Film Review: The Black Godfather (dir by John Evans)

The 1974 film, The Black Godfather, opens with two black men attempting to break into the house of a white drug dealer.  Unfortunately, the drug dealer happens to be home.  Both of the men are shot.  One dies in the alley.  The other, J.J. (Rod Perry), is shot in the arm but survives.

J.J. may not have been able to rob the dealer but his bravery impresses Nate Williams (Jimmy Whitherspoon), a powerful neighborhood crime lord.  Nate allows J.J. to hide out at his place and, while J.J. heals, Nate offers up some advice on how to survive on the streets.  J.J. says that he’s only interested in making some “bread,” but Nate thinks that J.J. has what it takes to become one of the top men in his organization.

One opening credits montage later and J.J. has indeed become a powerful man on the streets.  Though he may sell drugs, J.J. is a gangster with a conscience.  As he explains to his old friend, Diablo (Damu King), there’s no way to create change unless you make some money beforehand.  Diablo is a political militant who has no interest in working with J.J. until he discovers that J.J. is planning on running Tony (Don Chastain) out of the neighborhood.  Tony is a white gangster who has made a fortune by destroying black communities with heroin.  Diablo and his followers become J.J.’s enforcers as he wages war against Tony.

Unfortunately, the always pragmatic Nate doesn’t want J.J. to wage war against Tony.  Nate believes that it is important to keep the peace.  That Nate is tying to prevent a war doesn’t matter to Tony, of course.  As soon as Tony finds out that J.J. has been seeing Nate’s daughter, Yvonne (Diane Sommerfeld), he makes his move.

Made at the height of the Blaxploitation era, The Black Godfather‘s title brings to mind memories of Don Corleone, Michael, Sonny, and Tom Hagen.  And it is true that the wise and patient Nate does, in many ways, come across like a black version of Don Corleone.  Nate is pragmatic and cautious almost to a fault.  Just as Don Corleone resisted going to the war with the Tattaglias, Nate resists going to war with Tony.  (And, much like the Tattaglias, Tony proves himself to be unworthy of Nate’s generosity.)  However, J.J. has far more in common with Sonny than with Michael.  Unlike the  calculating and patient Michael, J.J. is in a hurry to prove that he’s the most powerful gangster in the community.  Like Sonny, J.J. doesn’t hesitate before striking back at his enemies.

Unfortunately, despite having an intriguing premise, The Black Godfather is a bit of a chore to sit through.  The story moves slowly and even the scenes of gangster violence feel rather rudimentary.  Rod Perry projects a confident charisma and Jimmy Witherspoon does a good job as the wise Nate but otherwise, the cast is stiff and unconvincing.  It’s a shame.  The mix of crime and militant politics had potential.  Early on, Diablo and J.J. debate whether or not good can come out of bad, with J.J. arguing that money can get a lot more done than idealism.  It’s a debate that’s still relevant today but it’s also an issue that the film abandons fairly quickly.  Based on the film’s title, I had some hope for The Black Godfather but, in the end, it’s just too slow and amateurish to really be memorable.

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