This has (as a given, or as it should be) righteous and furious anger at a society that has oppressed and enslaved people for centuries, and that more crucially and literally the racism of one side towards another into policies and something as simple as who can get a breakfast or an adult to get a job is being passed down to the next generation(s). It's the kind of movie that I assume Ibrahim X Kendi would screen if he had a film connected to his How to be an Anti-Racist book, and I mean that as a compliment (albeit I'm not sure what he'd think of the bullet strewn and blood-soaked meyley of the last 15 minutes, and I may just have it on my mind as I'm listening to the audiobook now, but I digress, sort of).
What I mean by all this is I am on board with what this film is presenting, in particular that Johnny's path to picking up a gun doesn't come out of nowhere and, invariably, leads to the kind of tragedy that we still see today if not on this exact scale (and god knows what the pigs of the 60s and 70s would do with the firepower of today),and I wish as a movie in and of itself I loved it more. I think it is ultimately a good movie, with some staggering bits of editing, and Billy Dee of course who takes this role for everything he's got, but I'm not sure if (adaptor and director) Williams transcended the stage roots.
I'm not familiar with the play or when it was written (I assume it came right at the same time as when the Black Panthers were on the rise, and all the drama that goes with that, and naturally this pairs well with Judas and the Black Messiah),but there are scenes and dialog exchanges that feel taken verbatim from a stage text and... You can tell, it's sometimes that feeling, and frankly not entirely in the writing but in the performance of like Johnny's mother or a few of the other militants, it's not quite as natural as it could have been.
But if this flaw exists, it doesn't hamper the overall impact and stylistic intensity of the production. Sure, the editor has seen Easy Rider or other films that have that one-two-three cutting technique to jump us back and forth through time, and some of the edits are even kind of rough to the point where one can almost see the scratches from the Steenbeck. But there are amazing bits as well, like when the Vietnam Vet is having that incredible bout of PTSD and it throws him into a frenzy. I thought that really got at what a lot of what Williams and his collaborators were after. And there are other moments that strike hard and deep with little dialog, like when Johnny is applying for the job and sees the white man pulling the secretary in and he and us know what's about to come next. All on faces and largely about POV.
Sure, much of this is didactic too, but so what? American cinema needed that sometimes in its polemics, and it does feel more of a cousin to a Battle of Algiers or even one of Godard's more ornery (but for him coherent) works than a Foxy Brown or what have you. It was made on a low budget (and all praise to AFI who get some credit in the title cards),and it has aged poorly in some parts - frankly I wish there had been more room for a stronger female presence here, and practically none are in the shootout - but it also has, as one more comparison, the ethos of a Night of the Living Dead: it doesn't lie to you what it's on about and its in-your-face presence is refreshing.
And to reiterate: good god Billy Dee Williams is amazing in this.