DirectorJack Bomay, Sal Watts
Release Date(s)1974 (January 31, 2023)
Studio(s)Sal-Wa/Stage Struck (Deaf Crocodile/Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
Solomon King is an unfairly neglected (and nearly lost) film that lies at the intersection between the Blaxsploitation genre and the regional cinema movement of the Sixties and Seventies. It was the brainchild of Sal Watts, a successful Oakland, Calfornia businessman who was also a bit of a local renaissance man. He owned a chain of clothing stores called Mr. Sal’s Fashions, had his own record label with Marsel Records, and even had his fingers in producing local television programming like The Jay Payton Show. He decided to cash in on the success of Blaxploitation cinema in the early Seventies, but Watts being Watts, he did it in his own singular fashion (no pun intended). He co-wrote, co-directed (with Jack Bomay), and starred in Solomon King, shooting it entirely in the Bay Area, with his friends, family, and employees serving as cast and crew. The wardrobe was supplied out of his own clothing stores, and he even drove the 1968 Maserati Ghibli (the original Tipo AM115, the only Ghibli worth owning) that he had bought for his then-girlfriend (and later wife) Belinda Burton. Solomon King may have been a family affair, but the entire Oakland community served as part of his extended family for the film.
While Solomon King may have been inspired by the success of other Blaxsploitation films of the era, it was more of a reaction against them than it was derivative of the other examples of the genre. The story and screenplay by Watts, Jim Alston, and James “Bootsie” Parker essentially took the exploitation out of Blaxsploitation—the world of Solomon King isn’t filled with pimps and prostitutes, or even cops and robbers, for that matter. Instead, Watts turned to the world of international espionage in a milieu that would have been all too topical for audiences in 1974: the oil business. Solomon King (Watts) is a former Green Beret and operative for the CIA who now works as a successful businessman with interests in oil. When Prince Hasan (Richard Scarso) stages a coup in his unnamed Middle Eastern country, he forces Solomon’s brother Maney (“Little Jamey” Watts) to flee their oil fields with the Princess Oneeba (Claudia Russo). Oneeba ends up under Solomon’s protection, but even he can’t keep her completely safe from Hasan’s clutches, so King assembles a team of his fellow Green Berets to take the fight directly to Hasan. Solomon King also stars Samaki Bennett, Felice Kinchelow, Louis Zito, Bernard B. Burton, and a “Special Guest Appearance” by Tito Fuentes (as himself).
Solomon King is very much about taking it to The Man, but in this case, The Man isn’t the local cops with their fingers in the drugs and prostitution that they’re supposed to be deterring. Instead, it’s the CIA and their entanglements with foreign nations in order to protect the oil interests of corporate America. Significantly, King used to work for them, not against them, but he left the organization on his own terms to start a business in the oil market. Yet the CIA is much less concerned with protecting the interests of local African-American businessmen than they are in maintaining the influence of multinational corporations, and so King finds himself in conflict not just with Hasan, but with his former employer as well. Since the CIA is already in bed with the oil sheikhs, he’ll have to do things his own way, with or without their help.
That leads to one of the most interesting elements in Solomon King: its casting. The heroes are played by an African-American cast, but while the villains may be Arabic, they’re played by white actors, and without bothering to put them in brown makeup, either. Of course, it’s no accident that the heroes in Solomon King are all African-American, while the villains are white, but the fact that those white actors are playing ethnic roles adds a curious wrinkle to the production. Hollywood has a shameful history of marginalizing nonwhite actors and casting white actors as different races or ethnicities, but Watts wasn’t bound by any such precedent, so the inversion here must have been a conscious choice on his part. Intentionally or not, it acts as a meta-commentary on Hollywood’s long tradition of cultural appropriation. For once, the heroes haven’t been recast as white, but the villains have, which is a way of turning cultural appropriation on its head. That makes sense, since Watts wanted Solomon King to provide a sense of empowerment for his beloved Oakland community. It’s just that in this case, the empowerment wasn’t simply personal; it was cultural as well.
Cinematographers Chuck Colwell and Phil Caplin shot Solomon King on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Unfortunately, it appears that the original negatives are lost forever, as are any dupe printing elements such as interpositives or internegatives. As a result, Deaf Crocodile’s 2022 restoration had to use the only known 35 mm print in existence, which was located in the UCLA Film & Television Archive. It was faded and heavily damaged, but thanks to some herculean efforts by the restoration team, the results are genuinely impressive. There’s some damage that simply couldn’t be rectified, so there are occasional dropped frames and jump cuts, as well as some scratches that were far too heavy to remove without damaging the underlying image. (The most prominent one starts at approximately 54:50.) There are also some unavoidable density fluctuations that are more visible during the film’s darker moments. Most of that couldn’t be helped, but the good news is that the extensive cleanup work left as much of the detail and the grain as intact as possible. A print is a print, so there simply isn’t the kind of fine detail here that a scan from a negative or even an interpositive could have produced, but it’s still surprisingly good. The color grade is pretty amazing considering just how faded and pink that the print was at this point in history. (Watch the accompanying restoration featurette to see just how distorted the colors were.) It’s not perfect, but for the most part, the colors all look natural, and the flesh tones are accurate. The icing on the cake is that everything was encoded for disc by David Mackenzie at Fidelity in Motion, so there are no compression artifacts of any kind to report.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono LPCM, with optional English SDH subtitles. While the search for Solomon King’s original negative may have been for naught, it did end up uncovering the original 35 mm sound elements, which Sal’s widow Belinda had kept in a closet at her house for decades. The overall audio fidelity still isn’t the best, and there are a few moments where the post-synced dialogue isn’t the clearest, but that’s probably how it was originally recorded. Otherwise, everything is clean and free from noise or other artifacts. The music from Jimmy Lewis and David Crawford sounds as good as it can, given the limitations of the source.
Kudos to the entire restoration team: Producers Craig Rogers and Dennis Bartok, film scanners Tim Knapp and Warren Chan, and colorist Tyler Fagerstrom, as well as the audio restoration team including John Polito, Clay Dean, Oki Miyano, and Zach Rogers. It was difficult work, and the results are unavoidably less than perfect, but they still managed to resurrect Solomon King from the dead.
The Deaf Crocodile Blu-ray release for Solomon King is packaged in a clear amaray case that displays production artwork from the film on the reverse side of the insert, which is visible when the case is opened. It also includes a 20-page booklet that contains an essay by Josiah Howard, author of Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide, as well as a reproduction of the original pressbook. There’s also an embossed and spot gloss slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 2,000 units, that was designed by Robert Sammelin. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Walter Chaw
- Audio Commentary by Steve Ryfle
- 2022 Interview with Belinda Burton-Watts Part 1: The Early Years (HD – 32:19)
- 2022 Interview with Belinda Burton-Watts Part 2: Sal Builds an Empire (HD – 27:13)
- 2022 Interview with Belinda Burton-Watts Part 3: The Later Years (HD – 28:08)
- The Jay Payton Show (Upscaled SD – 51:20)
- Restoration Demo (HD – 5:58)
- 2022 Solomon King Trailer (HD – 2:21)
The first commentary is with Walter Chaw, who’s the senior film critic and editor of Film Freak Central, as well as the author of the critical studies A Walter Hill Film and Miracle Mile. He provides some of the historical context surrounding Solomon King, and describes some of the Blaxsploitation films that had preceded it. He talks about the nonprofessional cast of Watts’ friends and family who starred in the film, and points out the interesting implications of the varied ethnicities—he makes the argument that casting a white person as an Arabic villain works on multiple levels as a commentary on the ways that white America is trying to steal from Solomon’s family. Unlike the other Blaxsploitation films of the era, Chaw finds a level of modesty and innocence in Solomon King, as well as an irrepressible joy in the act of creation. Despite the fantastic nature of the story and any exploitation elements that are still in it, he still feels that there’s a level of truth to the presentation of the Oakland community of the era that can’t be reproduced today.
The second commentary is with author and journalist Steve Ryfle, who’s the author of the upcoming book Desegregating Hollywood: How the Civil Rights Movement Changed Film and Television, as well as biographies of Ishiro Honda and Honda’s most famous creation, Gojira. Ryfle feels that it’s the do-it-yourself quality of Solomon King that sets it apart from the rest of the Blaxsploitation pack, as well as the ambitious nature of the story about the oil crisis. He looks at the structure of the film, describing much of it as deliberate padding (what he calls “time killers”). He also goes into much more detail about Sal’s background, including why Sal ended up making the film. Sal wasn’t necessarily that interested in money; he wanted to give something back to the Oakland community, and to provide jobs, but he also wanted to present a very different image than the other Blaxsploitation films of the era did.
The extensive interview with Sal’s widow Belinda Burton-Watts is moderated by Johnathan Marlow. It runs an epic ninety minutes long, so it’s been divided into three parts here, each one of them focusing on a different part of Sal’s life. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate, since she intertwines her own story with his, so it’s really a chronicle of both of their lives—more than that, a chronicle of an entire period of American history. She doesn’t shy away from the darkest sides of that history, including showing a disturbing picture of a young black man being burned alive that her parents had shown to her as a warning of what she could expect in life. (Her version of “The Talk” was a particularly harsh one.) She’s not shy about her political opinions, either. She provides a comprehensive look at her relationship with Sal, the way that he built his business empire, and his brief flirtation with the film business, as well as how he eventually lost his drive, his businesses, and his health. The second part is the one that’s most relevant to Solomon King, but it would be a mistake to skip over the other two, because the whole thing is riveting from start to finish. It’s a priceless document, and the highlight of a fine collection of extras.
Speaking of documents, Deaf Crocodile has also included a full episode of The Jay Payton Show, the local Bay Area variety show hosted by Jay Payton, with Sal Watts serving as executive producer. (Payton has a cameo in Solomon King as the emcee at the night club.) Since Payton routinely taped over previous show as a cost-cutting measure, it was long thought lost, until the master tapes for two episodes were uncovered by the Payton family and donated to The African American Museum & Library in Oakland. The episode here is from July 18, 1976, and features performances by Fresh, The Black Resurgents, The Tent of Darkness, The Fantastic Four, and has a guest appearance by Delancey White of the Uptights.
Finally, the Restoration Demo starts by showing a few different scenes to demonstrate the differences between the raw full aperture 35 mm film scan, the initial color grade to fix the pink tint, and the final cropped image with full restoration of the picture and sound. There are also some examples of color restoration tests, showing how they were able to improve the process as they went along.
That would have been a potent slate of extras even if Solomon King itself remained lost to the world, but thanks to an amazing effort on the part of the crew at Deaf Crocodile, to say nothing of the support from Kickstarter backers who helped to fund the restoration, what was once lost has now been found. Solomon King has indeed been brought back to vivid life, and Deaf Crocodile’s Blu-ray is a must-buy for anyone interested in this small but significant corner of film history.
- Stephen Bjork