The Black Gestapo (1975) **1/2
Director: Lee Frost
Runtime: 1h 28m
Lee Frost is hardly the most prolific exploitation filmmaker in the annals of American cinema, but he definitely ranks well among the scummiest. He is, after all, the auteur behind Love Camp 7 (1969), the first of the grotesque Concentration Camp exploitation films, which would spawn such films as SS Hell Camp (1977) and Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS (1974). Indeed, Love Camp 7 (1969) is not an aberration either, there is hardly a title in Frost’s filmography that doesn’t try to shock or titillate. This is natural enough for an exploitation filmmaker, but what is stranger is a film like today’s feature, which actively seems to be trying to piss people off. The magnificent poster says it all: A black man dressed as an SS officer holding a whip and luger, flanked by beautiful woman and his subordinates throwing up a modified Seig Heil. The politics of the film are simple: That militant black organizations (IE the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam) are essentially modern-day Nazis. Personally, I have no idea who Frost was planning to sell this film to, as the audience for Blaxploitation films is probably the demographic most likely to see black militants as heroes. Plenty of people may have agreed with Frost’s depiction, but for the most part they weren’t going to watch any movie with an entirely black cast. The only possible audience I can see is people like me, sufficiently removed from the fray, who approach it with the same attitude as a trip to a freak show.
The Black Gestapo opens with a bang, that’s for sure. General Ahmed, the leader of the People’s Army of Watts, delivers a rousing speech on the importance of black people standing up for themselves and supporting themselves. It’s a small crowd, but a petty good turn out for an impromptu speech delivered from the back of a truck. Then, out of nowhere, audio that could have been lifted from Triumph of Will (1935) cuts in, followed closely by footage of a Nazi rally in the 1930s. Then the most galling moment of all, the film freezes on a shot of Hitler himself as he steps forward to give a speech and the colors slowly invert. Since this is an old newsreel it’s in black and white, so black becomes white and white becomes black. This intro should give you a good idea of just how unsubtle and ridiculous The Black Gestapo’s politics are going to be.
There’s a bit of a bait and switch going on at first though, as General Ahmed sees his army as more of a force for charity than anything else. Indeed, at the beginning the People’s Army seems to be modeled more along the lines of the Salvation Army than the Black Panthers (or the SS for that matter). Their main objectives are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and detoxing the junkies. Noble pursuits all, but like many charitable organizations the People’s Army quickly finds that making a difference in the community is harder than they supposed. The local crime syndicate, headed by the highly eccentric crime lord Vince (played by the director, which is why he looks nothing like a crime lord and is considerably less physically imposing than the goons he bosses around), has Watts in a stranglehold. Local businesses are obliged to work as brokers for Vince’s numbers racket and as soon as the People’s Army gets a junkie cleaned up Vince’s pushers are already lining up to get him hooked again. The People’s Army cannot even defend their own people from the mob’s enforcers. It’s only after a People’s Army’s nurse is sexually assaulted and three soldiers are roughed up by white mobsters that General Ahmed allows his 2nd in command, Colonel Kojah, to form a special defensive force of six men to protect the People’s Army and their interests.
Kojah is evidently a graduate from the Starscream school of right-hand men, as his real plan is to expand this small security force into a full fledged army in its own right. Once he has a powerful mob at his disposal, he’ll wrest control of the People’s Army away from General Ahmed. He manages this goal so quickly that I’m forced to wonder why he bothered piggybacking on the goody-two-shoes General’s operation at all. Within days Kojah has expanded the security group into a force powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with Vince’s mob. His first act is to castrate Vito, one of Vince’s bigger and dumber lieutenants. Vince is pissed, but keeps things in perspective. Vito was one of his but all the same he’s just a disposable thug, not someone worth starting a full-fledged war over. Vince tells his enforcers to lean on Watts, but to confine their violence to Kojah and his followers; an out-and-out war between Vince and the People’s Army will be bad business for everybody. Sound policy, but Kojah and his men are not about to cooperate. On their next sweep of the neighborhood, the mobsters meet determined resistance from The People’s Army, and are forced to hit back just as hard. The whole thing spirals out of control and pretty soon the streets of Watts are red with blood. Vince, who was never very fond of Watts to start with, decides to call the whole thing a mulligan and beats a tactical retreat. The crime lord flees Watts with he survivors of his organization, effectively ceding power to Kojah and his private army.
Kojah wastes no time in taking over all of the mob’s operations, from the numbers racket to the prostitution rings; even the dope trade, which the People’s Army was formed to combat pours money into the colonel’s pockets. Kojah establishes himself in a mansion that he converts into a training center/fortress for his new People’s Army. To distinguish them from Ahmed’s old People’s Army, they get a change of wardrobe as well, dressing in snazzy black uniforms that look like they were bought from the Wehrmacht’s surplus. Kojah even has his men goose-step past him and throw up quasi-Nazi salutes while hailing Vengeance (instead of the more traditional Victory). Kojah spends his time relaxing in luxury by the pool, feasting, and coming up with new schemes to extract ever more money from the blacks of Watts. Amazingly, Ahmed is totally ignorant to all of this, but when he finds out what his second in command has done to his organization, you better believe that he’s gonna be pissed off.
Calling someone you don’t like a Nazi is an American tradition that has been in vogue since WWII and continues to this day. As George Orwell pointed out “It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless… I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.” That said, there is on the surface something intensely perverse about the label being applied to organization nominally founded to oppose racial discrimination. However, one of the real world models for The People’s Army is the Nation of Islam, an organization noted for its anti-Semitism by the Southern Poverty Law Center. One could make the argument that the Nation of Islam is a race-obsessed, militant group that hates Jews and is not adverse to furthering its views with street-level brawls. Hell, I’ve seen organizations denounced as fascist for far less. Still though, comparing black militant groups of the Nazis is absolutely absurd; it’s the kind of thing you’d have to be completely ignorant of history to endorse.
Even if we allow for the film’s skewed vision of black militant organizations, there’s really no excusing the film’s treatment of women. Virtually every female role with a name will be subjected to horrific physical and sexual violence sooner or later. The scenes where the nurse is sexually assaulted, and later raped, by the white gangsters are certainly hard to stomach. Indeed, these scenes are only bearable when compared to a lengthy interrogation that a white prostitute endures at the hands of these very same gangsters. These grim scenes are also surrounded by plenty of gratuitous nudity aimed only at harmless titillation, which makes them seem all the scummier. Imagine a nudie cutie with a graphic rape scene at the thirty minute mark and you’ll get the idea of what I’m talking about. The level of sleazy, misogynist violence on display in this film is unsurprising given the director’s pedigree, and indeed this might count as restrained and dignified compared with Love Camp 7 (1969) though I’m not eager to find out.