Solomon King (1974)

I recently went on a delightful vacation to San Francisco, where I was free to explore the city on my own throughout the day while my travel partners were busy at an academic conference.  Of course, I used that unstructured free time to bus around the city in search of movie nerd indulgences – including a City Guides walking tour of Hitchcock filming locations (as suggested by and enjoyed with my internet friend Sunil), an Oscar-qualifying screening of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, and a raid of local book & record stores for locally flavored physical media (where I scooped up copies of Kamikaze Hearts, Luminous Procuress, and San Francisco Noir).  By far, though, my most rewarding indulgence in Bay Area movie tourism was my trip to the Roxie Theatre, a century-old, Prytania style single-screener in the Mission District.  I was lucky to be in town for their only listed showing of Deaf Crocodile’s new digital restoration of the locally shot, locally proud blacksploitation relic Solomon King.  The screening was a riot, a one-of-a-kind communal celebration that felt more like being invited to a family reunion than paying to see vintage schlock.

Local entrepreneur Sal Watts shot Solomon King on-location in Oakland, relying on his own businesses & employees to help buoy the budget as ready-made sets & cast.  Self-credited as writer, director, producer, editor, and star, the film is undeniably a vanity project for Watts, who of course props himself up to be the most badass action hero who’s ever graced the screen.  The titular Solomon King is positioned as a Black folk hero and wish-fulfilment fantasy, recalling other action heroes of the time like Shaft, Coffy, and Black Samson.  Watts was working with a self-funded, sub-Dolemite budget, though.  His kung-fu choreography is even less convincing than Rudy Ray Moore’s, with the editing room cuts doing most of the work to convey the film’s “action” sequences.  Most of the dialogue is ADR’d onto the soundtrack as characters are walking & driving a long distance from the camera.  Every shot holds a few seconds too long; the boom mic’s shadow often sways on background walls; the climax teases a sequel Watts couldn’t afford to produce.  Still, Watts makes sure that he’s always the coolest, toughest brute in the room.  He beds every hottie he meets within minutes of locking eyes; he single-handedly takes down an army of terrorists the racist higher-ups at the CIA are too cowardly to touch.  The entire movie is about how awesome Solomon King—and by extension Sal Watts—is as a lone-wolf badass, and no budgetary limitations could hold back that kind of self-aggrandizing exuberance.

If anything, it’s Watts’s charming self-determination as a D.I.Y. filmmaker that makes Solomon King so delightful.  The film’s story of an ex-CIA renegade (and current smooth-talking nightclub owner) who takes down the corrupt kingdom of an ambiguous Middle Eastern country all by his lonesome is pretty loosely defined, an afterthought secondary to celebrating Watt’s badassery.  Mostly, Solomon King delights as a document of community theatre, as most of its cast consists of non-professional Oakland locals (give or take a small role for celebrity baseball player Tito Fuentes).  That’s why it was such a treat to attend that screening at the Roxie, where I got to watch that community theatre with the community in question.  During a post-screening Q&A with Watt’s widow Belinda Burton-Watts (who is set up as the star of the never-made sequel), it became increasingly apparent that about half the audience was connected to the production of the film in some way.  It was the most heartwarming version of a “This is more of a comment than a question” Q&A session, since people were piping up to point out that they were in the movie as children or related to the cast or crew.  I was also seated in front of Watts’s children, who provided live commentary throughout the screening (unprompted, free of charge), with adoring quips about how cheesy it was to see their dad act tough and how “Nobody wants to see their dad in a lovemaking scene.”  It was quite literally a family affair, both in production and in presentation.

A representative from Deaf Crocodile was also on-hand at the Roxie to explain how lucky we were to be watching Solomon King on the big screen, as even the audience members with direct ties to its production likely hadn’t seen it since the 1970s, if at all.  He apologized for the scratches and unintentional jump cuts in the digital scan, which was cleaned-up from a battered, pink-faded print borrowed from UCLA’s archives.  Those flaws were occasionally noticeable but never severe, the kind of thing that would only drive you mad if you spent years restoring the film frame by frame.  Their new scan of Solomon King is likely sharper & more vibrant than its local celluloid projections even would have been in its initial, limited release.  More importantly, they were able to work with a copy of the original soundtrack negative from Belinda Burton-Watts’s personal archive, so that the dialogue was clearly legible in a way these regional action relics rarely are.  That pristine soundtrack was also a boon for the original funk score & genre-obligatory nightclub acts that accompany Solomon King’s exploits.  This upcoming Blu-ray release from Deaf Crocodile isn’t so much a restoration as it is a life-saving rescue mission.

Solomon King totally earns that treatment too.  It’s easy to get hung up on (and delighted by) the film’s limitations as a truly independent, outsider-artist production, but it’s a consistently surprising, entertaining entry in its genre.  Occasional shots of a criminal biker’s blood spurting onto cocktail glasses or Solomon King firing a pistol through a perfectly arranged stack of warehouse shipping palettes prove Watts had genuine artistic ambitions as a filmmaker, no matter how short-lived that side career might’ve been.  The film isn’t as artistically substantial as similar Black, independent works of the era like Sweet Sweetback or Ganja & Hess, but it is substantial as a novelty action curio and an authentic slice of Oakland history.  The closest I’ve ever gotten to experiencing a New Orleans version of that afternoon at the Roxie was an NOFF screening of the similarly rescued & restored Cane River in 2018.  Even though I grew up in closer proximity to the community art project documented in Cane River, that regional romance melodrama cannot compete with the pure, skull-cracking entertainment value of Solomon King as a low-budget action picture, though.  And there was just something magical about walking into the Roxie without knowing how intimate of a communal, familial experience that screening was going to be.  Nothing but love for Oakland and San Francisco; and all hail Solomon King.

-Brandon Ledet

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