Before seeing Django Unchained, I had pasta for dinner. That seemed entirely fitting, because the Oscar-winning epic (best original screenplay) is writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s salute to spaghetti westerns. His particular model is the original Django, the 1966 Italian horse opera in which a common man who’s suffered great loss is elevated into a hero bent on revenge.
One huge difference, of course, between the original Django and Tarantino’s version is that his is set in the Ante Bellum South, and his avenging angel is not Franco Nero but Jamie Foxx. It’s a black man, not a white one, who rises from near death and lays waste to everyone and everything around him. Casting off the shackles of slavery, Fox’s Django is empowered by righteous anger. Truly, he comes to embody the wrath of God.
It’s the sort of role that didn’t exist for a black man when Woody Strode broke into the movies. Strode had a major career, spanning more than forty years. He was a favorite of some of the greatest action directors in the business, notably John Ford, for whom he appeared in four films, including a key role in Sergeant Rutledge. But though Strode played the title character, a Buffalo soldier in the U.S. Cavalry in the late 1880s, his role is largely that of a victim. He’s been accused of the rape and murder of a white girl, then flees to avoid prosecution. Inevitably it’s that cinematic staple, the Good White Man, who saves him. Top-billed Jeffrey Hunter, as the counsel for the defense, finds the real killer in the courtroom, and Strode is freed.
Along with victims, Strode played the occasional bad guy, most dramatically as the gunslinger in the opening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. And, inevitably, he played sidekicks. In Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, he’s part of a four-man posse that includes Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan, but only Strode is omitted from the above-the-title credits. In his best-known part, he’s an African slave forced to fight fellow captives as a gladiator. Audiences have always thrilled to the moment when he sacrifices his life so that Spartacus can live on.
Woody Strode never planned on being an actor. He was a multi-sport phenom at UCLA, circa 1940. While former UCLA teammate Jackie Robinson was changing the face of baseball, Strode became one of the first African-Americans to play professional football. Then he moved into professional wrestling, where he discovered (according to his son Kalai) that he could be applauded by white Southerners for beating up a white opponent. It was all in the staging: “My dad could not pounce upon and hit and punish these white wrestlers without the audience’s approval. The white wrestler has to beat my dad up to a pulp. Then my dad has to turn to the audience and say, Shall I really give it to ‘em – shall I do it? They all scream, Yes, hit ‘em, hit ‘em! And then my dad can hit him, and win, and everyone’s cheering.” As Kalai explained to me, Southern fans would “start off white against black, but they’re really good against bad.” And Woody Strode, from the start, struck them as a good guy.
From wrestling, it was just a short hop to an acting career. He shaved his head to play a native chief in TV’s Ramar of the Jungle, and never looked back. With his strong presence and exotic look (he was almost half Native American), Strode was always a contender. But not, in that era, the mythic hero he could have been.
Here are some photos from Kalai Strode's collection, one of Woody in a Tarzan film and one taken late in life at his Glendora, California home. Maybe I'll have a chance to write more about Woody Strode (and his family) someday soon.