Friday, February 29, 2008

One Last Bit Of Black History

By Odienator

De Lawd, in His infinite wisdom, saw fit not to grant me the opportunity to get to know my grandparents. By the time I was 5, they were all gone. My paternal grandfather shuffled off his mortal coil before I had the chance to put mine on, and his wife not too long after that. My maternal grandfather died when I was 1-1/2, and I've no recollection of him whatsoever. I find him living in my memory only in the stories my mother and aunts used to tell me about the things he told them and the things he did. I am especially fond of a parable of sorts he told about this old lady who came to a wake with a bowl of soup. When I recall that story, I see my grandfather in my head, based on a picture my Mom had of him, and I imagine what he'd sound like as he told it to me.

With my maternal grandmother, I was granted a little Mercy from above. She lived long enough for me to etch her permanently into my brain, but only in one fleeting memory and two that overflow with detail. It's only fitting that, for someone who loves movies, my fondest and most vivid memory of my grandmother was her telling me about a movie.

In my grandmother's house was a windy, steep set of wooden stairs that led to the second of three floors. Right off the stairs, to the left, was my grandmother's room. Her door was open, and I found her sitting in a room that smelled of incense and sounded like Mahalia Jackson. My grandmother was very religious, and she burned candles and was always listening to gospel music. I was angry when I visited her, my behind still stinging from my mother popping me on it because she overheard me saying "shit." I was upset that my Mom beat my ass, so I went to do what kids always did--I went to tattle on her. I had no power over my mother, but HER mother certainly did. My mother was like a Hebrew National frank: she was about to answer to an even higher authority. I stormed upstairs, and into my grandmother's room, fixing to get my mother in serious trouble!

I found my grandmother sitting on her bed, reading her Bible. She patted the bed next to her and I hopped on it. I can still smell the incense in the room and hear Mahalia singing the song I make so much fun of, In The Upper Room. She had very long, very dark hair that she'd put up in a bun. She was half Cherokee Indian, I was told, which explained not only her hair but her physical features as well. She was obviously Black, but obviously something else as well.

"Mum," I said, as we called her what her children always called her, "your daughter hit me!" She said, in a stern voice, "alright, well I'll take care of her." She then asked me if I loved my mother and I said "No! Not right now." "Let me tell you a story," she whispered to me. "You should always love your mother and this is why."

Now, I was a hyper kid. I couldn't sit still, and any amount of sugar turned me into the Tasmanian Devil. But if you told me a story, I'd sit with rapt attention. I think this is why I was always being told stories by my aunts. They were great stories, and I have gleefully robbed their style and shaped it into my own. This is also why movies mesmerized me. I sat through the entire screening of Gone With the Wind on its 35th anniversary release. That was 1974, the same year my grandmother told me the one story I remember from her.

My grandmother, who must have known I loved movies, told me about a movie she watched years ago, about a mother whose daughter didn't love her. As a result, the mother died of a broken heart, and when the daughter came back to see her, it was too late. All she could do was lean on the casket and tell her mother she was sorry. "But the mother was gone," she told me, "and she couldn't hear her." "Wow," I said. She told me that the mother had the grandest funeral ever given a cullud woman, and that her friend Lana Turner was there. I remember her saying Lana Turner, because I thought she was related to Tina Turner. "So you should always love your mother," Mum concluded, "and tell her all the time. Because she won't hear you when she's gone."

That's where the memory ends.

When I was about 7 or 8, I discovered that Lana Turner looked nothing like Tina Turner. On WPIX in NYC, they used to run Madame X, a 1966 throwback to the women's weepies of the 40's. Lana Turner was on trial, and Keir Dullea was her lawyer. He defended her in a murder trial with no idea that she was the mother who had given him up. I watched this every time it came on. At the end of the movie, Turner buys the farm. While melodramatic music played, I sat there and cried like a baby.

One day PIX decided to really give me something to cry about--they ran the 1959 version of Imitation of Life. My older cousins watched with me, and my eldest cousin warned me that it was going to be very sad. Of course, I thought, it's got Lana Turner in it! (Imagine my surprise when I saw The Postman Always Rings Twice.) When the movie was over, my cousins were crying, but not as hard as I was. I had made the connection that this was the movie my grandmother told me about, and at that moment I seared that memory in my brain, holding on to it for dear life. The moment of revelation was astonishing, something I'd never experienced before. I was too young to fully understand most of the plot, but when Susan Kohner leaned against Juanita Moore's coffin, it felt like a bolt of lightning went through me. I missed my grandmother. I wasn't just crying for Annie Johnson.

PIX ran Imitation a lot, and as I got older I acquired an additional set of emotional responses as I understood the plot. The Lana Turner version was a remake of the Claudette Colbert-Louise Beavers original from 1934, itself based on a best selling novel by Fannie Hurst. It was directed by Douglas Sirk, a director I would grow to love simply because his movies were never about what they appeared to be. He was always running a side hustle, sneakily slipping it in when nobody was looking. Todd Haynes got it right in his homage to Sirk, Far From Heaven, and Fassbinder did too, with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a remake of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows that owes more to its source material than Sirk's detractors will give it.

On its surface, Imitation of Life is about an actress named Laura (Lana Turner), her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Steve Archer (John Gavin), and her daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee). Laura has living with her a Black woman she befriended named Annie (Juanita Moore), whose daughter Sarah Jane, is light enough to pass for White. As a kid, Sarah Jane rejects her Blackness, constantly saying that she's White. The movie seems to treat this as a small story in service to the Lana Turner arc. Annie has characteristics of a Mammy character, though something in the movie feels off about that description. In fact, if one pays close attention, the entire main story seems off.

The White story at the front of Imitation of Life is shallow. The performances are good, but these people are in a bizarre dance of repetition. As she becomes more and more successful, Laura keeps pushing away the men who love her, Steve keeps hanging around, and Susie has moments of pure annoyance. Meanwhile, in the background, Sirk is going "pssst! Look over here! This story's more interesting." At first, it's not evident; we think the movie is primarily about Laura's rise to stardom as a glamorous actress. But by the end of the film, Sirk has switched the story completely, and we realize it's been about the secondary characters of Annie and Sarah Jane all along.

Imitation of Life is fascinated with identity, both in its story and in its scene construction. Sirk is always reminding us of the passing for White story, even when the characters aren't on the screen. There are mirrors everywhere in this film, and every character has at least one scene where he or she is reflected in something. Whenever Turner turns down someone who loves her, she has a mirror scene. When Sarah Jane's White boyfriend finds out she's really Black, the majority of the scene is reflected in a store window. When Annie comes to see her daughter for the last time, they are both reflected in Sarah Jane's apartment mirror. And when Annie is on her deathbed, her reflection is seen in glimpses of the picture frame that houses Sarah Jane's picture. Sirk, being an emotional masochist, makes that picture the center of attention when Annie dies.

Sirk also has his cin-togger shoot people's faces in artificial shadow quite a bit, then has them emerge into light. When Turner kisses the writer (Dan O'Herlihy) she has thrown Steve over for, Sirk shoots the kiss with their faces in total darkness, then has the characters turn directly into the light. Since the film has a glossy, bright sheen to it most of the time, these moments call attention to themselves.

Sirk couldn't just do a movie about Annie and Sarah Jane. The studio wouldn't have funded it and nobody would have gone to see it. Instead he makes the front story so paper thin that we have no other choice but to focus on the more ominous back story. He even has stronger musical cues when things happen in the Annie-Sarah Jane arc of the story.

When Annie is on her deathbed, Oscar nominee Juanita Moore milks it for all it's worth. I've heard her character being called a Noble Negro, but this isn't true; Noble Negroes suffer so that the White characters can learn something. Annie suffers and dies so that a BLACK character can learn something. As that Black character, Oscar nominated White actress Susan Kohner is a real bitch, but oddly enough, she's the most developed character in the film. She's the one character who undergoes the biggest change, and the character most affected by what happens. She has the makings of a tragic mulatto, but it's her emotional response that drives the movie's final point home. "I killed my mother," she tells Laura, and as much as you want to feel hatred for her (and I did), you also feel some pity at the price she paid for hiding her identity. And the funeral they throw Annie is grand indeed. White horses pulling her casket down the street as a band plays music. Mahalia Jackson shows up to sing during the service, and that's the moment in the movie I lose it. No matter how many times I've seen it, I still lose it.

My grandfather told this parable: One day a woman showed up at a wake with a bowl of soup. As she was heading toward the casket she was stopped. "Ethel," another mourner said, "what the hell are you going to do with that soup?" She said, "I was bringing some for Tom." "But Tom's dead!" said the mourner. "Yeah, I know," said Ethel, "but if he can smell all those damn flowers, he can eat some of this here soup."

The moral, my grandfather said, was "give me my flowers while I can smell them, because I can't when I'm lying in my casket." I think that was the message my grandmother imparted to me, in a way I could understand, that is, through a movie. It's indicative of how I see and relate to movies, and how I wanted to bring movies to Black History Mumf. I didn't want to do a scholarly analysis, because that bores the shit out of me and I don't pull the wings off my movies. Instead, I wanted to somehow convey the nostalgic and emotional response I have to movies, past and present. That's how I absorb what I see on the screen. I don't go looking for answers, I bring them with me and hope that something in a film will touch an emotional nerve based on my own experiences. I'll leave the theoretical analysis to the arts majors.

Benediction:

So that's all folks. Black History Mumf is officially over, and I can return this lovely blog back to Steven Boone. Thanks to Boone for letting me do this crazy experiment, and for all the people who have read my month-long ramblings. I appreciate all the posts and all the conversations I've had with people, privately and out here at Big Media Vandalism. I'm sure this isn't the last you've seen of the Odienator here.

For now, I tip my fedora and bow out gracefully. Thank you all.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Diva's Place Is In the Home

By Odienator


The problem with having nothing but yes men around you is that there's nobody available to pull you aside and tell you, as gently as possible, "Bitch, you look like a turkey!" I believe this is why so many celebrities get into trouble. Would Britney Spears have been driving around using her baby as an airbag if she had someone in her entourage to tell her just how "not all that" she was? Do you think Eddie Murphy would have been picking up Asian transvestites with pretty feet on Sunset Blvd., or worse, released Norbit, if he had someone around to say "yo, Mr. Fuck You Man, perhaps you should order pretty dude feet from a private escort service. And use the master print of Norbit to light your post-coital cigarette?" Methinks not. Celebrity brings out, to quote Seal, "limousines and sycophants," and any dissenting voice is drowned out by the numerous people whispering in the star's ears and telling them how great they are.

Sometimes the people closest to the celebrities are the biggest yes men. Especially if they're screwing them. Such is the case with Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown and the director of another M word, Mahogany. I admit he had the foresight to see that Diana Ross was all wrong for The Wiz, but he didn't have the sense to believe that Tony Richardson was a better director than he was. Gordy fired Richardson allegedly because Richardson wasn't going to make the movie Black enough. It already had a predominantly Black cast featuring Miss Ross and her Lady Sings the Blues co-star, Billy Dee Williams. The only way the movie could have been blacker was if they'd shot it in the dark. Considering how Mahogany turned out, this would have been a good idea. Director Gordy may have made the movie Blacker simply because he was Black, but he also created a bigger disaster than anything Irwin Allen got his hands on back in the 70's. As a filmmaker, he was worse than Uwe Boll.

Mahogany probably would work better as an event rather than a movie. In New York City, they turned The Sound of Music into a sing-a-long, and gay men and people's mothers (the only people who could get away with liking The Sound of Music) showed up in droves. One guy was interviewed on the news wearing a brown paper package on his head, wrapped up in string. Others showed up dressed as nuns, which did as much for the convent as Ken Russell's The Devils. As much as I dislike The Sound Of Music, I do enjoy public spectacles of bad taste; I'm sure the theater show was better than anything on the screen.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a horrible movie, but if you've ever gone to see it in the Village, it was a lot of fun. I don't know why no one has turned Mahogany into The Rossy Horror Picture Show, because it's a favorite of drag queens and at least one person's mother I know. Imagine people showing up, dressed in the horrific outfits from the film, ripping off their tops and pouring hot candle wax on chests as flat as the one Miss Ross douses in this film. At the end, everyone sings the Theme from Mahogany and drinks Colt 45. If only I had a theater.

What I'm about to commit here is pure blasphemy. I know a lot of people who love Mahogany. My female classmates in high school loved it so much that they voted the theme from Mahogany as our senior prom song. It was my aunt and uncle's first date movie, and they went back to see it twenty-three more times. Fellow blogger cinebeats may never speak to me again, or worse, tell my mother about this piece. Mom is a HUGE Diana Ross fan, and she loves Mahogany, so Lawd help me if she gets wind of this. She'll call me up and sing her favorite "let me guilt the shit out of Odienator" song, Shirley Caesar's "I'm a cheapskate" gospel classic, No Charge ("for the nine months I carried you, growing inside me: no charge"). Then, like Bill Cosby in Ghost Dad, she will come through my telephone, swinging a switch she pulled from the switch bushes she has in her yard, and I will be subjected to the first ass whipping I've had in a long, long time.

It'll be worth it.

I had hoped to use several screenshots from Mahogany, but Netflix didn't have the movie at their local facility (surprise surprise--if it's got Negroes in it, Netflix doesn't have it out here). They had to send it from St. Louis, (why not Detroit?) and it still isn't here. It saves me from having to watch it again, so thank heaven for small favors. Also, special thanks to my blog hijackee, Steven Boone, for scrounging up some pics for me. (Yes, I'm mentioning him so that when Miss Ross comes to kick my ass, she'll save some energy for his too.)

Mahogany is an old-fashioned woman's picture, colorized in a way Ted Turner never dreamed. It tells the story of Tracy (Miss Ross), a fun-loving secretary studying fashion at night school. Tracy dreams of becoming a top fashion designer, so she can get away from her department store job. It's perfect casting for Ross, herself a former fashion student before her rise to the top as the lead tyrant, I mean singer, of the Supremes. It also highlights why Miss Ross should count her blessings; she's a far better singer than clothing designer. Ross is credited with the costume design for Mahogany, and as aforementioned, nobody was around to tell her the truth about her fashions.

Bitch, you look like a turkey!

Tracy meets an activist named Brian (Billy Dee Williams) and the two begin a courtship after she plays a dumb trick on him involving milk and a megaphone. Tracy causes Brian to be arrested because he gets into a fight, and after she bails him out, instead of him going upside her head with a tire iron for causing the altercation, they start to fall in love. Ross and Williams have dynamite chemistry, as evidenced in Lady Sings the Blues, and it's on display here. Brian courts Tracy, something we didn't see too much of in Black movies of this time (Claudine being a notable exception), and I think this is why a lot of Black women fell in love with the movie. It starts out as a sweet little romance on the streets of Chicago. What woman doesn't want to be wooed, especially if the wooer is as hot as Billy Dee?

But then Mahogany loses its gaat-damn mind. Brian turns out to be a sexist bastard, telling Tracy that her dreams are silly and that his activist work is the be all and end all in this world. He wants her to stay and work for his campaign, to help him build HIS dreams. He doesn't need a diva, he needs a maid like Florence on The Jeffersons.

A fashion photographer named Sean (Anthony Perkins) sees Tracy at a fashion show and thinks she'd make a great model. In fact, he just grabs her and says "get me six more of her!" Big dollar signs start flashing in Tracy's eyes. If she can become a model, she can model her own fashions! Sean has some warped ideas about fashion shoots--after all he IS Norman Bates--and Brian sees Tracy helping Sean with some kind of shoot involving homeless people. As Tracy helps Sean take advantage of an old lady who looks like she's had more to eat than the fashion model Tracy is dragging her toward, Brian asks her if she's into exploiting the homeless as a fashion statement. Tracy says something asinine that I don't remember, something like "it's fashion, not politics!" Soon, however, Tracy's right in the thick of politics, working for Brian's campaign after getting fired from her secretary job. Their courtship continues until the aforementioned "your dreams ain't worth shit" speech that sends Tracy to Rome to model for Sean.

Sean gives Tracy the name Mahogany, which is a kind of wood, but when he tries to give her that OTHER kind of wood, he fails miserably. This is because Perkins' character is obviously gay, and a bad gay stereotype at that. He joins the long list of psychotic cinematic gays and bisexuals, except his freak out is hilarious and not to be taken seriously. I should stop here and point out that practically every White person in Mahogany is some kind of fucked up sexual deviant and/or freak. Berry Gordy must have been working through some serious shit with creditors when he made this movie. It's not like the Black folks fare much better--Brian's an asshole and Tracy is delusional and a sweat shop terrorist (more on that later)--but the Whites in this movie are really put through the Eurotrash Cuisinart.

Tracy is fired by Sean after she models one of her fashions in the show instead of the one he's chosen. Ross' creation is met with stunned silence because, well, it looks made by a drunken Japanese red-ass monkey. She is saved from humiliation and ruin by an Italian designer who pays an ungodly sum of money for Tracy's outfit. Tracy is ecstatic, but she doesn't realize he only paid a buck-oh-five for that dress; the rest of the money was for her skinny Black ass.

Tracy offers up her S.B.A. but the Italian (Jean-Pierre Aumont, proving Paris is in Italy) declines "for now." Suddenly, Tracy, I mean Mahogany, is the hottest designer in town. This gives the movie time to showcase more of Ross' designs which, for the most part, are terrifying. There are a few moments when she actually does look decent, but they give way to the big party scene, where Mahogany embraces her inner freaky-deaky, tearing off her top and pouring hot candle wax all over herself. By this time, Billy Dee shows up in Rome (I forget how he got there--damn you, Netflix!) and has an absurd gun fight with Sean. Perkins throws himself at Williams, and I'd say this performance was the nadir of his career, except I've seen Crimes of Passion.

After the gunplay, Brian confronts Mahogany, who has just proven that there's a HO in MaHOgany. And a hog too. She looks disgusting, covered in candle wax and that stuff they put on Christina Aguilera in the Dirrrty video. When Brian tells her off, Mahogany has a Miss Ross style tantrum. "They all love me! Men and women! I'm Mahogany and you're nothing!" This is the first of two times we see the Diana Ross Kitty Kelly wrote about, the diva who was intolerable. Williams tells her "success is nothing without someone to share it with," which sounds like a ghetto version of Love Story's "love means never having to say you're sorry." Both are incredibly stupid lines, but moviegoers swooned over both. My aunt and uncle swooned 24 times over Mahogany's tag line.

Mahogany winds up in a crazed car ride with Sean who, true to the actor who plays him, goes psycho. Mahogany distracts him by getting him to take pictures of her while he's driving (I'm not kidding) and he winds up dead from the ensuing accident. Then, Mahogany, with some help from her rich Italian benefactor, now husband, starts mass producing her Halloween costumes in a factory where nobody speaks English. NOW we get the REAL Miss Ross! Her workers keep saying "non capisco" when she demands things, so she chews them out real good. "I'm sick of this non capisco shit!" she yells. "DO AS I SAY!" I remember in the theater asking my mother "why is she being so mean to them?" and her replying "because she's being a diva." For years, I thought diva meant bitch.

Mahogany's hubby also decides, after all this time, that it's time to cash in on the skinny Black ass he bought under that outfit two reels ago, but he can't get it up either. Now, I'm not one to gossip, but this made me wonder about Mahogany's choices in terms of giving up the nana. Ross appears to be doing a Liza Minelli, which makes sense as Minelli beat her for that Oscar back in 1972.

Anyway, after all the screaming and the cock killing, Mahogany gets to have the big fashion show the movie thinks her character deserves. And it's a success!!! But she can't stop thinking about Brian--broke-ass Brian--and all the Colt 45s they shared when she was a nobody back in Chicago. So she gives it all up to go back and be Brian's woman. The end. The moral, ladies, is that your hopes and dreams mean nothing, especially if you could be that great woman standing behind the great man who's achieving HIS dream instead. For all the fun I've been poking at Miss Ross, this is what makes Mahogany truly reprehensible. The film gives us a Black heroine who MAKES IT, regardless of the hardships, and ships her back home to be barefoot and pregnant behind some activist who'll probably lose his damn campaign. I know people were too busy swooning over the romance, but that doesn't make the message disappear.

Despite having chemistry with Williams, Miss Ross' performance shits on the promise she showed in Lady Sings the Blues. At times, she out Joan Crawfords Faye Dunaway, which would be a lot of fun if the film weren't so poorly done. Gordy doesn't know how to direct traffic--
literally--nor is he any good with actors or transitions. The Wiz put the final nail in her acting coffin, and she's been pretty much off the screen ever since. This is rather sad, because despite my ribbing, I always thought she had talent. She was quite good in Lady Sings the Blues, another problematic romance, except this one is saved by the leads, and she's fantastic in a little seen TV movie where she played a schizophrenic. And even though I dislike the Supremes, I love quite a bit of her solo stuff, including the Oscar nominated song that graces this film, a song that the writers basically had to threaten Oscar with a lawsuit before it could be eligible for its nomination.

However, I'm not blind (I'm only half-blind) so I can't excuse the mess this movie is. But I can understand the love for it. Like I said, it shows a successful Black woman, and how many movies in the early 70's had that? If the movie had ended with Billy Dee coming to be by her side in Rome, or a more explicit depiction of her continuing to have a career while coming back to Chicago, I'd be more forgiving. The fact the movie robs her of success really irritates me. Granted, her fashions were nightmares, but there's no accounting for good taste. She hustled those folks and made them buy her shit. I have to respect that on some level. What I can't respect is this movie.

Your homework assignment:

Don't tell Miss Ross where I live.

"I'ma get you Odie! Do you know where you're going to? The hospital, bitch!"

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Soul Train Conspiracy Theory

By Odienator

Have you seen this man?

If you're a Black person in my generation or older, you can bet your last money that you know who the man in that picture is. He's Don Cornelius, the former host of Soul Train, the show he created and guided to groundbreaking success in the early 70's. Soul Train, the longest running show in syndication, is still on today, but Don Cornelius is not. The familiar cartoon train is still there, but Don Cornelius is not. You still hear his unmistakable smooth voice at the beginning of the show, but since 1993, he's been missing in action. Even on the Soul Train awards and Lady of Soul Awards, we hear Don Cornelius but we don't see him. So I'm asking today: Where is Don Cornelius? Since I like starting trouble, I have a couple of conspiracy theories.

After Cornelius gave up hosting duties, Soul Train got numerous guest hosts, including Shemar Moore. Moore is no Don Cornelius. He tries so hard to be hip and cool that at times it was rather embarrassing. I know my sister is going to cut me for saying that, so don't tell her about this article. In addition to having a lesser series of hosts, Soul Train is also having bootleg problems. According to the Soul Train website, Black people (and y'all know who y'all are) have been selling bootleg Soul Train DVD's on the street, probably in front of the Beacon Theater in NYC. I can see it now...

Bootlegger: Yo! Look a bruva out! I got Soul Train DVD's and copies of Meet The Browns!
Lady with Weave(TM): Meet the Browns? That ain't even out yet!
Bootlegger: This is why I'm hot! I got stuff Tyler Perry didn't even write yet already on bootleg! You know you want it. Buy that Soul Train DVD!
Lady with Weave(TM): Aw'ight. (Pulling $5 out of her bra.)

(Suddenly...)

Disembodied Voice: THE SOOOOOUUUUUUL TRAIN!!!
Bootlegger: What the hell was that?
Lady with Weave(TM): (Looks into camera and screams) Holy Shee-it!

(Cut to a TV screen)

Brenda Blackmon: Tonight on My Ghetto Nine News, a street vendor was run over today by dancing cartoon train...

Before Soul Train, dance shows on TV were like The Corny Collins Show. Black performers could come on and sing, but the dancers shaking their groove things in the audience were always White. One of the funniest clips I've ever seen is one of James Brown singing "Say It Loud" on some show (it may have been American Bandstand). The Godfather of Soul called "Say It Loud" and the dancing audience responded "I'm Black and I'm Proud!" The entire audience was White.

Don Cornelius changed that. He created a show and put dancing minorities on it. He even showcased them on the famous "Soul Train Line" where people would dance down the center of a group of people standing off to opposite sides. Cornelius was like a Black Ed Sullivan, putting talent on and then talking to them afterward. Like Ed, he seemed to have mobility problems. But no matter, Don Cornelius was smooth. With his weird microphone, his glasses and his 'Fro, he would step on the stage (which back in the day was shaped like a train) and talk to the people who just lip-synched their hit on the show. Soul Train was always lip-synched, and it still is today. Keyshia Cole was on recently, and the record skipped. They ran the episode anyway! That wouldn't have happened if Don Cornelius was hosting.

Soul Train started out in only six cities, but Cornelius marketed the show, making deals and getting it to more markets where Black kids like me, starved for dance moves we could do in public, could enjoy it. We would get in front of the TV and dance along with the dancers the camera passed as records played in the background or live people sang...while their records played in the background. It was like a huge House Party, brought to us by Afro Sheen, Ultra Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics. And at the end of every episode, Cornelius would tell us we could "betcha last money" that the show would be on again. He'd end the episode by saying "Peace!" and the audience (and us at home) would yell "and SOUUUUL!"

Rosie Perez started out as a dancer on Soul Train. I remember her being on there, but I remember even more fondly the hot Asian chick that used to do the same move every episode. That move was so famous she showed up in a Prince video doing it years later. The dancers were always in style, dressed in the latest gear and hair, from Afro Puffs to jHeri curls. People danced alone or in couples, and the show would have weird, funky iris-ins and iris-outs as it switched from dancer to dancer. The camera would be at angles, sideways and occasionally under some woman's skirt. It was a trippy show, but this was the 70's.

The dancers did more than just dance too. One lucky couple would get to do a contest called the Soul Train Scramble Board. It was a magnetic board with scrambled up Fisher Price letters on it. The letters were to be unscrambled to spell the name of a celebrity, singer or group. This contest was clearly designed for people with a public school education; the puzzles were ridiculously easy. The answer would be something like "Bill Cosby," "Joe Tex," or "ODB." After they solved the puzzle they would dance in front of the board. Just once, I hoped for something like "Parliment Funkadelic" or "Disco Tex and the Sex-o-lettes." I could see the people trying to unscramble those letters for about 2 minutes before smoke started coming out of the guy's dreds and the woman's extensions.

As aforementioned, Soul Train is still on, in more markets than ever, and is still produced by Don Cornelius. But where is he? My brain fills with conspiracies. Is he a disembodied head floating around in a vat of Afro Sheen, doing voiceovers for his creations? Can he no longer appear in public because he got vitilego and turned whiter than Michael Jackson? Is he in jail? Does he know that Mr. Jones killed Billy Paul and can't tell anybody?

I've been giving out homework assignments most days here at Big Media Vandalism. Finally, I'ma give y'all something I can use:

Your Homework Assignment:

Find out what happened to Don Cornelius.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

They Said You Was Hung. They Was Right.

By Odienator


Mel Brooks once said his films "rise below vulgarity." Witness Blazing Saddles, a film so politically incorrect it should come with a surgeon general's warning for the easily offended. The film is full of racist language, Black jokes, Jewish jokes, gay slurs, religious blasphemy and cruelty to both animals and old ladies. There are at least three jokes about rape, two jokes about improper use of cattle (one of which I've already counted in the rape jokes) , and one joke about implied masturbation between a cowboy and his bathing boss.


I've a rule about comedy which states that nothing is offensive to me so long as it's funny. Luckily, Saddles is hilarious, but every joke is a powderkeg of potential offense. Nothing is sacred in its skewering of the Old West, and I know every perverted line of dialogue in this film by heart. I try not to work in absolutes, but Blazing Saddles is easily the funniest movie I have ever seen.

When I saw Blazing Saddles in the theater, I remember seeing a sign on the doors of the General Cinemas Hudson Mall in Jersey City. It read, "Please be aware that Blazing Saddles contains material that may be considered offensive to some viewers. The management is not responsible for its content." It was as if the R-rating wasn't fair warning for sensitive viewers. I can't tell you how many people were offended by the film, but I'm sure it's plenty. As Steve Martin once said, "comedy is not pretty." I can tell you that, in 1974, I was too young to understand any of the jokes in this movie...except one. And it was a smelly, groundbreaking doozy, too.

With Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks began his career of spoofing movie genres. (The Producers is too original to truly be classified a spoof.) What made Brooks so adept at this during the '70's was his willingness to toy with the boundaries of genre characteristics. By taking the familiar and adding a clever spin to it, he managed to create parodies that stuck to the rules of the genre while poking fun at it. Blazing Saddles is definitely a Western, with scenes around a campfire, gun battle showdowns and a sheriff who wants to clean up the proverbial one horse town. Except this time, the good guy wears black. Or more accurately, he is Black.


Blazing Saddles began as a story by Andrew Bergman about a racist town in the Old West dealing with its new sheriff, Black Bart. Black Bart lived up to his name in the most obvious way possible, which doesn't sit well with the citizens. Bergman's Tex X was then fleshed out to feature length by no fewer than five writers, including Bergman, the director Mel Brooks, and comedian Richard Pryor. With such geniuses of tasteless hilarity stirring the pot, they're bound to cook up something naughty.

And naughty it is. Saddles is chock full of lines that couldn't be repeated in a family newspaper when it was released. There are also more uses of racial slurs than any movie this side of Quentin Tarantino's oeuvre. Every bad word you can think of is uttered, except the granddaddy of them all. There are F-words in Blazing Saddles but not one occurrence of the one of which you're thinking. If it were made today, it would probably be PG-13, but then again, there is no way this movie could have been made today.

In order to make a great parody, the movie needs to function as a credible example of what it is parodying. With its widescreen cinematography, gorgeous images of open spaces and obviously fake art direction, Saddles looks like an old fashioned color Western. It is even edited to feel at times like we're watching one, a feat that earned John Howard and Danforth Green an Oscar nomination. Most importantly, the story is straight from the genre, even if it's a mishmash of stories.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a town is overrun with bad guys who want to make the townsfolks' lives miserable. Then, on the horizon, a hero appears. There's a new sheriff in town, and he's going to get rid of the thugs and clean things up. Now add the forward progress of the railroad, some corrupt politicians, and an old drunk who used to be the fastest gun in the West. Toss in Marlene Dietrich, some Indians and some musical numbers, and you've pretty much got every single cliche in the Western playbook. You could make one hell of a Western out of that. Blazing Saddles chooses to make mincemeat instead.

Saddles takes place in Rock Ridge, a fictional town where everybody's last name is Johnson. This includes Howard Johnson, whose ice cream store has just one flavor, and whose outhouse has a strangely familiar orange roof. Rock Ridge is an ideal place to live; its location is another matter. In order to be completed, the railroad needs to run through the land on which Rock Ridge stands. When the film opens, we see a historically accurate representation of railroad workers, former slaves and unfortunate men from China. My ethnic studies class taught me that they had a saying about Asians working on the railroad: "He hasn't a Chinaman's chance." The first scene in Blazing Saddles shows a Chinese guy passing out from the heat. The insensitive Lyle (Burton Gilliam) says "dock that chink a day's pay for nappin' on the job." I'm sure, in 1874, the Chinese were looked at with as much disdain (and as much racial slurring) as Black people, to whom Lyle turns to next.

"How about a good nigger work song," he asks them. The Black railroad workers get together, and one is expecting some kind of Negro spiritual. Instead, the workers, led by Bart (Cleavon Little) sing Cole Porter. Never mind that the Porter song they sing had been written 60 years later. Blazing Saddles' tagline is "never give a saga an even break," but its theme is never judge a book by its cover. Especially if it's a Black cover.

Lyle and his White counterparts are completely confused by "I Get A Kick Out of You." "What the hell is that shit?!" asks Lyle. "I mean a REAL song, like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot!" The Black guys don't know that one. "Well, how about The Camptown Ladies?" he asks. They don't know that one either.

"The Camptown Ladies?" asks Bart.

"De Camptown Lay-dees sing dis song! Doo-dah! Doo-dah!" sings Lyle

It turns into a production number, broken up by the big boss, Taggart (western legend Slim Pickens). Taggart yells "what in the wide wide world of sports is a-goin' on here?!" He chastises his men for "prancing around like a buncha Kansas City faggots!" It's at this moment you realize that, despite being full of potentially offensive racial and gender humor, Blazing Saddles is out to depict the practitioners of hate in a manner as ridiculous as their beliefs and practices. Lyle and company look hilarious out there dancing and singing, and Taggart evoking a 1974 TV show in 1874 gives the hint that the film is tipping its hat toward commenting on the attitudes of that year.

For all its comedy, Saddles stays rooted in realism when depicting the prejudices of the time. When there's a rumor that quicksand may be ahead of the track they are laying, Lyle offers to send some horses down to investigate. Taggart hits him in the head. "We can't afford to lose any horses, you dummy!" he bellows. "Send over a coupla niggers." Black men are worth less than horses, but it's far far worse than that. When Lyle sends Bart and his main man Charlie (Charles McGregor) down to investigate, they ride their hand cart directly into the quicksand. (Before that, Bart says "Sir, he specifically requested two niggers. To tell a family secret, my grandmother was Dutch." Lyle sends him anyway. You know what they say: One drop of Black blood...) When Taggart and Lyle come to the rescue, Lyle lassos and pulls out the one thing that's important to them: the hand cart.

"They're going to let us die!" cries Charlie. Bart tells him not to panic, and they both make it out of danger. After they crawl to safety, Taggart tosses them a shovel. "Don't just lay there gettin' a suntan," says Taggart. "Ain't gonna do you no good no how. Here take that shovel and put it to some good use." Bart takes his advice.

"Send a wire to the main office"

"And tell them that I said"

"OWWWWWW"

Taggart seeks the help of Attorney General Hedy Lamarr ("that's HEDLEY," says the actor who portrays him, Harvey Korman). First, he needs permission to destroy the town of Rock Ridge so that the railroad can run through it, thereby avoiding the quicksand. Second, he wants Lamarr to hang "that uppity nigger that went and hit me over the head with a shovel." Lamarr agrees, and also approves the means to get rid of the citizens of Rock Ridge. "We'll run a number 6 on them," says Taggart cheerfully. "We'll make Rock Ridge feel like a chicken that got caught in a tractor's nuts!"

The people of Rock Ridge are roughed up and abused. But the folks in Rock Ridge aren't deterred. They wire the incompetent Governor William J. LePetomane (Mel Brooks) for a sheriff to help them fight the outlaws. Lamarr sees this as an advantage. His logic: send the citizens of Rock Ridge a sheriff who so offends them that they voluntarily leave town.

Bart is about to be hanged when Lamarr gets a brilliant idea. "Don't worry," says the one-eyed executioner to Bart "Everyone is equal in my eye." Lamarr prevents the execution and brings Bart to his boss. LePetomane is busy engaging in the kind of stuff Bill Clinton was doing in his government office when they arrive. "Who's this," asks an irritated and blue-balled Governor. "It's the new sheriff of Rock Ridge," replies Lamarr. LePetomane means to pull Lamarr to the side. Instead he pulls Bart by accident.

"Are you nuts? Can't you see this man is a nig--oh, sorry. Wrong person!"

Lamarr convinces LePetomane that this is what will immortalize him in the history books. He hired the first Black sheriff. "He won't last a day," says the Gov. Lamarr tells him that it doesn't matter. The duo sends Bart to Rock Ridge where the townsfolks are certainly not tolerant of other races. They'll get so fed up, Lamarr thinks, that they'll leave town. Since the Rock Ridgers are about as tolerant of Blacks as David Duke, the plan seems foolproof. It isn't.

Once the plot is in motion, Brooks and company go into comedic overdrive. Blazing Saddles gives us the has-been gunslinger legend out to prove himself (Gene Wilder), Indian ambushes, and a German chanteuse eerily reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich (Madeline Kahn). Never mind that the legend has superpowers of speed, the Indians speak Yiddish and Dietrich sings about how exhausted a certain body part of hers is.

First, the gunslinger. After Sheriff Bart evades being shot by the citizens of Rock Ridge, he meets the one prisoner in his jail. The prisoner's named Jim, and he's very confused to see a Black man with a sheriff's star. But the two quickly bond. "What do you like to do?" asks Bart. "I dunno," says Jim. "Play chess. (great comic pause) Screw." "Let's play chess," says Bart.

Over the chess board, Jim tells Bart his story. He was once known as The Waco Kid, the fastest gunslinger in the West. But as word of his legend spread, everyone wanted to fight him. "I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille," says Jim. But after an unfortunate accident, Jim has crawled into a bottle of whiskey and hasn't come out since.

Jim is Blazing Saddles' Sidekick Negro, though unlike any of his Black counterparts, he is actually given a side story and a chance to grow. Jim even accepts his Sidekick Negro role. He mentions to Bart that he got a letter "addressed to the Deputy Spade." However, instead of teaching our hero Soul(TM), Jim warns him about what he's facing as the one spot on the dalmatian that is Rock Ridge. Bart, who until this point has been using stereotype to keep the citizens from shooting him, tells Jim "once you establish yourself, they got to accept you." After partaking in some of Snoop Dogg's favorite lung filler, Bart leaves. He encounters an old lady. "Mornin' ma'am, and isn't it a lovely mornin'?" he pleasantly asks. "Up yours, nigger!" she tells him.

On the DVD documentary, Mel Brooks says in order for Bart's success to resonate, the old lady has to break his heart. And she does too. The next shot is of Bart looking dejected and Jim trying to soothe his wounded ego. Gene Wilder, an underrated comedian in my opinion, delivers his lines with some of the best comic timing I've ever heard.

"What did you expect? Welcome sonny? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You've gotta remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know..." (long pause)

"...Morons!"

As soon as Jim's speech is finished, they hear a huge rumble. The townspeople outside know what it is before they do, and they freak out. It's Mongo, a huge, simple-minded thug sent by Hedy Lamarr to finish off Bart and terrorize the town. The town has seen Mongo before, and they're all terrified. He did in the last sheriff. Mongo (played by George Papadopoulis himself, Alex Karras) is so bad he rides into town on a yak. When an officer complains about where Mongo parked his yak. Mongo punches out the officer's horse.

Suddenly, the town that wouldn't accept the suave urbanite Bart is now begging him for help. "How do you like that?" he asks Deputy Spade. "Now they want help!" But Bart goes out and vanquishes Mongo using the device he invented, the CandyGram. "The bitch was inventing the Candygram," Bart tells Jim, "and they probably won't give me credit for it." Soon after, the old lady who insulted him earlier brings him a pie. "Sorry about the Up Yours, Nigger," she says as she gives him the pie. She thanks him for capturing Mongo, and then she cautions "you will have the good taste not to mention that I spoke to you?"

"I'm fast becoming an underground success," Bart says. "Maybe in 25 years you'll be able to shake their hands in broad daylight," says Jim.

You would think Richard Pryor wrote a lot of the Black jokes in this movie, but Brooks says that Pryor was fascinated with the character of Mongo, creating him, his dialogue and his scenes with Bart. If this holds true, then Pryor wrote my favorite line in this movie. The duo question Mongo about why Hedley Lamarr would be interested in a podunk town like Rock Ridge. Mongo has a newfound respect for Sheriff Bart--"Sheriff Bart only man whip Mongo, Mongo impressed!"--and he wants to be on Bart's team. "Dunno," says Mongo, "got to do with where choo-choo go." When Bart asks why Hedley would care, Mongo doesn't know. Then, as earnestly as he can, former football player Karras milks his closeup and delivers my favorite line:

"Mongo only pawn in game of life."

Continuing to follow the Western cliches, Brooks and company next introduce the Dietrich clone Lily von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn, another who died too young--she's fantastic in her Oscar nominated role here), the latest of Lamarr's attempts to bring down the sheriff of Rock Ridge. von Shtupp is hot, has great legs, and sings a song about how much sex she's had. So much, in fact, that according to her hilarious song, "I'm Tired," "everything below the waist is KAPUT!" She manages to un-kaput below the waist to seduce Bart. The scene plays like a "once you go Black, you never go back," endorsement, but there's something missing from it. After the famous "it's twue, it's twue" comment, the script originally had Bart say "I hate to disappoint you ma'am, but you're sucking on my arm." Warners put their foot down, saying the line was way too dirty. Unfortunately, it remained cut. One line that didn't get cut, and that I didn't get until recently, is my title.

She says schnitzengruben. We know what she's thinking...

With both Mongo and Lily on Sheriff Bart's side, Hedley Lamarr has to take matters in his own hands. He recruits a bunch of the most notorious criminals in the West to invade Rock Ridge and make it feel like a coop of chickens caught in a fleet of tractors' nuts. Jim and Bart go out to the recruitment station. Jim uses yet another stereotype ("hey, where are the White women at?") to con a pair of Klansmen into following them behind a rock. After the Klan is klobbered, Jim and Bart get recruited by Hedley and company. There's just one problem. One of the Klansmen reveals their dark brown hands.

"I told you to wash between weekly cross burnin's," says Jim as he rubs Bart's hands. "See, it's coming off."

Our heroes get away, and they hatch a plan using the bruvas and the Chinese from the railroad to help the Rock Ridge crew save their town in exchange for some land to farm. Racial togetherness in 1874 wasn't as possible as it was in 1974, but it's a message Blazing Saddles gives the audience in its own way. "We'll give some land to the niggers and the chinks," says one of the Johnsons, "but we DON'T WANT THE IRISH!" (Aside: this is one of the only explicit verbal White jokes in the film. I wonder if Pryor wrote this line.) When everyone complains, Johnson says "aw, horseshit! Everybody."

By the film's climax, Blazing Saddles certainly runs out of ideas. Not ideas in general, just ideas for spoofing Westerns. So, Brooks executes a ridiculous, daring gag wherein the film suddenly spirals so far out of control that it bursts its seams. I don't know how he manages to pull it off, but he does, and it elevates the film to an even higher status of insane comedy. As the citizens of Rock Ridge fight for their right to homestead, Brooks' camera pulls back to reveal that we're on a movie set. He then leaves the movie altogether, taking us to a gay musical. And by gay, I don't mean happy. It's all singing, all dancing, all Chelsea. The production number is called "The French Mistake," and someday, someone will explain to me exactly what the French Mistake is.

Blazing Saddles overflows into this other movie, out into the studio commissary and eventually to Mann's Chinese Theater. Hedley Lamarr breaks into the real world and tells a taxi cab driver to "drive me off this picture." But like Bart, he's trapped in the Saddles universe and subjected to the genre convention of a showdown between hero and villain. I won't tell you who wins, but someone gets shot in the schnitzengruben.

My favorite shot in the movie is a throwaway Gene Wilder one where, after returning to the movie proper after being in the audience at Mann's, he appears holding a bucket of movie theater popcorn in 1874. It's the perfect symbol of how Blazing Saddles uses its setting and timeframe to make comments on the time it was released. We're in 1874, but a lot of the same stupid shit we're laughing about onscreen is actually still happening in 1974 AND 2008. When Hedley complains to Governor LePetomane about being called Hedy Lamarr, the Gov says "this is 1874. You can sue HER." In a case of life imitating art, Hedy Lamarr sued Brooks and Warners. According to the DVD doc, Brooks convinced Warners to pay her.

The character of Bart is important to note in Black History Mumf because of how he handles things in the White-dominated world he inhabits. My uncle used to say, when he came home from the office, that he was "taking off my face for the White man." I didn't know what that meant as a teenager, but after spending 21 years in the workforce, I've learned the hard way what it means. Bart sometimes used the beliefs of less enlightened people to his advantage in order to get things done. I've learned that sometimes you have to do this, to play along while behind the scenes formulating your attack. I don't mean sacrifice your principles or shuck and jive, I mean just don't let on just how smart and with it you really are, until the moment it serves you best to reveal it. It sounds crazy, but it has to be done sometimes. I've learned this not just from my own experiences but from the numerous women, related to me and not, Black and not, who have told me about their own experiences with this. It's nice to use people's ignorance against them, and it's what makes the offensive material in Blazing Saddles go down so easily and so hilariously.

A few interesting notes about Saddles:

This was supposed to be Pryor's first collaboration with Gene Wilder, but Warners wouldn't insure him. Pryor remained a writer on the script and shared the WGA award with his four other co-writers, Brooks, Bergman, Norman Steinberg and Alan Uger. Cleavon Little gives a great performance and is perfectly cast. Nobody would have believed that Richard Pryor wouldn't have scared Rock Ridge's people half to death when he showed up.

Columbia Pictures passed on this. They objected to the farting scene, which marked the first time people farted in a mainstream movie. Columbia also passed on MASH four years earlier, because, according to Peter Biskind's book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the management said "people don't say fuck in Columbia Pictures." Three years later, Columbia would release one of the most profane movies ever made, The Last Detail.

Mel Brooks received an Oscar nomination for the title song, which is absurdly sung dead seriously by Frankie Laine. "He doesn't realize it's a joke," one exec told Brooks. "That's why it's perfectly sung," Brooks told him.

Your homework assignment:

Excuse me while I whip this out.


Extra credit: What band leader is in the picture above?

Note: this incorporates and massively expands material I wrote back in 1998 in my Blazing Saddles review. Wait a second--it's mine, so I can do what I want with it! Why the hell am I telling you this?

CAN'T YOU SEE ODIE'S SICK!!!

Make Yours a Happy Home

By Odienator


Claudine was originally conceived as a vehicle for Diana Sands, but the onset of cancer prohibited her from playing the part. Instead, Sands suggested Diahann Carroll take the role alongside James Earl Jones. Carroll doesn't seem like the obvious choice; despite her role as a nurse on the groundbreaking sitcom Julia, Carroll was more known for glamor and glitz. Claudine has no such items within its frames. It's the story of a welfare mother with six kids who finds love with a smelly old garbage man. In the sea of blaxploitation Claudine found itself released into back in 1974, the film stood out. It's the kind of working class romantic comedy you rarely find populated with Black people, yet it's been well-calibrated for that situation by screenwriters Tina and Lester Pine.

Sands must have seen something in Carroll to make her suggest that she take the role, and what I think she saw was herself. Stripped of her glamor, Carroll is wholly convincing as the title character. Yet, Sands' ghost haunts every frame of Claudine, manifesting itself in Carroll's performance. It's in the way Claudine looks at her kids and her man, the delivery of a well timed putdown of a fool she won't suffer gladly, and the complete uninhibitedness of the performance. It feels and looks lived in, something that Sands knew how to convey. This isn't an imitation; it's an appropriation. There's a shot in the film where I looked at Carroll and saw Diana Sands staring back at me.


One can only fantasize about the movie made with the original casting, but the one that got made is still pretty damn good.

Claudine is the kind of movie that makes me happy, one that takes a premise that could easily have traveled the low road and, through character development and a good story, elevates it above expectations. This could have been a sassy, caricatured movie about a woman on welfare and her bad ass kids. But the filmmakers find the drama underneath it and they treat it with respect. We know very little about Claudine in the beginning. She's on welfare but she's also working as a domestic. As the film opens, she's taking an MTA bus to her job. Accompanying her every day is her group of fellow domestics. They joke about Claudine's lack of a sex life and their employers' lack of common sense.

The sole highlight of Claudine's work day is seeing the local garbage man, Rupert (James Earl Jones). Rupert, or Roop as he calls himself, is a fresh one. He makes comments to Claudine about how fine she looks, then asks her out on a date. Claudine declines, but Roop wears her down. He also reads her like a book. "Are you on the welfare?" he suddenly asks her. Claudine is offended, and declines his date offer a minute before she chases down his truck and changes her mind.

Back at the house, Claudine's kids are making the usual racket. Her eldest son, Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) is getting involved in a Black movement targeted by the police. As the eldest, he's the most cynical about both his life and his mother's. When Roop shows up to pick up Claudine for her date, Charles looks at him with a been-there-done-that disdain. He's seen other men take his mother out, with the same end result: they leave. Sometimes, they leave kids behind when they go.

Claudine's second eldest, Charlene (Tamu) is just growing into her womanhood and is completely confused by it. Charlene is at odds with her mother, as all daughters of that age would be, but Claudine can see Charlene's future and doesn't like that it mirrors her past. Charlene's boyfriend, Teddy, I mean Abdullah (he's changed his name in one of those 70's "I'm turning Muslim in name only" phases) has been teaching her "how to socialize and hold her liquor. " When Charlene comes home drunk, Claudine pokes her in the stomach and asks "Is Abdullah teaching you about biology?" She knows that if Charlene is not careful, she could end up a teenage mother like Claudine did. This isn't explicitly stated, but Claudine gives her age in a throwaway piece of dialogue, and you can do the math.

Even though there's dissension in the house, Claudine's kids still love her and see her as a symbol of comfort. After Abdullah's drinking lesson ("I've had only one!" exclaims Charlene) turns into a crash course on vomiting, Charlene climbs into bed with her mother, who cradles her in a motherly embrace. The other two daughters join her, and they all curl up in bed together. "Pull the covers up on you," Claudine tells the youngest one at the foot of the bed. It's a small moment, but it highlights how the little details of reality are woven into the movie.

The lack of a father figure, and the multiple marriages and relationships that promise, then revoke, the possibility of a permanent dad, have a far greater effect on Claudine's four younger children. Late in the film, her two youngest sons take a heartbreaking ride through the streets of New York on a bicycle, shot mostly from their point of view by director John Berry and cin-togger Gayne Rescher. The sense of urgency conveyed by the camera depicts the feelings of the boys as they dangerously peddle alongside cars, one boy dangling perilously on the handlebars. After they reach their destination, and find it deserted, the two boys return home with the sting of being fooled again by someone into whom they put their faith.

Long before Little Miss Sunshine, Claudine dealt with a kid who just stops talking and writes things down. Roop has a bittersweet conversation with Claudine's youngest son. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" asks Roop. "Invisible," he replies as he hides under Claudine's table. This is the kid I identified with in the film; when I was his age, I had my own traumatic reasons for wanting to disappear, and I'm sure I wasn't alone in my hood. Sometimes it felt that was the only way I was going to get out--by becoming invisible. The kid starts using a pad to communicate, culminating in a punchline that is as funny as it is poignant.

Since Claudine is on welfare, we get a glimpse of her life when the welfare worker comes to visit. The children have to hide items that can be deducted, and Claudine also has to hide her relationship with Roop. The scenes are funny and frustrating, and Carroll delivers some excellent zingers to the patronizing welfare worker. Later, when Roop is discovered, he has to go to the welfare office and declare himself if he wants to continue his relationship with Claudine. In some of the reviews I've read, like this one, this entire plotline is described as problematic or phony. It is obvious these reviewers have never been on welfare in the 70's. The scenes in the welfare office, where Roxie Roker tells a 200-lb man that, if he loses his job and wants to continue seeing his woman, he has to go on welfare, are absurd. "I have to go on welfare?!" asks Roop incredulously. "You have to go on the welfare!" says Helen Willis. These scenes make Claudine the perfect double feature with Vondie Curtis-Hall's Tupac starrer, Gridlock'd, another film about bureaucratic bullshit.

I'm making Claudine sound like a brutal downer, which it is not. It is a blatantly romantic comedy set in a place you don't normally see this sort of picture. When Roop shows up for his first date with Claudine, he shows up in his convertible with his hat and his "evening attire." He may be a garbage man during the day, but he doesn't have to look like one at night. When Claudine's bathroom has been taken up by her kids, Roop offers her the use of his facilities. He promises her a fancy dinner, which Charlene accurately pegs as incorrect: "it's still gonna wind up being chicken," she says. As they leave, Charlene says "don't come back pregnant!" Claudine goes with Roop to his place, which looks accurate for his means. "We have a better class of roaches and rats here," Roop informs her. As if on cue, a better class of rodent shows up. Roop throws one of his humongous boots at it.

Roop runs Claudine a bubble bath using Joy dish detergent, then tries to assist Claudine in getting her dress off. "Maybe, when I get to know you better," she playfully tells him before slapping his hands and sending him out of the bathroom. (As a nice, realistic art direction note, Jones' character has those hanging beads in one of his doorways.) While he sets a trap for his ritzy rodent, Claudine relaxes in the tub. The look on Carroll's face implies that it's been a while since Claudine has had some time for herself. In Crooklyn, Alfre Woodard complains that she can't do anything without three or four kids "hanging from my tits!" It's many a mother's complaint. As poor Roop waits outside the bathroom, Claudine gets a tad too comfortable in her Calgon moment.

Claudine and Roop begin their romance, and it feels genuine in both its triumphs and its problems. Carroll and Jones have excellent chemistry together, and Jones has that twinkle of mischief in his eye and that devilish grin. He's not leading man handsome, but it's easy to fall in love with him in this picture. Claudine grants them a dignity that fed audiences starved for the kind of romance they had in their hood. I saw this movie in 1976 on a double feature with Bill Cosby's hospital tragicomedy Mother, Jugs and Speed, and I can attest that there were few, if any, Black romantic movies out there at the time. It was all Superfly and Trouble Man and Foxy Brown.

The romance at Claudine's center is handled sensitively and realistically. The actors dive fearlessly into their love scenes and, though Claudine is rated PG, there's a fair amount of nudity in it. This is the old school PG, the one that allowed Jason Robards to say "fuck" 8 times in All The President's Men. Both Jones and Carroll show some things off, and in Jones' case, he's naked with a capital N. I can't recall a movie where an actor so realistically portrayed nudity. After the lovin', Jones is just laying around stark naked, like any other guy who just got laid. Both he and Carroll take a natural approach to these scenes, and it's refreshing despite the trauma of seeing Darth Vader damn near full frontal. I had completely forgotten Carroll gave us a peek in this movie. You won't. (Aside: I actually had a picture here of Ms. Carroll's goodies. I decided to remove it in order to force you go rent this movie. I'm so evil.)

During their first night together, Roop and Claudine discuss each others' lives. It's a lively scene that has an arc to it; you can see the pair falling for each other even as their dialogue takes on an edge. Claudine accuses Roop of thinking she's "one of those Black bitches" who has kids and gets on welfare for the hell of it. Roop accuses her of thinking he's "one of those niggers" who makes kids and doesn't see them. (He is, actually. Roop is terrified of commitment to kids, which is going to be a problem dating a woman with 6 of them.) That line of dialogue from Jones comes back full circle in a late scene in the film where he talks openly and honestly to Claudine's kids, relating to them in a manner that best suits each one. It's a quiet moment nicely handled by Jones, who can really act when required.

Carroll can act too, and this film got her a much deserved Oscar nomination. Just like Roop, an earlier line in the screenplay comes back to get Claudine. Charlene, she of the "don't come back pregnant" advice, comes back pregnant. Her Abdullah lessons in biology have resulted in a major failure of birth control. Claudine reacts the way I expected her. She whips Charlene's ass. That reviewer I cited above--he had problems with that too. I can guarantee you that if I came home pregnant, my Mom would have whipped my ass, and I know plenty of ghetto Moms who did just that to their kids. (Of course, if I came home pregnant, I'd have some serious explaining to do, as I don't have a punany. But I digress.) After Claudine loses it and regains composure, she and Charlene have a serious heart to heart. When Charlene cites that all Black men aren't bad, and then lists "good Black men like Frederick Douglass," Claudine retorts "it's too damn bad you didn't get knocked up by Frederick Douglass."

Curtis Mayfield's best post-Superfly score plays like a Greek chorus under this film. Gladys Knight and the Pips sing most of it, and I'm especially partial to the song that plays over the final scene in the film (and from which I took the title of this piece). Roop and Claudine end up together, and during their wedding, Charles barges in on the run from the police. Thanks to Charles' protest rally, the entire family winds up being arrested. The closing credits play over them riding off, and then being released by the cops. The family that gets arrested together stays together, and in a Black movie, a two parent family is a wonderful thing that we don't see often enough.

Your homework assignment:

Don't come home pregnant.

Were you expecting R. Kelly?