There’s something oddly compelling about Cliff Roquemore’s Petey Wheatstraw. The Devil’s Son-in-Law. Released in 1977, Petey Wheatstraw stars Rudy Ray Moore, an American comedian, musician, singer, actor and film producer, perhaps best known for his role as Dolemite in the film of the same name, as the titular character. It’s a surreally strange combination of almost every Blaxploitation trope one could possibly imagine (kung-fu, gangsters, folklore… you name it), as though Roquemore and Moore have taken everything that made the genre popular at the time, fed it through a blender and then peppered it with their own bizarre brand of slapstick humour.
It’s no-budget nature means that the film is rough and amateurish in a way so many “grindhouse” end films of the era were, but there’s an unfiltered desire to entertain imbued into every frame here, and that makes up for a lot of the technical failings of the film.
During a hurricane in Miami, Florida, in what is possibly the strangest labour sequence I have ever seen committed to film, Petey Wheatstraw is born a six-year-old, nappy wearing boy with bites the Doctor and beats his own father for “disturbing me in my sleep every night”. It’s a confusing start to a film and leaves you unsure of what to expect as the movie continues.
We then zip through Petey’s adolescence, as a teenager he is mentored by a kindly stranger named Bantu, who teaches him kung-fu (with aid of some spectacularly awful dubbing) and lectures Petey on self-respect. Petey ultimately takes a vow that he will not bow to any man, living or dead, something that proves an important plot point later when the adult Petey, a successful nightclub comedian, is forced to make a literal deal with devil to be brought back to life after rival nightclub owners Leroy and Skillet gun him and a crowd of people down while at a funeral.
The film suffers from a total lack of tonal consistency. One minute we’re supposed to be laughing along with Petey and his gang, the next we’re watching a little boy shot to death. I’m unsure how I feel about this plot-device, especially considering the current state of American gun culture, and particularly when it comes to black communities. But the film seems to brush it aside as though it’s not a problem, jumping quickly into the next equally bizarre sequence.
As one might expect from an exploitation movie of the time, there’s a lot sexism and misogyny on display. I try to watch films such as this with an awareness of the time and culture of which they’re born out of, but sometimes things like these can’t help but be a little uncomfortable. I’m not sure I’m in a position to comment on it in great detail, as a strange white man living in middle England, but none the less, there were moments that had me uncomfortably squirming in my seat, which is something that was most definitely not the films intention.
Despite this, however, there’s a lot to enjoy about Petey Wheatstraw. The acting may be bad, the shots poorly composed and every fight scene looks like a single take, un-rehearsed kind of deal, but there’s a level of fun emanating from each frame. You can tell that everyone involved is having the time of their life making this totally deranged little comedy, and as is almost always the case, it’s hard not to enjoy something when the people making it are just willing you to.
The characters are all despicable people, from Petey himself, through to his friends, through to his rivals Leroy and Skillet and even the devil himself, Lou Cipher (gettit?). Petey’s key motivation once he’s enacted revenge of the nightclub owners is to simply back out of his agreement with the devil. He’s struck a deal to marry the devil’s daughter but doesn’t want to because… wait for it… because she’s too ugly.
I spent a large portion of the runtime trying to work out why I should be routing for such a terrible human being. Petey Wheatstraw doesn’t do an awful to make one like him as character, in fact he’s rude, obnoxious and arrogant, but Rudy Ray Moore has a certain charisma that makes his watchable despite the character’s blatant shortcomings.
The humour is hardly high-brow, one scene centres around a group of characters trying to deal with another character accidentally emptying his bowls, but there is something to be said for the sheer audacity of a film that runs you on wild goose-chase after wild goose-chase, shifting plot every five or so minutes until reaching its climaxing only to reveal that the entire thing has been wholly pointless.
The film doesn’t appear to condone the actions of any of its characters, and ultimately everyone gets their comeuppance, so one must wonder if it’s all that bad really? This really isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I fully appreciate that, and even I myself wouldn’t go so far as to recommend it to anyone outside of a general interest in the genre. But if you happen to find yourself in a position to watch it, then I’d suggest you do. It’s a cheap, silly, weird and surreal little trip that, in the end, is going to take up much of your time, but is as good a way to kill an hour and a half as any.
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