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Melinda (1972)

Released in the early days of the Blaxploitation craze and promoted as "YOUR kind of Black film," Melinda is a far more hard-bitten and jaded crime film than the vague sexy drama promised by the film's lurid poster art depicting a scantily-clad woman posed beneath a man in a martial arts pose. What we have here instead is a sort of '70s twist on Laura with a DJ falling for a mystery woman who turns up murdered in his apartment, which leads him into a web of violence and treachery courtesy of the local mob.

Melinda marked the first of only three feature films directed by Hugh A. Robertson, one of the few prominent African American editors in the industry at the time. He already had an Oscar nomination under his belt with the Best Picture-winning Midnight Cowboy (1969), and he had been active in the industry since his assistant editor gigs on the New York counterculture classic Something Wild (1961) and Robert Rossen's Lilith (1964). The previous year Robertson had edited the first big studio Black action film, Shaft (1971), and had started his own production company, Sharc Productions Inc. (sometimes identified in the press as Share Productions), which had announced plans in its trade bulletins to do "a horror movie on voodoo, a Black musical, the life story of the first patron saint, Benedict, and an African love story based on the Beatrice Head book, Maru."

Sharc went into action, albeit only briefly, when Robertson relocated to Trinidad to make the film Bim (1974), which is now difficult to see outside of occasional retrospectives of Caribbean cinema. In an August 1972 interview with Box Office magazine, Robertson laid out his credo that "the motion picture industry should make entertaining, education and meaningful films," which he sought to reinforce all the way through his third belated film, Obeah (1987), an updating of that voodoo pitch also shot in Trinidad.

Cast in the leading roles of Melinda were three of the strongest young actors of the era, all of them now sadly departed. Nassau-born Calvin Lockhart took on the male lead of womanizer Frankie J. Parker; the film and TV veteran had risen to prominence in such studio films as Dark of the Sun (1968), Salt and Pepper (1968), and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). His imposing voice and matinee-idol looks made him a frequent face in 1970s cinema, most notably in the oddball Amicus werewolf film The Beast Must Die (1974) and the Sidney Poitier comedy twofer, Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Let's Do It Again (1975). His work would become less frequent from the 1980s until his death in 2007, though he did pop up in such unexpected titles as Predator 2 (1990) and a pair of David Lynch films, Wild at Heart (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). /

The two female leads are no less impressive, with Vonetta McGee making the most of her limited but effective screen time as the doomed title character. The beautiful and accomplished actress was still fairly new to moviegoers at the time with a small but fascinating range of credits including the spaghetti western masterpiece The Great Silence (1968), and by 1972 she appeared in Hammer and the cult favorite Blacula, both of which have retained fervent fan followings. Her biggest mainstream role came in 1975 as the strangely-named Jemima Brown in the eccentric Clint Eastwood action vehicle The Eiger Sanction (1975), and she remained busy and in demand until her death in 2010.

The politically active and socially outspoken Rosalind Cash was also a newcomer at the time following a small but potent role in Klute (1971), which she parlayed into a groundbreaking semi-romantic leading role in the horror/sci-fi favorite The Omega Man (1971) opposite Charlton Heston. She would become a familiar face in African-American films throughout the decade including Cornbread, Earl and Me (1975), The Monkey Hustle (1976) and a Lockhart reunion on the aforementioned Uptown Saturday Night. She primarily worked in television from the following decade onward, though she did close out her career with a fiery turn in the last story of the horror anthology Tales from the Hood (1995).

Produced by ex-Rams football star Pervis Atkins and released by MGM, Melinda was a moderate success when it opened in November of 1972 at New York's Four Star Special Showcase for a 12-week engagement, with other theaters getting it throughout December and January. The film had been written and originally announced as Melinda, but it was briefly retitled Hang Tough in trade announcements in the summer of 1972. The LA Herald-Examiner was fairly representative of reviewers as it found the film "funky and funny, genuinely vigorous and honest, self-appreciative yet without pretentious conceit, aware of its own limitations yet pushing them to full stretch. It is bold and vulgar yet classy and surprisingly tender. Something in it somewhere will get you in the funny bone, the base of the spine, perhaps even the heart - wherever you are most vulnerable."

The positive commercial and critical reception was enough to lead MGM to announce a sequel, Frankie J., set to start rolling in February of 1973 with Lockhart and Cash reprising their roles. That never came to pass due to the sudden surge in Blaxploitation demanding commitments from the actors and the nation's movie screens, but the one film we do have is a fine reminder of what happened when all of these talents joined together for the only time in film history.

Producer: Pervis Atkins
Director: Hugh A. Robertson
Screenplay: Lonne Elder III and Raymond Cistheri
Photography: Bill Butler
Editing: Paul L. Evans
Set Decoration: Sal Blydenburgh
Costumes: Norman A. Burza
Music: Jerry Butler and Jerry Peters
Cast: Calvin Lockhart, Rosalind Cash, Vonetta McGee, Paul Stevens, Rockne Tarkington, Ross Hagen.

ByNathaniel Thompson

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