Cast & Crew
Hugh A. Robertson
Smooth-talking, African-American disc jockey Frankie J. Parker attends a karate class at the Los Angeles community center run by his longtime friend, Charles Atkins. Charles urges Frankie to use his influence to raise funds for the much-needed center, but the narcissistic Frankie is concerned about antagonizing his white boss. During Frankie's radio show, however, he relents and asks his listeners to send contributions to his post office box. His announcement is heard by Melinda Lewis, who has just arrived from Chicago, as she drives her rental car. That night, Frankie goes to the nightclub owned by a friend, former football player Tank Robertson, and there meets Melinda. Although Melinda dislikes Frankie's womanizing patter, she accompanies him to a party on Tank's yacht. While Melinda mingles, Frankie is confronted by his former lover, Terry Davis, who is jealous of Melinda. Frankie dismisses Terry, then takes Melinda to his apartment, unaware that they are being followed by a large thug. Melinda allows Frankie to seduce her and the couple spends the next day exploring Los Angeles. At dinner, Melinda tells Frankie that he is more than just his "jive talk," and that he should think of himself as "heavy and deep," because there are already too many hustlers in the world. Moved by Melinda's sincerity, Frankie admits that he has feelings for her. The next day, Frankie rushes home from work, but when he arrives, he discovers that the apartment has been ransacked and that Melinda has been brutally murdered. The thug who had been following them, Melinda's killer, calls the police, who suspect that Frankie is the culprit, especially after they find Melinda's driver's license and learn that, unknown to Frankie, her name is Audrey Miller. Frankie is beaten and interrogated until he is freed by a lawyer sent by Tank, after which he goes to Tank's house. Terry is waiting for him there and, quelling her hostility, she tries to help him determine why someone would kill Melinda. Soon after, Frankie traces Melinda's steps by finding her rental car. As he is leaving the rental agency, however, he is stopped by a white junkie named Marcia who pretends to have car trouble and begs him for a ride. Once in Frankie's car, Marcia pulls a gun on him, but Frankie maneuvers the vehicle in order to get the weapon. He then takes her to Tank's beach house and questions her until she reveals that a black man named Smith offered to give her drugs if she brought Frankie to him, and that Melinda had something that Smith wants, although Marcia does not know what it is. At the address given to him by Marcia, Frankie finds a white drug dealer who also does not know Smith's identity, merely that he works for the Chicago gangsters searching for Melinda. After knocking the man unconscious, Frankie returns to the beach house and there discovers that Marcia has been killed. Frankie then finds a place to hide with Terry, but when he goes out for air, he is chased by a car and attacked by two men. After defeating one man with karate, Frankie beats the other man, who he ascertains is Smith. Smith reveals that Tank is in league with the gangsters who killed Melinda, and the enraged Frankie takes the wounded man to Tank's nightclub. Pelting Tank with karate kicks, Frankie forces him to admit that he is partners with white Chicago mobster Mitch, but Tank swears that he was not involved with the murders. Tank reveals that Melinda was Mitch's mistress and that when she left him, she took something that Mitch desperately wants. Meanwhile, Mitch, who has come to Los Angeles, upbraids his right-hand man, Gregg Van, for allowing his thug to kill Melinda and for not retrieving the item. Gregg has discovered that she had placed the object in a safe-deposit box, but when Mitch attempts to gain access to the box, the bank manager thwarts him. Meanwhile, Frankie has his secretary check his post office box and discovers that Melinda mailed her safe-deposit box key to him. Mitch summons Tank, who protests that he no longer wishes to be involved, even though he still owes Mitch money. Mitch convinces him that unless he can make Frankie cooperate, however, he will "turn Gregg loose" on Frankie. At Terry's office, Frankie shows her the key, then laments the impossibility of finding out what is in the box. Terry persuades him to give her Melinda's driver's license, then, posing as the dead woman, goes to the bank. A suspicious clerk summons the manager, and it is only when Terry loudly accuses him of being racist that he ushers her into the vault. Terry retrieves the item and runs to the waiting Frankie, who is mystified to discover that it is Melinda's gold cigarette case, shaped like a miniature safe, which was given to her by Mitch. Determined to unravel the mystery, Frankie orders Tank to demand a meeting with Mitch on his own territory. Mitch stalls for an hour, during which Gregg kidnaps Terry, and Mitch remembers how the problem began: Hoping to expand his influence, Mitch agrees to assassinate a black labor leader running for president of an important union, and at a meeting after the murder, shows his employers motion picture footage of the assassination. Unknown to Mitch, Melinda has hidden a tape recorder in the room to get evidence to bring about Mitch's downfall, as she wants revenge for his sexual abuse of her. Back in Los Angeles, when he is informed that Terry is being held hostage, Frankie concedes to a meeting on Mitch's territory. Frankie then asks Charles for help, and Charles arranges to shadow Frankie with several of his karate students. Tank escorts Frankie to Mitch's mansion the next morning, and when Frankie refuses to hand over the cigarette case, Tank shows him that Terry is outside, locked in a cage filled with venomous reptiles. Agreeing to get the case, Frankie is followed by three cars carrying Mitch's goons, but when they get to Frankie's car, Charles and his five pupils attack. After a fierce battle, Frankie and his friends prevail and return to the mansion. There, Frankie frees Terry, and Charles' forces triumph over the remaining mobsters, after which Frankie demands that Mitch reveal the contents of the cigarette case. Mitch opens the miniature safe, but when Frankie plays the tape, he is dismayed to hear nothing but static and realize that Melinda died for nothing. Mitch laughs smugly and in a rage, Frankie pummels him and, outdoors, holds his head underwater in a pond. Charles pulls Frankie off the gangster, then departs with his students. Rushing to Frankie, Terry embraces him and after a passionate kiss, the couple walks away together.
Hugh A. Robertson
Douglas C. Lawrence
Wilmer C. Butler
Edward C. Carfagno
Lonne Elder Iii
Paul L. Evans
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.
By Nathaniel Thompson
The working title of this film was Hang Tough!. The viewed print, which had been edited for television, was missing approximately ten minutes. The explanations of why "Melinda Lewis" left "Mitch," and Mitch's assassination of the union leader are shown in flashbacks. In the first flashback, which is seen after "Frankie J. Parker" and "Terry Davis" wonder why Melinda left Mitch, Melinda is seen being raped by one of Mitch's men as Mitch watches with pleasure.
As noted by contemporary sources, the picture was shot on location in various Los Angeles neighborhoods, with the interiors shot at M-G-M's Culver City Studios. A modern source adds Chuck Hicks and John Quade to the cast.
The picture marked the directorial film debut of African-American filmmaker Hugh A. Robertson (1932-1988), who had edited one of the first blaxploitation films, 1971's Shaft, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his editing of the 1969 picture Midnight Cowboy (see below for both). The only other feature film directed by Robertson was the 1987 production Obeah. Melinda was the only film produced by former New Mexico State University football star Pervis Atkins. According to Filmfacts, when the production was initially announced, industry observers hoped that it would be superior to typical blaxploitation films, as the director, writer and producer were African American. The picture received generally scathing reviews, however, with critics complaining about the level of violence and stereotyping. Those sentiments were typified by The Washington Post critic, who wrote: "if Melinda had been produced, directed and/or written by whites, one would immediately brand them as white racists, out to purvey a scurrilous image of black life."
According to a August 28, 1972 Box Office article, "first returns" and "general reaction" to Melinda prompted the filmmakers to begin planning a sequel entitled Frankie J. Scheduled to begin filming in February 1973, the sequel was to continue the adventures of Frankie and Terry, but the project was never made.
Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Blaxploitation, Baby!" June 23 - August 10, 1995.
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