The Empire Strikes Black: Imagining A Blaxploitation ‘Star Wars’

By  · Published on February 16th, 2013

Traditionally, February is known as Blaxploitation History Month here at Junkfood Cinema. Of course, “traditionally” a “decent person” “puts on pants before leaving the house” and “doesn’t touch communal buffet food with his bare feet,” so we are far from averse to bucking tradition. To wit, you might call today’s Blaxploitation History Month entry more of an investigation of blaxploitation alternate history. One of the most interesting facets of this short-lived subgenre of film is how it appropriated, and left its unmistakable mark on, several existing popular films and styles of film. We therefore had blaxploitation Westerns, blaxploitation horror, blaxploitation spy films, and even blaxploitation versions of movies like The Defiant Ones, courtesy of a young Jonathan Demme, and…the Warren Beatty comedy Shampoo, courtesy of what I have to assume was a dare.

But what about sci-fi?

Apart from an exceedingly small smattering of titles, one of which is about a white man and a black man whose heads are sewn onto the same body (so, there’s that), blaxploitation did not venture into sci-fi territory. This is likely because blaxploitation films often operated on very limited means, and science-fiction tends to necessitate a larger budget than, say, a crime story. That’s not to say shoestring-budget sci-fi isn’t obtainable, but it may have been the concern over the potential production price tag that kept filmmakers in this subgenre from attempting the blaxploitation/science-fiction mash-up. This, unfortunately, deprived us all of what should have been the greatest cinematic accomplishment of the 20th century: blaxploitation Star Wars.

It upsets me to no end that Star Wars was released in 1977. This is not because I harbor some emotional complex about never getting to see the film in theaters during its initial run…sitting in the front row wearing my little X-Wing tee-shirt, agog at the magical, untainted images flickering on the screen that seemed impossibly big to a little boy. No, it’s definitely not that. The true disappointment is that blaxploitation hit its peak between 1973 and 1974. After that, there is a pronounced drop off in the number of films the various studios produced that would fall under this banner. In 1978, which is the first year a blaxploitation iteration of Star Wars could have reasonably been released, only two or three titles were produced as the subgenre hung up its sideburns and bass guitar strings.

Never being beholden to trivial obstacles like “facts” or “chronological cohesiveness” or “cease and desist letters,” we decided to theorize a world in which Star Wars had been released during the blaxploitation boom. What would its exploitation counterpart have looked like? It should be stressed that we will only be utilizing elements of existing blaxploitation films to formulate this theoretical affectation, and in no way extrapolating racial stereotypes. The love for blaxploitation around here is genuine and based on a legitimate appreciation for the style and individual merits of these films.

The first thing to consider here are those elements of Star Wars which naturally lend themselves to blaxploitation. The 1977 film is a story filled with characters who play by their own rules, rebellious characters you might say. Some of these characters may live outside the law, but that doesn’t make them any less lovable for their unlawful transgressions. Our heroes live in a world where they are oppressed by the authorities, spurring their rebellion. In blaxploitation, again made during the 1970’s, African-American characters are more often than not fighting against white mafia elements; symbolizing in many ways the fight against a racist social and political infrastructure. Also, like blaxploitation, Star Wars is renowned for its music.

So essentially the story of, let’s call it The Great Space Hustle, would, as its progenitor, focus on an adversarial relationship between warring factions. This war would be between a corrupt, fascist governing body, led by a sinister figurehead known as The Emperor, and a group of rebels tired of being pushed around and held down. This leader has connections to the criminal underworld, and actually “Emperor” was a nickname he picked up during his days as a murderer and dealer. He is still funneling drugs into the various underdeveloped planets to maintain his wealth and power, and to keep the citizenry weak and complacent. Think of him as a combination of Palpatine and Jabba the Hut, but played by Sid Haig (Coffy, Black Mama, White Mama). His right hand man is a treacherous lackey, known as The Man, who was shot multiple times by a rival in his youth, necessitating several technological aides built into his uniform to keep him alive. Nevertheless, he is powerful and ruthless. Yaphet Kotto (Truck Turner) will play this role.

Our hero is a young shopkeeper’s apprentice on a planet in the Broadway nebula. Much of the planet is an uninhabitable wasteland, and what passes for civilization closely resembles ancient New York’s 42nd Street. This is our Mos Eisley. Glynn Turman (Cooley High, J.D.’s Revenge) will play this character, who we’ll call Duke. He is aware of the war going on between the vicious Emperor and the rebel factions, but his uncle will not let him get involved. One day, a couple of bumbling thieves come barging into his store as they are being chased by The Emperor’s hitmen. These thieves will be played by D’Urville Martin and Antonio Fargas (Shaft, Car Wash); one tall, one short, a reference to R2D2 and C-3PO. Though his uncle protests, Duke hides the thieves from the killers.

It turns out, the thieves were on their way to deliver important documents they had stolen to a rebel leader known only as Princess Sheba, who will obviously be played by Pam Grier (Foxy Brown). Duke had heard stories of her cunning, her fervor for bringing down The Emperor, and her beauty. He had one daydreamed of meeting her, but had no idea she was currently hiding somewhere in his own galaxy. The documents detail weaknesses in the security measures protecting The Emperor’s orbiting drug compound. Unfortunately, while escorting the thieves to the edge of town, the hitmen return to the store and murder Duke’s uncle. At this point, he decides to join the thieves on their quest to get these documents to the princess.

Along the way, they cross paths with a strange old hermit named Dolewan, played by the incomparable Rudy Ray Moore (Dolemite). I’m actually not convinced that Moore wasn’t some ‘70s-era Keyser Söze, pulling an elaborate ruse to prove the minimum talent requirements for stardom. Dolewan saves Duke and his companions from a vicious group of muggers by using a mystical form of martial arts that combines kung fu and magic spells activated by lyrical incantations. He also delivers all his ancient wisdom in rap form. The movie will grind to a halt two or three times to facilitate his odd performances. Dolewan takes a liking to Duke and teaches him this art. He suggests the group hire professional smugglers to sneak them past government blockades and ferry them to where Princess Sheba is hiding.

In a dive bar, a setting so prevalent in blaxploitation films, our quartet meets with a nefarious duo of smugglers played by Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (Hammer) and Jim Brown (Slaughter). Thinking outside the box (in no way), we’ll call them Hammer and Slaughter respectively. These two have made their living smuggling soul music into Emperor-controlled parts of the galaxy; something that dastardly tyrant has forbidden. Their ship is called The Hard Way (after a 1975 film in which both actors starred), and is said to be among the fastest in the galaxy. They want nothing to do with direct warfare with the powers that be, they just enjoy making the big scores and ruffling a few feathers. They also are notorious for bedding every fine piece of alien tail that moves, though admittedly we may be in danger of crossing over into Star Trek territory with this Kirk-like behavior. Hammer chews a cigar and quips rapidly with Slaughter, which will define their relationship throughout the movie. Dolewan promises the two substantial payment once they meet up with princess, and they agree; one of them being stalked by a loan shark and not wishing to stay put too much longer.

On their way to the planet where Princess Sheba is said to be hiding, they learn she has been abducted by The Man. Posing as servants and wait staff, our band of unlikely heroes rescues the princess from The Man’s estate during a party; Dolewan challenging The Man to a showdown in order to cover the others’ escape. Though the rest of the team makes a clean getaway, Dolewan is slain. “I will avenge you, Disco Godfather,” Duke cries. No one else seems to know what this means. Duke and the Princess make love in a slow, soft-focus romance scene accompanied by an awkward ballad. Don’t worry, in this version, they aren’t siblings. Once reunited with the rebel forces, Princess Sheba uses the documents delivered by the thieves to organize a full assault on The Emperor’s compound. So many blaxploitation films, such as Hell Up in Harlem for example, end with a full-scale siege of the antagonist’s stronghold so this is another natural common thread shared with Star Wars. Hammer and Slaughter depart once they receive their reward money, claiming saving their own skins is more important than achieving social upheaval.

The rebels find a weakness and flood inside the compound, guns blazing. Though they will clearly be futuristic weapons, the sounds theses guns make will still be the familiar thundering blasts from ‘70s-era crime cinema. Meanwhile, Duke joins a squadron of fighter pilots who hold off The Emperor’s heavily-armed drug ships while the assault team works to disable the compound’s shield generator. Just as it looks like The Man is going to kill Princes Sheba and spoil everything, Hammer returns and knocks him into next week. “I always win my fights, that’s one of my rules,” he quips. Slaughter then bursts into the generator room, leveling all the guards with a laser scatter-blaster that very much resembles/is a shotgun. They get to the shield generator inside and disable it. Princess Sheba decides to finish off The Emperor herself, shooting him in the groin and then the head. It turns out he was responsible for her sister’s overdose many years before. Since this is a one shot and not a trilogy, Duke and what remains of his squadron swoop in and destroy the drug compound.

No, the spaceships will not be tricked out pimp mobiles, that’s just nonsense. They would be made to resemble, as closely as possible without courting a lawsuit or the possibility of great production expense, the ships from Star Wars. We would see a number of shockingly slow spacecraft chases with the occasional speed ramp to offer the illusion of velocity. Also the cockpit would be filmed in tight, over-the-shoulder shots from the bumpy backseat; not so different from some of the photography utilized in Star Wars from inside the Millennium Falcon. One thing that would be present in the action scenes, that might not make a lot of sense, is that our heroes would always be crashing through windows. This is a strange staple of blaxploitation. In the early scenes on Planet 42nd Street, this wouldn’t be so far-fetched, but when so many easily-smashed glass windows turn up on the space station, it might get a little ridiculous.

Isaac Hayes would, of course, handle the music for The Great Space Hustle. Hayes did such a great job scoring Shaft that he was given the chance to star in Truck Turner a few years later. Where else but blaxploitation can the guy who creates the seminal score that canonizes a genre then star in his own film within that same genre? It would be like John Williams starring in his own sci-fi adventure film or superhero movie. Wait, what am I saying, of course I’d watch that. The big challenge for Hayes would be balancing the numerous theme songs that each actor would individually demand…be played any time they are on screen.

Sure, this is all just a pipe dream that would never have happened even if Star Wars had been released a few years earlier, right? Maybe so, but here’s something to consider. The very best blaxploitation movies were produced and released by American International Pictures. One of the principal producers at AIP was none other than Roger Corman, the legendary B-movie magnate. In 1980, based largely on the success of Star Wars, Corman released Battle Beyond the Stars; an interstellar sci-fi remake of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. Corman clearly possessed an appreciation for both Star Wars and the masterful Japanese filmmaker who inspired Lucas to create Star Wars; The Hidden Fortress providing much of the basis for Lucas’ opus. Were chronology to have shaken out a little differently, Corman could have easily parlayed his background in AIP blaxploitation films, and this two-fold Star Wars appreciation, into creating The Great Space Hustle.

Here’s the best part. Corman had an ace up his sleeve in the late ’70s, though he would not know how formidable an ace until years later. While making Battle Beyond the Stars, he promoted some kid in his art department to visual effects director. That kid took melted aquariums and whatever else he could find to make some impressive spacecraft for next to no money. That kid? James Cameron. Cameron actually got into filmmaking after seeing Star Wars. He then quit his truck-driving job and got a job at AIP. If all these events had taken place just three years earlier, had the alignment of the planets been tweaked ever so slightly, we could have gotten a Roger Corman produced blaxploitation Star Wars with James Cameron handling special effects.

Can you dig it?

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.