When I was fourteen or fifteen I had an Afro perm similar to Barbra Steisand’s in A Star Is Born. I looked about as ridiculous as she did. One memory of that bad hair time stands out. Gina and I were bumming around downtown when we came upon a lot of freaks in front of the Northern States Power building with signs protesting the company’s right to turn off power in the winter to customers who owed money. (When I use the word “freaks” it is with admiration and love.) Here was an opportunity to stick it to The Man and hang with freaks. As the guy with a real Afro put the sandwich board over my head that had the words “People Need Power” printed on it he said “Nice fro”. What kept him from laughing? Seriously. Seriously! Instead, he treated me like a kindred spirit – like a fellow freak.
The movie is Billy Jack (1971). * The opening sequence of wild mustangs running to the strains of the theme song One Tin Solideris fraught with emotion. Finding out they are meant to be slaughtered is unbearable. And, then the eerie kind of Native American winds chime music signaling the arrival of Billy Jack – a device used through out the movie – let’s you know they will be saved!
Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin plays the titular character which he created) is a “half breed”, decorated ex-Green Beret, hapkido expert who kicks ass on behalf of wild horses, Native Americans, pregnant teens and rape victims. He doesn’t look like a hippie though. He looks like a greaser, which is sort of awesome.
He hangs out a lot at the Freedom School in part because he loves those hippie kids and he is in love with Jean (played by Laughlin’s wife Delores Taylor) the head mistress. He is a hot head and she is a pacifist. (Yes Virginia, people once used that word) This dichotomy causes a lot of problems for everybody!
The Freedom School is on an Indian reservation where the students do really cool things like learn barrel riding, yoga, Improv Theater – and, talk about how dreamy Billy Jack is. A young Howard Hessman plays one of teachers at the school. (He and other members of the San Francisco improve group The Committee provide the much-needed comic relief.)
The bad guys are the Posner’s – a father who kills wild mustangs to sell for dog food and his multi-repulsive-homicidal-racist-rapist son Bernard. Most of the people in this small town kowtow to the Posner’s including a police deputy.
The good guys are Billy Jack, Jean, the teachers and kids, a sympathetic sheriff and the town doctor.
The bad guys really are bad and seem to get away with everything. Isn’t that always the case for The Man? Billy Jack is really good but he sure has a bad temper that eventually threatens the school and devolves in a Wounded Knee like situation. He must turn himself over to the authorities to stand trial for murder. (Bernard of course)
The end scene is our hero being driven in a police car out of the school grounds and the kids lining the road giving the Black Power symbol of a fist raised high. Writing this it sounds dated and clunky but it was powerful then. It meant something.
Activism might sound trite in the context of this film now but the protest at Northern States Power was only my first act of disobedience. There have been several others since and every one of them made me feel like I was doing something.
*We didn’t actually see it until 1975 when it was replayed at the Hollywood theater in our town. Gina and I watched it 15 times in the theater – but we only paid a handful of times because we would stay through 2 -3 screenings at a time. We weren’t so much sticking it to The Man as we didn’t have the money.
P.S. – He’s still at it! For more on Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor go to: http://www.billyjack.com/