Lately, I, along with a good portion of the world, have been fired up about the anti-racism movement. Being freaked out by crowds keeps me away from protests, and I don’t have the cash to donate as much as I would like to civil rights organizations. So the least I can do is talk up some ass-kicking, racist-punching movies. But since 2020 is the all-encompassing dumpster fire that it is, my thoughts are still occupied with worries about a rampaging virus. Leave it to the Seventies to provide a film that has me covered on both fronts. Directed by David Durston (fresh from his rabid hippy nightmare, I Drink Your Blood), Stigma is part Blaxploitation, part medical detective story, and part Afterschool Special.
The movie starts with a nice subversion of expectations. We follow Cal (Philip Michael Thomas) as he leaves the probation courthouse with just a beat-up suitcase. Seems like a typical Blaxploitation premise of the down on his luck ex-con about to find trouble in a small-minded hick town. This is no aimless drifter, though. This is Doctor Cal Cross, on his way to solve trouble in the small New England fishing island of Land’s End, at the personal request of imminent medical specialist, Dr. Kermit Thor (also the name of my Muppet-themed thrash metal band).
He may be a doctor, but Cal is 100% badass; Shaft with a medical degree. He does not take shit from anybody in the all-white backwater town, effortlessly dispensing sick burns in response to every racist jibe thrown his way. It’s not always reactionary; Cal loves to stir the pot. At one point he teases his hair out into a full Afro just to fuck with the crackers at the general store, before informing them that he’s taking over as the town doctor. The collective gulps are as loud as church bells.
What’s interesting about the movie is not only how bold Cal is in the face of all the blatant racism, but how much he gets away with. When Cal arrives at Dr. Thor’s house and finds the old man dead, my natural assumption was that the obligatory bigoted sheriff (Peter Clune ) would run him in on suspicion of murder. Instead, Cal shuts the cop down before he can even make the insinuation. He pronounces the cause and time of death, dismisses Sheriff Whitehead’s demand for proof that he’s there at Dr. Thor’s request, and informs him he will be taking over the doc’s work. Cal even appropriates the dead man’s house as his office and temporary residence. Then he sends the slack-jawed sheriff on his way.
It’s satisfying as hell, but for time period of the movie, the scene at first seems completely unrealistic. I think it’s more than just a clueless white director or a wish fulfillment fantasy, though. Cal gets away with it because he’s a doctor. To the locals of this simple fishing island, a fancy, out-of-town doctor is an incredibly intimidating authority figure, and the idea of a black doctor totally blows their little minds. It’s sad that almost fifty years after the film was made, the casual and systemic racism shown is still all-too-familiar, but seeing the public react with deference and respect for an expert is the thing that’s shocking.
Dr. Crosse may be a bit abrasive (especially to racist dipshits), but people have a hard time denying that Philip Michael Thomas has charisma. After they meet hitchhiking, Cal and returning local boy Bill Waco (Harlan Cary Poe) become fast friends. Bill remains his ally throughout the movie, even staging an accident so Cal can gain points with the townsfolk when he rescues Bill’s faking little brother. Cal finds the doc’s last recorded message to him, but unfortunately the tape runs out just before revealing what the explosive danger to the island actually is. With a bit of digging and some conveniently timed events, the mysterious epidemic in the town turns out to be syphilis. Not super syphilis or zombie syphilis, just run of the mill syphilis. Not exactly the scariest or sexiest of outbreaks, but the director certainly gives it a go.
During its most heavy handed moments, Stigma plays like a combination of a VD scare film and a “The More You Know” PSA from the 1980s. They even show a mocked-up Public Health Service reel at one point. It’s so cluelessly desperate to seem hip that I expected the host to start off by announcing, “Hi, I’m Troy McClure.” In real life, the narrator turned out to be a popular radio DJ at the time, so that’s almost as good. He does use the phrase “Now kids, this is very heavy.” It certainly is, because we are then graced by a photo collage of rotted-off noses, swollen glands the size of grapefruits, and syphilitic babies. Thanks for the lowdown, Stigma. Syphilis is not groovy.
One of the highlights of the film is when Cal’s contact tracing lead’s him to a backwoods whorehouse run by Tassie (Connie Van Ess, giving her best Shelly Winters impersonation). Thinking Cal and Bill are new clients, Tassie shows off her stable of fillies, a statuesque blond nudist posing with a baby on her shoulder, an overly theatrical “Laugh-In” wannabe, and the regrettable 70s “humor” staple, the fat girl (she’s always eating, ha-ha-ha).
As expected, Tassie doesn’t take kindly when she hears Cal’s real reason for visiting, but his dedication and concern for safety eventually wins her over, especially after he gives them the clean bill of health. Later, when Whitehead and his goons drive up to intimidate Cal into dropping the investigation, Tassie’s girls line up defensively behind the good doctor holding axes and pitchforks. The standoff ends with more slapstick than bloodshed, but they make their point. Don’t mess with the good doctor.
The infection hotspot turns out to be a secluded old lighthouse known (by me) as Orgy Beach. It’s where the town’s young people meet up for daily canoodling sessions, because as one teen validly points out, “what else is there to do?” Luckily, Dr. Crosse is a cool cat, so when he sits down to rap with the kids about the dangers of VD, they can dig it.
The ultimate mystery surrounding the outbreak turns out to be more nefarious (and slightly confusing), giving it a bit of a TV movie feel. There are a couple of fights, a couple of deaths, but aside from the language and those gnarly medical photos, everything stays within the PG range. It’s enjoyably lightweight, for the most part, but Durston never loses the underlying social themes. The title of the movie is especially relevant and multifaceted. There’s the stigma of being black, of being an ex-con, an outsider. There’s the stigma of being “unclean” in the biblical sense, of being promiscuous. All of the main characters are marked in one way or another, but they are shown to be stronger than the preconceived notions held against them. Except for the cracker sheriff, but screw that guy.