Director: Claude Bernard-Aubert
Something Weird Video/Image Entertainment

One of the great pay dirt themes of exploitation films from the 1950s through the 1970s (and even into the 90s with Spike Lee’s JUNGLE FEVER) was mixed-race relationships, and even more controversial was the idea of having a mixed-race child. American films took a while to latch onto “racesploitation,” but these two French imports show that European filmmakers were once again thinking ahead of the Yanks. Director Claude Bernard-Aubert must have loved pushing the buttons of conservative viewers, as he directed both films included on this disc, MY BABY IS BLACK and CHECKERBOARD. The combination of the two creates one of Something Weird’s best discs of the year.

After a startling opening scene with a screaming white woman giving birth to a black child in a hospital, we are then treated to the story of how she came to proclaim “MY BABY IS BLACK!” Frances is a beautiful French woman who meets Daniel, a black medical student, at a local cafeteria. The film follows their relationship in a judgmental world and the obstacles they must overcome, namely Frances’ uncaring parents who demand she get an abortion when she becomes pregnant with Daniel’s child.

Distributed by Stan Borden’s American Film Distributors Inc., the same company responsible for the OLGA and FLESH series, MY BABY IS BLACK was given the red-carpet exploitation treatment in the US and the title alone is a cult film classic. But the material is played so straight-faced and sincerely, not to mention superbly written and filmed, that the goofy title actually seems insulting considering how good the feature film is. The dubbed dialogue is so frank and startling, even by today’s standards, it’s hard to imagine how shocking it must have been when unleashed in the U.S. in the mid-60s. Bernard-Aubert seems more interested in making a case for love between all the races rather than a solid exploitation film, so the pacing may be a little slow and the shock angles implied by the poster and trailers are pretty much nonexistent. But if approached as an arthouse film tackling a taboo subject with panache, MY BABY IS BLACK! is a truly satisfying experience and one of the more adventurous films to come out of 1950’s France.

Bernard-Aubert creates some striking moments contrasting the relations between black and white: a young white girl plays with and innocently kisses a black boy she plays with in the streets, a black priest shares his cigarettes with three Hassidic Jews. On the other hand, he doesn’t shy away from portraying the ugliness of racism, resulting in several quite un-PC moments that will shock (please?) fans of envelope-pushing cinema. A lady social worker in an educational film says of little black children, “They’re like puppies. You train them with candy!” and is generally dismissive towards the black people populating a shantytown (“They should be isolated, and disinfected, too!”).

There’s also some surprising male nudity, a topless artists’ model, lots of jazz music and an experimental score, and lots of racially insensitive dialogue. Bernard-Aubert also wrote, produced, and edited MY BABY IS BLACK!, so one feels the passion and interest he put forth into the film. Overcoming some of the draggy spots (lots of dialogue with the couple professing their love for each other), viewers should enjoy this excellent film masquerading as exploitation.

Before unleashing MY BABY IS BLACK on the world, Bernard-Aubert helmed a superb little film called CHECKERBOARD. Another race relations drama with politically incorrect dialogue and high tension between black and whites, this is one of the best undiscovered gems of the Something Weird catalog and is actually more enjoyable than the later MY BABY.

The opening scrawl of CHECKERBOARD is a great introduction to this seedy border town melodrama: “This is Cicada…The Rio Verde…The road of Los Amigos…The desert is all around…A great spot to settle an account. The inhabitants of Cicada get rid here of their quarrels while getting rid of their bullets. The best shooter wins, the other loses in losing his brains. Quick justice, perfect justice! At the time of the dam, there were 11,781 people in Cicada. Now the vegetation has disappeared; so have the people. Only 1,003 bodies have remained, resigned to live, or rather to rot here…From Cicada to Los Amigos, the closest town, there is only one possible road which crosses the desert…”. Could such a film live up to such a despairing introduction? CHECKERBOARD does, and in spades! The audience is given a first-hand tour of Cicada from the get-go, as a literal tour group is led through the town to gawk and be horrified at the despondent lifestyle of its denizens. Shoeless hicks shoot at tin cans, the local church is deserted, the mayor is pushed around in a wheelchair by a big black servant, a popular drinking hole is overrun with wild brutes and tough prostitutes, a horny couple perform sex shows for anyone who peeks in their window (“We ain’t got no movies here in Cicada!”), a variety of kooky characters populate the post office, the general store, and the police station, and worst of all, a rift between blacks and whites forces all black citizens out of the streets after dark lest they be blown to bits. The plot kicks into gear as white war veteran Bob decides to ask black beauty Bessie to a dance on Saturday night, resulting in a tense race war that threatens to tear the town apart!.

The original French title, translated as GUTS IN THE SUN, is a more brutal and accurate name for this unrepentant and nasty little film, which owes much to trashy Hollywood epics like BEYOND THE FOREST and the films of Douglas Sirk. The film opens with a little boy kicking a skull down the main road of Cicada, a scenario that wouldn’t look out of place in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS or DJANGO KILL. The same kid also curses a blue streak and runs all over town barefoot. It’s hard to put into words just how sleazy and downright dirty CHECKERBOARD really is, but it’s also one hell of a fun flick to watch. Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize Lucien Raimbourg (the complaining old man in THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE) as Cicada’s local judge; Bob is almost lynched and throws his fake leg (!) at the mob; there is more surprising male and female nudity as only the French can deliver; insensitive racist dialogue pops up in every other scene; characters dance shamelessly and lewdly in the streets; the fat Chinese general store owner tries to get into the pants of his female customers; the schoolhouse is filled with illiterate adults; a shirtless black jazz group plays wild music; an “intellectual” conversation between the town’s elite discusses why blacks are inferior to whites; white women long for the caresses of their black servants; fistfights and car chases erupt between rough rednecks and ballsy blacks. CHECKERBOARD is one crazed experience, with beautiful photography by Jean Isnord and a brilliant screenplay by Bernard-Aubert and Claude Accursi, and there isn’t one boring moment to be found in the 95 minute running time.

Stan Borden, who made wads of cash with Bernard-Aubert’s earlier race film MY BABY IS BLACK, released this one in the US a full 10 years after it was made, and apparently it made less of an impact as records of its theatrical distribution are spotty. This is surprising, as CHECKERBOARD is a much more exploitive film and Bernard-Aubert throws in everything but the kitchen sink in an effort to shock and entertain the audience. He creates a jet-black comedy that is a strange contrast to his very dramatic follow-up two years later, and this is without a doubt the superior film. Worth the price of the disc alone and a mandatory purchase for the cult film fan who thinks he’s seen everything!

Viewers who enjoy both of these films and their un-PC attitudes should check out 1968’s BORN BLACK, a German import with an equally depressing storyline and a sappy female version of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World”, available from the trusty Something Weird catalog.

Despite the cover saying both films are presented at 1.33:1, MY BABY IS BLACK and CHECKERBOARD are both letterboxed at 1.66:1. MY BABY looks the worse of the two, with lots of grain, debris, and the image looks very soft. It’s transferred from the original U.S. negative, but one couldn’t tell from the poor shape it’s in. Borden must have taken better care of his excellent roughies than his imports. The image is still clear enough to appreciate and it’s great to have this wonderful film on DVD at all. CHECKERBOARD looks decidedly better, with a sharp clean image and nice black and white contrasts. It’s still not negative quality, but comes pretty close and the print looks as if it saw maybe one or two projectors before being put into storage for 40 years. The mono audio is better on MY BABY IS BLACK, with the music and dialogue sounding clearer and easier to listen to than CHECKERBOARD, whose soundtrack sounds a tad muffled.

The supplements kick off with a selection of trailers for French-themed imports that frequented the drive-in and grindhouse circuit. A MY BABY IS BLACK! TV spot is probably just an incomplete print of a theatrical trailer, as Stan Borden never advertised his films on television (especially Adults Only films). MANINA is a French trailer for a Brigitte Bardot vehicle. Bardot was simply one of the most beautiful women to ever be photographed, and this looks to be one of her lesser-known films (it was her second). Howard Vernon is in this one! ANY MAN’S WOMAN is another import distributed by Stan Borden, a crime drama with a cast of three, compared in the trailer to RAFIFI, and it looks wonderful. The original US release title was NO ESCAPE in 1959, though this re-release trailer looks to be from the late 60s. Turkish leading lady Magali Noel is heavenly! COMMENT LES SEDUIRE is another French-language trailer, with tons of gorgeous women writhing in the nude and looking seductively at the camera. Fans of stunning French beauties (who isn’t?) should try to find this one; it resembles a French version of a NYC nudie cutie, in black and white and a striking scene of a stag reel projected on a man’s back. Where did this one disappear to? SELLERS OF GIRLS is another import from Stan Borden with the surefire exploitation angle of white slavery! Beautiful French girls are tricked into traveling to South America for jobs at a nightclub only to become the white slaves of a sleazy gangster. The trailer is narrated by the reliable Joel Holt (“SELLERS OF GIRLS is a vicious motion picture”), and familiar library music from Milligan movies is included. Something Weird offers this, and it comes highly recommended. FIVE WILD GIRLS is an incredible Max Pecas sex-n-crime classick (again from Stan Borden) that plays like a French version of FASTER PUSSYCAT. A gang of nasty femmes intends to track down a hidden cache of gold from WWII on the farm of an old woman, only to run into a pair of equally conniving women seeking the same treasure. Somebody please release this on DVD! Something Weird offers this from the U.S. negative, so it would be great if they decided to release this one day on a double feature with their other Max Pecas film, HEAT OF MIDNIGHT. NUDE IN A WHITE CAR, with its to-the-point title, looks cool: a nude woman with flowing blonde hair picks up a stranger walking down the street in her white car. It’s basically a French film noir, with intriguing photography and a premise borrowed from a novel by Frederic Dard. It’s too bad most of these films haven’t been released on home video, as all of them look very entertaining.

The extras continue with two short subjects: “Mondo Oscenita” is an excerpt from the 1966 film of the same name. Director Joseph Mawra edited together this fake documentary with clips from the OLGA films (including the lost MADAME OLGA’S MASSAGE PARLOR), CHAINED GIRLS, and MY BABY IS BLACK!, stock footage, scenes from Ed Wood’s unfinished HELLFIRE, and God knows what else. The clip here includes footage of Ed Wood himself (!) making out with a blonde in the great outdoors and scenes of Mongolian invasion from some unidentified Hollywood film. It’s all held together by the trusty narration of Joel Holt and great NYC library music. The only connection to the films on this disc is the clip from the opening of MY BABY IS BLACK!, but the excerpt is pretty darn entertaining and hopefully MONDO OSCENITA will come out in its entirety someday. “Paris After Hours” is presented by Gaston Hakim, the genius behind HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND (!), and is a short subject following a beautiful blond woman through Paris. Footage of L’Arc de Triomphe at night is spectacular, as are scenes of the Seine illuminated by the city lights. The “cast” includes Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s son), director Roger Vadim, his then-wife Annette Vadim (BLOOD AND ROSES), Christian Marquand (the future director of CANDY), trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, and drummer Kenny Clarke. They all gather at 47 Rue Vieille du Temple for a 15-minute jazz session. It’s a great historical document for fans of the people involved and jazz followers, and looks great, as if it was culled from the original negative. Capping it all off is the amazing Gallery of Sexploitation Ad Art with Exploitation Audio. Radio spots for films like SKID ROW and PRELUDE TO HAPPINESS, play over the posters for some of the best cult films ever made. (Casey Scott)