The image of a roaring lion at the start of a movie is not uncommon. Heck, I think it’s fair to say that MGM’s Leo the Lion is the most famous movie logo out there. 1974’s Black Samson is another film that starts with the image of a roaring lion, but it doesn’t have anything to do with MGM. In fact, after the lion roars we see that he is perched inside a strip club, watching over lots of drinking, dancing, and other such debaucheries. Black Samson is certainly not one of the more famous entries in the blaxploitation genre, but hey, did Shaft, Slaughter or Superfly have a pet lion? I think not.
Samson (Rockne Tarkington) may be a strip club owner, but for the most part he is an honorable man. He’s out to clean up the neighborhood. He wants the drugs out of town and the folks in the neighborhood respect him. I mean who wouldn’t? Dude’s got a freakin pet lion and if you get on his bad side he’ll whack you across the skull with a quarterstaff. There are, however, some folks who don’t care for Samson’s style. Primarily, local white gangster Giovanni Nappa (William Smith). Nappa is feeling pressure from his father Giuseppe (Tito Vandis) to assert power in the neighborhood. That means getting rid of the troublesome Samson.
Nappa hatches a plot to get the best of Samson which involves having his girlfriend Tina (Connie Strickland) get a job as a stripper in Samson’s club. Despite her lack of rhythm and dancing skills, she manages to land the job. Eventually, Nappa plays dirty by kidnapping Samson’s main squeeze Leslie (Carol Speed). This leads to an epic finale featuring a car chase around the city and the neighborhood rallying around Samson to take out the bad guys.
Black Samson is definitely not as iconic as some of the other blaxploitation heroes. Admittedly, the film doesn’t have the punch that a film like Shaft does. However, it’s still an entertaining and satisfying movie. I do think that Rockne Tarkington is solid in the lead. He’s a bit more stoic and, shall we say, less colorful than the likes of Richard Roundtree or Jim Brown. He is an imposing screen presence, though. He looks like a guy you don’t want to mess with, and that’s even looking beyond the quarterstaff and the pet lion.. It’s interesting, though, that he’s not just presented as a tough guy. He’s not a cop, or a gangster, or a pimp; he’s more like a neighborhood holy man. Sure, he also owns a strip club, but he’s still an enlightened fella.
This film also delivers a fun supporting cast that helps give the proceedings a lot of spirit. Topping the list is, of course, William Smith. Smith is an actor with a ton of credits, and he consistently delivers, even when the film he’s in is less than stellar. He really sells it here as a total slimeball gangster. He’s full of himself but is also too clueless to see how pathetic he looks trying to impress his old man. We also get some interesting characters in Samson’s camp. One of the best is Michael Payne as a drug dealer who does his business out of his mortuary. Payne is clearly trying to channel Richard Pryor, which is a bit a distraction at first. Once you get past that, though, you find that he is delivering some really interesting texture to the film. Finally, we’d be remiss not to mention Carol Speed. Yes, Abby herself. Here’s the thing, Speed overacts…but she is one of the great overactors of the 70’s. What she delivers is over-the-top and I wouldn’t change one bit of it.
Now, it is fair to say the story here is not the strongest. Things do meander a bit, but that’s passable considering where the film goes in the final act. Everything builds to a great rough-and-tumble car chase that feels like there had to be an element of guerilla filmmaking to pull it off. We then get the big showdown where the citizens of the neighborhood gang up on the bad guys and throw things at them from the rooftops. This includes tables, chairs, lamps, doors…I think I saw a washing machine dropped at one point. It’s beyond epic.
In the end, Black Samson is a lot of fun, if not on the level of some other blaxploitation classics. I actually think that this hero may have settled into a bit more a grove had he been given a sequel. As it is, the film is a wild ride that still left plenty of room for improvement.