Southern Movie #8: “Greased Lightning”

You couldn’t ask for a better cast than the one in 1977’s Greased Lightning. Starring Richard Pryor and Beau Bridges, the movie also features Pam Grier and Cleavon Little, with lesser roles played by Civil Rights icon Julian Bond and singer-songwriter Richie Havens. Even though you wouldn’t think of a Richard Pryor movie from the late 1970s being rated PG, this one is— and it’s pretty clean. Made about the same time and in the same style as Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and TV’s Dukes of Hazzard (1979 – 1985), Greased Lightning tells the story of Wendell Scott, the first black stock car-racing star.

Scott’s story begins with a quaint prelude to his racing days, told through an bike-racing episode when he was a boy presumably in the late 1920s. He and his pal Peewee are riding along, minding their own business, when they encounter a group of white boys blocking the road. Chided by a white bully, young Wendell agrees to the contest, and of course he wins. This little scene sets up much of the movie’s plot, which involves racing, road blocks, and racism.

After the credits roll, a grown-up Wendell Scott – now played by Richard Pryor – comes home to Danville, Georgia in 1947, after his military service is over. He gets off the bus, kisses his mother like a good Southern boy should, and heads to the house, where a surprise party is waiting for him. Once inside, he quickly steals the girl of his dreams, Mary (Pam Grier) from another pal (Julian Bond), and makes it clear to her that he has no intention of getting a job at the mill like everyone else.

Married to Mary and frustrated by his inability to make a living driving a taxi in small-town Georgia, Wendell takes to running moonshine with Peewee (Cleavon Little). Here, we start to get into the absurd stereotypes of rural Southern whites. The moonshine brewers that Wendell picks up from are dirty-faced, overall-wearing, rifle-toting hicks, and the buffoonish sheriffs are only slightly more sinister than Boss Hogg and Roscoe P. Coltrane. Wendell and Peewee evade them over and over for years, and given the stupidity of the small force, we know why. With just a little bit of Brer Rabbit trickery, the pair outsmart the local yokels.

Eventually, though Wendell does get caught. Years have gone by, his kids are growing up, and though he no longer needs the money, it’s what he does. The police have him set up, using another black moonshine runner who has gotten caught. Barricaded into the small downtown, Wendell is taken to jail on Easter. But he won’t stay there long.

The local racetrack owner has another idea for the sheriff: put Wendell Scott on the track, allowing the local good ol’ boys to go after him, to draw some heavy ticket sales from both whites and blacks. Though that race doesn’t go well for Wendell – he barely finishes after he is forced off the track into the woods by local greaser Hutch (Beau Bridges) – he does survive. His moonshine-running career is over, and his racing career has begun, with the help of volunteer mechanic Woodrow (Richie Havens).

By now, it’s 1955, which we learn from a race announcer, and Wendell, Peewee and Woodrow are struggling against Deep Southern racism and trying to get into the racing business. After an initial rocky start with him, Hutch becomes a friend and partner to Wendell and Woodrow. However, all of the whites aren’t so amicable; Wendell is not just racing to win, he is trying not to get killed. This is where we meet yet another villain in the story: Beau Wells, an adult version of the bike-race bully in the beginning. Wells is the cocky local unbeatable who has it out for Wendell Scott.

After a montage of racing footage, meant to make a big leap in time, we meet up with the cast again in the mid-1960s, once they have gotten into big-time NASCAR racing. The next time we really pick up the film’s story, Scott has had a bad crash and is in the hospital. His racing career is over— or is it?

Of course it’s not! Wendell’s Scott’s story ends on a far more triumphant note than that. He can’t just crash and quit.

Despite a lack of sponsorship and objections from Mary, Wendell registers for the Grand National, where he will once again face Beau Wells. The race is tough one, but in the end Wendell Scott wins, even though he ran the last twenty laps with only three lugnuts on his rear tire. As the ending credits roll, Wendell Scott is vindicated, holding up the checkered flag in front of the huge cheering crowd, a right that was denied to him in his first-ever win.

I know when you were reading this and first saw Greased Lightning, you were thinking, “That’s the song from Grease!” Actually, this 1977 bio-pic about a Deep Southern racer came out a year before that infamous John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John musical, so the title was no rip-off.

Though the cast of this movie is strong, sadly the movie isn’t. imdb.com has it with 6.1 stars, which is kind of generous. Audiences gave it a similar 3.3 out of 5 on Rotten Tomatoes. Though Richard Pryor, Cleavon Little and Beau Bridges are good actors, too many things about the movie are distracting. Though Pam Grier is as beautiful as she always is, her acting in this one is pretty weak. The movie also doesn’t handle time well; I found myself having to look for clues about how much time had passed, like children growing up and makes of cars. I don’t know how you make a mediocre movie when you’ve got a great story and a great cast, but somehow these folks managed.

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