By David G. Firestone
Richard Pryor will forever be known as one of the greatest comedians of all time. He started as a clean, middlebrow comic, which was decent, until September 1967, where he walked on stage, exclaimed “What the fuck am I doing here!?” and walked away. This was the jump-start he needed. He started working in profanity, and started doing blue material. This combination, along with a talent for storytelling, raised stand up comedy to a new level. Taboos were broken, lines were crossed, and Richard Pryor became a household name. Pryor’s material was so ahead of its time, that even today, much of what he said on stage still holds up, and is still relevant.
Pryor’s writing talent and acting talent led to television appearances, television shows, movies, and awards. He co-wrote Blazing Saddles, with Mel Brooks, and also won an Emmy for writing a Lily Tomlin special. One of his more serious roles was Wendell Scott in Greased Lightning.
If I told you there was a NASCAR movie written by Melvin Van Peebles, and stars Richard Pryor and Pam Grier, would you believe me? Well the movie does exist. Released in 1977, Greased Lighting is a sports biological film about Wendell Scott, the first African American driver to win in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
The movie starts off by setting a tone that follows the course of the movie. In Danville, Georgia in the early 1930’s, a young Wendell Scott is challenged to a bike race by some white children. After beating them in the race, and earning their respect, one of them congratulates him with with a racial epithet. The movie then jumps forward to the end of World War II, and Scott comes home from the army.
At a party celebrating his return, he meets Mary Cole, played by Pam Grier. The two fall in love. Mary invites him to dinner at her family’s house. During dinner, he announces he is going to buy a taxicab, and wants to eventually open a garage. Her father asks Wendell if he has any crazy ideas, to which he responds “I want to be a racing champion,” which her father laughs off. After the two are married, the taxi business goes downhill, and Wendell is desperate for money. He witnesses a bootlegger chase, and drives down the driver, asking for a job.
He meets his best friend, who is also working for the bootlegger, and they both start running moonshine. The shine is moving well, the money is good, and Wendell is happy he gets to drive a car for a living. Wendell is so good at driving, that the police spend years trying to catch him. Finally, Wendell is arrested, and while in jail, the local track owner talks with the sheriff, and talks him into a deal. Wendell will race at the local dirt track, and if he finishes the race, Wendell will get probation and a fine. The track owner wants Wendell there because the white drivers will try to kill him, which the white people want to see, and the black people just want to see a black driver race.
The track owner turns the other drivers against Wendell by offering a $25 bounty for the driver that takes him out. Every driver takes him up on it, except one named Hutch. The race starts, the other drivers try to take Wendell out, but he preservers and is given probation. The next race he attempts, he is turned down because of his race.
Eventually he finds a track that will take him, and he finishes 4th, where he meets up with Hutch. 4th place earns two steak dinners at a whites-only steakhouse. Wendell and Hutch go there, get their dinners, but are chased out by the locals. Eventually, Hutch joins Wendell’s team as a mechanic. The next race, he finishes first, but racist driver Beau Welles is declared the winner. Wendell is obviously disgusted, and hangs around the track. After a while, one of the officials approaches Wendell and confirms that he did win the race. Wendell demands to know where the trophy, and is told that Beau Welles will give it back.
At a celebratory picnic, Wendell is presented with the trophy, and tells Hutch that there’s an opening at a new race shop. Hutch and Wendell part ways, and Wendell’s career takes off. He is seen racing at many different race tracks, including Talladega, where he is injured in a crash. The crash shown is the actual crash that ended Wendell’s career in real life.
He wakes up in the hospital, where he had a pole inserted into his leg. Mary begs him to retire. He mopes around the house, hearing about how great Beau Welles is as a driver, and decides to enter the “Grand National” at “International Speedway.” Most of his team comes back, the sheriff who wanted him to rot in jail is now the mayor, and he recruits sponsors for Wendell. Wendell’s wife states that she won’t watch him race. Wendell himself visits Beau Welles to try to buy an engine, and meets with Hutch. The two old friends share a few words, and even Beau Welles is cordial to Wendell. Hutch decides to reunite with Wendell’s team.
The Grand National arrives, Wendell is near the back of the pack, Beau Welles is at the front. Just before the race starts, Mary returns. The race starts, and it seems that Wendell is scared, not wanting to race. Eventually, his confidence returns, and he starts passing cars, until he is 2nd, just behind Beau Welles. Beau and Wendell pit at the exact same time, but Beau leaves first. Wendell drives away, with his right rear wheel not fully tight, and wobbling. The racing is fast, the battle for the lead is great, and eventually Wendell comes out on top, and the movie ends with his family celebrating around him.
This movie is one of the better vintage racing movies I’ve seen. Pryor and Grier’s acting and chemistry are great. Beau Bridges is great as Hutch. Earl Hindman, who will forever be known as Wilson Wilson from Home Improvement gives quite a great performance. There isn’t that much padding, and every scene has relevance. The music and racing scenes work very well, and the race cars look great. All in All, this movie is worth the A I’m giving it.
Next week, a 1990’s NASCAR comedy movie.