HAMMER (1972), and Why Blaxploitation Matters

Hammer comes to Blu-ray on June 9 from Olive Films.

Fred “The Hammer” Williamson stars in the film that bears his professional nickname. What more need be said?

Like Jim Brown, Williamson was a professional football player who turned to acting and became one of the key players in the blaxploitation movement. Although he’s much better known for his acting career these days, it was from his football days that the nickname “The Hammer” was derived. After small roles in a couple of films including M*A*S*H, Williamson smartly used his nickname to create a persona for his first starring role.

The role shows off Williamson’s athleticism and charm. B.J. Hammer is a street smart tough guy who can hold his own. Observing him in a fistfight, some shady mob-connected boxing promoters decide to groom him into a professional boxer. Recognizing the opportunity to escape the rat race, he takes them up despite knowing they’re not on the up and up.

If there’s a theme to why I take every opportunity to cover films like this, it’s that blaxploitaiton matters. Following the conflict and struggle of the civil rights era, the 70s were a time of boldness and change in entertainment. With the shift in attitudes about race came more opportunities for black artists to affect the cultural landscape. I think there is a tendency in modern audiences to disregard these films because of their more exploitative elements (depictions of sex, violence, street life, prostitution, drugs, etc), but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes them so critical. Beyond the often highly stylized, entertaining, and seedy nature of these films, there’s a catharsis at play. For the first time, black characters could be the stars. They could have have style and swagger. If these films come on strong, so what? The floodgates were open, and the result is one of the most stylish and colorful eras of cinema.

The character of B.J. Hammer might very well raise an eyebrow. Confronted by his girlfriend with the fact that he’s working for the bad guys, he shrugs it off. “Every man for himself. You don’t get nothin’ by layin’ back, praying or marching. You gotta get where the happenin’s is… Hey, Look, I know that a scam is coming down but that act can run both ways. Don’t get got by tryin’ to get, I’m gonna get mines, momma, cause I owe it to myself.” Hammer’s philosophy may not seem particularly noble or commendable, but it’s an honest comment on the cultural zeitgeist of the time.

Eventually Hammer’s higher-ups do order him to take a dive, but he decides to screw them over by winning the fight anyway. Refusing to throw the fight may be a familiar plot device, used in Snatch and Pulp Fiction among others, but credit Hammer for coming before.

The film certainly has plenty of thoughts on race; in closing, here are a few of the more poignant things I observed:

All of Hammer’s opponents in the ring are white. While some might criticize the construct that seems to specifically pit black against white, I found it much more relevant and fascinating to consider that these scenes would probably have been impossible to depict just a few years prior.

Likewise, a scene in which Hammer is sexually targeted and accosted by an attractive white woman shouldn’t be dismissed as mere titillation. This type of scene, commonplace in blaxploitation films, is a deliberate exercise in freedom, and more aggressive in depicting interracial relationships than progressive mainstream films like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (which is in no way meant to denigrate either type of film).

Not all the commentary about black culture is positive, either. As Hammer gains success fighting in the ring, he finds himself less welcome in his old haunts. Resentful and dismissive of his success, several characters fling nasty insults like “jive sucker”, “sellout”, and most crassly, “bourgeois nigger”.

Throughout the film, Hammer takes orders from gang boss Big Sid (Charles Lampkin). In one of the film’s cleverer twists, it turns out that Sid doesn’t call the shots — he in turn answers to an even bigger boss who, as it turns out, is a white man. Because things just don’t change that radically, that quickly.

The Package

Hammer finally arrives on Blu-ray in a handsome but no frills package from Olive Films. The case features the original poster art.

This release arrives alongside three excellent Pam Grier films, representing some of the very best titles not only of MGM’s “Soul Cinema” DVD catalog, but of blaxploitation in general.

Special Features and Extras

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 [Blu-ray] | [DVD]

Previous post 6 Reasons Why SPY Is Not Your Typical Summer Comedy
Next post JURASSIC WORLD Is Aware Of Your Skepticism, Is A Clever Girl