Cinematic Releases: Joe Bullet (1972) - Reviewed

Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song arguably kicked off the Blaxploitation subgenre in the early 1970s, paving the way for films like Shaft, Coffy and Foxy Brown.  Overt exploitation flicks typically centered around predominantly black characters enmeshed in urban poverty struggling with or against crime, many Blaxploitation films became increasingly popular in the U.S. as well as controversial with some hailing the genre as eschewing racist stereotypes while others contend the genre merely reinforces them.  What the supporters and detractors didn’t take notice of, however, was the overwhelming influence the Blaxploitation genre had on international cinema where the chances of producing a film remotely like a Blaxploitation picture were next to none.

Enter the recently unearthed and rediscovered South African Blaxploitation flick Joe Bullet, the first movie in it’s country of origin to feature an all-black cast with no trace of any white actors in sight.  Made in 1972, this micro-budget do-it-yourself bit of guerilla filmmaking filmed entirely on location in Johannesburg, Joe Bullet has a bit of everything fans have come to expect from the subgenre and more.  Including but not limited to soccer tournament rigging, gunfights, martial arts such as karate and some death defying stunts that would make Melvin Van Peebles blush, Joe Bullet is the most authentic Blaxploitation film you’ve never heard of or been able to see for over forty years.

Initially screened only twice in a remote independent South African cinema after completion in 1972, the film was banned outright by the apartheid government before disappearing without a trace.  Thought to be lost forever, an intact 35mm print was discovered in a garage and thanks to the painstaking efforts of the film’s distributor and Africa’s one and only film preservation division, Gravel Road Entertainment, Joe Bullet has been brought back to theaters and makes it’s U.S. debut for the first time in Michigan’s very own Cinema Detroit!

Running just over an hour, this undeniably frank ripoff of Shaft with distractingly shoddy post-production ADR that feels a bit rough around the edges isn’t quite as outlandish as some of the later American offerings to the subgenre but it has a tangible authenticity to the proceedings.  Ken Gampu (The Gods Must Be Crazy) as the titular Joe Bullet brings a genuine swagger to the role of the James Bond inspired hero and performs all of his own stunt work.  

Take for instance a scene where the hero is tied up by the stereotypical villain and a live cobra is dropped beside him.  Unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark which sneakily posited a glass window between the cobra and Harrison Ford, Ken Gampu’s face gets closer to this snake’s venomous fangs than any other main actor in a film I’m aware of.  I have to wonder whether or not a real snake was killed in the process of the making of the film, as this production was done almost completely under the radar and watchful eyes of the apartheid government. 

I was also taken aback by the pyrotechnic explosions in the film, which are again detonated dangerously close to the actors.  There’s a go-for-broke air to Joe Bullet and you get the sense that the actors would have willingly leapt in front of an oncoming car if asked to do so.  Given just how much was on the line, you can forgive the technical and narrative shortcomings which are at times just plain amateurish.  Arguably Joe Bullet betters Sweet Sweetback from a technical standpoint but is comparatively far less radical than Van Peebles’ film.     

Despite there being almost zero production values behind this film, there’s an edginess to the production with the band of gangsters roaming the crumbling Johannesburg cityscape and our own knowledge that the cast and crew were frequently harassed by government officials who show up at the end of one take presumably to shut down filming.  It’s sad to think after making the film under such duress that all the filmmakers’ efforts were swept under the rug anyway.  No the exhuming and resurrection of Joe Bullet doesn’t reveal a masterpiece in quite the same way something like the unearthing of the nearly lost Wake in Fright does, but it was an entertaining hour and nineteen minutes showing moviegoers a side of the Blaxploitation genre we never knew existed.

- Andrew Kotwicki