Some generous viewers have characterized this overwrought satire of race relations as a spoof of the blaxploitation genre, but if there’s a successful joke buried anywhere in the picture, it escaped me. Designed like a live-action cartoon, complete with exaggerated body language, flamboyant costumes, oversized props, sped-up camerawork, and “wacky” sound effects, Darktown Strutters—which occasionally bears the alternate title Get Down and Boogie—is more of a recipe for headaches than a recipe for humor. The picture is too linear to work as a drug-era phantasmagoria, and too stupid to take seriously. Worse, writer George Armitage and director William Witney demonstrate horrible taste by trying to wring jokes from such grim subjects as police brutality, racism, and rape.
While Armitage later evinced strong gifts for offbeat comedy (he wrote and directed the 1997 cult favorite Grosse Pointe Blank), this project very much represents the erratic early days of his career. In fact, there are many connections between the style of this picture and the excesses of Gas! –Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It. (1970), a strange youth-culture sci-fi epic that Armitage wrote and Roger Corman directed. Corman’s brother, Gene, produced Darktown Strutters, while Roger’s company, New World Pictures, handled distribution chores.
The plot of Darktown Strutters is fairly simplistic. Syreena (Trina Parks) is the leader of an all-female biker gang. When she learns that her mother has been kidnapped, Syreena teams up with an all-male gang led by Mellow (Roger E. Mosley). Eventually, Syreena discovers that her mother’s kidnapper is Commander Cross (Norman Bartold), the Colonel Sanders-like overlord of a barbecued-ribs empire. Meanwhile, Syreena has several run-ins with a trio of bumbling cops, puts pressure on black citizens who fear reprisals from Commander Cross, and rocks her way through several musical numbers.
Even though every single element of Darktown Strutters is absurd, the costumes are among the most grating components of the film. Syreena and her fellow female bikers wear helmets tricked out with bedazzled feathers and wings. The dudes in Mellow’s gang dress like stereotypical Southern-fried fools, all floppy hats and overalls, except with rhinestones. One of Commander Cross’ outfits is a superhero-style costume comprising pink tights, silver-lame boots and undies, and a pig mask. Especially when actors wearing ridiculous clothes skitter across the screen with their arms and legs pumping to emulate “jive” movements, it’s embarrassing to watch the performers humiliate themselves.
In terms of narrative, the movie drifts down so many blind alleys—goofy chase scenes, tiresome production numbers—that the story becomes hopelessly obscured. And then everything culminates with the revelation of bizarre nonsense about Commander Cross using a machine to generate offspring without the involvement of women—which somehow relates to why he kidnapped Syreena’s mother. Trust me, you won’t feel like making the effort to parse this crap, either. Darktown Strutters is not utterly devoid of charms, since leading lady Parks is beautiful and tough, costar Mosley is energetic, and the interesting actors Dick Miller and Stan Shaw appear in small roles. Additionally, some of the R&B tunes on the soundtrack are terrific. But, man, it’s all way too much—so the viewers most likely to groove on this singular experience are those who savor cinematic trainwrecks.
Darktown Strutters: FREAKY