The UCLA Film and Television Archive’s contribution to “Pacific Standard Time” is “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” a complement to the Hammer Museum’s “Now Dig This!” Of the films being screened at the Hammer’s Billy Wilder Theater, none is more notorious than Jamaa Fanaka’s 1975 Welcome Home, Brother Charles (also released under title Soul Vengeance). Think of it as a video response to Ed Kienholz’s Five Car Stud. With that I will have to say SPOILER ALERT. It is impossible to say much more about Fanaka’s film without revealing its outré twist. In the event that you have already booked tickets to the Oct. 28 screening (presented by Fanaka himself), based on nothing more than the UCLA site’s promise of a “cult-favorite ultra-shock ending,” read no further. Otherwise… well, Welcome Home, Brother Charles is a film whose reputation has always preceded it.
While a UCLA film student, Fanaka conceived the very Sistine Chapel of blaxploitation high concepts: An angry black man who strangles white oppressors with his incredibly long, prehensile, black dick. Fanaka wrote a script around the idea and shot it on weekends in South Central L.A. and UCLA. Fellow student Charles Burnett (of Killer of Sheep fame; later a MacArthur “genius”) was cameraman. Despite that, the result does not look like anything other than the zero-budget student film it was. Fanaka nonetheless managed to find a commercial distributor, and Brother Charles grossed about half a million dollars in its first six months. This launched Fanaka’s film career, capped by the commercially successful Penitentiary prison film franchise.
The narrative of Welcome Home, Brother Charles is nearly all in flashback. A bigoted cop arrests Charlie, a Watts pimp, and attempts to castrate him. The extent of Charlie’s injuries is left unclear. It later develops that the cop was at LAX earlier the same day and had disarmed an atomic bomb with a penknife, the same one used to mutilate Charlie. As far as background exposition goes, Welcome Home, Brother Charles follows Godzilla, Mothra, and Them! Atomic radiation causes something natural to mutate into a “monster.”
Charlie is sent to prison on trumped-up charges. He comes out bent on vengeance against the white men who convicted him. His plan is to seduce their wives or girlfriends and kill the men. He finds that his new weapon is equally suited to both purposes.
The viewer doesn’t quite know what’s happening until the payoff scene. Last on Charlie’s list is the dorky prosecuting attorney (whose op art decor belongs in a California design show). The camera, shooting from below Charlie’s crotch, shows him getting an erection that just won’t quit. The attorney is paralyzed with fear—Charlie’s penis goes for his neck.
This was long before CGI. Fanaka used a rubbery prosthesis about ten feet long. The actor playing the attorney had to the coil the prosthesis around his neck while pretending to fight it off—and then “die.” It’s like Bela Lugosi fighting the rubber octopus in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, yet ultimately far stranger than Wood’s or Burton’s vision.
CUT. A cop investigating the death asks the attorney’s voluptuous girlfriend, “You haven’t seen any strange black men loitering around, have you?”
Today Fanaka is known mostly by cult film aficionados. By presenting him under the “Pacific Standard Time” umbrella, UCLA draws a parallel not only to the political art in the Hammer show but to a generation of MFAs interested in subverting the conventions of film and video. In the subverting-conventions department, Welcome Home, Brother Charles is a high-water mark.
(Above right, Jamaa Fanaka with fan, from Fanaka’s MySpace page. Below, NSFW and barely safe for YouTube.)
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