Like all of Robert Downey, Sr.’s satires, Putney Swope is broad and cheaply made—two facts which don’t hurt the film, instead giving it a crackling gonzo energy. The title character is a token Black board member in a powerful advertising firm, and is promoted to chairman of the board quite by accident (the other members, unable to vote for themselves, all assume that it’s safe to vote for Swope, who couldn’t possibly win). Renaming the company “Truth and Soul, Inc.,” Swope bans ads for guns and cigarettes while swapping out the all-white office staff for a largely Black one, given a few token white people—his changes wreak such havoc on the national landscape the the US government comes to see the ad agency as a threat to the nation. There’s definitely some low-budget silliness, but Downey smartly makes Swope a complicated figure, as ambitions (maybe even greedy) in his own way as the white characters. Though there’s a white director at the helm, the movie became a fairly essential window into Black power politics of the late ‘60s.
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