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There’s a scene in 1989’s The Mighty Quinn that I looked forward to revisiting when I sat down to write this piece. It occurs an hour into the film, just after the best scene in the picture. Police chief Xavier Quinn (Denzel Washington) steps into a noisy Caribbean island bar. His appearance alone silences all the rowdy patrons, who stop slamming dominoes to see what the Chief is there to do. Chief Quinn walks to a closed piano, opens it, and then Denzel Washington, an actor not known for outlandish expressions of joy onscreen, plays a raucous blues number by Taj Mahal. Washington sings it as well, and the fun he has is infectious. The late director Carl Schenkel keeps his camera on this transformed man, and I wish the scene had run longer. We rarely get to see Washington’s easy-going side, especially in a film where he plays a cop. You would think a musical number in a murder mystery would be odd, but only if you hadn’t been listening to the dialogue.
The Mighty Quinn uses dialogue to convey more than the movie visually depicts, and attention must be paid. Sensing the short amount of time The Mighty Quinn has to deliver its story, screenwriter Hampton Fancher, adapting A.H.Z. Carr’s Finding Maubee, puts important details about the characters and the mystery in the sing-songy cadences of the actors. Much can be gleaned from a throwaway line like the one Quinn’s estranged wife Lola (Sheryl Lee Ralph) tosses off about her husband giving up the piano. She later says that he’s changed himself in order to sit at the table with the politicians and power brokers who oversee the island. “But they’ll never invite you,” she scolds, “because you’re not one of them.” Whenever the Maubee of Carr’s book title is mentioned, we feel that his reputation is legendary to the locals. He’s a womanizer who has never worked a day in his life, and at The Mighty Quinn’s beginning, he’s wanted for murder. “Maubee is a lover, not a killer,” says Lola to Quinn, and it’s an eerily prescient line.
The governor is a former poultry farmer on the island, and the only one to speak ill of Maubee. His primary objective seems to be to keep the rich White folks happy on his island, regardless of the cost or how much justice his decisions obstruct. One such rich White person, Mr. Elgin, played by sinister Brit character actor, James Fox, is leaning on the governor to stop Chief Quinn’s murder investigation of one of his hotel patrons. Chief Quinn defies Elgin’s request to send the decapitated body found in a hotel Jacuzzi directly to an airplane to be flown back to the mainland. Quinn instead sends the body to the hospital for an autopsy. This infuriates the governor, who wants to know why Quinn defied the island’s biggest benefactor. After all, Maubee’s been placed at the murder site by his famous little black book, which he left in the room. When Quinn mentions he’s without a motive, The governor provides him one:
“His whole life long, that little nigger watches the laughing rich,” says the governor, “and finally, his poor impoverished heart screams murder. How about that?’
Quinn keeps getting in Elgin’s hair, and Elgin’s sense of rich entitlement doesn’t take too kindly to being disrespected by this uppity Negro. Quinn interviews Elgin’s wife, played by a sexy Mimi Rogers. Elgin interrupts, but not before Quinn charms a little information out of her. After Quinn steps away, Elgin turns on his wife like a dog. When pressed by her husband, Mrs. Elgin tells him she gave Chief Quinn “comfortable answers to uncomfortable questions.” Elgin then refers to his spouse’s history of being down with the swirl. “If I’d waited another minute before I came in here, would I have found you two on the floor?” he asks her. Rogers responds by slapping him, a move that is reciprocated. “You try not to lose control of yourself until this is over,” he warns. Rogers lets it slide, for now. Elgin makes one more attempt to intimidate Quinn, to no avail.
The murder victim is a bigshot from a company called Paeter Industriies. The governor sends the body to the airport, but Quinn has his mortician sneak in and do an autopsy. Keye Luke, sans his Gremlins hair and beard, makes the most of his dialogue and his scenes. Schenkel gives him a memorable entrance, as our blurred point of view is pulled into focus by a pair of Luke's oncoming glasses. Luke also provides a major key to the mystery later, tying it into Lola’s “lover, not a killer” line uttered over an hour prior. The autopsy really pisses off the governor, whose motives are now made clearer. He’s worried about the island’s economy.
“Remember what happened before?” he asks Quinn.
“Yes, but that was ten years ago,” protests Quinn.
“And the island hasn’t recovered since,”
“But you can’t compare 12 White men shot by a Black extremist with an automatic weapon to this!”
“Yes I can,” says the governor, “and so will every asshole tourist who won’t get off the big white boat in the next ten years…if you don’t find Maubee fast, you’re going to be shoveled out of your office faster than dogshit!” He then introduces Quinn to a representative from Paeter Industries, Mr. Miller, “here to tie up some loose ends.” We know something underhanded is afoot, as the rep is played by the great character actor, M. Emmet Walsh, whose presence in a film rarely amounts to anything good happening to those around him. “You don’t think this Maubee character did it, do you?” asks Miller. Quinn’s answer is noncommittal.
Miller follows Quinn to the local witch, Ubu Pearl’s house to talk to her daughter (Tyra Farrell from Boyz N The Hood), who is Maubee’s latest bonk. When the witch refuses to let him in, and he threatens her with arrest, Esther Rolle says “you can’t arrest me. I don’t do nuttin!” When Quinn continues to pursue entry, Ubu Pearl says “I put a curse on you!” Again, this is a line that commands reflection much later in the film. For now, Quinn meets Ubu Pearl’s grandkid, an obviously mixed child. When Quinn starts snooping around, Ubu Pearl lets him find out just how she’s cursed him: he almost gets bitten by her extremely poisonous snakes. Miller watches with amusement.
Maubee isn’t too difficult for his boyhood friend Xavier Quinn to find; he keeps showing up every so often to basically say hello and flaunt his innocence. Robert Townsend plays Maubee as a cocky, ganja-loving slacker who apparently has more than a little mysticism in his aura. Watching this film, you might think Maubee is a Magical Negro stereotype (especially in the film’s last scene) but remember: the Magical Negro NEVER helps himself or other Black people. He only helps White folks. Whatever magic Maubee is pulling out of his ass is purely for his own benefit. Maubee also seems to have magically created the American $10,000 bill, as a witness tells Quinn that Maubee was flashing them around. “But there is no such TING as a ten TOUsand dolla bill,” says Quinn. Oh, but there is, and the government demands that if you find one, you give it to the Treasury department. Money had been stolen from Paeter’s room, and if it were in $10,000 bill denominations, that means Paeter industries, and its representative Miller, have something to do with the Feds.
A Hispanic gentleman shows up and begins shadowing Quinn. Quinn’s not fooled, and questions the guy. We discover that he’s not only in cahoots with Miller, but the reason Miller shows the sinister side for which the actor playing him is famous. Meanwhile, Quinn, who has had an even bigger falling out with his singer wife (Ralph and some Marley family members cover Bob Marley’s Hurting Inside at their club audition), finds himself invited to the Elgin resort by Mrs. Elgin. Here, Rogers and Washington play out the film’s best scene, a sexy battle of wills. Mrs. Elgin wants Quinn, and Quinn wants Mrs. Elgin. But watch how the actors play this scene. There is genuine heat here, and suspense as to where the scene might lead. Quinn proves he’s as mighty as the film’s title suggests—he resists her advances—but that pent up energy needs to go somewhere, and Washington channels it into the scene that opens this piece.
So this is where you came in. After Quinn sings his number, the club starts to sing the film’s title song. Dylan fans know that The Mighty Quinn originally was the Eskimo he sang about in his 1968 song. The film keeps Dylan’s chorus but turns the song into a reggae rap about Maubee and his best friend, Xavier. When Lola sings it early in the film, it’s almost a taunt to Quinn. She’s mocking him for thinking he can become part of the island’s bigwig circle. After the scene at Mrs. Elgin’s, and Quinn’s return to his piano playing ways, the song plays like a celebration of Quinn’s return to his fellow island dwellers. Even Quinn gets involved with singing it, as if his encounter at the Elgins finally proved to him that he can never belong in that world; his place is here.
Watch Quinn’s flirtation with Lola when he stops her bicycle on the road. He sings a few lines of a song in falsetto to her, mocking her before running his fingers up her arms so quickly she doesn’t have time to protest. Their relationship, and its problems, are revealed throughout the film’s runtime, but this moment says more about the spark that still burns between them than any dialogue could. This scene is also the inverse of Quinn’s scene with Mrs. Elgin—here Lola resists him despite feeling the sparks fly, and she walks away. I sensed a tie between this scene and Quinn’s bar number.
With that symbolism in place, Quinn runs into Maubee, who has stolen the governor’s car. The drunk Quinn handcuffs Maubee, who drives him to a spot overlooking the island. The two reconnect and bond as they used to as kids; in the morning, as expected, Maubee has extricated himself from those handcuffs.
By the time the credits roll, to the tune of reggae posers UB40’s remake of yet another song, the murder mystery has been solved. It’s no spoiler to say that Maubee decapitated Paeter, but it’s way more complicated than that. When all is said and done, Quinn has a touching reconciliation scene with his wife and son, and Ubu Pearl’s cursing of both Quinn and Miller (actually, she threatens to kill him from beyond the grave) reconciles itself nicely. The film’s last scene raises more questions than it answers, but if you’ve been paying attention, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. There’s a scene just like it earlier. In fact, I’ve told you everything you need to know to figure out whodunit and how in this review.
One of the best things about The Mighty Quinn is its mise-en-scene. You’re on that island, surrounded by bright colors and lots of reggae music. It’s like being on vacation with a fine story and finer atmosphere. The film opens with a scream, which we realize is coming from a familiar reggae singer providing backup on a song that asks “guess who’s coming to dinner? Natty dreadlocks!” The music carries the film, as a Greek chorus, as in the Mighty Quinn rehashes, and sometimes as mere ironic observer, as when three blind men cross Quinn’s path while holding a boombox blasting a reggae version of “I’m a Girl Watcher.” Everything sort of just happens to you, and the actors are these characters, from the laid back Maubee to the violent Miller. As Quinn, Washington is excellent. Funny, charming, sexy and looser than he’s ever been since, Washington is The Mighty Quinn’s metronome. He keeps the beat and the other actors, all uniformly good, follow his lead.
(Well folks, that’s it for this year’s Black History Mumf. I have two other pieces in my head, and perhaps they’ll show up as regular entries here at Big Media Vandalism soon. Thanks to everyone who has come out to read and post under the entries. Being on the road most of this year’s Mumf has made it hard to keep up, but I think I’ve said what I wanted to say this year. Peace and Soul! –Odienator)