I’ve never thought of Mr. Billy Dee Williams as a particularly shrewd actor. Sure, I’ve enjoyed many of his film roles and, in particular, the suave P.I.M.P. he portrayed in those Colt 45 commercials of my impressionable youth. But I discovered that following his big break in the acclaimed television biopic Brian’s Song (1971), he dipped his toe in the sometimes tepid pool that was Blaxploitation. Produced by Billy Dee Williams Enterprises, the film was a low budget yet conscious attempt to avoid the one-dimensional parody which would come to define the Blaxploitation genre. Based on Jimmy Garrett’s seminal Black Arts Movement play, We Own the Night (1968), The Final Comedown (1972) is a complex narrative told via flashback.
Billy Dee Williams is Johnny Johnson, an intelligent yet angry young brotha caught between the racism’s rock and a hard place in the ghetto. Johnny and his crew of devoted revolutionaries are engaged in a furious gun battle with the cops and guerilla warfare has erupted in the streets of sunny L.A. From the opening frame, we soon realize this may be an exercise in futility.
Through the use of flashback, we see Johnny become more radical and witness the revolutionary mind take shape in an interesting and unpredictable fashion. In one scene, Johnny recalls when he went to apply for a job, even after being slightly discouraged by his main man Billy Joe Ashley (played by the late Blaxploitation stalwart D’Urville Martin) for being a “good American”. He goes in and is told by his interviewer that he has indeed secured himself a job. As she goes over the insurance plan, her supervisor walks out and then calls her into his office. It seems as if the position is “no longer available”. Johnny is visibly disturbed and is pushed closer to the point of no return.