Telling the familiar story of a young woman degraded by the humiliating compromises she makes while pursuing Hollywood stardom, Black Starlet should be a disposable exploitation flick. The budget is low, the cast is unimpressive, and the exploitation quotient is high enough to become bothersome, with gratuitous nudity periodically distracting from the story. Yet Black Starlet meets and nearly exceeds the very low expectations set by its subject matter and title. Star Juanita Brown, who acted in a handful of ’70s drive-in flicks, grows into her role, becoming stronger as her character falls from hopefulness to cynicism. While certainly not a skillful performance, her work is committed enough to put the movie across. Similarly, director Chris Munger and his collaborators put sincere effort into making clichéd characters and scenes feel fresh. Everything in Black Starlet is rote on the conceptual level, from the sleazy agents and producers to the horrific scenes of men demanding sexual favors in exchange for career opportunities, but the way Munger lingers inside scenes—rather than speeding through them—allows a sense of unease to take root.
Waking up one day next to a man she clearly regrets sleeping with, Clara (Brown) steps to a window and looks out at Los Angeles, then flashes back to events that led to her current situation. In her old life, despite having taken years of acting classes, she was a millworker going through a dull routine with a loser boyfriend prone to bar brawls. After one too many humiliating Saturday nights, she left him and made her way to Hollywood, where she got a job in a dry-cleaning shop while hustling for acting work. Enter Brisco (Eric Mason), a scumbag agent willing to trade his services for sex. He got Clara’s career started, but he also spread the word she was willing to oblige, leading her into the beds of one bottom-feeding producer after another. Ignoring good advice from the few kind souls she encountered in Los Angeles, including business manager Ben (Rockne Tarkington), Clara became “Carla,” a drugged-out, self-loathing, tempestuous diva.
What makes Black Starlet more or less palatable are the moments wedged between exploitation-flick extremes. An early scene features Clara waiting on a street corner for a bus. After several men stop their cars to solicit her, presuming a black woman alone on the street must be a hooker, a motorcycle cop threatens to arrest her, so Clara jumps into the next man’s car just to get away from the cop. That man steals all of Clara’s money. Lesson learned. Later, in the dry-cleaning shop, Clara endures hectoring from her boss, Sam (Al Lewis), a cigar-chomping putz who refers to all his customers as “slobs” and obsessively yells: “Don’t press above the crotch!” Individually, each of these scenes is serviceable, but cumulatively, they give the vapid storyline a foundation in human reality.
Black Starlet: FUNKY