In 1947, Wendell Scott (Richard Pryor) is demobbed out of the (segregated) Army and upon returning to his hometown of Danville, Virginia, he decides to open up an auto-repair shop with his mustered-out pay. He’ll have to save up for this dream, but the town of Danville doesn’t offer many opportunities for a black man save for working in either a cotton mill or tobacco-processing plant. Instead, Wendell will operate his own taxi…and while working toward opening his garage, he courts and marries Mary Jones (Pam Grier), with a child following not long afterward.
The struggle to raise the garage funds is greater than Scott anticipated, so on the advice of his pal Peewee (Cleavon Little), Wendell enters the lucrative field of running moonshine. His talent for outrunning the local gendarmes does not go unnoticed in Danville, and is particularly frustrating for Sheriff Cotton (Vincent Gardenia). Wendell is eventually caught by the long arm of the law, and stands to start existing on the bounty of the county before Billy Joe Byrnes (Noble Willingham) steps into the picture. Byrnes owns the local racetrack, and has concocted a novel idea to boost attendance: showcase a “Negro driver” in the car races, at a time when stock-car driving was strictly a white man’s preserve. If Wendell agrees to drive, that little moonshine indiscretion will be magically wiped away…but he’ll be in jeopardy, as the other drivers will target him as the only black competitor.
Fortunately for Wendell, he’s harbored a dream since childhood of being a stock-car driver ever since he spent his formative years racing bicycles with his friends…so it doesn’t take much persuasion. It’s the first step in a long journey that will ultimately see Wendell Scott as the first African-American NASCAR driver and the first to win a race in that sport’s Grand National series (now referred to as the Sprint Cup series).
Though he had been appearing in motion pictures as far back as 1967 (The Busy Body), stand-up comedian Richard Pryor had a particularly difficult time becoming a significant cinematic presence—largely due to his unpredictable and no-holds-barred profane comedy style (his style of truth telling is what attracted a lot of fans to begin with), making him radioactive among The Powers That Be in the industry. Pryor would see exposure in a few “Blaxploitation” flicks like The Mack (1973) and Hit! (1973), but one of the greatest crimes of cinematic history was that in the comedy classic Blazing Saddles (1974), Pryor wasn’t able to play the lead role of Bart in that movie because casting him as such would have denied director Mel Brooks the financing to make it in the first place. (Rich had to settle for a co-writer’s credit on Saddles, as well as a consolation prize in appearing in 1975’s Adios Amigo.)
Pryor might not have been able to play opposite Gene Wilder in Saddles…but their pairing in the comedic suspense thriller Silver Streak (1976) made Rich a box-office force to be reckoned with (and would lead to successful follow-ups, like the 1980 smash hit Stir Crazy), so much so that his eight-minute appearance in the movie Car Wash (1976) was heavily promoted in ads for the film when Wash followed in Streak’s wake. Michael Schultz, the director of Car Wash, would direct Pryor a second time in Which Way is Up? (1977)—an American version of Lina Wertmuller’s The Seduction of Mimi (1972)—to capitalize on the comedian’s rapid ascent to the ranks of movie headliners.
1977 found Pryor and Schultz reunited for a third picture: Greased Lightning. (The two men worked together on a fourth and final film, 1981’s Bustin’ Loose—though the onscreen directorial credit goes to Oz Scott.) Lightning was a good project for Rich, allowing him to display some impressive acting chops (which he had exercised previously in vehicles like Lady Sings the Blues )—viewing the movie, I never got the impression that I was watching an extension of Richard Pryor but rather a convincing and genuine portrayal of Wendell Scott. Pryor doesn’t suppress his comic gifts, but rather uses them to enhance telling Wendell’s story. The real Scott’s background is a fascinating one; it’s the story of an individual determined to break down racial barriers by participating in an activity that has been decreed verboten by the South’s charming system of apartheid known as Jim Crow.
Although I don’t regret watching the film, Greased Lightning is not without its problems. It’s very uneven in tone; the sequence in the film where we witness Wendell and Peewee elude the cops during their shine-running activities is played a bit too broadly, with actor Vincent Gardenia embarrassing himself as a Jackie Gleason “Buford T. Justice” clone. (To Gardenia’s credit, he gets better as his character matures through the movie.) You sort of get the impression that Scott’s success in the moonshine business wasn’t so much due to his driving skills but because he had the good luck to have with Roscoe P. Coltrane and his moronic deputies as his adversaries.
There are also a number of important incidents in the life of Wendell Scott that are discarded in Lightning’s telling. Scott was a pioneer in combating the prejudice prevalent in the NASCAR sport, but he received a bit of assistance from some of the white drivers who respected him tremendously for his considerable skills both as a driver and mechanic, choosing to look past his skin color—like two-time NASCAR Grand National Series champion Ned Jarrett, for example. The founder and president of NASCAR, Bill France, was also an early champion for Scott’s cause—“You’re a NASCAR member, and as of now you will always be treated as a NASCAR member,” Scott remembered France telling him when the two men first met in April of 1954. I was kind of hoping Lightning would be the equal of another movie featuring Pryor, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)—a delightful film about the Negro baseball leagues.
Still, I can understand why the movie chose to present Scott’s career as a “go-it-alone” endeavor (well, apart from the support he gets from Beau Bridges’ character); audiences love to root for the underdog, and since Wendell’s story is such a compelling one fudging a detail or two (in real life, Scott married his wife before he went into the service—not after) shouldn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching Lightning. The movie was lensed in a large portion of rural Georgia—including the now defunct Athens Speedway here in the Classic City, and nearby Winder—and purportedly the locals weren’t particularly forthcoming with that famous Southern hospitality you’re always hearing about. (Those yahoos kept creating a cacophony every time director Schultz yelled “Action!”…until he decided to yell “Cut!” before each take and “Action!” when he finished in a successful attempt to fool them.)
Lightning features one of Pryor’s most amiable acting turns; much of the film’s strength lies in its excellent supporting cast including Bridges, Cleavon Little (refreshing to see the man who took Pryor’s job on Saddles have such a nice rapport with the star), Vincent Gardenia, Noble Willingham, and Bill Cobbs (a true TDOY favorite in a small role as Scott’s father-in-law). There are some inspired casting choices in assigning music legend Richie Havens the part of a mechanic named Woodrow (who joins Scott’s racing team), and Georgia legislator/NAACP president Julian Bond as the man whose girl Scott steals away and eventually marries. That role is essayed by TDOY crush Pam Grier, who works wonders with a thankless part that is essentially the concerned spouse who’d like her hub to pack it in before he gets hurt. This is the movie where Pryor and Greer met, and the duo carried on a torrid love affair that was unfortunately complicated by the comedian’s drug use. (Rich also broke Pam’s heart by eloping with someone else the day before they were to be married—that dude was seriously crazy, to put it bluntly.)
Greased Lightning is a cut above your usual demolition derby drive-in fodder, and in honor of Wendell Scott’s induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame (in January of this year) I recommend you sit down with it. (Even my mother liked this one…though in the interest of full disclosure, it’s not like she could have walked out on it.)