Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. (riding high on the success of SUPERFLY), the film was financed by Columbia Pictures, who were hoping for something on the order of a black BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967). Given a limited budget but considerable free reign from the studio, Julien oversaw the entire production, from producing to editing to costume design. He had written the script for Jack Starrett’s CLEOPATRA JONES (1972) as a vehicle for McGee but the executives at Warner Brothers gave the title role to Tamara Dobson. This time out, Julien ensured that his lady would be his leading lady and THOMASINE & BUSHROD is remembered by the comparatively few who have seen it as a lost classic despite the fact that Columbia pulled the film before it could find its audience. (Time gave the May 1974 release a mixed review but couldn’t deny the charisma of its two stars.) The failure of THOMASINE AND BUSHROD drove Julien into something like a self-imposed exile (although he continued to write, sculpt and even design clothing) while Vonetta McGee went on to more character roles… opposite Clint Eastwood in THE EIGER SANCTION (1975) and as a militant patterned after Angela Davis in BROTHERS (1978). Approaching 40, McGee was seen in mostly episodic TV fare through the 1980s (with REPO MAN breaking up the monotony mid-decade). Long since broken up with Max Julien, McGee met her husband Carl Lumbly while appearing in a few episodes of the weekly series CAGNEY AND LACY. Lumbly and McGee had a son in 1987 and McGee left the business within the next decade to devote herself to her family. Although the couple appeared together in Charles Burnett’s TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (1990), it’s a shame that no other filmmakers could capitalize on the startling handsomeness of this couple or their boundless utility. Independent writer-director Oscar Williams did shoot scenes with Lumbly and McGee for a proposed updating of THE WATTS MONSTER (aka DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE, 1976) set during the LA riots of 1992 but that project remains as I understand it unfinished.
Or maybe, just maybe, Vonetta McGee enjoyed the tranquility of a private life after thirty years of attention, frustration and expectation. Given that she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma while still a teenager, you might say Vonetta McGee cheated the odds to live a good, long life… if not nearly long enough. Whatever the final balance, when she closed her eyes for the last time last week and slipped away, cinema lost one of its most beguiling and unsung heroines.
Vonetta McGee had a few good leading lady years, with a prominent (but small) role in the LAURA-esque MELINDA (1972), whose murder becomes the obsession of disc jockey Calvin Lockhart. She played opposite Fred Williamson in HAMMER (1972), Hari Rhodes in DETROIT 9000 (1973) and was an Ethiopian princess who teaches Richard Roundtree what it really means to be African in SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973). I do know that one of the first things I ever actually saw her in was the TV movie THE NORLISS TAPES (1973), Dan Curtis’ attempt to reboot THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) with sexy supernatural debunker Roy Thinnes running down a the demon Sargoth in Carmel, California. McGee is sixth-billed and her participation reduced to three scenes, in the role of a dealer in antiques and curios who sells a ring to a crippled artist attempting a bid at immortality. McGee’s secretive Madame Jeckiel ultimately feels guilty for releasing such evil upon the world and attempts to right that wrong… to her ultimate peril. McGee gets only a few minutes of screen time in THE NORLISS TAPES but her final scene is among the project’s many hair raising moments. And speaking of hair, around the same time that she shot this busted TV pilot, she appeared on the syndicated music show SOUL TRAIN, where she was interviewed by host Don Cornelius and two members of the studio audience.
Ms. McGee was a San Francisco-native and was known for her roles in local theater while attending and being a pre-law student at . Her real name was Lawrence Vonetta McGee and was named after her father, Lawrence. She took her middle name for her stage name.