Goodness. I am reviving the “Cult Movie of the Week” category for a minute based strictly on this film. I am also seeking out the book it’s based on, as well as the soundtrack. I was sucker-punched by Herbie Hancock’s future funk interpretation of a Spy/Espionage movie score. I was in love when I heard the cut that featured a bass guitar overdubbed in reverse!!!
The Chicago roots of the film run deep: from the setting (Chicago) to where the movie was shot (Gary, IN with a smattering of Chicago shots in the stew). They roots extend to the man behind the soundtrack (Hancock was born and raised in Chicago) and to the author (Sam Greenlee still lives on Chicago’s South Side).
Author Sam Greenlee’s novel (that the film is based on) was originally published in 1969. Based on the premise of a Social Worker turned lone Black CIA agent who goes rogue and ultimately trains a Chicago street gang to be an elite squad of guerrilla warriors dead-set on fighting for a Black Revolutionary War in America, the novel was difficult to get published in the mainstream press. So it’s no wonder that (according to Greenlee) although the film was shot locally, the City of Chicago did not okay it, so shots of the 63rd Street El had to be commandeered. Most everything else was shot across the Lake in Gary, Indiana (the city’s first Black Mayor was in office at the time).
The movie was directed by Ivan Dixon who, to me, is best known as the sigh-inducing male lead in the righteous 1964 movie “Nothing But a Man”. He also guest starred in two episodes of the original “Twilight Zone” that are both worth seeking out.
According to a recent article by Nina Metz in the Chicago Tribune:
“Shortly after it opened in theaters, the film vanished altogether — pulled by its distributor, some allege, bowing to pressure from the FBI. The narrative, about disciplined efforts to take down The Man through brain power and armed revolts, was intentionally controversial, and it doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to presume the film made those in certain corridors of power nervous enough to “disappear” the movie altogether.
For years it was only available on bootleg video. In 2004, the actor Tim Reid tracked down a remaining negative stored in a vault under a different name (“When they want to lose something, they lose it,” Reid told the Tribune at the time) and released it on DVD. It still remains largely unknown to the general public, an artifact from the blaxploitation era that defies most of the genre’s cliches.”
I love a good conspiracy theory every now and again. Jive on!