In J.D.’s Revenge Issac (Glynn Turman) is a quiet young taxi driver going to law school in New Orleans. One night, while out on a double date with his best friend, he’s possessed by the spirit of J.D. Walker, a street thug who was murdered with his sister in the early forties. J.D. is out for vengeance, and he’ll destroy Issac’s life trying to get it. He slowly takes over Issac’s mind, and then takes off after the two brothers responsible for his death and the death of his sister. Even with its supernatural metaphysics J.D.’s Revenge could have been called Blaxi Driver, because Issac’s transformation into J.D. was a literal manifestation of the same historical reversion to which Travis Bickle succumbs. The underlying social conditions for the two characters are different, but their response to the intense pressures of the mid-70s urban millieu are remarkably similar. Each finds a historical ‘type’ that expresses their current spiritual crisis, and then they manifest a violent revenge fantasy that leads to a personal rebirth as their “true” selves.
Arthur Marks was a poor man’s Jack Hill; both were white writer/directors that made their biggest splash in Blaxploitation, but Hill’s vision was always a little more epic in scope, political in intent, and artistic in design than Marks’s sleazier, more commercial touch. J.D.’s Revenge is a fine example of Marks’s trademark style, with all of his familiar tropes in place, and it benefits from its auteur’s unrelenting loyalty to his characters. Unique among sleaze-hounds, he’s always willing to give the audience a full perspective on the smaller characters’ motives.
Arthur Marks has a much looser vision than rifle-shot Exploiteurs like George Romero, Dario Argento, or Lucio Fulci. He relies on actual character development in addition to traditional genre expectations. His movies are a shotgun blast of characters, many of which could serve as the film’s protagonist.
In J.D.’s Revenge at least three characters could vie for the role of main character—even the female lead has a genuine emotional crisis and resolution, realized entirely outside the presence of Issac. Bonnie’s Kids was similar with its revolving cast of low lifes; it seemed to focus on the older sister in many ways, but of course there’s that amazing ending that redirects audience identification to the younger half of Bonnie’s litter. Friday Foster is more about the unity of the entire black populace than it is about Friday Foster or Colt Hawkins taking a personal journey. Bucktown is like Bonnie’s Kids in that Marks has a younger character that steals the screen the whole movie, and then at the end he uses the main character’s adventure to resolve a coming-of-age story for the youth.
In J.D.’s Revenge, the titular vengeance is not even rooted in the “main” character’s past at all. Nothing in the narrative causes Issac to seek revenge—J.D. is acting through him. This lack of agency characterizes most of Marks’s leads. The people with the most screen time in his films are always at the whim of off-screen forces that are typically the real heart of the story. In Bonnie’s Kids its the two hitmen (an obvious influence on Pulp Fiction.) In Friday Foster it’s white culture and its fear of black unity. Even Bucktown has the story of the town and the Sheriff’s Department pushing forward the more personal story of its main character. It’s always someone from without that sets the plots into motion, and in the end it’s always the resolution of those external forces that bring redemption for the characters.
J.D.’s Revenge is definitely the best film by Marks I’ve seen so far. Glynn Turman’s role as Issac, the most obvious candidate for protagonist, is usually the most lauded part of the movie—and it is one of the great Blaxploitation performances. He plays Issac meekly and with great politesse. He imbues the transition from Ike to J.D. with a great revulsion and fear. Once the malevolent J.D. emerges fully, he goes way off the deep end with manic fits and an extreme accent.
J.D. is Issac’s shadow. At one point Issac’s best friend Tony even says outright that Ike is too repressed. He thinks Ike’s abusive behavior towards his girlfriend means he’s “loosening up.” Marks problematizes the easy answers of Tony—who thinks Ike’s emerging madness is a “good thing”—and Ike’s doctor who says that it’s “just stress,” and tells him to “smoke some weed—meditate.” This flippancy parallels the transition to the less repressed society of the 70s which had integrated many of the social evolutions of the 60s into mainstream culture, and Issac’s reactionary fear of sliding from freedom to depravity were seen in dozens of films of the era.
In Taxi Driver, released the same year, a white cabbie from the midwest—portrayed as quiet and sexually awkward—slowly absorbs the decadence of New York night life until he takes to the streets in a mohawk and start instituting frontier justice. Both of these movies are influenced by Film Noir and Horror, both deal with racism, moral turbulence, and religion’s inability to spiritually satisfy the “lost man,” and both of them have happy endings where the pyschological explosion inherent in the vengeance is rewarded with a delusional vision of bliss. Of course, the techniques used to get at those themes are wildly different. One’s from the arthouse; one’s from the grindhouse, but I couldn’t help think of that classic urban nightmare from the same year while watching J.D.’s Revenge.
Now that I’ve established the dominant narrative of the film, revolving around Issac’s descent into madness, let me talk a little more about the way Marks opens up the possibility of sub-narratives within that frame. J.D. is the obvious second choice for protagonist. He really drives the plot; he’s the first character we see, and his backstory is the movie’s backstory. In the text of the film Issac and J.D. are clashing over the control of Ike’s mind, but in the sub-text they are battling over the celluloid on which they stand. J.D. struggles to take over the film—when he comes on screen the movie shifts from a timid Romantic mystery to a real Exploitation shit-fest. J.D. brutalizes the audience, trying to get our attention, but it’s the objects of his vengeance that are the movie’s centerpiece for me.
J.D. was murdered in 1942 by a man named Theotis. His brother is Elijah Bliss (Lou Gossett, Jr.), a reformed criminal who by 1976 has turned into a popular local evangelist. The movie uses Bliss as a red herring, prompting even greater audience sympathy and fear by having J.D.’s spirit target a seemingly pious man. The inverse also holds true, as J.D.’s focus on Bliss lends him a criminal aura that subverts his holy rolling. This red herring is great, because we never see the thematic switcharoo coming. Few 70s Revenge Fantasies portray a more disturbing vision of vengeance; there is not one tiny shred of sympathy for J.D.’s story until the very end. Bliss becomes more and more of the story’s focus, and he eventually declares that “this is a test; God is testing me.” It was at this point that I realized how much of the film’s theme rested on Bliss’s story. He’s portrayed as a genuinely spiritual man who has had a conversion experience and is being held back by his corrupt brother. When J.D. gets his revenge on Theotis, Bliss realizes he’s been played and tells the cops what they want to hear so they will let Issac go. As Bliss’s character finally achieves redemption, the film ends.
Overall, I thought this movie was far superior to Marks’s earlier efforts at Blaxploitation, but it wasn’t one of the genre’s true classics. Despite Marks’s interesting peronal vision, his only real masterpiece is Bonnie’s Kids. J.D. may have dismissed with the usual “the-man’s-gettin-us-down” plot mechanics and avoided the dubious ‘brothas-gotta-stick-together’ inverse that so many of these movies fell into, but it never climbs its interesting premise to an artistic peak. The cinematography is generally good, with some decent footage of the city, a few great scenes in Elijah Bliss’s church, and several dream sequences that outshine any I’ve seen in 70s Exploitation. Still, the movie is mainly of interest to fans of Blaxploitation—specifically to those seeking something a little off the beaten path. Those that do find it will get something both unique for the genre and mediocre in general: a Blaxploitation film that genuinely cares more about its characters than the social ills tormenting them.