In the 1988 Blaxploitation movie spoof I’m Gonna Git You Sucka the film’s villain is revealed to be character great John Vernon (no slouch in the cinema bad guy department, by the way) …and Vernon has a little fun winking at the camera with an explanation of why he’s taking the money and running. “I know you’re surprised that a big Hollywood star like me would appear in this movie,” Vernon clarifies. “A lot of Hollywood stars have done exploitation films, like Angie Dickinson in Big Bad Mama.” The “hero” of the film, played by Keenan Ivory Wayans, helpfully points out that Shelley Winters is the baddie in Cleopatra Jones. (What follows is the bit that always breaks me up—John tells Keenan: “I’m sorry, boys…but there isn’t going to be a sequel to this one.”)
I couldn’t help but think of this when I sat down with Friday Foster (1975) over the weekend—because do you know who plays “Mr. Big” in that film? Jim Freakin’ Backus. That’s right, cartooners. Hubert Updike. Thurston Howell III. Quincy Magoo, ferchrissake. Backus isn’t in the movie for more than five minutes, and his character—a jadrool named “Enos Griffith”—spends that time span in a wheelchair…so he must rely on a stooge played by Jason Bernard to handle most of the dirty work. (Despite his lengthy resume of comedy, Jim does a good job in Foster…though the filmmakers were wise not to have him tangle with heroine Pam Grier. She would have kicked him down a flight of stairs, wheelchair and all.)
Friday Foster (Grier) is an assistant photographer for the L.A.-based Glance magazine, and one night she’s asked by editor Monk Riley (Julius Harris) to cover a special assignment: reclusive gazillionaire Blake Tarr (Thalmus Rasulala)—described by Friday as “the black Howard Hughes”—is heading back to this country after an extended leave of absence, and Riley wants Friday to take a few snaps of him arriving at LAX. This gig is so important that Friday must disappoint her friend Clorlis Boston (Rosalind Miles)—a well-known model who worked with Foster during Foster’s days on the catwalk—after Clorlis calls her in a panic, needing help on a personal matter. At the airport, Friday lucks into photographing an assassination attempt on Tarr—one of the would-be killers is Chet Freed (Tony Brubaker), Clorlis’ main squeeze.
The attempted assassination on Tarr and Clorlis’ need for Friday’s help intersect the next day at a fashion show spotlighting the creations of designer Madame Rena (Eartha Kitt). Friday, there to assist fellow Glance shutterbug Shawn North (Stan Stratton) in taking photos of the event, recognizes a man in the crowd as a member of the assassination crew, a man eventually revealed as “Yarbro” (Carl Weathers). During the show, Clorlis emerges from behind a curtain resplendent in a Madame Rena outfit…and promptly falls to the floor, a knife wedged in her back.
With her dying breath, Clorlis tells Friday that she tried to save her dead boyfriend from ”Black Widow”—and no, it has nothing to do with that installment of Serial Saturdays that I keep putting off finishing. With the help of private investigator Colt Hawkins (Yaphet Kotto), Friday will investigate that mysterious organization—a shadowy outfit has ties to Madame Rena’s rival in the design business (Godfrey Cambridge), a U.S. Senator (Paul Benjamin), and a man-of-the-cloth (Scatman Crothers) who has a little more than just that old-time religion on his mind (they should have called him “Reverend Handsy”).
Friday Foster was inspired by a Chicago Tribute Syndicate comic strip that ran from 1970 to 1974, created and written by Jim Lawrence and illustrated by Gray Morrow…with the drawing later taken over by Spanish cartoonist Jorge Longarón. According to comics historian Dave Karlen, “…Lawrence’s story lines had a harder edge showing the contrast of Friday’s family with her street-wise brother trying to accept her newfound success in the world of magazine publishing. But soon its episodes changed focus to showcase more soap-opera thrills of romance and travel for the gorgeous African-American. Hong Kong, Paris, London, and even Africa were all shown with equal flair from the detailed artistic masterpieces produced by Longarón from his home in Barcelona.” The fact that Friday Foster was the first comic strip to feature an African-American woman as its titled character made it ideal fodder for “soul cinema” …even though the Foster strip had ceased publishing by the time the silver screen version was released in 1975.
I came across the movie version during our Starz/Encore/Movieplex “freeview” over Thanksgiving weekend, nestled among the “On Demand” selections…and to be honest, they had me at Pam Grier. But seeing the names of so many of my favorite black actors during Foster’s opening credits closed the sale; there are so many respected names it’s like an encyclopedia of African-American performers—I wouldn’t have been surprised if Sidney Poitier or Bill Cosby turned up in walk-ons. I need to stress that the cast of Friday Foster is the movie’s saving grace because the finished product isn’t all that good (the plot denouement, in which a bevy of respected black leaders are lured to a “Black Unity” conference so bad guys Backus and Bernard can have them exterminated, seems to pop out of nowhere and is none too convincing). The Wikipedia entry for Foster goes into a little more detail about the “themes” of the picture…but since was an American International Pictures release, the amount of intended “substance” is met with my usual skeptical squint.
“Wham! Bam! Here comes Pam!” announced the posters for Friday Foster, accurately summing up what you’d expect from the movie. I enjoy nothing more than watching Grier in such flicks like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), and her Friday is essentially a continuation of those heroines (though perhaps not quite as action-oriented). Friday Foster is clever and resourceful (there’s a running gag in the movie where she commandeers a hearse and then a milk truck to chase after her pursuers) because it’s essential for not only the occupation in which she’s employed but to compete in the chauvinistic world where she functions. (Editor Riley refuses to let her undertake dangerous assignments—he’s presented as a father figure, though I didn’t completely buy into it—and Friday essentially says “Screw this noise” and does whatever the hell she wants.) But there’s a kittenish side to the character; she knows she can use her femininity to achieve her desired ends…whether it’s flirting with an airport guard to gain access to Tarr’s private hanger or later winding up in a bathtub with Tarr a few minutes after making his acquaintance. (That made me laugh out loud, by the way.)
TDOY fave Godfrey Cambridge generates major chuckles as a flamboyant dress designer (and, yes. “flamboyant” means precisely what you think it means) in his cinematic swan song (his last appearance was in the 1977 TV-movie Scott Joplin), and his Ford Malotte meets a particularly nasty demise involving an eighteen-wheeler and a phone booth. Eartha Kitt chews the scenery as rival designer Madame Rena (she even does the Catwoman growl at one point), and you’ll enjoy seeing your favorite Love Boat bartender Ted Lange as a pimp (Fancy Dexter!) who’s got a thing for Miss Friday. Friday Foster was written by Orville Hampton, a veteran screenwriter who’s penned a lot of the entries showcased on the blog’s Forgotten Noir Fridays (the recent Scotland Yard Inspector and Hi-Jacked, for example). Arthur Marks, a one-time director-producer of TV’s Perry Mason, enjoyed a successful film career in the 1970s helming drive-in fodder like Detroit 9000 (a favorite of director Quentin Tarantino’s) and Bucktown (which also starred Pam Grier).
Friday Foster isn’t great cinema by any measure of the yardstick…but it’s entertaining as all get-out, and essential viewing for us dedicated Grier devotees. “Thank God – It’s Friday! She’s out to score for more of what you love her for!” I can dig it.