Southern Movie 62: “Bucktown” (1975)
The blaxploitation film Bucktown from 1975 has all the things: a strong hero with sideburns and a moral compass, evil and unnecessarily cruel white people, big afros, colorful clothes, groovy music . . . But this time, the story is not set in an urban ghetto or in the California hills. Instead, we’re in the Deep South, where Duke Johnson (Fred Williamson) takes on the corrupt small-town lawmen who killed his brother. Though Duke arrives alone for his brother’s funeral, he quickly gets help from Aretha (Pam Grier), a hapless drunkard (Bernie Hamilton), and a little boy who is a street hustler— that is, until he calls his friends to come down from up North and then has to deal with them, too! Directed by Arthur Marks, who would go on to make Friday Foster, JD’s Revenge, and episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard, this movie carries the 1970s cult genre out of big cities and brings it down home.
As Bucktown begins, we immediately see what’s going in. It is night, and along neon-lit city street – that does not even remotely resemble a Southern small town – we see a couple of swarthy white cops sitting in the car, ogling a prostitute who blows them kisses in return. Suddenly, a young black man comes running out of an alley, stops when he sees the police car, and runs the other way. The cops take off after him in the car, screeching through traffic, and catch up with him back by the railroad tracks. They beat him up, making no pretense at an arrest, as a stylish and handsome black man gets off the train. The new arrival witnesses their assault of the man, followed by them robbing him of his few dollars, and shakes his head at what he sees. The cops inquire toward him, but his answer is coy and he keeps moving without helping this hapless victim of police brutality. The cold-hearted officers pocket the money and go about their business.
The newcomer then walks over to cab where an old black driver lets him in the car. Now smoking a long cigar, he asks to be taken to Club Alabam. The driver makes a face and wants to know, “Son, do you believe in God?” He replies carelessly, “Sure, why not?” But the retort is quick and discomfiting, “Then you’re in the wrong place.” The elder man closes the car door, and they head off as the credits finish up.
We soon see that the club he has requested as his destination is dilapidated and has a Closed sign on it. So, this man we have yet to meet walks coolly down to the Dixie Hotel. As he approaches, two white men walk with a prostitute who promises them both a good time. Then a little boy hustles up and offers information on anything the stranger might be looking for. After finding out that drugs and prostitutes are not his thing, the boy lets the stranger know that his name is Stevie, if he needs anything later. Meanwhile, the two shady cops drive up just as the boy rides off on a motorcycle.
In the lobby, we see that the Dixie is probably a house of prostitution. The room costs $15, and our man Duke Johnson – who we now know – pays in cash. The woman behind the counter offers him some “fun,” but he is not interested. He is only in town to bury his brother. Once Duke walks away, the counter clerk calls the white police chief and tells him: a man named Duke Johnson has come for Ben’s funeral, she thought he ought to know about it. The surly-looking white chief (Art Lund) thanks her, and she reminds him that she was told to always check in and that’s what she’s doing. After hanging up, he sits down to a nice dinner, served by a black maid, and begins to pray.
The scene then shifts to a sparsely attended graveside funeral. Duke is now dressed in black leather and stands back near the hearse. Three people are near the casket: the boy Stevie from the previous night, an attractive young woman, and an older man in suit and a fedora. The preacher shares some stock phrases, then they wrap it up. As the older man hugs the young woman, he takes a pull from a pint bottle of whiskey, then calls after Duke, wondering how he might know the deceased. Duke tells him his name, and the older man Harley recognizes it, telling the others that Ben had bragged on his brother. Harley then introduces Duke to Aretha, who is not impressed. She chastises Duke for not being there to help. Duke asks what was going on that Ben needed help, but Aretha tells him that it doesn’t matter now. She and Stevie retreat to a nearby car, while Duke shrugs it off and leaves too.
After the funeral, Duke heads to the courthouse to find out about his brother’s estate. The clerk is a young black dude with a big afro who tells him that Ben left a house, its lot, and a wallet with $39 in it. Duke wants to take these assets immediately, but the clerk tells him that it will be sixty days . . . unless he wants to sign for an empty wallet. Duke remarks on the clerk’s backhanded way of doing business, but agrees. Out in the lobby, Harley and Stevie stop Duke to tell him that he should re-open Club Alabam. Then the good times will roll again! But Duke says no, all he wants is a buyer so he can get out of town. Harley and Stevie don’t like the answer but Duke doesn’t stick around for them to argue. Out on the lawn, they catch up with him and convince him to give it a try. Harley says that he could fetch a higher price if the place was open, and in the meantime, he could make money on the locals and on the soldiers at the nearby army base.
Over at the police station, Duke has to renew the club’s “city sticker.” First, he has to deal with the two police goons from the movie’s opening scene. They tell him that the sticker is $400— make that $450. About the time Duke has had it with them, the chief opens his office door, and Duke invites himself in to talk with the “main man.” Duke sits right down and puts his cigar in his teeth, and the chief remarks that he doesn’t have any manners. “I give what I get,” Duke replies. During the conversation, the chief explains that the club’s city sticker is overdue and that it will remain padlocked until the fee is paid. Duke stands up and rolls off the cash.
In the next scene, a white police officer and another loudmouth white guy are walking down a city street at night. They pass a neon-lit porn theatre and shake down a black doorman at another club, with the one guy cussing the whole time. After that, it’s over to the hotel to pick up the cash from one of the prostitutes, and the loudmouth sticks around to get some. Down at the bar, Harley comes in dancing and jive talking about the Club Alabam being open. Aretha is in there, drinking by herself. She is gruff with old Harley, who is a happy drunkard and an obvious screw-up, but he believes in Duke. Aretha tries to talk him out of his optimism, but it doesn’t work. Out in the street, the white officers all meet up, and we find out that they’re across the street from the Club Alabam, which is open. They decide it’s time for Duke to “join the club” and start paying.
Inside Club Alabam, they find Duke behind the bar. The insults and the shakedown begin immediately. The meanest of the officers, the one who was beating up the guy in the opening scene, tosses out racial slurs like crazy. But Duke is calm about it all. He tells them that he already paid, but they say no, they expect $100 every Saturday night. Duke’s answer is still no. He tells calls them “crackers” and tells them to leave. Over by the door, Harley and Aretha have come in and are watching the scene, as Duke takes on both cops. One goes after the cash register, and the other throws Stevie against the wall for calling them “faggots.” Duke takes his lumps, and the place gets broken up pretty good – Harley even tries to jump in – but ultimately Duke whips both their butts. The two corrupt cops end up knocked out and laying on the sidewalk. After the fight, Duke gives Aretha and Harley a piece of his mind for not warning him about the corruption and the payoffs that would be associated with opening the club.
By now, Bucktown is about a third of the way in— thirty minutes into an hour-and-a-half of action. We get the sense that this story is based loosely on Phenix City, but with a twist. We see the opportunities for sinful behavior out in the open, and Stevie mentions the soldiers from the nearby base, which would point to that scenario. However, we never actually see any of these soldiers. All in all, Bucktown doesn’t look Southern. A typical small town in the South would not have a porn theatre with clear signage and bright lights, mainstream bars wouldn’t have white and black patrons sitting around together, and there are far too many hepcats in this little town— even the courthouse clerk is styling! Moreover, Ben has lived in the town and operated the best club, and no one comes to his funeral. I don’t think so . . . But what is Southern works. There are no black cops and, after Duke wins the fight in the club, we hear the differing perspectives within the black community. Duke tells Aretha that they can eat the crap they’re handed by the whites, but he won’t, and she replies, “But we have to live here!”
After the fight, Duke heads into the police station and barges past the front desk to face off with the chief. Duke points his finger and proclaims that he won’t pay anybody any more than he already has. The chief takes it – which is also distinctly un-Southern – and calmly levels with Duke. He compliments Duke and assures himself of the black out-of-towner’s intelligence. However, his department can’t operate on the money from parking tickets. They need more revenue . . . to do things like investigate Ben’s death. Duke is puzzled, and the chief clears it up. Ben was beaten to death, but the chief says they don’t know who did it.
Later that night, Duke is chilling at Ben’s house when Aretha arrives. She is dolled up in white and carrying a six-pack of beer. At first, they’re peaceful as Aretha apologizes, but they quickly begin to argue. No one told Duke what he was facing in the little town. Aretha retorts that she has to play it safe, then she saw Duke stand up for himself. Just as it gets heated, Duke grabs her and lays a kiss on her . . . which leads the movie’s gratuitous sex scene.
The couple is awakened, however, by the three cops and their loudmouth friend. The four men are out in the yard with guns, and they blast the house up, while Duke and Aretha lay on the floor to avoid being sprayed. The onslaught is halted by the chief, who pulls up within a moment. He reminds them that too much violence will attract the attention of outsiders, who could come to investigate. Duke hears this whole conversation. After the police leave, Duke and Aretha get up off the floor, and Aretha urges him to leave town. He assures her coldly that he has never run from anything, then he picks up the phone.
On the end of the line is Duke’s friend Roy (Thalmus Rasulala), who is hosting a party, a mix of stylish black men and both black and white women. Roy comes to the phone and is jovial. He asks Duke when he’s coming back home. But Duke remains serious while asking for help without asking for help. Roy picks up on the signals, tells the pretty white woman who is doting on him to excuse him, and agrees to come down South. In the next scene, a train arrives at the station and four sharp-dressed black men get off at the station. One of the local cops is slouching on a bench, drinking a beer in uniform in broad daylight, and Roy asks him for directions. He isn’t helpful, and on their way, one of the men steps on the cop’s hat.
In town, the cool cats strut down the sidewalk as the locals gawk and stare. Stevie accosts them on the sidewalk, offering his services just like he did for Duke, but the man pass him by. At the Club Alabam, the old friends are reunited. Roy meets Harley and Aretha, then introduces his friends: Josh, TJ, and Hambone (Carl Weathers). It is immediately clear that Josh has his eye on Aretha, who is not interested.
Later in their hotel room, the crew begins to plan their next move. Aretha and Duke explain that there are a chief and four officers in the town. (This fact flies in the face of Duke’s earlier explanation to Roy on the phone that they would be outnumbered more than four or five to one.) Aretha explains that the mayor won’t be a problem, since he brought in the chief to clean up the town but can’t control him. (This trope sounds like In the Heat of the Night.) The men make another vague allusion to a previous “job” they’ve handled, and their plan seems to be in place. But before the scene is over, Josh makes a pass at Aretha who yells at him and slaps him. Roy asks what her problem, and Duke and Josh give each other the stink-eye.
Down in the street, the police are talking about the situation. They’re posted around the hotel, but the crew of black men have not come out for hours. The chief reminds them to be patient, that black people aren’t hard to handle. He also remarks that they’re the law so God is on their side.
Next we see Duke and Roy, they’re making arrangements to get started. Sitting in the strip club, Duke explains that one cop waits here on his girlfriend to get off work. The next cop spends his evenings hovering over an ongoing poker game. A third hangs around the whorehouse, because he is part owner of it. The final man stays in the police station to hear the radio. Duke and Roy agree that it’ll be easy pickings.
To get started, we see Hambone in the hallway of the hotel beating the loudmouth one who collects the money. He takes a baseball bat to the courier, who begs for mercy but gets none. Then Hambone takes the purse and leaves. Next, Roy and Duke flush one of the cops out of his apartment, causing him to go down the fire escape, where Hambone is waiting with a shotgun. He destroys the cop’s car, which goes up in flames, then unloads on the fleeing white man. The third is in the police station yelling at a black woman about wanting mustard on his hamburger when TJ sneaks in with a shotgun and does him in. The next victim is accosted at the poker game. The chase leads them out into the street, but ends with the cop being shot to death by Josh, who was hiding in the police car. The final guy is caught with one of his prostitutes, who is straddling him in the bed. She is pulled off of him and he is killed.
The last man to deal with is the chief. They find him sleeping peacefully and all alone. (Unlike his officers, he is behaving himself.) They roust him out of bed in his PJs and spend a little time musing on what to do with him. Still defiant, the chief replies that they won’t hurt him because they need him alive. In fact, the black mayor – The mayor is black! What!? – will want his chief there to recover from this situation.
In the next scene, the black mayor is overseeing his all-black staff counting the money that the officers had been taking. It comes to thousands of dollars. The squirrelly, nerdy mayor then wonders out loud how to repay the vigilantes, and Roy says slyly that they’ll figure out a way. The mayor suggests a parade in their honor, but no, that isn’t what they have in mind . . . They want badges. They want to become the police force.
Meanwhile, Duke has been on the outside of his own deal. Aretha finds him sleeping and tells him that Roy, TJ, Josh, and Hambone didn’t get on the train and leave, but are becoming police officers. Duke thinks it’s funny at first, but Aretha sees something sinister. And she’s right. Over at the jail, Hambone is sharpening a straight razor to help the chief talk about where his money is stashed. He doesn’t want to tell and calls them “street scum.” Unable to move the chief’s mind, Roy instructs Hambone to cut out his tongue.
Duke knows he has to see about what’s happening. He goes to see Roy, who is making out with a woman. Duke wants to hear it from the horse’s mouth, and Roy confirms what they are doing. He even offers Duke a badge, too. Duke says no, this is not a good idea— the thing was to stop the corrupt white cops and move on. Roy disagrees, saying that the town is his “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” He will be acting as the town’s enforcer, and Duke should run his club, and when Duke decides to come to his senses, there will be a place for him. Duke is skeptical.
Out on the street, it has gotten bad again. Hambone is strong-arming people just like his white predecessors. Later he meets up with Josh, who begins a conversation about his problems with Duke. Josh has been trouble since the start, and now he convinces Hambone that, if Duke and Roy weren’t friends anymore, then it would be easy to cut Duke out. That plan begins with tricking Harley into getting stone drunk, then beating him up and cutting him. He is carried out of the bar covered in blood, and Aretha and Duke show up as he is being carted off. Duke then goes to confront Roy who doesn’t appreciate being questioned, but Duke does plant the seed of doubt. Roy then questions Josh about Harley, and Josh lies, telling him that Harley was drunk and disorderly and fought them. We can see that Roy doesn’t believe it, but the rift between he and Duke is in place.
After Aretha visits Harley in the hospital, she is back in the bar with Roy. As we see Roy get out of a police car and go into the bar, Duke is across the street in the barber shop, talking to the mayor. The mayor laments this new situation, and he warns Duke that Roy is gathering forces against him. Over at the bar, Roy sweet-talks Aretha. He tries to convince her in his smooth way that she has two good choices: leave town with Duke and a roll of cash, or stay in town and run the bar without Duke. She asks about the option of her and Due both staying in town, and Roy replies, “That wouldn’t be too classy.” At first, Roy wasn’t openly against Duke. Now, he is.
And it gets worse. At night, when Josh and TJ see Aretha through the window at the house, Josh goes into get her. She stumbles on him and screams, and he punches her. But Duke is there, and he kicks that fool’s butt, gives him the beat down. When Duke throws him out in the yard, his pal gets out of the police car to help, but it’s too late. Duke brought his gun, and the antagonisms are exposed.
With about twenty minutes left in Bucktown, Duke goes to Roy’s place, and they have the showdown. Roy tells Duke that he has everyone in the town “by the balls” and proclaims that he’s not leaving. A wide-eyed Duke hears this, and it’s on. Roy calls TJ and tells him that there are new rules: everybody pays, even Duke. Back at the bar, Hambone, TJ, and Josh come in with gasoline and a shotgun to tear up the Club Alabam. Aretha and Harley try to stand up to them but can’t. An already beat-up Harley gets arrested for assaulting a police officer.
In the action-packed conclusion, Duke and Aretha are ready to take out the bad guys. Aretha comes to Roy, trying to talk him out of what he’s doing in the town, but he gives her a speech about the mean old world where people have to take what they can. She then ends up a semi-hostage of the group and tries to coax Josh into trading sexual favors for Harley’s release. But she has a trick up her sleeve, though it fails, and Josh ends up shooting the old police chief dead in his nearby cell. Soon, Duke arrives with a military-style armored truck to mount his assault on the would-be police force. After driving through a wall, Duke kills his enemies one by one. Of course, Roy is the most elusive. The two old friends agree to put down their guns and fight it out hand-to-hand. The winner gets it all, and the loser leaves town. By the end of an unnecessarily long fight scene, Duke kicks Roy’s ass and walks away with Aretha.
There isn’t much Southern about Bucktown expect the tropes it employs to execute the blaxploitation paradigm. First, while dens of sin like Phenix City did exist, the blatant exercise of gambling, strip clubs, and prostitution is not consistent with small town life. The town’s streets and the architecture don’t even look Southern at all. In fact, one building they pass several times advertises nineteen big screens for watching porn films— no small Southern town has a building large enough to have nineteen screens! In reality, these kinds of illegal and immoral behavior did (and do) exist in the South, but they are practiced in subtler ways. A second problem is that there are regular scenes of blacks and whites commingling in public: sitting in bars together, walking down the street together, even a few interracial couples. This would not have been happening in 1975, not even in larger Southern cities. A third problem: in several scenes, white lawmen are openly disrespected by Duke, Roy, and their friends, and in response, the white lawmen kowtow and take it, showing dismay and fear. The police chief even gives Duke his props after Duke barges in and drops an ultimatum. Though the reality of racist Southern mores is an unfortunate fact, this portrayal of four strong black men taking over a small town so easily and by themselves is pure fantasy. Part of the reason that it is fantasy lays in the fact that town has a black mayor. That could only happen if a small town had a vast black majority who were all brave enough to vote despite threats. In that case, such an electorate – in the post-Civil Rights South – would never have tolerated this four-man white police force. If there really was a small Southern town with a powerless black mayor and a brutally corrupt white police force, Duke and his friends would have been snuffed out quickly and immediately as a threat to white supremacy, because that tiny white minority would have been insufferably stringent. But in blaxploitation movies . . . the hero is above all that, so that’s the way it has to be. The white crooks are inept and easily bowled over.
Other minor problems exist, too. Ben’s funeral does not look like a black funeral in the South, with only three attendees. Moreover, the guys standing by who will inter the casket are white. In the South, white gravediggers didn’t bury the black deceased— black ones did. No white Southerner would have worked at a black graveyard. Another problem is Harley. If he really was an old football hero, he would have attended the local all-black high school and been very popular. But Harley is always alone, and no one talks to him except Aretha and Stevie. Finally, it is never explained how or why Ben came to this small town and ended up owning a club. In the rural South, black people had to stick close to friends and family – to places they were known and had people to depend on – and to amble unknown into a small town, operate a business and own a house, and still be so inconsequential that no one comes to his funeral . . . Man, come on. If that was true, if people were so afraid that they wouldn’t attend Ben’s funeral, then when Duke reopened the club, not a soul would have stepped foot in it.
Bucktown is not a bad movie if you watch it for what it is: a blaxploitation film. It does rely on Southern tropes but it gets too many of the nuances wrong. There really were corrupt, racist Southern police who leaned on the black community for bribes and payoffs. There really were white men who had affairs with black women. There really were places where whites and blacks commingled. But none of it happened out in the open. I guess that this town was modeled on something like Phenix City, which was cleaned up in 1954, but what it boils down to is: they got it right on the surface and wrong for real.