As anyone with any knowledge of American history will no doubt be readily aware, the 1960's were a historically significant yet in many respects troubled time for race relations in the United States. Although the African-American Civil Rights Movement, which began in 1955, was now in full swing, the gradual desegregation of black people was still met with widespread racial bigotry and violence, especially in America's southern states. The tension arguably reached a tragic nadir with the shocking assassination of famed civil rights leader Martin Luther King in March, 1968.
Perhaps not surprisingly the racial tensions of the era were neatly encapsulated in numerous American motion pictures released during this period. Whilst a few, perhaps the most notable being the great Roger Corman's troubling cult classic The Intruder (1962) starring William Shatner, offered brave, serious and thought-provoking insight into these troubles, these films were outnumbered by a succession of low grade exploitation pictures which, in stark contrast to the aforementioned Corman picture, instead set out to exploit the undercurrents of racial disharmony prevalent at the time for mere shock value. Prime examples of this opportunistic brand of racially charged exploitation included Larry Buchanan's sleazy melodrama High Yellow (1965) and trash cinema legend Ted V. Mikel's mildly infamous shocker The Black Klansman (1966).
With the onset of the seventies exploitation pictures based around America's past and current history of racial tension and inequality began to reach new extreme's as trash filmmakers began upping the ante in terms of on-screen violence, brutality and sleaze. This led to a number of infamous exploitation shockers which featured racism at the heart of their theme's, including Lee Frost's hilariously tasteless The Black Gestapo (1975) and Robert A. Endelson's jaw-droppingly unpleasant Grindhouse classic Fight For Your Life (1977). Before long even the "respectable" major studio's began getting in on the act, with Paramount Pictures lending their backing to both The Klansman (1974) starring Lee Marvin and Richard Burton and the infamous plantation epic Mandingo directed by the late Richard Fleischer with a star-studded cast that included James Mason, Susan George, Perry King and former boxer Ken Norton.
However, these exercises in cinematic bad taste were preceded by the racially charged romantic drama Honky. Released in 1971 Honky, directed by film and television journeyman William A. Graham, tells the torrid story of a doomed interracial relationship between a sassy young black girl and a young, wet behind the ears white boy. Released at a time when interracial relationships were still a thorny issue in the eyes of many, the distributors of Honky astutely pushed the film on the basis of its topically exploitative subject matter, marketing the films US theatrical release with the memorable tagline "a love story... of hate!"
Honky begins with white, blue collar high school student Wayne "Honky" Divine meeting a beautiful young black girl named Sheila Smith at a high school football rally. Although interracial relationships are still widely considered a social taboo the connection between Wayne and Sheila is immediate and the two soon become romantically involved, even though they are both aware, Wayne in particular, of the disapproving, suspicious and often outright hateful glances they regularly receive when out in public together.
Things begin to take a turn for the worse for the young lovers when adventurous, free-spirited Sheila persuades a reluctant Wayne to join her in purchasing a quantity of marijuana from a sleazy pimp at a bargain price, which they can then sell on for a profit. Predictably this drug deal soon goes awry, setting off a chain of events which culminates in Wayne damaging a car which he is not insured to be driving. Knowing that the truth is now certain to come out and secretly terrified of what will happen when his bigoted parents discover he is dating a black girl, Wayne rashly decides that the only thing he and Sheila can do is skip town and begin a new life together elsewhere. Sheila agrees to accompany him and together the couple leave town with the assistance of Sheila's disapproving friend Sharon. However, as they head south, little do Wayne and Sheila realise they are heading into a nightmare of racism, redneck brutality and sexual violence which will change their relationship forever.
I must admit that I have been pretty keen to see Honky ever since I first read about it in Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford's excellent Sleazoid Express book several years ago. Bearing in mind their somewhat complementary little write up, I must say that having now finally seen Honky I was all in all a little disappointed with it. While it's fair to say that Honky must have been pretty controversial stuff back in 1971, the passing of time has now robbed the film of much of its impact. Indeed, the majority of the films "shock" factor is hinged upon the spectacle of a young white male and his black girlfriend walking around gaily hand in hand and canoodling in public back when such a sight was enough to stir up a widespread bigoted response in American society. Obviously in 2009 no-one really bats an eyelid over such things anymore and as such it is impossible to view Honky now as anything other than a time capsule.
In addition it must also be said that the manner in which deals with the issue of public reaction to interracial relationships is largely unsatisfying. Indeed, no one ever really confronts Wayne and Sheila at all, the public objection to their relationship instead being limited to lots of cold, disapproving looks from strangers. In fact the whole central idea of Wayne and Sheila dealing with the issue of societies reaction to their relationship is never really explored in much detail at all and proves to be little more than an underlying theme as the film soon becomes preoccupied with a rather tedious plot which sees the young couple get caught up in a drug deal which goes awry.
An early scene in which Wayne's cantankerous father and passive mother, who are unaware of their sons relationship with a black girl, reveal themselves to be bigots by describing black civil rights demonstrators on television as "coons" and "anarchists" threatens to put an engaging spin on things, but as Wayne's parents never find out about what is going on between him and Sheila this is never developed any further. Similarly Honky also makes a quite clever bid to confound audience expectations by depicting Wayne as being from a blue collar background whereas Sheila comes from a comparatively affluent, privileged upbringing. Intentionally or otherwise this cleverly hold up a mirror to the viewers own prejudice's as most would probably be expecting those roles to be reversed, but sadly, as with the issue of Wayne's parents apparent racism, the issue of the young couple's contrasting backgrounds is maddeningly forgotten about as soon as it has been established and is never really bought up again after that.
Considering that Honky was marketed as an exploitation picture it has to be said that, for the most part, it is actually quite restrained on that front. Indeed, in the films first hour the only vaguely exploitative sequence is a softly focused extended soft core sex scene which sees Wayne and Sheila finally consummating their relationship. However Honky certainly does take a rather nasty, nihilistic turn in its final third which depicts the couple's grim fate following their ill-advised decision to flee town in the wake of the botched drug deal and head south into redneck country. Things soon take a turn for the worse when the two young lovebirds whilst attempting to hitch a lift attract the unwelcome attentions of two racist throwback hicks to whom a "coloured gal" like Sheila represents a sexual novelty to use and abuse. Some ugly scenes follow as these two reprobates proceed to brutally beat Wayne unconscious then rape Sheila. While the actual rape scene itself is actually quite discreet - in the version I watched at least - consisting of just a few brief establishing shots, these scenes still leave a nasty taste. It must also be said that, intentionally or otherwise, the fate meted out to Wayne and Sheila gives off a pessimistic view of interracial relationships as the film concludes with the physically and mentally shattered couple being reunited to face an uncertain future as the end credits begin to roll.
Despite its shortcomings, interest in Honky is, for the most part, maintained by a combination of intriguing central characterisation and good principal performances. Both of the young couple are painted in interesting colours, Sheila in particular, who is depicted as an open-minded liberal idealist who demonstrates a cavalier attitude to soft drug use whilst expressing the belief that all that matters in a relationship is whether or not the couple are "turned onto each other". By contrast Wayne, despite expressing his aspirations to become either a nightclub owner or a racing car driver, comes across as something of a young square and is clearly the more realistic of the two. Indeed, whilst Sheila remains either oblivious or in some sort of denial, Wayne is acutely aware of how much of society disapproves of interracial relationships and is secretly embarrassed by the notion of his parents discovering that he is in love with a black girl. Frustratingly these issues are never explored because when Wayne finally confesses his embarrassment to Sheila we never get to really see her response or how it effects their subsequent relationship, because writer Will Chaney's script cuts off there in order to usher in the exploitative nastiness of the films final twenty minutes.
To their credit both the late John Neilson and Brenda Sykes are both terrific in their respective roles as Wayne and Sheila, sharing a nice, sparring onscreen chemistry and creating genuine viewer empathy for their young protagonists. The stunningly beautiful Sykes is especially assured and impressive and following Honky would go on to have a fairly decent career for a time, bagging prominent supporting roles in a succession of pictures including Jack Starrett's blaxploitation classic Cleopatra Jones (1973), Richard Fleischer's aforementioned plantation epic Mandingo (1975) and its loosely linked sequel Drum (1976) before leaving acting behind altogether in the late seventies. By contrast John Neilson would fair less well, appearing in Bud Townsend's horror comedy Terror At The Red Wolf Inn (aka - Terror House) (1972) and Cornel Wilde's middling adventure yarn Sharks' Treasure (1975) before vanishing off of the acting radar more or less altogether. Neilson and Sykes also receive decent support for what it's worth from Maia Danziger in her screen debut as Sheila's cold, disapproving, straight-laced friend Sharon and also from legendary African-American leading man William Marshall (Blacula himself) who puts in a brief yet typically assured supporting turn as Sheila's benevolent physician father who is all too painfully aware of the way early seventies American society perceives a scantily clad young black girl seen out in the company of a white man.
Viewed now in retrospect it's fair to say that on the whole Honky is a film which pretty much falls between two stools. As a commentary on the rights and wherefores of interracial relationships the passing of time has pretty much cushioned the impact of the films politics, which in the era of liberal, predominantly multicultural Western society now seem pretty dated and redundant. Meanwhile, viewed as a simple piece of shock, Honky has also not aged especially well in that respect either. Indeed, aside from the climactic redneck rape scene and the grim tone of its final twenty minutes Honky is decidedly tame stuff and exploitation fans in search of vicarious, racially charged thrills will be much better served by looking to the likes of Mandingo, The Klansman, Fight For Your Life, etc for their jollies. In fairness, viewed purely as a product of its time Honky is actually a pretty watchable little romantic drama made tolerable by good characterisation and the strength of its two leading performances. But when all is said and done Honky ultimately stands as nothing more than a rather middling, dated, exploitatively minded picture, albeit a passable one.
Not Really Recommended.
Honky was released on video here in the UK during the pre-certification era by Iver Film Services. However, I am not sure how complete this release is as the Internet Movie Database lists a running length of 92 minutes, but the DVD-R I own taken directly from the Iver pre-cert clocks in at just over 83 minutes. Also the aforementioned Sleazoid Express book talks about the explicitness of the scene in which Sheila is raped, but on the Iver tape this scene is actually only shown very briefly, although their are no obvious signs that it has been truncated. However, IMDB can often be unreliable where running times are concerned so I'll reserve passing judgement on this issue. Honky was also released on video in the US by Unicorn Video back in the eighties. Both the Iver pre-cert and the Unicorn NTSC tape are rare these days although the Unicorn tape is available for a relatively inexpensive price from some US based Amazon Marketplace sellers.