. Luckily, Ceal happens to know who murdered Bubba’s brother, so he gets to kill two birds with one stone.
The script for this film feels like a pastiche of blaxploitation clichés that don’t quite line up into a coherent movie (in fact, the script, along with some truly inept filmmaking, makes this a good example of the type of film that the great Black Dynamite is parodying). Bubba alternates between vowing revenge for his brother’s death and expressing a desire just to be left alone, which doesn’t make sense considering that he’s chosen to ride around the country with five other guys. During one bizarre scene between Bubba and Ceal, Ceal explains to him that she hasn’t changed–he’s the one who changed. This implies that she was always a prostitute, I guess. Bubba responds that he’s not looking for trouble. That being the goal, seeking revenge on your brother’s killers would seem to make for a bad choice.
After some nonviolent and relatively boring confrontations between the Black 6 and the white biker gang that runs the town, the white bikers decide to pool their resources with another, much larger statewide organization of bikers, led by Thor (Ben Davidson). The local gang leader, Moose King, gives an empassioned speech about how he’s tired of getting pushed around by black guys, and it’s time that white people finally stand up for themselves. And it only took him 37 years to see his dream finally come true.
The movie builds toward a nighttime showdown between the Black 6 and Moose’s gang. Most of the white bikers get killed pretty quickly, and this leads to the arrival of hundreds of bikers under Thor’s command. The Black 6 circle their bikes and manage to hold off the other bikers, even when Thor’s gang pelts them with lit road flares.
Then, in the film’s bizarre climax, one of the white bikers lights a flare, drops it in his gas tank, jumps over the Black 6, and explodes in midair, apparently killing everyone. However, as flames light up the screen, the following text appears:
HASSLE A BROTHER…
THE BLACK 6
I can only read this as a set up for a sequel that never happened: the zombie Black 6 rises from the grave to fight racial injustice in The Black 666!
There were a lot of poorly made blaxploitation films in the 70s–hence, the font of source material available for the creators of Black Dynamite–but The Black 6 has a charm and novelty to it that overcomes its obvious flaws. When else in film or sports history could a group of star players be brought together to make a film that barely rises above the quality of a home movie? And yet, despite a complete lack of acting skill (or motorcycle driving skill, for that matter) for everyone in front of the camera, it’s clear that these guys were having fun.