If you don’t keep up with my writing on a regular basis, I’ll go ahead and clue you in on a small fact: I love Blaxploitation cinema. There are a certain select number of genres that film geeks like myself will almost always fall back on for entertainment, and Blaxploitation movies are certainly in that area for me. Although I would like to claim that I am an accredited expert on the genre, that unfortunately isn’t the case. I have certainly seen the classics and the bigger names (Shaft, Foxy Brown, Hell Up in Harlem) and some of the more obscure but entirely excellent contributions (Truck Turner, Bucktown, Willie Dynamite), but there were so many films made during the seventies that fit into this subgenre of cinema that it would take months of watching these films straight just to wrap your head around the genre. Death of a Snowman is a South African blaxploitation film made in the late seventies that likely would have remained hidden away in obscurity if it were not for the good people at Synapse who have given it a glorious rebirth in the home video market. Will it top your list of greatest Blaxploitation films ever? Not likely, but due to the context and the strange nature of the picture, it is absolutely worth adding to your collection.
Steve Chaka (Ken Gampu) is a newspaper man in South Africa who has made allies with Lt. Ben Deel (Nigel Davenport) over the years, but their friendship has recently been put through great trials. Recently a group known as "War on Crime" has risen from nowhere and they have taken to the streets, doing just what their title seems to imply: waging a war on organized crime. While they wage this war however, there are no prisoners taken and those who stand in their way consistently find themselves resting six feet under. Although Chaka feels no sympathy for criminals, he realizes that no man can be judge and executioner. The strain on the friendship between Chaka and Lt. Ben Deel comes from the police chief, who feels that Chaka is actually siding with "War on Crime", and purposefully leaking out police information. Unknown to the chief, "War on Crime" have a surveillance set-up as vast as the FBI and they have been keeping tabs on the police and all of their moves. So Chaka and Deel will have to overcome the law as well as the "War on Crime" in order to put their minds together and discover just WHO this shady group is and what their real motives may be!
Obscure, that is certainly one word that aptly describes Death of a Snowman. It is a title that I was not even vaguely familiar with before popping the disc into my DVD player. Featuring great artwork that seemed to scream "Blaxploitation", what one ultimately finds with the film itself is a feature that doesn’t necessarily include itself in the Blaxploitation genre, but takes influence from this independent American movement. Featuring a black leading man who fights both the injustice caused by his own people, as much as the establishment, Death of a Snowman certainly infuses itself with many of the traditional Blaxploitation elements. Within the context of where this was made and when it was made, it is debatable as to whether you can actually call it a Blaxploitation film. Made in the late seventies as the genre was winding down, and made on a continent far away from the native home of this genre. Death of a Snowman has a lot of the feel and the heart of a Blaxpo title however, and ultimately I suppose that is all that matters.
A strange mix of genre archetypes that often works well, Death of a Snowman takes from the traditional American grindhouse aesthetic but adds another foreign dimension not found in these films generally. The use of dialogue would probably be the most notable aspect, in my opinion, as the film adds a element of class by having incredibly eloquent and well spoken characters throughout. The dialogue is sharp and on point in a way that more directly resembles classic film noir gangster pictures than it does the works of Walter Hill. Death of a Snowman does pack the exploitation however, there’s no question about that. Featuring a great deal of gritty action that mostly follows the "War on Crime" syndicate and their hitman Johnson (played by this film’s scriptwriter, Bima Stagg, who would later reach further acclaim for penning the Thomas Jane starring vehicle Stander) who is unfortunately given a prominent role that ultimately seems to go nowhere. The problem doesn’t come from the fact that Johnson is an uninteresting character, it is actually quite the opposite since he may be one of the most interesting aspects of the entire film. It is just an unfortunate turn of events that this character feels so shoehorned into the story. Introduced at the halfway point of the film, we get to meet Johnson and he is given a tremendous amount of screen time and character drama, but the payoff for his role in the movie is sorely lacking in terms of credibility.
Death of a Snowman isn’t a perfect piece of Grindhouse cinema, but with several interesting turns and twists, it becomes something entirely unique by its cultural influences. For fans of the genre, Death of a Snowman represents a fascinating departure from the norm and could prove to be an unheralded and minor classic in some circles. I recommend the film, with various hesitations, but think that overall the work is solid enough that fans should walk away at peace over the purchase of the DVD.