Hollywood has no problem with rewriting the Vietnam War according to changing standards of audience bloodlust. Why should the civil rights movement of the 1960s remain immune? Even the prestige production MISSISSIPPI BURNING ran into charges of factual distortion. Perhaps it was
inevitable, then, that someone would apply RAMBO's bare-chests-and-automatic-weapons formula to the civil rights struggle. It's 1966, and three African-American Army officers are being escorted through Georgia to a court-martial (their crime: refusing a direct order to massacre Vietnamese women
and children). The soldiers manage to escape their MP guards and seek shelter in the home of widow Bell Coleman (Margaret Avery) in the isolated little town of Riverbend. Local blacks have been terrorized by Sheriff Jake (Tony Frank), a raping, murdering, name-calling mega-racist, and the lawman's
abuse of power stirs the anger of Samuel Quentin (Steve James), the leader of the trio of vets. With the reluctant help of his fellow escapees, Quentin sets up a clandestine boot camp in the woods and trains the town's able-bodied African-American men in armed combat. Then, one night, Quentin
directs a paramilitary takeover of Riverbend. Sheriff Jake, his deputies, and the mayor are locked in the jailhouse, while the remainder of the white population is herded into the church. Black citizens take up positions on the periphery of town and blockade the roads. Quentin demands media
attention and an investigation into the sheriff's crimes, warning that the church and its occupants will go up in smoke if the authorities try any tricks. Once they stop laughing, the cops on the outside dig in for a siege. Back in Riverbend, Quentin has his hands full with volatile Tony Marx
(Julius Tennon), another of the vets, who forces Sheriff Jake and the mayor into a knife duel. The sheriff wins, of course, and both he and Marx have to be beaten into obedience by Quentin. Meanwhile, the authorities send commandoes to infiltrate Riverbend by night. The invaders get as far as the
town square before encountering Marx, who has just robbed the bank and is making his getaway. The resulting firefight leads to heavy casualties, but when the victorious African-Americans add the surviving white soldiers to the prisoners in the church, the authorities give in to Quentin's demands.
As the siege is lifted, the media arrives, and a wounded Sheriff Jake expires. Quentin has all of Riverbend's people assemble in the town square, where blacks and whites join hands in friendship. Yeah, right.
Filmed in Texas, RIVERBEND represents an attempt by TV producer Samuel Vance ("The New Odd Couple") and wife Valerie to start a Houston-based film industry. The stars and the director, action specialist Sam Firstenberg (AVENGING FORCE, the "American Ninja" series), were imported from Hollywood,
but local talent filled out the cast and crew. The sharp-looking project was completed for under $2.3 million, but was beset with post-production delays and disputes with co-financiers before receiving a limited theatrical lease. Alluding to the film's rather subdued home-video release in 1990,
Valerie Vance reportedly expressed the belief that major distributors were afraid the movie was too inflammatory. That's a Texas-sized understatement.
Clearly, RIVERBEND intends to convey the message that African-Americans should control their own destinies, defend themselves if need be, and not wait for white liberals to take up their cause. However, despite its intentions, the film plays like a racial revenge fantasy, implying that the only
way for African-Americans to win respect from whites is through armed insurrection ("It ain't your town and it never will be...unless you take it over by force!" declares Quentin). As the black rebels shepherd the townsfolk to the church, a white liberal steps forward and protests that this action
is unnecessary; he himself has compiled evidence of Sheriff Jake's atrocities and was planning to submit it to a circuit court that very day. "You're a good man, Mr. Cook, but you're white. Right now that's a problem," replies a black acquaintance of the liberal.
At no time does the screenplay question the takeover: moreover, Quentin is portrayed only as a straight-arrow hero, possessed of impeccable judgement and brilliant leadership abilities. The negative aspects of terrorism are instead embodied in Marx, who, incidentally, is the only character to
initially oppose the takeover. Still, even Marx manages to blast a white invader before snuffing it; in fact, almost none of the rebels fall in battle without first killing several whites.
RIVERBEND is set in 1966, but the struggle for equality in America continues today; however, any film advocating guerilla warfare as the way to racial harmony ought to leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth. In fairness, it should be noted that RIVERBEND fulfills one of Samuel Vance's stated goals by
giving black actors roles that are different from the usual pimps and street scum of more conventional action movies. (Violence, profanity, adult situations.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1990
- Rating: R
- Review: Hollywood has no problem with rewriting the Vietnam War according to changing standards of audience bloodlust. Why should the civil rights movement of the 1960s remain immune? Even the prestige production MISSISSIPPI BURNING ran into charges of factual dis… (more)