Tough: Looking back at an obscure blaxploitation film
As a kid growing-up in Harlem during the 1970s, me and my homeboy crew spent much of our free time at the movies. In that era when a hood double-feature was seventy-five cents, our weekend sojourns introduced us to a new wave of cinema that included tons of karate/kung-fu flicks, Hammer horror films and, our personal favorites, the blaxploitation movies. From Shaft to The Mack to Cleopatra Jones, we saw them all. While most of these joints were usually action-oriented fare with lots of gunplay, sexy chicks, and “stick it to the Man” sensibilities, every now and then a film that didn’t exactly fit in with others.
One of those oddities was a little-known movie called Tough, a neo-realist drama about a badass California kid named Johnny (Dion Gossett) and his misadventures in school, on the streets, and at home. With a strange score by guitar legend Dennis Coffey, the film—a weird remake of the French classic The 400 Blows—was the first directed feature by obscure auteur Horace Jackson and co-starring Renny Roker as Johnny’s stepfather.
One of the least known films of the blaxploitation era, Tough was one of the most interesting. Forty-two years after its release, I tracked down Roker to talk about the making of Tough and the involvement of Sussex Records (Bill Withers, Rodriguez, Dennis Coffey) in completing the project. As the second installment in my Ebony.com series on blaxploitation, I shed a little light on this dark gem that director Quentin Tarantino has cited as one of his favorites.
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