“See them avenge the death of a brother, the rape of a sister, and the murder of their only honky friend!”
What right-thinking person could possibly resist that tag-line from the trailer for 1976’s ultra-low-budget (as in $250,000) blaxploitation revenge thriller Brotherhood Of Death? Not me, that’s for sure, and when I noticed that it was recently made available on Netflix instant streaming, I had to give this one another go for the first time in a loooonnnngggg while, having previously seen it only once as part of a DVD double-bill from Anchor Bay where it’s paired ( in a nice widescreen transfer with mono sound and no extras) with the somewhat better-known, but frankly nowhere near as good, One Down Two To Go. Sometimes, as late Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner used to famously say, “the memory cheats,” but ya know what? In this case, that’s just flat-out false, because this gritty, nasty, almost-too-socially-conscious-for-its-own-good flick is pure exploitation gold.
Set in the racist, backward burg of Smithfield, North Carolina (where it was also partially shot, with the rest of the action being lensed in and around the Bowie, Maryland area), this tale of Viet Nam vets Raymond Moffat (Roy Jefferson), Ned Tiese (Le Tari) and Junior Moffat (Haskell Anderson) taking their town back from Klan control after the aforementioned “death of a brother, rape of a sister, and murder of their only honky friend” (who just so happened to be the local sheriff, played by Bryan Clark) may seem antiquated to some modern audiences, but tell that to kids who want to throw a pool party on a hot summer afternoon in Texas. Or a 12-year-old with a toy gun in Cleveland. Or a guy in South Carolina who’s walking away from a cop and gets shot in the back (and in cold blood) by the guy who’s supposedly “serving and protecting” him anyway. Clearly, this idea of a new, “post-racial” society is an absolute fucking myth — but now, instead of films like Brotherhood Of Death which at least attempted to expose the situation for what it was (even if they could, admittedly, be a bit clumsy and overly-earnest while doing so), we have pablum like Let’s Play Cops showing us that the racist pigs are harmless, wacky figures of fun worthy of not just respect, but emulation. Whatever.
Director Bill Berry, under the guiding hand of executive producer Ronald K. Goldman (who had previously overseen blaxploitation efforts like Sweet Jesus, Preacherman and one of my personal favorites, the amazingly politically incorrect The Black Gestapo) knew better. That billboard pictured above? Not only is it in the film, it was real and greeted people entering Smithfield until 1977. The whites in the movie, who become increasingly brazen in their open terrorism as events progress, even borrow its rhetoric, saying that our trio of heroes are promoting “communist integration.” Clearly, heads need to roll.
And roll they do, including in some very creative ways that I won’t spoil. Nothing about Berry’s direction is especially stylish, mind you, but that’s part of the appeal here — the fact that the three main stars weren’t professional actors (Jefferson, Tari, and Anderson were all far-from-Pro-Bowl-caliber NFL players, and the film is loaded with other off-duty gridiron less-than-greats including Mike Bass, Mike Thomas, and Frank Grant in supporting roles) also helps to give the proceedings an air of unpolished immediacy. North Carolina and Maryland forests don’t exactly make for convincing Viet Nam sets, I admit, but apart from that, Brotherhood Of Death‘s blatant un-professionalism is actually one of its greatest assets.
Honestly, my only gripe here is a small one — whitey really doesn’t get his until about the last five minutes of the movie. He gets it paid back with enough interest to make it worth the wait, there’s no question about that, but a longer and more satisfying sequence of ass-kicking and name-taking would have been welcome after the absolutely relentless series of indignities laid upon our protagonists and their community for the first 80-odd minutes here. Apart from that minor quibble, tough, this is a flick with no other significant strikes against it, and definitely one that “B”- movie fans, as well as fans of celluloid vengeance in general, should check out immediately.