Billy Jack (1971)
The 1970s produced some rather unique films. The rise of independent filmmaking, coupled with the aggressive shifts in the culture that pitted youth against age, black against racist white, the minority against the majority in all its shapes and sizes, developed a cinematic culture vibrant, violent, and increasingly bizarre. The relative mainstream success of blaxsploitation films like Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song brought minority perspectives into cinemas – and while those films were occasionally poor or amateurish, they were never boring.
Billy Jack represents an entry into the small but rather fascinating genre that is basically (for lack of a better term) “redsploitation”: an American Indian version of the counterculture films that came out of the Black and Chicano power movements. The story centers around Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin), a part white and part Navajo hero who, armed with badass Green Beret tactics and deadpan jokes, defends his reservation from racist townspeople. He’s further allied with the counterculture via his girlfriend Jean (Delores Taylor), who runs the “Freedom School” on the reservation, a school dedicated to giving a home to wayward young people otherwise living on the fringes of society. Billy’s main enemies come in the form of Bernard (David Roya), the nasty son of a local boss (Bert Freed), and his gang, who get their jollies by abusing anyone who comes in their paths, especially the students from the Freedom School. As violent acts pile up, Billy must prepare to fight the onslaught of town councils and the National Guard, all in the name of defending the defenseless.
Billy Jack is a free-floating film with only the nebulous beginnings of a central plot. Large swathes of the film are dedicated to the “psycho-drama” performances of Freedom School students, as they stage arguments with the local council over curfews, or prove the inherent hypocrisy of the system through street theater. The villains are dyed-in-the-wool racists, xenophobes, and sadists, with little to make them even close to sympathetic. Interestingly, the local sheriff is more on the side of Billy Jack and the students than he is with the white majority, as he tries to keep the peace and stop the escalating violence. There are recognizable scenes of sit-ins, including a lunch counter sequence in which the American Indian students are bullied by Bernard and his gang. Enter Billy Jack, who takes off his shoes and kicks everyone’s ass. The film later takes some decidedly dark turns, including featuring a sexual assault. The central theme also develops into a conflict of Billy Jack’s use of violence to stop the baddies, while Jean hangs onto her pacifism as the only way forward.
Billy Jack opened several years before the American Indian Movement’s stand at Wounded Knee, and in that sense the film is prescient in its final sequence. It’s a smorgasbord of the early 70s, incorporating counterculture ideology, nonviolence, and civil rights conflicts into a reversal of the typical western narrative. Here the Indians are the violated minority, while the townspeople endlessly encroach on their land and their freedom in fear of anything that is different. But the film provides no clear or easy answers to any of the questions it poses. Like sister films such as Sweet Sweetback, Medium Cool, and Easy Rider, the best that we can hope for is for the struggle to carry on.