Three the Hard Way (film)

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Three the Hard Way
Three the Hard Way (film).jpg
Original poster
Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr.
Written by Eric Bercovici
Jerrold L. Ludwig
Starring Fred Williamson
Jim Brown
Jim Kelly
Music by The Impressions
Distributed by Allied Artists Pictures Corporation
Release date
June 26, 1974
Running time
89 minutes (DVD); 105 minutes (TV version); 93 minutes (theatrical release)
Country United States
Language English

Three the Hard Way is a 1974 action blaxploitation film starring Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, and Jim Kelly, written by Eric Bercovici and Jerrold L. Ludwig and directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. Featuring the three biggest black action stars of the 1970s, in their first movie together, the film chronicled the group's adventures in foiling the plot of white supremacists plotting to kill the black population of the United States by poisoning the water supply. According to The New York Times, the theatrical version ran 93 minutes. A PG version distributed to television (and released on Xenon VHS tape) runs 105 minutes. The Warner DVD ("4 Film Favorites: Urban Action") runs 89 minutes and is missing a song (cut from the theatrical version) and some footage of boats, cars, etc.(cut from the TV version) but includes the language and nudity. The theatrical version contains scenes of three topless women, but these scenes were re-shot with them clothed for the TV version.


Three The Hard Way was released in 1974 and is considered one of the classic action movies of the blaxploitation genre. Directed by the acclaimed Gordon Parks Jr., son of Gordon Parks (Shaft 1971) and director of Super Fly (1972), the film stars the three biggest black action stars of the era; Jim Brown (The Dirty Dozen, El Condor, Slaughter) as record producer Jimmy Lait, Fred Williamson (Black Caesar, Bucktown) as entrepreneur Jagger Daniels, and Jim Kelly (Enter the Dragon, Black Samurai, Black Belt Jones, One Down Two to Go) as martial arts master Mister Keyes.

Jimmy Lait and his girlfriend, Wendy, come across Jimmy's friend, House, wounded and dying. Lait learns from House that he had escaped from a secret medical experimentation facility. Later in the hospital, a delirious House tells Lait that there is someone who aims to "kill us all" and that they have a way of doing it. However, Lait has to return to the studio to supervise a recording session with a group he's producing, The Impressions (who also sing the soundtrack for the movie). He leaves Wendy (Sheila Frazier - Super Fly, The Super Cops, Starsky and Hutch) to watch over House in the hospital.

While Wendy talks to Jimmy on the phone outside of the room, two men climb through the window and shoot House in cold blood. Wendy walks back in as this is happening and she's kidnapped by the assassins. After finding out about her kidnapping, Jimmy begins a quest to find the whereabouts of his girlfriend, but encounters many attackers trying to stop him. He soon realizes that the job is too much for one man, so he enlists the help of his friends Jagger Daniels and Mister Keyes (named "Mister" by his mother so people would be forced to show him respect), and the three start a rampage of gun fights, fist fights, and explosions to save their race.

The three action stars soon find out that they must defeat a worldwide plot of black genocide concocted by the evil, and nefarious Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson - Hawaii Five-0, Planet of the Apes, Cheers). Monroe Feather is the leader of a secret neo-nazi, white supremacist organization whose chief scientist Dr. Fortrero, (Richard Angarola), has developed a serum that is lethal and only affects African Americans. The organization plans to deploy the serum into the water systems of Washington D.C., Detroit, and Los Angeles, and kill off the black populations.

The movie continues through action scenes and explosions with the three protagonists easily killing and/or disposing of numerous henchmen of the racist organization. Two of the most memorable scenes are Mister Keyes’ New York City fight scene versus a group of crooked police and the interrogation of a captive white supremacist by the female friends of Jagger Daniels. In the former scene, Keyes is framed by NYPD officers placing cocaine in his car. Keyes is confronted by a street cop and upon realizing the officers intentions he engages in a series of martial art kicks, punches, and chops to foil a series of crooked police and get out of the situation. In this scene Jim Kelly shows off his trademark Bruce Lee-like fighting techniques that made him one of the most famous black martial-artist actors of all time. In the latter scene, the three are unable to make a captured man give up his secrets, so Jagger Daniels makes a call to his three multi-cultural friends (black, white, and Asian): The Countess (Pamela Serpe), The Empress (Irene Tsu), and The Princess (Marie O'Henry). These three feminine dominatrixes arrive in style. They are riding blue, red, and white Japanese racing motorcycles with matching leather suits. The three women are all-business and "hungry" to inflict real damage to their captive in order to make him talk. Daniels shows the women much respect and warns Keyes to stay out of their way or he "might not survive". The half-naked dominatrixes, baring their chests, approach the captive man who is in a room by himself. The man, seemingly unafraid at first, believes he is going to have sex with the three women because of their initial appearance. However, he soon finds out he is in for great amounts of pain and humiliation when the women open up their "equipment bags". After some time the women notify the three heroes that the man is ready to talk and they find him in a corner shaking in the fetal position. After the men hear what the captive has to say, the women return to continue their craft but upon seeing them once more the supremacist lets out a yelp and falls over, dead.[1]

Blaxploitation with the film[edit]

The word "blaxploitation" is a term that has come to define a multitude of films during the 1970s that feature at least one African-American main character and themes concurrent with the Black Pride movement of the time. In an essence, blaxploitation has become a genre in its own right but it is hard to define exactly what films fall into this genre. Many believe it is the collection of 1970s black action films that promoted black culture however some disagree with this point. One of the leading directors of the time, Gordon Parks Sr. – father of Gordon Parks Jr. and director of one of the genre's most famous films, Shaft – takes offense to the term "blaxploitation" and the classification of his films as such a movie. In any case, the blaxploitation genre can be defined as a group of 1970s era films that were black-cast or black-themed and were "created, developed, heavily promoted to young, inner-city, black audiences".

The 1960s provided much of the social events and culture that lead to the development of the blaxploitation genre. The Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys, and the inner-city race riots of Watts, Detroit and Newark magnified the need for tolerance and unity among Americans. Along with these events, the Black Power movement brought black culture and customs to the forefront of the American eye. White Americans were cautious but also intrigued and developed and appreciation by black culture especially hairstyles, fashion, catchphrases, and music. This push towards the inclusion of black culture into popular culture allowed for black films to be marketed to the general public. Featuring black themes and black casts, films like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) and actors like Sidney Poitier and Jim Brown were well-received and became Hollywood stars.

However, as Sidney Poitier's films appealed to the white masses and the black bourgeoisie, Jim Brown's films were popular among the younger, vigilant, and politically oriented black audiences. While white upper- and middle-class Americans were moving out of the inner cities and into the suburbs, black families were moving into these vacated spots. The value of the black dollar, in relation to the entertainment industry, took on more importance because they represented the cities of America. In an effort to attract this money, Hollywood focused efforts on appeasing the desires and expectations of America's new urban class.

One of the first movies designed to fit this plan was the United Artists film Cotton Comes to Harlem. It was released in 1970 and became the biggest-grossing black film to date, bringing a revenue of over $15.4 million. In an instant, movies featuring blacks and incorporating black themes were moved from the background to the limelight in the film industry. Following Cotton Comes to Harlem, the film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) took $450,000 to make and grossed over $12 million in less than a year. While Cotton Comes to Harlem used inoffensive and familiar characters, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song presented a character who portrayed black male anger, sexuality and pride that were current themes in urban ghettoes across the nation. This movie set a blueprint for many to come after it following relatively the same formula. Shaft (1971), directed by Gordon Parks Sr., was maybe the most popular film of the genre. Using a pared down main character compared to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Gordon Parks was able to turn the protagonist John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree) into a national icon, even among white males. John Shaft's suits, belts, coats, cologne, and swagger personified cool in 1970s America. The film also featured an Oscar and Grammy winning song, "Theme from Shaft" which was performed by black music star Isaac Hayes. Shaft provided another two aspects that would be prevalent in future blaxploitation movies: the perception of cool, and a catchy, popular soundtrack.

Another of the biggest films of the era was Super Fly (1972). Directed by Gordon Parks Sr.'s son, Gordon Parks Jr., Superfly amplified the representation of black style especially in the areas of language and clothing. If Shaft took blaxploitation to the mainstream, then Super Fly took blaxploitation to the top of the box office, knocking off The Godfather as the highest grossing film in America, according to the 4 October 1972 edition of Variety. For a film that took only $500,000 to make, Super Fly showed Hollywood of the potential of blaxploitation films to make a lot of money with low budgets. Using simple sets and settings, blaxploitation directors were able to focus on the themes of the movies such as machismo, sexuality, feminism, and black pride to entice moviegoers rather than visual effects.

Three the Hard Way was more or less born from this formula. Directed by Gordon Parks Jr., Three the Hard Way took the three biggest black action stars of the time – NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, former NFL player Fred Williamson, and martial artist Jim Kelly – and produced an action-packed spectacle filled with machismo, gunplay, fight scenes, nudity, and black pride. This film had a higher budget and more special effects than previous blaxploitation movies with over 20 cars being exploded.[2] In an effort to get away from some of the criticism of Super Fly, that it glorified black criminals as heroes for the black community and its use of extensive nudity and derogatory speech, Gordon Parks Jr. took a different approach with Three the Hard Way and let the action do most of the entertaining. With limited nudity, less profanity, and glorified characters such as a record executive, businessman, and martial artist, Parks' film showed black heroes in a new light. The black star could take on many of the virtues that white America also looked upon favorably.[3]

Gordon Parks Jr.[edit]

Gordon Parks Jr. is the son of Gordon Parks, the award-winning director. A notable director in his own right, Gordon Parks Jr. is known for such films as Super Fly and Three the Hard Way. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on December 7, 1934, Gordon Parks Jr. was nicknamed Butch by his grandfather. In 1940, the Parks family moved from Minneapolis to Chicago and the elder Gordon started his career in the film, photography, journalism industry. When he was sixteen, Gordon Parks Jr. and his family moved to Paris, France, where his father was assigned for two years by Life Magazine. While in Paris, Parks Jr. developed his love for the fine arts and travel that influenced his later career as a filmmaker and director. Parks enrolled in the American School in Paris and learned French as a second language. In school, Parks took up painting and began his first efforts at directing on student plays. On weekends and holidays, Parks would accompany his father on journalistic adventures to concerts, museums, and other towns, such as St. Tropez and Cannes.

In 1952 Parks moved back to White Plains, New York, and graduated from High School. His parents separated and in attempt to distance himself from the career choice of his father, Parks took up a job in the clothing industry of New York moving racks. However, at one of his father’s photo shoots he was invited to meet the infamous gang leader Red Jackson who brought the young Parks face to face with the inner-city reality he portrayed in many of his films including Super Fly and Three the Hard Way. In 1957 Parks was drafted into the U.S. Army. On an excursion his convoy truck broke down and was close to being exposed to radiation from atom-bomb testing which was taking place nearby. Because of this, Parks was discharged from the Army six months later, and he returned to New York's Greenwich Village to play and sing folk music in bars and restaurants in the area. Because of their names, then Parks Jr. struggled from notoriety away from his father, Parks Sr. Many of Gordon Parks Jr.'s accomplishments have been mistakenly credited to the elder Parks. The two have been described by Parks Jr.'s stepmother as being in friendly competition.[4] In any case, Parks Jr. released his classic, Super Fly, the year after Parks Sr. released his cult classic, Shaft. The movie transformed the black film industry into a major player in Hollywood and allowed Parks Jr. to recruit action stars Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly for his film Three The Hard Way. After its release, Three The Hard Way came to be known as one of the premier action films of the blaxploitation genre.

Jim Brown[edit]

Jim Brown is the most notable and main protagonist of the film playing the role of recording producer Jimmy Lait. Brown was a controversial choice at the time because of his dealings in his personal life. However, Brown's switch from professional athlete to movie star broadened his notoriety and appeal even more. In Spike Lee's 2002 HBO Documentary he declared Jim Brown "the greatest football player of all time". An NFL Hall of Famer, Brown's transition to movies was no easy task but a logical one given his broad appeal to black youth.

From his days as a four-way sports star at Syracuse University, in football, lacrosse, basketball, and track, controversy seemed to follow Jim Brown. Brown was only the second black football player at Syracuse, and his proficiency on the field threatened some white fans. During his All-Pro career with the Cleveland Browns, Jim Brown's image was at its apex, but controversy came again with the release of his 1964 autobiography, Off My Chest. In his autobiography Jim Brown talked about race when he says:

"The first thing the white man must understand, the depth of our protest. Does he realize that the Black Muslim's basic attitude toward whites is shared by almost 99 percent of the Negro population? I protest prejudice, but I am a prejudiced man. The white man has forced me to be prejudiced against him."[5]

Later, Brown ran into legal troubles when allegations arose of his violence towards women. These issues coupled with his view of race pushed Jim Brown from the popular American athlete to "Jim Brown, angry black man" in the eyes of white America.

In any light, Jim Brown during his acting days was a natural action star due to his huge frame, burly appearance, and macho swagger. Brown was able to rise to the top of black action stars in the blaxploitation genre through a slew of movies. His presence in Three the Hard Way categorizes it as truly one of the must-see action movies of the genre, due to its cast alone.

Effects on popular culture[edit]

Along with director Gordon Parks Jr.'s other notable film Super Fly, Three The Hard Way had a lesser, but still substantial, effect on popular culture. Starting with the soundtrack which lit up airwaves and featured songs by The Impressions. The catchy tunes of the movie had audiences not only hyped up during the movie but also after the film back in their homes and cars.

Another effect the movie had, along with the blaxploitation genre in general, was the adaptation of the black action star who exemplified soul, style, sexuality, black pride, African ancestry, and male machismo. Also, the plot of Three The Hard Way has been copied and parodied, most notably in the film Undercover Brother. In Undercover Brother, protagonist Eddie Griffin portrays "Undercover Brother", a soulful crime-fighting vigilante who must stop the white-run "Man" before he destroys the black population of the United States through an ingested toxin. This plot is similar to Three The Hard Way. Also, the Man's second in command is named Mr. Feathers, played by Chris Kattan, who is named after Monroe Feather from Three The Hard Way.[6]

Black Dynamite, a satirical parody of the blaxploitation genre, contains quite a few plot elements reminiscent of Three the Hard Way. The title protagonist (played by Michael Jai White, is a kung-fu master, and the plot revolves around a malt liquor tainted with ingredients that shrinks black men's genitalia.


Performed by Curtis Mayfield's former group The Impressions, the soundtrack featured the songs "That's What Love Can Do" and "Three the Hard Way" plus "Make a Resolution". The album got mixed reviews from critics and was described as "quickly recorded with little feel".[7] Most of the songs feature a sweet-sounding harmony over a light funk background.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "THREE THE HARD WAY (1974)." The Vault of Buncheness. Web. 15 Feb. 2011. <>.
  2. ^ James, Darius. That's Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss 'tude (rated X by an All-whyte Jury). New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995. Print.
  3. ^ Howard, Josiah. Blaxploitation Cinema: the Essential Reference Guide. Godalming: FAB, 2008. Print.
  4. ^ "Gordon Parks Jr. (Gordon Parks Jr. Tribute) on Myspace." Myspace | Social Entertainment. Web. 15 Feb. 2011. <>.
  5. ^ Ogden, David C., and Joel Nathan Rosen. Fame to Infamy: Race, Sport, and the Fall from Grace. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2010. Print.
  6. ^ "Three the Hard Way (1974) Review." Cool Ass Cinema. Web. 15 February 2011. CA74.
  7. ^ (" Soundtracks: Three The Hard Way, The Impressions, 1974." | A Soulful Tribute... Web. 15 Feb. 2011. <>.)

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