Mean Johnny Barrows/Review
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
In his directorial debut, blaxploitation superstar Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (who also produced) delivers the goods: and then some. Acknowledging the genre that made him an action hero, Williamson shows an adept awareness of the gangster obsessed popular films of the day (The Godfather) and plays it against African American concerns and the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
As former college football star and dishonorably discharged war vet Johnny Barrows (he punched his Sergeant), Fred Williamson is tall, cool, and not to be messed with. Even so, on his first day back “home”—the mean streets of LA—he’s mugged and left bleeding on the sidewalk. He also gets pulled into the local police station and is abused by a couple of racist cops.
Johnny finds a job as a gas station janitor. It may be dirty work but at least he’s able to sleep in the stockroom when work is done. Mobster Mario Racconi (Stuart Whitman) offers him another option. Racconi is the spokesman for a crime family that’s being pushed out of the numbers racket. Johnny’s aptitude for killing—he racked up an impressive number while in combat—makes him the ideal candidate to rub out the competition and collect a crisp 100K for his troubles. Will Johnny become an assassin for hire? If so, maybe he can connect with Nancy (Jenny Sherman) a pretty blonde who, although she’s currently dating rival mobster Tony (Roddy McDowall), seems to have the same goo goo eyes for him as he has for her.
Screenwriters Jolivett Cato and Charles Walker present a modern-minded fantasy script (the Racconis are happy to deal in illegal numbers but not in drugs or prostitution) that speaks to the times and the audience it was made for. Along with genre tropes—a karate fight, shootouts, car chases, and vintage locations—Mean Johnny Barrows promotes its political statement: white society has left the black man—and returning Vietnam War vets—few choices other than working outside of the law.
Mean Johnny Barrows—which makes clever use of the mid century war song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” is a slow-burn star vehicle: a lively backdrop for Williamson, a man who helped open the doors for African American participation in front of, and behind, the motion picture cameras. The picture is “Dedicated to the veteran who traded his place on the front line for a place on the unemployment line. Peace is hell.”
Josiah Howard is the author of four books including Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide (now in a fourth printing). His writing credits include articles for the American Library of Congress, The New York Times and Readers Digest. A veteran of more than one hundred radio broadcasts, Howard also lectures on cinema and is a frequent guest on entertainment news television. Visit his Official Website.