Friday, January 12, 2007
The exploitation films of the 1970's have long been a cult favorite, inspiring fans and artists from all over the world in music, painting and other films. What they haven't ever achieved is mainstream recognition which, while perhaps fitting, has caused many of the finest actors of the decade to have become either forgotten or at the very least unjustly looked over. Look no further than these maligned genre films from the 70's to see some of our greatest leading men and women and most importantly some of our finest character actors. Many actors from this period combined both the charisma of a leading player with the stability of a classic character actor, one of the strongest was Glynn Turman.
Turman has had a very long and distinguished career from early theatre roles starting in the late 50s all the way to his television work today. He has one countless awards in the theatre and television and has long been respected among his peers. After all this he remains, for many people, one of those great faces without a name. Like many of our greatest character actors, he slips from role to role giving the best performance he can and never selling himself, or his character, short.
Two of my favorite roles Turman came within just a year of each other and represent two of the finest, and least recognized, performances of the 70's
Michael Schultz's great coming of age drama Cooley High, released in 1975, gave Turman was one of his most memorable roles. His performance as the thoughtful Leroy "Preach" Jackson is one of the great portrayals of teenage confusion and angst. It's a remarkably internal performance where Turman always seems just on the point of breaking loose and the film's final moments, set to the Four Tops phenomenal "Reach Out", is one of cinema's greatest escape endings. Preach stands as one of the most positive and honest portrayals of urban youth, and Cooley High remains a watershed moment in 1970's cinema.
The indispensable book What It Is...What It Was features a chapter written by Turman where he says of Cooley High, "Another thing that we were so proud of, as black people, was to share with the rest of the world what our life was like. It was like a greeting card. This is how we are. And so many other people were able to say, 'we're like that too'. I think that's wonderful, just wonderful."
Turman, and the rest of the cast including a young Lawrence Hilton Jacobs and the beautiful Cynthia Davis, is so good in the role that for its 107 minute running time he remains frozen in a dream of authentic adolescence. Cooley High is often called the 'Black American Graffiti', this comparison doesn't hold with me as I think it's a finer film than George Lucas' more renowned work.
Turman would charter much darker waters in 1976's J.D.'s Revenge, a controversial film firmly planted in the blaxploitation genre while, at the same time, rising above it. Turman plays Issac, a mild mannered law student, who becomes possessed by the spirit of a vengeful dead gangster named JD. Turman gives an uncommonly good performance that shows just how far reaching his range was, as Isaac he is totally unrecognizable from the iconic Cooley High character just a year earlier. It's a daring film that mixes blaxploitation with the horror film in a much more successful way than the more well known Blacula.
JD's Revenge would be un-officially adapted several years ago as Bones but without a great actor like Turman and inventive direction of Arthur Marks it was little more than a pale shadow.
Turman has made many films (including Gremlins and even one with Ingmar Bergman!) but for me Cooley High and JD's Revenge show him at his finest and most diverse. These and other 'exploitation' films of the seventies will always be frowned upon in some circles. They remain favorites to me and many of the people who made them are among the greats, as Turman himself said, "I think all those films, negative and positive, have contributed positively to the things that are happening now."