Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975)

aka Soul Vengeance

Warning: I will repeatedly use words like “penis” in this one.

Charles (Marlo Monte) is a small-time drug pusher working the black community in Los Angeles. He is, inevitably, arrested. Less inevitable is that one of the cops arresting him, Harry (Ben Bigelow), has a particular hatred of black men like Charles because his wife cheats on him with (gasp!) a black man. Harry is in fact such a crazy bundle of racism and neuroses he’s trying to castrate Charles, which, for reasons the film never bothers to explain, doesn’t quite succeed. The crazy cop’s partner, Jim (Stan Kamber) is theoretically less racist and more fair-minded, but when push comes to shove, he enables and covers for his partner despite knowing better. One might argue this makes him even worse than our would-be castrator, for he actually make a decision to be as bad as he is, whereas his partner clearly has no control over his own actions whatsoever. So there’s no word about any attempted castration in Charles’s trial, and a ranting DA and a judge who spends his free time with black prostitutes land him in prison for three years.

Charles’s time must have been pretty nightmarish, the film turning black and white, the camera following a corridor of cells to a solitary box in which he is kept, cutting to still photographs of Charles in distress. When he comes out, our protagonist wants to go clean, but that’s not easy, ex-cons not exactly being high on the list of the employable. HIs girlfriend has left him for his former partner who now treats him like a doormat. There are good things waiting for him too, though. He and the prostitute Carmen (Reatha Grey) fall in love, Charles getting rid of her pimp easily enough.

But still, the guy who tried to castrate Charles is still around, as are the male figures of supposed authority who covered up for him, so Charles goes around, sexually hypnotizes his enemies’ women so they help him against their respective husbands, and proceeds to kill the men with his prehensile, telescopic schlong.

Yeah, well, I didn’t see that one coming either. It’s no wonder one wouldn’t, either, for Jamaa Fanaka’s Welcome Home does little to prepare its audience for what it gets up to in its final twenty-five minutes or so. Sure, Charles’s jail time is pictured as a literal nightmare, but nightmare doesn’t exactly spell “hero grows super penis”. The little exposition scene “explaining” this comes totally after the fact, and doesn’t actually explain anything. Fanaka’s staging of the film’s sudden turn into weirdo exploitation, his disinterest in structuring it in any conventional narrative manner, does fit the rest of the film, however, for while the synopsis above might make the whole affair seem pretty straightforward, this is not a film structured following any of the rules of a typical narrative. There’s a lot of narrative connective tissue left out, Fanaka clearly preferring to follow his own associative logic in getting from scene to scene.

That’s not a bad thing, mind you, for while there are moments when the film feels sloppy and shaggy, there are many more when Fanaka’s approach feels personal and original; at the very least, the strange directorial decisions taken are usually purposeful choices by the director. Often, the film feels as if it were attempting to dissolve the lines between a kind of verité filmmaking very much en vogue with a group of young African American filmmakers in Los Angeles at the time, and a style of the surreal that pictures the same horrors and tragedies more metaphorically and weirdly. I suspect the kind of US black experience the film talks about must sometimes feel surreal to its victims, anyway, so talking about it this way might be only too fitting.

This is, obviously, not a film everyone will enjoy: it is after all, rough and strange, prone to distractions, and not following the narrative shapes it at first seems to suggest. It’s also technically raw, clearly made with talent and (skewed) vision, yet also just as clearly stretching what was possible for the filmmaker at the time. I think this formal and visual rawness adds a lot to the film, providing its slippage into the whacked out in the end with an additional frisson of reality slipping away into what can certainly be read as a revenge fantasy.

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