Friday, March 1, 2013

Woody Strode: Django Overlooked


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. 

 

10 comments:

  1. Woody Strode and Kenny Washington integrated the National Football League in 1946. This ended a 13 year ban on African Americans which started in 1933. Until 1933 African Americans played pro-football, the last black player being Ray Kemp. For further information, see my youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pfsypXi6oc.

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    1. I read excerpts of Goal Dust and would like to know more about Woody Strode's spaghetti western films

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    2. Thanks for writing, Anonymous. I just now saw this comment for the first time. The best source of information on Woody is his son, Kalai Strode, but I've just heard that he passed away. I'll see if I can come up with additional info for you.

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  2. Thanks so much, Kalai. I'm very grateful to you for clarifying my information. How startling it is to look back in time and discover something as outrageous as a sudden ban on black professional football players. At least some things in our world have gotten much better! Looking forward to checking out that youtube video. Will it explain WHY that ban came into being?

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  3. This is a spectacular post. I have been a fan of Mr. Strode since seeing him battling Tarzan on the late show one night with my brother. He did have some terrific roles and brought amazing presence to the films you mentioned - and other films that were not as high quality - but which were elevated by his presence, like Jungle Warriors (1984) in which he played the villain's henchman - and was still an imposing physical menace at 70 years of age. While serving as the movie reviewer for a local entertainment guide - I got to point out his appearance in two westerns from the 90's - Posse, and The Quick and the Dead. I was very happy to see him up on the Big Screen - and saddened that these two films were his last. It's also very cool to see Kalai Strode keeping his father's memory alive. Thank you for that, Mr. Strode. Your father is a part of a lot of movies that I love. And thank you Ms. G - for shining the spotlight on a very talented man.

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  4. I will convey your feelings to Kalai, who was known when I first met him at (yes) Expo 70 in Osaka, as Woody Jr. He's very proud of his father's accomplishments. More later, I suspect.

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  5. Thanks Craig for the nice comments about my father. Yes, I am dedicated to keeping his memory alive. By keeping his memory alive, I also am keeping the memory of Kenny Washington alive too. Kenny was the first African American signed to the modern National Football League in March 1946. My dad was signed next, in May 1946. The ban of African Americans into the National Football League started in 1933 by George Preston Marshall. He became rich in the laundry business and bought the Red Skins football team. Radio broadcasting of football and the expansion of the NFL into southern markets were some of the reasons for the racial exclusion. But after World War II and the "Double V" movement (victory over racism abroad and at home) plus the desire of the Cleveland Rams to obtain the L.A. Coliseum venue were the forces which opened up the NFL to Kenny and my dad. The African American press led by Halley Harding and Herman Hill, and Harding's speech at the Coliseum Commission meeting in 1946 were the straws that broke the NFL's camel's back. Sadly, few people remember Kenny Washington and his legacy. It is my hope to present Kenny and Woody to the world.

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  6. For a reconstruction of the Halley Harding speech given to the Coliseum Committee, follow this link:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pfsypXi6oc.

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  7. I particularly enjoy any movie with Woody Strode in it. MANHUNT by Fernando Di Leo is arguably one the man's best roles where he played a hitman alongside Henry Silva. KEOMA (with Nero) and KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (with Shatner) are also made better by his participation in them.

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  8. I'm sure Kalai is thrilled that so many fans remember his dad so vividly.

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