The psychotronic diaries: “If anybody asks you what happened, tell ’em you been hit by a truck—Mack Truck Turner.”

A fantastic shot from Truck Turner (dir. Jonathan Kaplan, 1974), the latest in my series of psychotronic film screenings.  I’ll admit that my knowledge of blaxploitation is somewhat limited, with the exceptions of Blacula (dir. William Crain, 1972), which I screened this past summer, and the great Emma Mae (a.k.a Black Sister’s Revenge, dir. Jamaa Fanaka, 1976), which I had the good fortune to catch here in Boston at the Brattle Theater back in June of 2010.  So while I may not be in a position to back up such a claim, I’d venture to say that Truck Turner is a superlative example of blaxploitation, a dynamite action flick that sports ingeniously filthy dialogue, a funkadelic score (written by Isaac Hayes), and a badass hero, played by Hayes himself, at whom other men stare in awe and women lick their lips (“Check out that piece of chocolate cake!” one whistles).  Known as “Mack Truck” Turner, he’s a former football star working as a bounty hunter for bail-skippers; after a brush with a pimp named Gator (Paul Harris), he suddenly finds himself the enemy of Gator’s right-hand woman Dorinda (Nichelle Nichols, terrifying) and her new associate Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto). 

What makes a film like Truck Turner so entertaining—and a superior blaxploitation film to, say, Blacula—is its loving attention to details, its success in fleshing out an entire world within which its characters move.  Those characters may be cartoonishly drawn, but they live in a richly populated cartoon universe that operates by a stylized logic all its own.  The world of the blaxploitation film is often not governed by the logic of realism.  It is a kind of alternate reality that may look and feel like 20th century America but acts according to slightly different rules.  (This basically describes all of the films of Quentin Tarantino, an avowed blaxploitation and exploitation connoisseur.  And considering the emphasis on the bail bond business in this film, I’d say it had to have been a direct influence on the bail-bond plot in his great homage to ’70s blaxploitation Jackie Brown [1997].)  Blaxploitation, it seems to me, is not simply reduceable to its most basic ingredients (black characters, urban milieux, crime- or action-genre plots), but is about a certain sensibility, a stylized way of mixing those ingredients together in a way that offers an image of urban black life that is both naturalistic and exaggerated.  In other words, Truck Turner has one foot in “the real world” (whatever that means) and another in a world that may never have existed outside the gritty ’70s action thriller, and it creates some kind of special cinematic universe of its own by balancing between the two.     

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