Riverbend (1989)

In a promotional image for Riverbend, one side has Margaret Avery, letting you know that she was in The Color Purple (it omits that she was also in Terror House). On the other side, Steve James, star of American Ninja and Delta Force.

This allows you to know what world you are from.

If you’re like me, any movie with Steve James means so much more than any Oscar-winning cultural force.

Made in the post-Cannon world by Sam Firstenberg — this was for Prism Entertainment Corporation — this movie has a completely ludicrous and therefore awesome conceit: Three rebellious African-American army officers — Maj. Samuel Quentin (James), Sgt. Tony Marks (Julius Tennon) and Lt. Butch Turner (Alex Morris) — refuse to enact a Mai Lei-style massacre and kill innocents. They’re due for a court martial and sent to Georgia. Being black men in the white man’s army, they know that there’s no way things are going to be fair, so they escape.

They end up by total luck in Riverbend, finding a home with sympathetic widow Bell Coleman (Avery).  She says she can only keep them for a few days, but Quentin is a man of justice that realizes that the town is in the grip of racist cops like Sheriff Jake (Tony Frank). Jake drops n bombs as casually as I discuss Jess Franco, which is all the time, and also is the man who shot Bell’s husband in the back in broad daylight when he tried to formally complain about how the cops treat black people in Riverbend. This film also wonders if that’s enough and decides that it has to somehow make a white Southern racist murdering coward cop even worse and has her assault a young girl named Pauline (Vennessa Tate).

Instead of leaving town, the army men are talked into staying around and training the black side of town to take over, which they do, and put every single white person either in jail or in a building with a bomb in it, all to bring the media to Riverbend where they’ll learn of the racism. And oh yeah, why Quentin and his men left Vietnam.

This movie is exactly why — if you’re a Cannon fan especially — that you love both James and Firstenberg. James rarely got the chance to be the lead — this and Street Hunter are about it before his untimely death — and he commands the screen. He gets to do action, drama, some shirtless time for the ladies and even a love scene, which man, the stages of grief in Rivertown are short when the widow Coleman is already sleeping with another man days after her husband gets gunned down. Then again, if I died tragically due to a racist cop and my wife was keeping Steve James in our place, I’d look up from Hell or through the dimensions from Limbo or whatever is in the next world and give my blessing, because look, Steve James is such an upgrade from me it’s the very definition of upgrade.

As for Firstenberg, he’s pre-Tarantino rewriting history with a black town following the “by any means necessary” pledge and taking over their own town by force. Amazingly, it works, as at the end, every black person is not dead but instead meeting their white neighbors in the street and warmly hugging and shaking hands just minutes after releasing them from a kidnapping and bomb threat. One and done scriptwriter Samuel Vance somehow made a science fiction movie here, because in the real world, the National Guard would be dropping bombs on this town.

You also have to adore any movie set in 1966 that has a synth driven basic training montage.

And man, Tony Frank. The guy was in a movie with a huge black cast and is just out there spitting the most coarse racism in their faces. I know sticks and stones, but this feels like the roughest way to get emotion and he’s acting the hell out of his role, somehow becoming worse than every single white Mr. Big in every blacksploitation movie put together.

This movie has Billy Jack and Walking Tall energy and I mean that as the biggest compliment. This totally knocked me out and was so unexpected; I had no clue it existed much less how powerful — and strange — it is.

You can watch this on YouTube.

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