Despite all the babble about the boom in sports movies, one gets the impression that Hollywood is not really confident about catering to the sports audience. Instead, most so-called "sports films" are produced primarily to satisfy more traditionally reliable constituencies. Thus, while Greased Lightning is a film about a stock car driver, it is obviously aimed 1) at a black audience and 2) at the masses of car freaks who support the Smokey and the Bandit genre. I am sure that somewhere in Hollywood a bunch of pasty-faced little creatures are locked in a room, taking all the hackneyed old scripts about cowboys, war and show business, and translating them, word for word, into sports stories. I have this recurring nightmare that the entire Elvis Presley series is going to be remade, with titles such as Fun in Candlestick Park! and Locker Room Fiesta!
As for Greased Lightning, it certainly starts off as an agreeable enough slice of déj√† vu, as the dim-witted Virginia constabulary chase moonshiners: The Last Remake of Thunder Road, in blackface. But once Wendell Scott, who in 1964 became the first black to win a NASCAR championship race, has whipped Jim Crow and gotten on the speedway, there is no place left to go except around and around in more dirt circles. Even the hero himself (Richard Pryor) is lost amidst the carburetors.
Given the patchwork script, Pryor has been content to limit his acting from the nose up, displaying the full range of emotions only by rolling his eyes one way or another. His movie wife, the gorgeous Pam Grier, is décolleté even when cleaning house, leaving the most noble amongst us no opportunity to inspect her character. Cleavon Little plays the sidekick, no better or worse than Andy Devine and Pat Buttram ever did. I liked Beau Bridges' DA haircut. The Southern sheriff was done better in the Dodge commercials, and Vincent Gardenia, who is stuck with the part here, knows that all too well—and it shows. Moreover, in what could be a dreadful precedent, two politicians—Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and, more prominently, Julian Bond—intrude on the screen. Bond was nominated for Vice-President when he was only 28, and with this jab at acting he again reveals a penchant for doing things he is incapable of.
What is really upsetting about the film is that its conclusion is dishonest. Wendell Scott broke the color line, but he made less than $9,000 a year in motor racing. He never won a major race. The film suggests otherwise, that he was right up there in "rivalry" with the Richard Pettys, the David Pearsons, or the Donnie Allisons and Darrell Waltrips (page 12).
The cop-out is the stylized portrayal of the 1950s South—all the foolish bigots, all the insane segregation statutes. How safe it is to stand back now and bowl over this shabby, dishonored culture. How smug it is to put us, in 1977, above the dumb, mean good ol' boys of a generation ago. How righteous. The movie ends with Scott winning a hokey race, then sitting on top of his car waving a checkered flag. But he never had a sponsor. He didn't pave the way for other black drivers. Even today, no big automotive firm backs a black racer. A black has never driven at Indianapolis. Blacks seldom even appear in the pits. Essentially, auto racing is as lily white today as it was when Wendell Scott began his lonely quest.
So make no mistake: Greased Lightning is foremost a black exploitation film. The Superflys are bad enough, but they only prey on fantasies of sex and power. Greased Lightning is worse, for it cruelly misrepresents the everyday dreams of equality and employment.