Features and Columns

Fund This Film: Fred Williamson’s ‘Old School Gangstas’ is the African-American ‘Expendables’

By  · Published on January 4th, 2014

There continues to be talk of the all-women version of The Expendables, so why not an all-black version? Actually, there already kinda was one way back in 1996. Blaxploitation stars Fred Williamson (Black Caesar; Hell Up in Harlem), Pam Grier (Foxy Brown; Coffy), Jim Brown (Slaughter; The Dirty Dozen), Ron O’Neal (Super Fly) and Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and director Larry Cohen (Black Caesar; Hell Up in Harlem) came together for a movie titled Original Gangstas. It was sort of what The Expendables is all about now – nostalgia for the action movies of the ’80s and early ’90s with a round up of legendary action heroes who are now middle-aged or older – but then, it was in tribute to the African-American-focused genre of the ’70s as well as an answer to the rise of the urban crime films that broke out through the early work of John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers and Mario Van Peebles, the son of Blaxploitation legend Melvin Van Peebles.

Eighteen years later, Original Gangstas is getting a sequel called Original Gangstas 2: Old School Gangstas. And it’s looking to the fans to help get it off the ground. Williamson, who is at the helm this time and also the writer of the script, has gone on Kickstarter to ask for $1.2M. That may seem like a lot, but it’s only a third of the budget of the original (which sure doesn’t look like it cost that much) and still $50K less than Spike Lee’s Kickstarter goal for a more secretive joint that had no built in audience. That one not only succeeded but went over the top. But the question is, does Original Gangstas truly have fans? It wasn’t a critically acclaimed movie. It didn’t make a lot at the box office. And its IMDb rating is only 5.6 out of 10. Still, there’s a whole lot more power in nostalgic interests today than two decades ago. Never mind that this project has been live for more than half a month and hasn’t even raised two grand. It just needs more publicity.

Where is Quentin Tarantino to give his blessing on this, if not his name as a presenter? That’d certainly get more people behind it. Even without him, though, you’ve got the whole gang(stas) back together. Well, sadly, minus O’Neal, who passed away ten years ago. But fellow ’70s icon Robert Forster is also returning, and the sequel has recruited fresh old school faces like Bernie Casey (Cleopatra Jones; Cornbread, Earl and Me), Gloria Hendry (Black Caesar; Black Belt Jones) and Antonio Fargas (Cleopatra Jones; Foxy Brown). Interestingly, while this is being labeled as a follow-up to Original Gangstas, the cast apparently has all new character names. There is no plot synopsis included on the Kickstarter page, but one of two IMDb listings under this title (both of which are credited to Williamson’s Po’ Boy Productions) mentions a premise involving a boxing coach (Williamson, I presume) who recruits some old friends (Brown, Roundtree, Casey and Fargas) to go up against a mob boss (Forster, hopefully) in order to save a young athlete (some hot young actor with his own fanbase, if they’re smart).

Williamson has been wanting to do a follow-up since the first Original Gangstas came out (and according to him, earned him nothing due to Orion Pictures’ bankruptcy). He also claims in interviews that especially black audiences are ready for some back-to-basics moviemaking because they’re tired of all the unbelievable special effects of today’s blockbusters. He might be right, but those blockbusters are what’s making money and, according to him, why Hollywood isn’t interested in something like Old School Gangstas, which isn’t a superhero movie nor a remake. The ironic thing is that, in a way, these guys were all superheroes of a sort 40 years ago and the sentiment required to be excited about a movie starring all these actors is related to that which drives remakes. What is this, if not a spiritual redo of a nearly 20-year-old movie that was a spiritual redo of movies from 20 years earlier?

As always, the key to predicting the theatrical and home video release of a crowdfunding production is to look at expected delivery of the perks. But this one has no incentive involving a premiere or any screenings, so maybe the plan is for Old School Gangstas to go straight to video. That’s DVD and Blu-ray, specifically, as there’s also no mention of the traditional digital copies. The videos have an estimated due date of December of this year. Will it arrive by then? Will it be made at all? I’m not even close to being a huge fan of the first movie, but I’m very anxious to see how this one turns out, especially if the campaign isn’t a success.

Check out Williamson selling the movie in the Kickstarter campaign video below, which includes the trailer for the original Original Gangstas, followed by an awesome action scene from that first film.

Do you want to see this film? Enough to help fund it?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.