Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Poitier-Cosby Trilogy: Biggie Smalls Is Da illest

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

After the success of Uptown Saturday Night, Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby reteamed with writer Richard Wesley for a sequel of sorts. The new film didn’t follow the same characters from Uptown, but covered  similar territory. There was action, comedy, and the Cos doing what he does best: trying to improvise his way out of a jam. Poitier directed several of the same actors from the prior feature, and Wesley’s title summed up what went on in 1975 when the film was made. He called it Let’s Do It Again.

Like most sequels, Let’s Do It Again is bigger, louder, raunchier and sillier. The stakes are higher for our heroes, and the plot requires a leap of faith almost too large for something as comedic as this. But cast and crew pull it off, assisted by a Curtis Mayfield score filled with lead vocals from The Staple Singers’ fine as hell lead singer, Mavis Staples. For my money, Let’s Do It Again is the best of the Cosby-Poitier trilogy. The worst of the three, A Piece of the Action, will occupy this space next Saturday.

Director Poitier telegraphs his rowdier intentions during the opening credits. After following his milkman on his deliveries, we meet up with Bill Cosby on the job. The Cos is operating heavy machinery under the influence of booty. Specifically, the booty of the fly honey dip walking around outside.

Poitier’s camera ogles her, seeing her, um, assets through the horny eyes of Cosby’s Billy Foster.

Eventually, booty kills the beast: in an attempt to get attention, the married Foster crashes his forklift.

Back in the locker room, Foster’s co-workers tease him for his lack of self (and forklift) control. To save face, Foster challenges one of them to a fight. Unfortunately for Foster, his nemesis is played by former heavyweight champion and current grill pitchman, George Foreman. Foster sells some serious woof tickets to Foreman, telling him “don’t write a check your behind can’t cash!” Ready to endorse that check, Foreman agrees to battle Foster.

No, George's not looking at a hamburger.

Both men take off their shirts in preparation, and Cosby, with his scrawny chest covered in peasy hair, standing opposite Foreman’s Mack Truck sized body, is a sight gag too delicious to resist. 

 “Don’t throw a punch yet!” implores Foster. “I want to say something to you.”

 Foster does the only logical thing he can to keep from getting his jaw broken like Ken Norton did against Foreman. He surrenders by hugging Foreman.

Outside, Foster meets up with Poitier’s Clyde Williams. Seems Foster has been trying to convince Clyde to partner in a hare-brained scheme. Clyde says no repeatedly before the two visit a city office regarding an extension on their lodge’s relocation. While in the waiting room, Foster interacts with a little girl. With her mother’s blessing, Foster takes the child on his knee and tries to entertain her. We’ve seen this a million times before—the Cos talking to little kids and getting their reactions. Except this time, the little girl pees on Cosby’s leg. That never happened on Kids Say The Darndest Things.

At the lodge, Let’s Do It Again introduces Clyde and Foster’s significant others. It’s Foster’s anniversary, and his gift to Beth Foster (Denise Nicholas) is a trip to New Orleans. Clyde and his wife Dee Dee (Lee Chamberlain) are going to accompany them. “They’re up to something,” Beth tells Dee Dee. She agrees.

What the guys are up to is fixing a fight to generate money to save their lodge. Lodge elder Ossie Davis tells them they have two weeks to come up with the money to break ground for the new lodge. The collection plate has $18,000, but they need $50,000. Foster’s plan is for Clyde to use his Army-learned hypnosis skills to hypnotize the underdog in a prize fight, then bet on the underdog to win big. After hearing Davis’ impassioned pleas, Clyde decides to go along with Foster’s plan. Off to Chocolate City go our heroes and their better halves.

Boxing’s main event is between 40th Street Black and Bootney Farnsworth. Farnsworth is played by J.J. Evans himself, Jimmie Walker. You know how skinny J.J. is, and Let's Do It Again’s earlier juxtaposition of Cosby and Foreman was visual foreshadowing. One look at the size of Farnsworth’s competitor reveals that a punch from 40th Street Black will knock Farnsworth all the way down to 1st Street Black and Blue. Clyde sneaks into Farnsworth’s room and uses a triangle and a spiral on a chain to hypnotize him into thinking he’s incapable of losing a fight. “You are a tiger!” says Clyde. I admit this is a rather hokey plot development, but trust me, just go with it.

Before we can see if Clyde’s whammy is successful, our heroes must find a way to get out of Farnsworth’s hotel room without being seen by the cops or his management. In I’m Gonna Git You  Sucka, Willie and Leroy are constantly told “you can take the window or the stairs” as an exit. Clyde and Foster decide to take the window.

This decision leads to some harrowing fear-of-heights inducing footage, a half nekkid White woman, and proof that, if the sex is good enough, a woman will ignore what is obviously a bearded Black man behind her couch.

Savor it! This is as much skin as you'll get in this picture!

The back of this couch sure feels like Negro!

A man, on the other hand, will pay attention. This guy's oochie-coochie session is interrupted because Clyde and Foster have to climb into that half-nekkid woman’s window to keep from falling to their deaths. The guy puts his hand behind that couch and pulls Foster up by the face. Foster immediately starts trying to talk his way out of it. Cosby will have several more opportunities for this before the end credits, but this one has my favorite payoff. Foster tells the man that he’s the hotel house detective, and he is investigating some kind of room capacity violation. When he asks for the man’s name, the man tells him it’s Rufus. When Foster asks his occupation, Rufus informs him he is the hotel house detective. OOPS!!

I’ll not spoil how they get out of that one.

The next day, Bootney Farnsworth shows up at the scene of so many of his prior ass-whippings in the ring, his practice gym. But this time, Bootney has the Eye of the Tiger.

The sight gags are hilarious, with skinny ass Bootney sending the boxing equipment flying and airing out his sparring partner in less time than it took Tyson to do in Michael Spinks. Seeing that the whammy is working, both Clyde and Foster place bets on Farnsworth at 5-1 with bookies.

Foster goes to see Kansas City Mack, who’s played by J.J. Evans’ father on Good Times, John Amos. Amos appears to be having the time of his life, with his multiple gold teeth and gangster suits. But he’s no match for Cosby’s attire  as New York City gangster Mongo Slade. Foster enters Mack’s restaurant looking like a reject from George Clinton’s mothership. His suit has short pants!  As he places his bet on Farnsworth, Foster has some hilarious problems with a gun and his pants. Kansas City Mack takes his money with a warning: If the bet’s not on the level, Mongo Slade will bear witness to a big Mack attack.

 Julius Harris is Kansas City Mack's Right Hand Man, Bubbletop

Not to be upstaged, our director also shows up in unusual dress to make a bet. Clyde’s bet is with Uptown Saturday Night’s Calvin Lockhart. In Night, Lockhart’s character was named Silky Slim. In this picture, Lockhart’s moniker is well known to many rap fans. Calvin Lockhart is the original Biggie Smalls. Biggie is told he has a visitor who wishes to bet on the fight, and when Biggie lays eyes on his customer, Curtis  Mayfield issues a surprised chord on the soundtrack. Sidney Poitier is standing before us dressed like he’s en route to the Player’s Ball. America’s most distinguished Negro actor is dressed like a pimp!

 "Is Mr. Tibbs gonna hafta choke a bitch?"

"I'm the illest," says Biggie Smalls.
Biggle Smalls takes the same bet Kansas City Mack takes: $10,000 on 5-1 odds for Farnsworth.

Fight night comes and goes, and with it, so does 40th Street Black’s championship belt. Farnsworth KO’s him in the first round. Afterwards, Clyde deprograms him and Farnsworth has no idea what happened. Biggie and Kansas City Mack pay our heroes, they return to Atlanta and the lodge is saved! The End, right?

WRONG! Let’s Do It Again is about 45 minutes old by now. The fight fix catches up to its perpetrators. Based on Farnsworth’s blabbermouth coach, Kansas City Mack realizes he’s been played. “Bootney was in some kind of a trance,” the coach tells him, and though it takes Mack 6 months, he figures out not only what’s happened but where to find Clyde and Foster. Poitier and Cosby’s reaction to seeing Mack at their lodge is worth the price of admission. Under duress provided by a very angry and violent Julius Harris, the duo agree to fix the rematch between Farnsworth and 40th Street Black. Mack believes he can con Biggie Smalls into losing all his money, thereby putting him out of business and saving the New Orleans market from being taken over by Smalls.

Smalls takes the bait. He sees a repeat of Farnsworth’s past post-hypnosis Mike Tyson imitation and decides to not take Wesley Snipes’ Passenger 57 advice about always betting on Black (40th Street or otherwise). But Mack’s plans to have Farnsworth deprogrammed on fight day go spectacularly awry. Once again caught in Farnsworth’s hotel room, Clyde and Foster don’t have a half-nekkid White woman or a window to save them this time. They get cold busted mid-hypnosis. This leads to more Cosby improv, but Farnsworth’s handlers ain’t buying it. “We are from an orphanage,” says Foster. “It has REAL ORPHANS! They wanted us to sing a song to the champ!” As Clyde rings his hypnosis chime, Foster sings a hilariously off-key made up song.

 “Oh champ, we love thee through thick…and THINNNNNNN!

Their asses get thrown in jail!

Since there’s no way Farnsworth can be deprogrammed (a second attempt fails after Farnsworth turns into the Bionic Man, leaping up into trees and outrunning Clyde), Clyde comes up with a different idea: Hypnotize 40th Street Black and let the chips fall where they may. This will require the wives’ help, so the men must come clean. Until this point, both Beth and Dee Dee assumed the lodge money came from investments, not bookies. The plan requires both women to dress up and place $50,000 bets with Mack and Biggie. The outcome of the fight, which we are never told, carries  20-1 odds. One can believe Beth will pull off the ruse—she’s the more bombastic and outgoing of the two. I’d be more worried about Dee Dee. Earlier, the film highlights their differences by having Dee Dee become visibly uncomfortable over Foster and Beth’s randy sex talk. Hearing Cosby talk about putting his hammer deep into his wife’s crevices just screams out FILTH-FLARN-FILTH!

Let’s Do It Again dresses both actresses outrageously before sending them to their bets, but allows Nicholas’ scenes to be more comic and inventive. Chamberlain’s Dee Dee looks characteristically nervous and says little in her scenes. Nicholas is all brass balls in hers, starting trouble with Biggie’s right hand woman (is her name Li’l Kim?!!) and being a general loudmouth. Giving the wives a piece of the action is a good choice by the script, and it pays off big time after the fight.

Speaking of the fight, it occurs, and this is the outcome both Beth and Dee Dee bet on:

This is worth $1 million!

Both Kansas City Mack and Biggie Smalls think they’ve been swindled by the other. Meanwhile, Beth and Dee Dee return to claim a million bucks each from their respective sources. Dee Dee’s goes off without a hitch, but Beth has serious problems getting her dough from Biggie Smalls. She has Smalls call her “boss in Chicago” to prove she’s not in cahoots with Kansas City Mack. Beth gets her money, but not before uttering my favorite line in Let’s Do It Again:

“Will you tell this CHILD to get that gun outta my face before I make her eat it?!!”

Eventually, Mack and Biggie realize they’ve been outsmarted by Clyde and Foster. I don’t have enough space to untangle how this plays out, except to say it involves yet another improv speech by Foster and a very long foot chase featuring Poitier and Cosby leaping rooftops like the athletic men they were in 1975. Again, credibility is stretched, but I am happy to live with Let’s Do It Again’s plot resolution. Cosby’s end credit speech about a fixed fight between Sammy Davis Jr. and Muhammed Ali more than makes up for any “oh come on!” moments that precede it.

Cosby and Poitier’s characters live another day, and make a third movie in this trilogy. Next Saturday, I suffer through that third movie, A Piece of the Action.

 God, I love the 70's!


Steven Boone said...

"We don't know nothin bout no hypnosis!" The Sidney line that eclipses "They call me MR. TIBBS!"

Man, now I think Let's Do it Again might be the best of the three. Quit changing my mind!

odienator said...

This one's my favorite because it Super-sizes what I loved so much in Uptown Saturday Night: The comic action, the smooth criminals, the Cosby Woof tickets. And Sidney's pimp outfit damn near made me choke to death.

Steven Boone said...

Amen. You captured the subtle difference in the feel of these two gloriously unsubtle movies. Despite the fact that they're about the same scale and budget, and, according to IMDb, that both were shot flat rather than 'scope, LDiA seems the more epic film. Poitier really hitting his stride as a director here. The costume design and casting are that much more generous and playful.

I'll just go ahead and announce it to the world right here on your blog: POITIER IS THE GREATEST BLACK DIRECTOR TO EVER WORK IN THE HO'WOOD SYSTEM.

His '70s work is pure, plainspoken entertainment, yes, but, man, the simple fact that these buddy comedies are about "two regular guys," as the trailers for both USN and LDiA remind us, sets them apart from 99% of 'black" films of that era. So many of those other films presented the black everyman as a stone cold killer, pimp or dope pusher. Sid and Cos playing dress-up in such roles, seen through weary 2012 eyes, is the most radical and touching bit of woof-ticket selling I can imagine.

I'm starting to think the most radical thing a black Ho'wood actor could do in the mid-70's was to play a working class American with the same fears, frailties and charms as, say, Ralph Kramden.

Michael A. Gonzales said...

Just discovered your blog today while looking for info about Chester Himes. Love your work...

odienator said...

Mr. Gonzales,

Thanks for stopping by the Mumf. One can never write too much about Himes, and I hope my two Harlem movie adaptation pieces were sufficient. Somebody's doing a remake of Cotton Comes to Harlem; I wish that person had just chosen a book that hadn't been done yet.

I'll have to check out your blog when I get a moment.

odienator said...


Excellent comments! You've given me a lot to think about, which I will channel into our next Black Man Talk(TM). There weren't too many movies with "regular" Black folks in them at the time of Uptown and Again, and I think I've covered the best of the lot here at the Mumf, with Claudine and Sounder as the standouts.

Poitier the director deserves a great amount of credit but he might have to do a steel cage match with this guy for king of the 70's Black directors.