Truck Turner is a movie of a very specific time and place. To give you an idea of how specific, it contains countless multiple uses of the phrase “jive ass sucker”, a pimp parade and a protagonist with the Christian name “Truck”. The eponymous Truck is played by Isaac Hayes and it’s doubly strange to hear the voice of South Park’s Chef say things like “I think we’re gonna have to waste that pimp,” with little to no irony. But to understand Truck, it’s necessary to understand the amalgam of influences that inform the blaxploitation genre.
Kicked off in 1971 by Mario Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, blaxploitation is the fusion of traditional B-picture narratives with the characteristics (both real and as imagined by white America) of what was then referred to as the “urban” market. This made them a strange marriage of social critique and exploitation cinema, creating a genre that was the first to predominantly cater to and star African Americans. Mostly low-budget affairs, blaxploitation films often pitted a lone African American against a violent organization, usually run by white men. The giddy energy of exploitation movies – which were heavy on sex, violence and light on production value – collided with the moral outrages of the time to form something entirely strange and unmistakably American.
As Truck Turner, Isaac Hayes swaggers through sets that look like they’ve been constructed out of balsa wood with the confidence of a man who wears sunglasses inside. A bounty hunter for a bail bondsman, Truck takes down petty criminals with a mixture of style and brutal violence. But when one of his shootouts goes south, he finds himself at war with the local pimping population.
Hayes lends an additional element vital to any decent blaxploitation flick: the soundtrack. With production values that often surpassed the films they were scoring, these soundtracks invented a sound so iconic they conjure up images of afros, muscle cars and bell-bottoms to this day. Fusing soul and funk, they had soaring strings movements, muscular brass sections and propulsive rhythms in impossible time signatures. These scores elevated the often cheesy stories into something engaging and entirely unique.
Like the western, the blaxploitation genre wasn’t as interested in telling grounded stories as inventing a mythic landscape, one that resembled the inner urban areas familiar to black America. At times this was done so ham-fistedly as to make them laughable or worse, downright offensive in their use of reductive stereotypes. But at their best they offered a searing, stylised view of a divided America, one not pictured in the more respected films of the time.
Painted on the side of Truck’s bail bondman office is an arrow pointing to the entrance with the words “Door of Freedom”. It’s a small, subtle touch in a movie brimming with brashness and bravado. But when you see Truck on a case and behind the wheel, racing through the Los Angeles streets, that sign rings true.