Monday, December 10, 2012

31 Performances Ripe for Rediscovery (23 and 22) Vonetta McGee and Max Julien in THOMASINE AND BUSHROD

I knew I wanted to include Gordon Parks Jr's incredible Thomasine and Bushrod in this series but I couldn't decide which star of the film I wanted to highlight, Vonetta McGee or Max Julien.  Ultimately I knew I had to include both of these amazing performers as Parks' unbelievably special film would be unthinkable without either McGee or Julien.  Below are excerpts from my original look at Thomasine and Bushrod...the full piece can be read here for those interested. 

The story of Thomasine and Bushrod begins with Max Julien, a writer and actor best known for his role as the ambitious pimp Goldie in 1973’s The Mack. Author Darius James would note that Julien’s early life would be as far removed from his most famous role as possible and that he had “studied at Carnegie Hall’s Dramatic Workshop” and by his early twenties was appearing in “Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival”.

Julien’s role in The Mack would make him an overnight star but the film, like almost all of the ‘blaxploitation’ films of the period, would garner as much derision as praise. Author Donald Bogle would argue that despite its popularity The Mack exemplified the problems with the movement and “was a mess without much of a script” and that it was “gaudy and cheap”. Still, others found much to admire in the film and the genre, such as film historian James Robert Parrish who noted that Julien was one of the genre’s shining lights and was “talented and charismatic”. Despite its many virtues and its success with audiences, The Mack was looked upon as by many as a film made by whites about blacks, something that Julien wanted very much to rectify for his next project. A meeting between Julien with a young up and coming actress shortly after The Mack’s premiere would plant the seeds for what would eventually become Thomasine and Bushrod.

Vonetta Mcgee was born in San Francisco in January 1940. After graduating from San Francisco’s Polytechnic High School in 1962 she became more and more interested in acting. After traveling to Europe, she began appearing in a number of Italian productions in the late sixties before getting steady work in a number of low budget exploitation films in the early seventies upon her return to America. Shortly after their introduction Mcgee became involved romantically with Julien, who was in the process of working on his first screenplay. The script, centering on an African American female version of James Bond named Cleopatra Jones, was quickly refashioned as a vehicle for McGee. Once the script was sold however to Warner Brothers, both Julien and McGee were removed from the project, which caused Julien to quickly write another script, a western called Thomasine and Bushrod.

Max Julien’s original script for Thomasine and Bushrod is a confrontational and genre bending work posing as a take on Arthur Penn’s influential Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Focusing on a fictional outlaw in the old west named Bushrod and his partner in crime and love, a former female bounty hunter named Thomasine, who steals from the rich in order to help out various minorities, Julien’s script and the final film would delight in reversing gender roles, questioning accepted history and rethinking the western genre as a whole.

Thomasine and Bushrod is a flawed production, hampered by a quick shooting schedule on a low budget in a scorching New Mexico summer, yet remains downright ingenious in the way it confounds so many expectations. There are several things that separate the film from almost any other before or since with the most obvious being that it would have African American protagonists in the old west. The most daring move the film makes though is with MgGee’s character Thomasine who is placed in the clearly more traditionally masculine role. Not only does her name come first in the title, but the character of Thomasine is shown time and time again to be smarter, stronger, more controlled and more interesting than the weaker Bushrod. Julien’s script suggests strongly a rethinking of not only the Western genre in the placing of African Americans as the leads but also in its forceful questioning of clear gender roles.

Parks as a director obviously understood the subtleties of Julien’s script and how subversive it was. Filming McGee often from lower angles to give her power and authority while placing Julien much lower in the frame with the camera tilted down at him, Thomasine and Bushrod shows Parks to be a sensitive and intelligent stylist. This role as a stylist also distinguishes the film in another way, which is perhaps even more subversive than the gender and race relations it delights in subverting.

Thomasine and Bushrod's biggest attribute is one of its most surprising, that being how much Parks, Julien and McGee chose to highlight that it was a film made in 1973 about 1873. Not content with making a mere historically accurate piece, Parks fills nearly every frame of the film with visual references to the seventies, a move that makes it clearly more about the period it was made in than the period it was set in. The outlandish and stylish costume design by Andrea Lilly and Mcgee herself, the hair styles, the soundtrack (which features a title track by San Francisco band Love) and even some of the dialogue are clearly products of the seventies. Many critics mis-viewed this as laziness and lack of research on the part of Parks and Julien, but today it looks to be a clear headed and deliberate decision on their parts that goes along perfectly with the other subversive thematic elements of the film. Thomasine and Bushrod isn’t a film attempting to be historically accurate, it is instead a work that questions just what accuracy means in cinema.

Parks film was released briefly in the summer of 1973 with a half hearted ad campaign by Columbia attempting to capitalize on the real life relationship between Julien and McGee. The film failed to attract an audience and the critical community mostly ignored the production, although Nora Sayre in The New York Times found much to admire and picked up on how “utterly contemporary” the film was deliberately trying to be. The only other point of recognition came in late 1973 when Julien’s script was nominated for an NAACP award, which it lost.

Outside of a handful of television airings, Thomasine and Bushrod was pulled from circulation in 1973 and has never had a home video release. It is virtually a lost film. The films failure hurt all three of the main player’s careers. McGee spent the rest of her career in mostly supporting roles while Julien dropped out of sight for nearly a quarter of a century. He resurfaced in the late nineties as his role in The Mack gained more and more popularity, but Thomasine and Bushrod was his swan song as a lead actor and a screenwriter.
-Jeremy Richey-

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm thoroughly enjoying this series, Jeremy. Just thought you might want to know that "Thomasine and Bushrod" is available on DVD thanks to Warner Archive:

I actually ordered it thru this morning after reading your post (it's cheaper there).