Saturday, February 23, 2013

The American Skin of Nathanial "Cornbread" Hamilton

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)


I saw Cornbread, Earl and Me on a double bill with Cooley High back in 1975. Both films had the common subplot of a promising Black athlete whose prowess was known throughout the neighborhood. Cooley High’s Cochise was a bit of a troublemaker, but was at heart a good kid. The Cornbread in Cornbread, Earl and Me was a straight arrow whose basketball jones knew no bounds. He bounced balls at all hours of the day and night, and was never seen without his b-ball and an orange soda. Both athletes used their skills to obtain scholarships to colleges, a surefire way out of their ‘hood.

And both characters did make it out of their neighborhoods—in body bags. It was a sad day at the Pix Theater in my hometown; we sat through both of these films with tears in our eyes. Cornbread, Earl and Me was especially effective on me, as the “Me” in the title was a 12-year old boy named Wilford Robinson. I identified with him a lot more than the teenage boys who inhabited Cooley High. Over the years, I would see Cornbread and Cooley numerous times, courtesy of WABC’s The 4:30 Movie. My memories of Cooley High were more prominent, though. I thought maybe I found Cooley High more compelling as I got older. But when I sat down to watch Cornbread, Earl and Me for this piece, I was stunned at how well-done and effective It still is. Just as in 1975, Cornbread, Earl and Me made me cry. As a kid, I wept for Cornbread; as an adult, I wept for the events after his death.

Since I covered Laurence Fishburne’s signature role here at the Mumf, it was only a matter of time before I’d get to his debut. 14-year old “Laurence Fishburne III” (as he’s billed here) gives a very good performance as Wilford, a boy who idolizes his "cousin," the neighborhood basketball genius, Nathanial “Cornbread” Hamilton (Keith Wilkes). Wilford and Earl (Tierre Turner) argue about just how good Cornbread is. Their debates reminded me of so many similar arguments I had with the neighborhood kids, disputes about whose hero was better. For example, my cousin preferred Fred Williamson and I favored Jim Brown; we’d bicker over who’d win if Fred and Jim got into a fight. (Take a Hard Ride offers a protracted answer.) Screenwriter Leonard Lamensdorf, adapting Ronald Fair's book, has an ear for these juvenile what-if quandaries, one of which sets in motion the unfortunate events of the last day of Cornbread’s life.

We get to know the neighborhood Wilford, Earl, and Cornbread inhabit. It felt so much like my own. There was a corner store where the kids bought junk food and loitered, run by a kindly older gentleman. Cornbread and his cronies played basketball on a court with a hoopless net. People lived in apartment buildings where they could hear what was going on above them and next to them as clearly as they could hear their own apartment activities. People were on welfare, whether they needed it or not. Fathers and mothers did blue collar jobs. Carnivals came to town. And there seemed to be too many hours in the day for a kid and his buddies, hours spent doing nonsense you looked fondly back upon when the stresses of adult life got to you.

There’s a numbers runner in Cornbread’s town, just like in mine. Here, he’s played by Huggy Bear himself, Antonio Fargas. Fargas has appeared in Black films with trapezoidal Afros, all kinds of pimp attire and fish in his shoes. In Cornbread, Earl  and Me, he’s One-Eye, a half-blind numbers man who  wears eye patches that matches his attire. I’d kill for the pinstriped patch he wears with his pinstriped suit. Fargas also hangs around the corner store, foreshadowing the role he’d play decades later on Everybody Hates Chris.

In both Cornbread, Earl and Me and my old ‘hood there was the neighborhood hero, that kid who had either made it out of the ‘hood and into greatness or was on the cusp of doing so. This kid was well respected, spoken about in almost hushed terms, and a conduit for us to channel our own dreams of success. If he could do it, so could we. You know the deal: Local boy makes good and all that jazz. Cornbread is that local boy, a kid whose basketball prowess leads to offers from several colleges. Cornbread was two weeks away from leaving for his chosen institution of higher learning when he was shot down in the street like a dog.

Lest I forget, in Cornbread’s ‘hood there were the cops. In my neighborhood, they were objects of fear to be avoided at all costs. Cornbread, Earl and Me introduces two cops, one White and one Black, whose partnership causes grief for Cornbread’s family. The Black cop is played by football legend Bernie Casey, who calls the Black citizens he patrols “savages.” As much as Cooley High influenced Boyz N The Hood, the Black cop who torments Cuba Gooding Jr. came straight from Cornbread, Earl and Me. (Boyz also lifts Cornbread’s kiddie star to play Furious Styles.) Casey has a scene where he spouts the same language that cop says to Gooding. Casey’s opinion has been shaped both by his growing up in the neighborhood he patrols and by the criminals he constantly busts. While chasing an attempted murderer with his partner, Casey loses sight of the perpetrator. When Cornbread crosses their path, running home in the rain, Casey and his partner mistake him for their criminal. Both police officers fire on Cornbread, shooting him in the back.

There are witnesses. Mr. Fred, the store owner, One-Eye,  Earl and Wilford. Cornbread was running to settle an argument between the two kids. Wilford runs to Cornbread’s bloody body, screaming “they killed Cornbread!” over and over. Neighbors come out of their houses, and when they realize the straight arrow kid with so much promise is no more, they riot. Wilford’s mother, Mrs. Robinson (Rosalind Cash) breaks down at the news while dragging Wilford away from the carnage. The entire scene plays out in the rain, and it’s chaotic, heartbreaking and harrowing. Casey bears the brunt of the violence, requiring stitches, a neck brace and a corset for his ribs. He’s clueless as to why the citizens attacked him and his partner. He swears they have the right guy.

Cornbread’s parents visit a lawyer to see if they can sue the city. Their lawyer (Moses Gunn) tells them that the city already has image problems, and that they’ll do anything to prevent any further degradation of that image. Gunn advises against it, but Mrs. Hamilton presses on with the case. Played by the wonderful Madge Sinclair, Mrs. Hamilton is a beacon of dignity even in the most trying situations. She demands to pay Gunn (she uses the cash from Cornbread’s plane ticket) and later, when the court charges her $27 so that an inquiry against the cops can be filed, she pays it despite the judge informing her that she can waive it. Mrs. Hamilton knows what she’s viewed as by the outside world, and refuses to conform to that image.

The rest of Cornbread, Earl and Me deals with the court case and how it affects Wilford. Mrs. Robinson tries to take his mind off what he saw, but Wilford can only think of and speak about Cornbread. The cops lie about what happened, and the city is so adamant to shut this case down and convict the deceased that it sends thuggish cops out to intimidate the witnesses. After Mrs. Robinson is beaten by a cop when Wilford won’t change his story, Wilford feels as if his refusal to lie has caused his family and friends more trouble than Cornbread’s murder.

Once the inquest begins, all Gunn’s victims suddenly develop amnesia, even Earl. These courtroom scenes are powerful, with Sinclair and her onscreen husband Stack Pierce lashing out at neighborhood witness who lie under oath because of police pressure. When it’s Wilford’s turn to take the stand, Mrs. Robinson tells Wilford to be a man today, and to do what he feels is right, regardless of the repercussions. “If you do,” she says, ”you’ll be a man for the rest of your natural life.”

Whether Wilford becomes a man or he folds like the rest of the scared neighborhood I’ll leave for you to discover. What I’d like to address is what got to me about Cornbread, Earl and Me. Cornbread’s fate says you can get straight-A’s, never commit a crime, mentor kids at an afternoon program, and have a vice as tame as constantly playing basketball and you can still get shot down in the same manner as the worst criminal in your neighborhood. And it’s all because of where you live and what you  look like. Rather than admit a mistake, the city will cover it up and blame you, assault and destroy your character, so they can close a case. You may think this is bullshit, but you can also read stories about how a wallet got someone killed, or how “fitting the description” gets many people killed. Or how being in the wrong place at the wrong time can earn you a city-owned bullet in your brown head for no reason. You can also read about the outcomes of all those cases. 

Cornbread Hamilton got killed for living in his American skin. The cops in this film mistook him for the perpetrator, yet rather than admit to this accidental shooting, they try to justify it, smearing an innocent man in the process. They say Cornbread was a gang member who had “just never been caught.” Meanwhile, the real perpetrator gets away scot free. It was just so tragic for the victims of the attempted murderer and the cops. I found myself weeping during the court scenes because they rang of a truth I knew but somehow wasn’t disillusioned by when I was growing up. As I’ve said here before, I was the smart kid who had a shot to attempt success. I ran the street just as much as any other kid, but I stayed out of trouble. (I’d rather be shot than have my mother come bail me out of jail. For starters, she’d have shot me after she did.) The cops assumed I was up to no good numerous times, which is absurd if you’ve ever seen pictures of me as a teenager. A strong wind would have knocked me over. And yet, I could have been shot down like Cornbread regardless of my intelligence or my disposition or my squeaky-clean image. I knew people who were.

Perception is everything, and it’s not just the cities that have image problems. Cornbread, Earl and Me reminded me that their inhabitants do as well.

These things are always in the back of my mind, a sort of survivor’s guilt that I’ll never shake. Cornbread, Earl and Me brought it back to the forefront. I don’t know if it’s because of what I brought to it, or the fine work by the actors involved, but this film held up as one of the better dramas from the Blaxploitation age.

2 comments:

Steven Boone said...

Just finished seeing "Cornbread" in full for the first time, on the Bounce channel, then came back to your essay. However heavy-handed the movie's writing and music cues* occasionally get, the direction of performances across the board is f-ing intense and hyperreal.

When James Baldwin wrote about police terrorism, this is the kind of hell he was describing. But I love how much sweetness, innocence and hope there is throughout. That last freeze frame is who we "good" black kids were back then, looking to the light.

*The music itself (by Donald Byrd) is fine, but sometimes it rides over volatile dialogue scenes that don't need the juice (a la 50's melodrama and early Spike Lee).

odienator said...

It's a powerful movie, heartbreaking in so many ways. The saddest thing about it is that little has changed. We're still judged by what we look like and the prejudices of our observers.

I'm going to delve into this a bit more when I dust off my unfinished piece on the Central Park Five documentary. Expect it in a little bit.

Madge Sinclair is heartbreaking here, as is Li'l Furious Styles. I would love to read the book this is based on, to see if it has a more cynical ending.

I am especially grateful for the film showing the Bernie Casey character, and Casey's bravery for playing it.