Posted by: dougery | May 23, 2011

Better Late Than Never: Live and Let Die (1973)

At what point does the decision to adapt Fleming’s pulp thriller Live and Let Die (1954) into the 8th installment of the Bond film franchise–because “black villains would be timely,” what with the Black Panthers and all that civil rights junk going on–transcend a sound business decision and become incredibly, stupefyingly offensive? One can’t escape all the blaxploitation references when encountering Live and Let Die (1973) but it is also hard to separate the film from the era it was made in. After all I’m pretty sure a film like this would have to clear a bunch of hurdles in order to get made today, if indeed it would have ever had a chance to become green lit. Perhaps as an out-and-out parody or satire like Tropic Thunder (2008), to stand any chance at all.

Yet I’m less interested in the incredible amount of racism in the film, after all, we’ve already seen Sean Connery all dolled up in Japano-face, and more concerned with what exactly a blaxploitation Bond film looks like. Blaxploitation films already exist in a great many flavors, it shouldn’t be that hard to graft some drug or crime plot onto an appropriately global narrative, and guess what, it isn’t. The film centers around a corrupt Caribbean dictator (Dr. Kananga) and his double life as an American drug lord (Mr. Big). Bingo. We’re all set. Let’s just have the Brits get too close to Kananga’s illicit activities (in New Orleans, New York and the fictional nation of San Monique) so as to get a few agents murdered and enter James Bond. And not Sean Connery, but Roger Moore (we’ll get to why this move is significant later on).

Madeline Smith is only in the film for a few minutes or so but is, er, hard to miss.

So far so good. In fact, you could throw away the race card altogether and this film could still operate without a hitch. The fact that Kananga is black is incidental because more importantly he is a mad man (or suave amoral businessman, the two are interchangeable in this universe) who seeks to bankrupt his competitors while increasing his customer base in an attempt to gain a larger market share. So far we may as well be talking about the CEO of Amazon or Wal*Mart. There’s just one thing, the product is heroin. Uh-oh. And whenever drugs are involved your going to encounter issues of class and poverty and with them, race.

However Live and Let Die doesn’t just incorporate, inflate and sensationalize the stereotypes of black life in America (the jazz funeral, pretty much any scene shot in Harlem), it casts the net wider to grab onto a more global kind of racism. The civilized west of America and Britain come face to face with Voodoo and sacrifice and icky things like snakes and crocodiles, etc. This confrontation is literally emblazoned on the face of Baron Samedi, a voodoo practitioner who allegedly cannot be killed and whose face is painted half white, half black.  He also somehow manages to wear both a top-hat and tails while appearing nearly naked. And that booming, big-top laugh is more than a little unsettling. This is because there is more than a little P T Barnum at work here. And not just because Samedi’s hoodoo is a front to scare locals away from opium fields.

Samedi (and Kananga, etc) are pulling a fast one on the audience. It seems there are two ways for capitalism to work. One is through the concerted and noble efforts of western companies extracting their raw material and work force from the third world (only to sell the products back to them) and another kind of counter-capitalism where the oppressed class operates outside the law (through drugs, crime, etc). So how do we make these illicit privateers scary and evil? Thats where the skeletons and snakes and mindless gyrating come in.

Bond Heroes or J. Crew Models?

There is a scene that is repeated in Live and Let Die, one where a Brit agent is killed in a savage ritual and then again where a freshly deflowered white woman is set up for the same. There are scores of ‘natives’ crab-walking about the dancing crowd, thrusting their pelvises back and forth. There is a man with a goat’s head who may as well have an “I am a satyr” sign taped to his back, carrying a snake with which he will kill the bad westerners in their fashionable yet reserved blouses. In other words it is not enough for Kananga’s black run operation to be dirty with drugs, it needs to be sexualized and threatening. These businessmen aren’t evil because they are stealing and creating addicts (because that is what all businessmen do) but because they are frighteningly sexual and have backwards social customs, rites and religions.

Back to Roger Moore. A perfectly likable and capable Bond. Not as cartoonish as Connery. If that incarnation of 007 were placed in this film we’d get an entirely different product. There is a lot of unintentional humor here, but with Connery the laughs would be more on him, more deserved in an odd way. Moore is calm and while smug isn’t quite the right term, a kind of British superiority oozes from his flawless pale skin and perfectly quaffed hair. He is a much better foil to the ridiculous lengths this global blaxploitation will descend.

He is also a rather remarkable 007. While Connery is tufted hairy chest and all awkwardly punching and kicking jumpsuited minions, Moore barely raises his fist. Yet he seems much more physically imposing, like if he needed to kick your ass he certainly could. Instead he just turns his aersol can into a snake-killing flamethrower and oh yes, he’s irresistible enough to woo and bed the virgin Solitaire (a card pun name or a groaningly bad masturbation double entendre?). Her magic tarot powers are destroyed by Bond’s penis (or at least that is what Kananga / Mr. Big will have us westerners believe, sex is threatening and scary and destructive, remember?) but fortunately his erection fights for her majesty’s secret service.

In closing there is a lot of secondary character fodder the less said about the better. A Bumbling rural sheriff, a metal clamp handed goon, a foxy black female double agent… ugh. They drag down a film with promising first half and a lot to say about how racism is perpetuated and what it is used for in our culture.

Bond grade (out of 007): 005

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Responses

  1. just curious, but could the shift from the first half to the second be interpreted as a “this is what’s going on and now we’re going to show you how stupid it is.” i doubt it, but just thought i’d throw the thought out there.

  2. this doesn’t really answer your question AT ALL, but Live and Let Die was a hoot to watch. I’m movie-grizzled enough by now to know that a film can be reprehensibly bad AND still fun to watch, and so far, this iteration of Bond is up there for rewatchability, though it doesn’t really hold a candle to From Russia With Love.


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