Set in 1971 Tennessee, Death Ranch follows three African-American siblings — Clarence (Travis Cutner), Brandon (Deiondre Teagle) and Angela (Faith Monique) — who are all on the run from the police. They take refuge in an abandoned ranch, unaware that their hideout is on the hunting grounds of a cannibalistic strand of the Klu Klux Klan. Soon enough, they are captured and tortured and must fight fiercely to make it out alive.
At first glance, this is a troubling plot to tackle, especially as it is penned by white British filmmaker, Charlie Steeds. Before going into this film, I wondered if it was going to be solely gratuitous violence against Black people, or if it had some kind of message. Steeds, however, said he was inspired by gitty grindhouse and exploitation films of the 60s and 70s, but Death Ranch aims to subvert those distressing tropes of its genre and offer something new in a time where the Black community needs catharsis. The blaxploitation genre, which emerged in the early 70s, both shattered and reinforced Black stereotypes, with a lot of films going on to gain cult status. More than a subgenre, blaxploitation was a movement that allowed Black people to see themselves on-screen as courageous protagonists, rather than background characters with little-to-no dialogue. Steeds focuses on bringing back the positive traits associated with the genre.
In the film Brandon has escaped from prison and his siblings find a hideout for him, but we never actually find out what he did or if he’s even guilty. This ambiguity disrupts Blaxploitation genre expectations as it aims to remove the ‘criminal’ stamp that often taints characters when we are first introduced to them. The film isn’t entirely successful in doing this, because the ambiguity still allows the audience to make up their own minds that could be racially biased. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Brandon was in the wrong place at the wrong time and prosecuted due to his race, but the film never says that explicitly. He’s a misguided character at a crossroads in his life, who is encouraged by Clarence and Angela to seize a second chance, which makes for promising viewing.
Death Ranch is a well-made film with some great shots and music cues, but some cringe-worthy dialogue makes for a good laugh — at least keeping with the humour of what it’s trying to emulate. It pays faithful homage to 70s grindhouse films in its tone, cinematography and story. The white cloaks worn by the KKK are haunting and often illuminated by the dark scenes during night fall.
While the Black characters endure some horrific torture, which some Black viewers may find triggering, most of the blood, gore and violence is instead turned onto members of the Klan. Brandon ensures they get what they deserve, allowing the focus of exploitation to finally be turned onto the racists. Steeds cites Brotherhood of Death as a specific influence and also wanted to create a revisionist history, much like Quentin Tarantino does, where he could make a film that depicts some historical accuracy, but also lets his characters get their bloody and cathartic revenge as they take control and work to overthrow the Klan.
Death Ranch is quite a mixed bag, though it helps to know the director’s intentions before going in — whether you agree with them or not. Steeds said that racism, especially in America, is the scariest thing to him, so he wanted to make a film exploring this that wasn’t just another blaxploitation film. It’s not really up to me, a white woman, to decide whether or not this film works effectively in dealing with trauma within the Black community, but it feels murky. Hopefully it gets it right for some people because that’s a pretty big task for a British white dude to take on and the badass cast seemed to have fun with it.
Death Ranch screened as part of the virtual edition of Grimmfest 2020
by Toni Stanger