Proof positive comes in DVD debuts of The Split and The Slams, both from Warner Archive. More popular entries exist on his filmography, but these two are important all the same, for putting a black man front and center, above the title, in pictures meant for mass consumption.
Both also sound alike in title and theme, and feature millions at stake. In 1968s The Split, based on one of Donald E. Westlakes ever-popular Parker novels under his Richard Stark nom de plume, Brown is McClain, who pulls a stadium heist with a crew ... and thats the easy part. The hard part is collecting his fair share, especially when half a million of the take is missing.
Its easy to root for Brown in this scenario, even when his enemies are portrayed by the beloved likes of Gene Hackman, Jack Klugman and Donald Sutherland, who helps make it easy by playing that race card (Hes a big, black idiot). Also in that group is Ernest Borgnine, who we are led to believe could go toe-to-toe with Brown with a fight. Yeah! As if!
The final shot is a real keeper, and indicative of Westlakes cucumber-cool style.
Meanwhile, 1973s The Slams exudes more a down-and-dirty, blaxploitation feel at least initially. Produced by Roger Cormans brother, Gene, and directed by Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused, Unlawful Entry), casts Brown as the appropriately named Hook.
After having ripped off the mafia for $1.5 million, Hook is thrown behind bars. He really wants out, not only to retrieve his loot, but also and this grants the movie urgency because the building is slated for demolition. So, in a way, Hook has to plan a double heist of sorts.
Instead of The Splits slew of antagonists, one emerges in The Slams as a real standout: Ted Cassidy, aka Lurch from TVs Addams Family, as the racist fellow prisoner, Glover. Heres an example of how hardcore he is: Glover talks of turning another inmate into a jigaboo, and does so by having molten metal poured all over the poor guys face. Its really easy to hate Glover.
Its ending comes shaken with somebodys body parts in a cement mixer, which is indicative of the Corman school (of which Kaplan is a graduate, courtesy of a pair of nurse dramas). And in both movies, being Browns girlfriend is hazardous to her health, sometimes fatally. You cant have it all, Jim. Rod Lott