Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Dream Deferred, But Not For Long

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
-Langton Hughes, Harlem

That’s the way the crackas crumble!
-Ruth Younger, A Raisin in the Sun



Lorrraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway on March 11, 1959. The opening marked the first time a play by a Black woman was presented on the Great White Way. It was also the first Broadway play directed by a Black man, Lloyd Richards. And it contained the line listed above: “That’s the way the crackas crumble!” Ruth Younger utters the line after the play’s sole White character is thrown out of her home by husband, Walter Lee Younger. The man, Karl Lindner, has come to dissuade the Youngers, a Black family, from moving into his neighborhood. When Lena, the family matriarch and the purchaser of the property in Lindner’s neighborhood comes home, she is told of Lindner’s visit. Lena is shocked, but she approves of her family’s decision to stand firm. Ruth’s “crumble” crack is the coda to Walter’s explanation to his mother.

When I read A Raisin in the Sun in high school, that line was one of the things that fascinated me. I wondered how it played in 1959. Clearly, it is a swipe by an oppressed people at their oppressor—one delivered as clever, politically incorrect wordplay. Since Raisin attracted Black audiences to Broadway for perhaps the first time, I thought about their response. I’m surprised Hansberry got away with it on Broadway, and even more surprised that it made it into the movie version as well. But if Eugene O’Neill could use “nigger” more times than Tarantino AND Dr. Dre in The Emperor Jones, Hansberry could use "crackas" once. Turnabout is fair play.

Years after I read the play and saw the 1961 screen adaptation by Daniel Petrie and Hansberry, I got an answer to my question on audience response. I saw the Tony-winning revival of A Raisin in The Sun. Hansberry’s dis was met with a roar of laughter by my predominantly Black audience. The entire scene is masterfully constructed, because the humorous interaction of the family’s response to what seems like the play’s big crisis gives way to its actual crisis. The funny banter between the Youngers, who laugh so they may not cry at the racist visit by Lindner, quickly morphs into the play’s most powerful dramatic sequence. My audience was stunned, and Phylicia Rashad’s performance as Lena Younger in this scene made her the first Black actress to win the Lead Actress Tony Award for a Play. I will never forget her tortured howl for strength.

A Raisin in the Sun comes by this devastating sequence honestly. Hansberry creates several memorable female characters, but she saves an extra dollop of love and compassion for her male lead, Walter Lee Younger. The character embarks on a journey through a myriad of emotions — anger, joy, regret, resentment and passion—and he is a testament to the thespian powers of the actor who originated the role both onscreen and on stage, Sidney Poitier.  In the Broadway revival I saw, Walter Lee was played by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, much to the snickering of snooty critics. While he was no Sidney, I was fine with Diddy’s performance. Walter Lee, as written, is far too strong a character to be dismantled by lesser actors than Poitier. Hansberry loaded him so that no one could bring a B-game to playing Walter Lee. Diddy brought his A-game here, even if he was outshone by Rashad.

Lena and her son are the two main characters of A Raisin in the Sun, and both represent the generation to which they were born. Like her familial role, Lena rules over the play with a watchful eye toward her charges, but Hansberry nicely balances the importance of Walter Lee and Lena with Raisin’s opening event. Lena Younger’s husband has died, and she is soon to be the recipient of a $10,000 insurance policy. The irony of benefitting from the death of a man who broke his back laboring to support his family is not lost on them nor us. When the check comes, Walter Lee holds it up with awe. “Is it the right number of zeroes?” Lena asks Walter’s little boy, Travis. He tells her it is. $10,000 is a lot of money in 1959, more money than the Younger clan has ever seen at once.

Walter Lee sees the money as a way for him to get out of his limo driving job and into a small business. Walter Lee and his street-smart pal, Willy, plan to open a liquor store on the South side of Chicago where the Youngers live. His wife, Ruth is happy with the means they get by on, but Walter views money as the only way to respect and a better life.

Lena’s Baptist roots (I’m assuming she’s Baptist) leans her strongly against alcohol, so Walter Lee’s business idea is not on her radar. Instead, Lena wants to do two things to help her family: put money aside for daughter Beneatha’s college education, and to move everyone into a nicer place of residence. Lena has chosen Karl Lindner’s neighborhood not because it’s lily-White, but because it’s not only nicer than the Black neighborhood, it’s also CHEAPER. When Walter Lee hounds his Mama for the money, he tells her “money is life.” Hansberry’s dialogue outlines that generational difference between mother and son:

Mama: Oh—So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change . . .

Walter: No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.

Mama: No . . . something has changed. You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched . . . You ain’t satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don’t have to ride to work on the back of nobody’s streetcar—You my children—but how different we done become.

You my children, but how different we done become” is a great line with such meaning. I could hear my own mother saying it to me, and her mother to her. Both Claudia McNeil, who originated the role and plays it onscreen, and Phylicia Rashad in the revival work this dialogue to maximum effect.  Lena isn’t speaking just for Walter’s money lust, she’s also speaking for Beneatha’s rejection of the religion that sustained generations of slaves and segregated peoples, for better or worse. There’s pie in the sky when you die, and contrary to Beneatha’s claims of atheism, God DOES exist in one place in this universe. And it isn’t Heaven. Lena threatens Beneatha with incredible violence for her blasphemy, forcing her to say “in my mother’s house, there is God.”

Beneatha is another of Hansberry’s fine creations. As originated by the late, great Diana Sands onstage (and in Petrie’s film), Beneatha is young, idealistic, and influenced by two men at polar opposites. There’s George, a wealthy, assimilated man who looks down on his heritage, and Asagai, a doctor from Nigeria who is a silver-tongued purveyor of African pride. Walter Lee interacts with both of them as well, seeming in his drunkenness to be more interested in George’s ideas. Asagai provides Beneatha with the same thesis statement Lena tries to wallop Walter Lee with: Money isn’t everything.

It’s a statement the younger Youngers will learn the hard way. After seeing how much Walter Lee’s dream of his own business means to him, Lena gives him the rest of the insurance money. She has already put forth the downpayment (a smart move). Of the remaining money, she asks Walter Lee to save $3,000 for Beneatha’s education and to use the rest as he sees fit. Walter Lee disobeys his Mama, giving all the money to his partner Willy, violating the cardinal rule that you should NEVER trust a man named Willy with your money. (Ed. Note: Odie would know this. His first name is Willie, folks.) Willy runs off with the money, taking with it both Walter Lee and Beneatha’s dreams.

We find this out right after the entire “crackas crumble” sequence. It packs a punch. See for yourself.

Now penniless, Walter Lee considers a deal with the Devil. He calls Lindner to see just how much he can get to keep his cullud behind out of the area. Lindner and his neighbors can pony up an absurd amount, more than the few thousand dollars Willy has absconded with, but Walter Lee is selling his Mama’s dream up the river in favor of his own. Hansberry puts special importance on the new house, not just because home ownership is one of the cornerstones of the American dream, but also because of the real-life case her family went through in order to live in a neighborhood not unlike Karl Lindner’s. Walter Lee’s attempt at a buyout is both perfectly understandable and heartbreakingly wrong.


“You my children, but how different we done become.”

Hansberry ties all her characters to the play’s themes, but she uses Ruth Younger in one of the more controversial aspects of A Raisin in the Sun. When Ruth discovers she’s pregnant, and remembers that she and Walter Lee barely make enough to feed Travis, she disappears from the play for a moment. When she returns, she mentions something about going to see “that lady doctor downtown,” code for the ghetto version of Vera Drake. Ruth hasn’t gone through with the procedure, but she gives it serious consideration. Lena is horrified by this, as her generation and/or her religiosity wouldn’t allow her to consider this option. Again, the generational gap is revealed.

“You my children, but how different we done become.”

All versions of A Raisin in the Sun end triumphantly, with Walter Lee coming to his senses, and the family moving into their new home. Walter tells Lindner:

"[W]e have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick. We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that’s all we got to say about that. We don’t want your money."

I haven’t given out a homework assignment during the entire Mumf this year, so here’s one for you. Seek out the 1961 version of this film, and watch it. The entire thing’s on YouTube, so you won’t have to go far. There’s a TV version of the Diddy/Phylicia Rashad revival, as well as an earlier TV version with Danny Glover and Esther “Damn! Damn! Damn!” Rolle.  But those are only for extra credit. Petrie’s version is the closest one can get to seeing the original production, as it brings the entire cast to the screen. This is Poitier’s finest hour as an actor, and I am certain that the reason he won that Oscar for dealing with those nuns in Lilies of the Field was because Oscar knew it owed him for this.

Ruby Dee is excellent as Ruth, as is Diana Sands’ Beneatha. But Claudia McNeil matches Poitier note for note and word for word. One film critic, whom I’ll not name, made incredibly racist comments about her, even going so far as to say she was a man in drag. Don’t buy into that nonsense. McNeil’s matriarch is incredibly strong, and some of her speeches have a forceful power that found a counterpart in Rashad’s rendering. This is the strength of great writing, which is also why Hansberry’s play still endures today.

(As an aside: A Raisin in the Sun was made into a musical as well, called Raisin. While the original play received Tony nods for Best Play, McNeil, Poitier and Richards, it went home empty handed. The revival won for Best Actress and Best Featured Actress, Audra McDonald's Ruth Younger. I put the 1961 version of the film at #33 on my Top 50 Mumf Sight and Sound List.)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Happy Oscar Day: Bond at the Mumf

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

Happy Oscar Day!

The Mumf Oscar piece has been bad luck in the past. I wrote about Ruby Dee, and she lost. I wrote about Taraji P. Henson, and she lost. This year, neither nominated Negro has a shot in Hell to win the Oscar, so I won’t feel bad if I mention Hushpuppy or Lushpuppy during the course of this piece. What I had hoped for was a nomination for Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen from Django Unchained. I even had a piece in mind for today had that happened. Unfortunately, Oscar had other ideas, opting for five prior winners in the supporting actor category. Time for Plan B!

When I heard of the numerous musical numbers at this year’s Oscars, I prayed that Allan Carr’s ghost had possessed Debbie Allen, forcing her to wrest control of the Oscars and craft some of the most garish, AWESOME numbers in the history of the show. Alas, my prayers weren’t completely answered. God instead sent me Shirley Bassey, the theatrical diva goddess with the voice that blew out a thousand speakers. Goodness knows I love me some Shirley Bassey, so much so that I was the only one in the theater who laughed at that Shrek 2 joke about “meeting by the bush that looks like Shirley Bassey.”

Bassey is part of the tribute to 50 years of James Bond, as well she should be. She sang three Bond themes, Diamonds are Forever, Moonraker, and the king of Bond themes, GOLD-FIIING-GAAAH (duh-duh-duh-duh-duhhhh). One theme that Bassey could have improved greatly is the frontrunner for this year’s best song, Adele’s Skyfall. My Facebook friends and Twitter followers know how much I dislike Adele’s song; it’s a snoozy, dreary bore. The opening credits, which show Bond drowning, were PERFECT for this song.  Out of the four Oscar nominated Bond songs, it’s the least imaginative and the safest, which is why it’ll win. And I like Adele, so spare me your hate mail. (Even if I didn’t like her, I’d still tell you to Argo Fuck Yourself.) I just don’t like this song at all.

Goldfinger, the standard for Bond songs, didn’t get a nomination. The first song to secure a nod was Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die. The other three songs are Skyfall, For Your Eyes Only, and the Marvin Hamlisch-Carly Simon collaboration, Nobody Does It Better. Three of these four songs came from the Roger Moore period. I’ve always said every generation gets the Bond it deserves, and mine got Roger Moore. I won’t kick him like most people will—he was the first Bond I knew, and I’m probably more forgiving than I should be about his movies. With that said, I must admit that the first Bond movie I saw is perfect fodder for mockery at Big Media Vandalism.

Live and Let Die was Roger Moore’s first outing as Bond, and considering how laughably bad it is, it should have been his last. Moore himself isn’t bad, it’s the absurd Negro paranoia surrounding him that gives me the giggles. There’s voodoo and possessed people doing the Pop-n-Lock on an island! Every Black person seems to not only know each other, but are also in cahoots with the villain. The story takes place in Harlem, New Orleans and a fictitious island that’s supposed to be Jamaica, chocolate places just dying for Bond to bring some cream into the coffee.

Live and Let Die was Ian Fleming’s second Bond novel, and having read it, I think the writer of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang should have called Live and Let Die “Coony Coony Buck Buck.” There’s more fear of minorities in both versions of Live and Let Die to fuel a hundred Tea Parties. Of course, you know I love this shit when it’s done right. The book gets it wrong, as does the movie. At least the movie version of Live and Let Die presents us with Yaphet Kotto as the Bond villain, perfect casting because Yaphet Kotto is SCARY. Unfortunately, the film will undermine Kotto’s scariness by casting him in a second role so garishly stereotypical that it makes Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma character look like Miss Jane Pittman.

Kotto first plays Kananga, the corrupt dictator of San Monique, an island in the Caribbean where one of Bond’s fellow agents meets his demise in a pre-credits sequence. Kananga is at the UN when another agent is murdered mere feet from him by one of Kananga’s agents. I love how the camera focuses on the brown hand that performs the execution, as if to say “betcha ain’t seen one of THESE before in a Bond movie!” I loved even more how, after the second agent is murdered, the streets of New Orleans erupt in a dancing frenzy, as if to celebrate the murder of this White man by scary Negro forces.

Kotto’s second role is as Mr. Big, a Harlem gangster who doesn’t remotely look real. He looks like Yaphet Kotto in a bad makeup job. Since Kotto is such a distinctive looking bruva, it’s kind of hard to hide him. I knew Mr. Big was Kananga as soon as I saw him. While Kananga sounds like an educated, power-mad psychopath, Mr. Big sounds like Sapphire from Amos ‘n Andy. He should have been called “Mr. Nig.” On making Live and Let Die, Kotto spoke about how ridiculous and stereotypical he thought the role was, and how he did his best to not look too ridiculous. He didn’t succeed. Mr. Big thankfully has little screen time, but when he’s on, you’ll have tears in your eyes just looking at him.

Roger Moore makes his entrance as Bond in bed with an Italian spy. There’s some amusing comedy as Bond tries to hide this bella from M and Moneypenny. M gives Bond his marching orders, and soon  he’s in Harlem trying to find out why three British agents were murdered. He’s aided by CIA agent Felix Leiter (here played by The Fly’s David Hedison) in America and Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) in San Monique. Hendry predates Halle Berry by decades as the first Black Bond girl; it’s too bad her role consists of veering perilously close to the line of coonery as she reacts in horrified fashion to voodoo symbols like hats and dolls. It’s even how Bond gets her into bed! Rosie Carver is so fucking inept as a traitorous CIA agent that the role becomes an insult for Hendry.

Supposedly the Bond producers wanted to cash in on the Blaxploitation genre with this film. It’s obvious that director Guy Hamilton is no Jack Hill, and even more obvious that the producers hadn’t seen any Blaxploitation. If they had, Hendry would have been badass like Pam Grier. The numerous Black people in cahoots with Kananga/Mr. Big pepper their speech with “honky” and “pimpmobile” but nothing they say sounds remotely realistic. The dialogue sounds like that shit Robert Townsend wrote for “Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge” in Hollywood Shuffle.

Geoffrey Holder, Nasty Nelson to you Boomerang fans, shows up as, I don’t know, Voodoo Alvin Ailey or something. His character, Baron Samedi, is some kind of voodoo priest who works for Kananga and terrifies everyone on San Monique. Holder dances around practically naked, laughs that wonderful laugh of his, and gets the last shot in the film. Your guess is as good as mine as to what that last shot means.

Faring better is Holder’s partner in crime, Julius Harris III as Tee Hee. Tee Hee loves crocodiles and has a metal arm as a result of that love. That metal arm and its claw-like hand are the coolest things in Live and Let Die, cooler than any gadget Q gives Bond. Tee Hee bends Bond’s gun on their first meeting, a visual neutering by a stereotypically more sexual prowess, and gets the last fight sequence with Bond. Harris comes off like a Black version of Richard Kiel’s Jaws, and is far more threatening  than Kananga.

Speaking of Kananga and voodoo, Kananga has a fortune teller named Solitaire who can see the future because she has a magical hymen. Solitaire is played by a sexy Jane Seymour, making her film debut. According to Wikipedia, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz wanted to cast Diana Ross in this part, but the producers opted to keep the character as she is in the book. “Ain’t this a bitch,” I thought while watching Live and Let Die. “Kananga has to go to a White woman for voodoo?!!” Imagine Diana Ross as Solitaire! It would have been awesome, though with Miss Ross’ disposition, she’d probably be better cast as Kananga.

Bond cheats Solitaire into thinking the cards tell her to give up the pudenda, and after screwing Bond she’s rendered powerless. This is the first time in the Bond series that literally happens, but I digress. Live and Let Die turns into a “Save the Helpless, Hot White Lady” narrative. Meanwhile, we finally figure out what Kananga’s evil plan is, and it’s no better than Super Fly’s! He wants to get America hooked on his drug product. The only difference is, Super Fly’s Priest wants to sell his, while Kananga wants to give it all away at first for free. What happened to crazy world domination, with volcanoes and sharks with frickin’ lasers on their heads? (Kananga has sharks, but alas, they’re laser-less.) We get a Black super villain, and his plan is to scare island natives away from his poppy fields via voodoo while impersonating a Harlem gangster to sell his product? He couldn’t even get a salesman to do the Harlem legwork for him?! How bootleg is this shit?!

Aw, fuck it, I’ve had enough of this.  I don’t expect realism in a Bond movie by any stretch, but Live and Let Die just feels offensively lazy. Just having Black villains isn’t enough. Ian Fleming’s novel didn’t realize this, nor did the makers of Live and Let Die. Considering how Daniel Craig’s series treats its Black folks (see Naomie Harris’ insulting demotion in Skyfall), I don’t expect these producers to give me a clever Black anything. Live and Let Die is such a wasted opportunity to be great trashy fun. Mr. Bond, I sigh in disappointment.

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.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

It's A Different World From Where You Come From

by Odienator
(for all Mumf posts, go here)


I know my parents love me
Stand behind me come what may.
I know now that I'm ready
Cuz I finally heard them say
"It's a Different World from where you come from..."
-Theme song, A Different World


Two weeks ago, Nick at Nite aired an unforgettable rerun episode of The Cosby Show. It was not the pilot, nor the anniversary one with Rudy screaming out “Bay-Baaaaay!” with Ray Charles and the Raelettes. It wasn’t even the one where Theo’s shirt became the basis for a later episode of Seinfeld. Nick at Nite ran an episode called “Hillman,” where Cliff, Clair and the Huxtable clan went to the fictional historically Black college to attend its commencement ceremony. It was unforgettable to me because when it first aired back in 1987, I thought it was the most boring half-hour I’d ever spent in front of a TV. Veteran actors Joe Seneca and Gloria Foster appeared as a retiring dean and his successor; both gave boring speeches. Phylicia Rashad and the Hillman choir sang a gorgeous religious song at the end, but it was too little, too late. “Oh God, that was terrible,” my brother said as the credits rolled.

Watching the episode recently, my opinion hadn’t changed. It was like watching paint dry, with commercial breaks between coats.  I was a little wiser than I was in 1987, however. I realized that, though deadly dull, the “Hillman” episode did two things of note.

First, The Cosby Show accurately captured a commencement ceremony. My college graduation was torture to endure. Our commencement address was given by a New Jersey politician who, like most New Jersey politicians, wound up going to jail. I don’t remember a damn thing he said besides “JUST FIVE MORE MINUTES!” He’d say that before rambling on for 20 more minutes. “JUST FIVE MORE MINUTES!” he’d ask. 30 would roll by. I fell asleep, almost strangling myself with the hood part of my cap and gown. People started bouncing beach balls. Someone yelled for the prison-bound politico to shut the fuck up. He responded “JUST FIVE MORE MINUTES!

Second, the “Hillman” episode served as a pilot of sorts for The Cosby Show’s lone spinoff, A Different World. I didn’t realize this back in the day because I thought A Different World was a way of getting Denise off The Cosby Show. That year, Denise’s portrayer, Lisa Bonet, did a piece of filth-flarn-filth called Angel Heart. Rumor had it that the Cos was furious that she made an R-rated blood, guts and sex picture while entertaining children on his show. So he created a vehicle to get her away from the kiddies. It’s a good thing Cosby didn’t produce Sesame Street, because Gordon’s movie choices would have killed him. Hell, Maria was in Death Wish! Sesame Street Bill Cosby would have seen this double feature and given birth to a hoagie sandwich at the movie theater.

Of course, the Denise rumors turned out to be false. Her character returned to The Cosby Show a few years later, bringing Raven-Symone with her. Bonet’s tenure on A Different World lasted one year before she and then husband Lenny Kravitz did some real life filth-flarn-filth of their own. A pregnant Denise wouldn’t be a good idea on any TV show, so Lisa Bonekkid disappeared from TV screens altogether for a while. A Different World lasted 5 more seasons without her, and sandwiched between The Cosby Show and Cheers on NBC’s biggest night of the week, it had very good ratings for most of its tenure.

A Different World has an interesting kinship with Spike Lee’s second feature, School Daze. Both are about historically Black colleges, and many of the faces from School Daze appear as guest stars or cast members of A Different World. World premiered on NBC six months before School Daze hit theaters, but Daze was filmed six months before A Different World’s pilot aired. Both vehicles shared a casting agent, Robi Reed, who placed actors like Jasmine Guy, Darryl M. Bell, Kadeem Hardison and many others in Bill Cosby’s employ. This dispels the widely held belief that School Daze was Lee’s cribbing of the show, though it’s not hard to see why that was considered: Hardison, Bell and Guy played similar characters for Lee and the Cos.

Throughout its six seasons, A Different World gave numerous Black actors and entertainers the chance to guest star or recur on the show. It was a reunion of folks I saw in my childhood movie theaters. Mary Alice appeared in the first two seasons. Glynn Turman traded in his awesome J.D.’s Revenge conk for five seasons in a military haircut. Super Fly star Ron O’Neal and Claudine’s Diahann Carroll played parents of the show’s most memorable character, Whitley Gilbert. Patti Labelle and Harold Sylvester played parents of the show’s second most memorable character, Dwayne Wayne. Gladys Knight played herself. Sinbad was a coach for a few seasons. Tisha Campbell reunited with her School Daze co-stars in an episode about HIV. And Lou Myers, who passed away two days ago at 77, played a sassy, hilarious grumpy old man of a cook. Myers’ Vernon got away with asking Labelle’s character “Did anybody tell you that you look like that singer, Patti Lolabelle?”

A Different World’s first season is an odd one. With a slow theme song sung by Phoebe Snow and co-written by Dawnn Lewis, who played Jaleesa on the show, A Different World played out like a cornier Saved by the Bell. There wasn’t much to make Hillman College feel like Morehouse or Spelman, and absent the tension of siblings and her comical father, Denise was kind of dull. It didn’t help that she was being upstaged both by Marisa Tomei’s ditzy White broad and Jasmine Guy’s Southern belle Scarlett NegrO’Hara, I mean, Whitley Gilbert. Whitley was pretty mean during the first season, serving more as reliable antagonist than fleshed out character. Denise was also not as interesting as Hardison’s Dwayne Wayne, a clueless horndog with flip-up shades who had a thing for her. Dwayne and Whitley were the most memorable characters from the first season, and had Denise stayed, I don’t think A Different World would have lasted as long as it did.

With Denise’s exit, Phylicia Rashad’s sister, Debbie Allen took creative control of the show. She shaped it around Dwayne and Whitley, both together and separately, and made the setting more recognizable as a Black college. Mention was made of step shows, homecoming, history and the different conflicts that were arising on campuses like Morehouse and Allen’s alma mater, Howard. The show even got a remake of the theme song and its opening credits. Gone was the slow, harmonica-laden Phoebe Snow version; in its place was a fast, funky cover by Aretha Franklin. In season 6, that was replaced by a misguided Boys II Men version, but from Season 2 on, the opening credits were presented as a long tracking shot of the characters doing different things as their credits appeared. I can’t recall a more kinetic sitcom opening.

Without Denise, A Different World tackled the controversial, adult topics from which The Cosby Show would have shied away. Taimak, aka Bruce Leroy from The Last Dragon, played a rapist who attacks one of the main characters. Tisha Campbell played a student who reveals she has HIV. Topics like the Gulf War (represented by Blair Underwood as a cadet about to shipped out to war), racism (Lois and Clark's Dean Cain appeared in this episode as a racist football player), apartheid, domestic abuse and even School Daze’s bread-and-butter of light-skinned vs. dark-skinned Blacks were addressed. One of the most memorable—and shocking—episodes for me dealt with Whitley Gilbert’s discovery that her Black ancestors OWNED slaves.

The daily interaction between teachers, students, and alumni made up most of the plots. As the seasons passed, characters advanced and even graduated, while new characters came in as freshmen. In season 5, for example, Dwayne Wayne became a teacher at Hillman and had to rebuff the advances of a freshman named Lena, played by Jada Pinkett Smith. While we followed several characters with different motivations, we always returned to the plotline of Whitey and Dwayne (or “Dwaaaayne” as she called him). They were the show’s on-again, off-again couple. When he was ready, she wasn’t available and vice versa. He went through a relationship with a  Japanese/Black woman named Kinu, and in a nod to School Daze’s "Dean Big Brother ALL-mi-TEE" character, Jasmine Guy hooked up with a dude named Julian. The show dragged this out for multiple seasons, and it became soapy but remained entertaining.

Orbiting around the show’s lovebirds were Jaleesa, who had dating plotlines with both Sinbad and Turman’s Colonel Taylor; Freddie (Cree Summer), an activist with hair that made Hushpuppy look like she had an Ultra Perm; Ronald (Darryl M. Bell), a friend of Dwayne’s, and Kim (Charnele Brown), a dark-skinned medical student who’s afraid of cadavers and does a stint as a singer in one episode. Later seasons added Gina (Ajai Sanders), a woman who becomes a victim of domestic abuse, and the aforementioned Lena, who seemed to exist solely to bring Wilona from Good Times to college.

Unlike The Cosby Show or Cheers, I don’t find myself longing to revisit much of A Different World. This isn’t to say the show wasn’t good. As with School Daze, I appreciated the series bringing me into a world I wished I could have inhabited. I wanted to go to a historically Black college, but fate (and more importantly, my PARENTS) had something to do with my winding up with the Jesuits. I guess I’m not compelled to seek it out when it’s on simply because as I age, the last thing I want to be reminded of is college. It was a time when I was young and hungry, and now that I’m old and falling apart, I envy the kid I once was. That, and I admit the show ran on at least one season too many. But even at its worst, it’s still miles ahead of that damn “Hillman” episode of The Cosby Show.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Jail Without the Bail

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)


Back when I was in the 7th grade, Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary played the State Theater in my hometown. My classmates went to see it, and on the following  Monday, the boys could not stop talking about it. They quoted the R-rated dialogue incessantly, which didn’t go over well with the teacher. The one line that was repeated ad nauseum was “You gotta bring ass to get ass!” Since I wouldn’t see Penitentiary until two years after its release, I had no idea what that meant. In a movie about prison, it couldn’t have been a good reference.

My classmates went back to see Penitentiary several times more, contributing to its top 5 box office standing in 1980. For a time, Penitentiary was one of the top grossing independent movies of all time. It spawned two sequels, one of which had a pre-Rocky III Mr. T in it. It remains Jamaa Fanaka’s most well-known movie, no easy feat considering he directed a movie about people being strangled by a killer Black dick. That movie should stick in one’s mind more than a prison flick.

Penitentiary was made when Jamaa Fanaka was still a student at UCLA. It’s low-budget, and it looks it, but that adds to the subject matter. The prisoners in this film look like they’ve been in jail, from the old boxing trainer Seldom Seen (Floyd Chatman) to the film’s version of The Booty Warrior, Half Dead (Badja Djola from A Rage in Harlem). With about 5 teeth in his mouth, Half Dead looks Fully Dead. The prison is run by the man who owned Porky’s, Chuck Mitchell. Mitchell’s brother-in-law has some kind of boxing for parole program the film doesn’t completely explain. Winning a boxing match could also get a prisoner conjugal visits with their women. “If you don’t have one,” says Warden Porky, “we’ll be happy to provide one for you.” I guess in this case, you gotta bring fists to get ass.

Into this den of supposed reform comes Martell Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy) and Eugene (Thommy Pollard). Both are a tad too cute for this outfit. Gordone, who goes by the name Too Sweet because he is addicted to Mr. Goodbar chocolate candy, was framed by a hooker (the hot Hazel Spears) who murdered a man and left Too Sweet to take the rap. Eugene falls victim to Jesse Amos, his cellmate. Amos calls Eugene “Genie” and treats him as if he were Barbara Eden. Too Sweet winds up bunking with Half Dead. Despite his name, his appearance and his Looking for Mr. Goodbar antics, Too Sweet can’t be tampered with—he’s the star of the movie! Half Dead is unaware of this, which leads to the most memorable scene in Penitentiary. Half Dead and Too Sweet battle it out in their cell, with Too Sweet fighting for his life and his ass. The fight sequence took 3 days to film, and Djola and Kennedy brutally battle it out for what seems like an eternity. It is one of the most desperate fight sequences I’ve seen in a movie.

Most of the other fights in Penitentiary are boxing matches, which pale by comparison to Too Sweet’s bare-knuckle brawl. Everybody seems to get into the ring at one point, and until Too Sweet’s battle at the end, none of the matches have any suspense value. Remember, this is a major part of the film’s plot, this boxing for freedom and sex story, yet it’s not terribly compelling until Too Sweet’s match. Fanaka doesn’t help by intercutting the boxing sequences with a guy having bathroom sex with a prisoner from the women’s prison next door. These scenes feels designed just to get some tits into the picture, though I did like this line uttered by the woman: “You fall out of the ceiling and expect me to drop my drawers?”

Penitentiary touches on items it should have explored more, such as the wrongful incarceration of Black men, prison conditions, and the notion of men as property. Seldom Seen has a monologue that sounds exactly like Morgan Freeman's speech on hope in The Shawshank Redemption, delivered 15 years earlier. A serious discussion of these issues has no place in an exploitation movie like this, however, so we are left to audience-pleasing scenes and dialogue. Again, Penitentiary made a lot of money, most of it coming from ‘hood theaters like the one my classmates and I frequented. I remember really liking the film when I was younger, but In the hard, cold light of a viewing today, I have to say my opinion of it has gone down a few notches. The seams really show now, and Fanaka’s screenplay could use more fleshing out of his themes and characters.

On the DVD commentary, Jamaa Fanaka expresses surprise that Leon Isaac Kennedy never became a star. Kennedy never made it to the mainstream, but for a time, we hoodrats thought he was damn cool.  He was certainly a star to us boys: He was married to sportscaster, actress and former Miss Ohio, Jayne Kennedy, who appeared with him in some of his films. The Kennedys were lusted after by the moviegoers at the State Theater, with the girls constantly saying how great Kennedy’s naked ass was (it was always being shown bouncing up and down between some hot woman’s legs) and the boys drooling over Ms. Kennedy. Truthfully, neither of them could act worth a damn, and their movies were turrible (though there’s a major soft spot in my heart for Jayne’s film, The Muthers). We went to the Kennedys' pictures for the softcore sex and the violence, of which there was thankfully plenty.

The Blaxploitation genre was dead by 1979, but Fanaka and Kennedy breathed some new, though different life into it. The success of Penitentiary led to its first sequel, and Black remakes like Leon and Jane's version of Body And Soul (which is astonishingly bad). Since this and other films like it peppered my early adolescence, I thought I should say a few words about them here at the Mumf. Also, Jamaa Fanaka’s name alone has given me hours of pleasure saying it over the years. The radio announcer on the Penitentiary commercials sounded like he enjoyed saying it too.

By the way, “you gotta bring ass to get ass” is spoken by Eugene to Jesse Amos. The context is exactly what you think it is. You didn’t think I’d leave you hanging.

Monday, February 18, 2013

President's Day Double Feature: Stealing Home With Bingo Long

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

(Editor’s Note: The second feature in our President’s Day Double Feature is also about baseball, except this time it’s a team in the Negro Leagues led by Mr. Colt 45 himself, Billy Dee Williams.)


 

When the major leagues shut out Blacks by segregating teams, Black players went to a league of their own. There was some form of Negro League in existence since the 1800’s, though the first recognized league popped up in 1887, two years before the major leagues went Whites Only. Two of the more well known leagues were the Negro Southern League and the Negro American League, both of which had the privilege of hosting pitcher Satchel Paige. Paige was an incredible ball player and the stuff of legends, pulling stunts like bringing his entire outfield into the infield and striking out all his batters. Paige is the most famous of all Negro Leaguers, though it was his Kansas City Monarchs teammate, Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in 1947. Paige joined the league the next year, pitching for the Cleveland Indians. His age, like Robinson’s baseball jersey number, was 42, making him the oldest pitching rookie in major league baseball history.

It was Paige who said “Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching." He also supposedly coined the word “copasetic,” but I don’t have any proof of that. If so, I’d find that the coolest thing about the man. After all, I’m a writer, not a baseball player. I played football.

In 1996, Delroy Lindo played Paige in the excellent TV movie Soul of the Game, but in 1976, he was the inspiration for Billy Dee Williams’ titular character in The Bingo Long Travelling All Stars & Motor Kings. 1976 must have been the year for unwieldy titles: Lee Marvin’s equally hard to remember The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday also premiered that year. This is why they had big marquees back in the day. You’d run out of space otherwise. At least Bingo Long’s title, based on the book of the same name, has a reason for its longwindedness. There are nine players on a baseball team, and 9 words, including the ampersand, in The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings. Each player on the team has one of the words on his uniform. That doesn’t make it any easier to remember.

Steven Spielberg was supposed to produce this film, but the publicity from Jaws swallowed his schedule whole. Berry Gordy, of Motown fame, stepped in as executive producer and, unlike his production takeover during Mahogany, let the director keep his job. That director, making his feature film debut, was John Badham. Badham’s next picture had 2/3rds less words in it than his debut. That film was called Saturday Night Fever. Before Badham put Travolta on the dance floor, he put three of the biggest Black stars of the 70’s on the baseball diamond. In addition to Billy Dee Williams, Bing Long features James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor. Billy Dee and Richie P. appeared in 3 movies together, two of them period pieces. Bingo Long takes place in the 1930’s.

Jones plays Bingo Long’s partner in crime, fellow teammate Leon Carter. Long and Carter are the pitcher and catcher respectively on a Negro League team owned by The Wiz’s Mean Ole Lion, Ted Ross. Ross is also a mean ole owner, ripping off the players every chance he gets. When Rainbow (DeWayne Jessie), a player on the team is beaned with a career-ending pitch, Ross’s Sally Potter docks the other players’ pay to buy the now mute, brain-damaged Rainbow a ticket back home. While watching Bingo Long, I couldn’t place the actor who played Rainbow, even though I knew I’d seen him somewhere before. I’ll save you the trouble of racking your brain. Follow this link for the answer. Let this also serve as my annual John Landis plug at the Mumf.

Disgusted by both the treatment of the injured Rainbow and their paychecks by Sally, Carter suggests that team members should ditch the Negro League and start their own team. Bingo Long likes the idea. He decides to get a barnstorming team and travel the country looking for pick-up games. Long and Carter call up the best members from all the teams and put together a new team of folks tired of the corrupt owners of their current league. Bingo Long finds them a manager who’ll schedule their games, provided they put on a strutting show for the locals in order to get them to come to the games. They also showboat and show off during the games. This was not uncommon in barnstorming days; in fact, for the last few years of the Negro League, the teams played in a more Harlem Globetrotters-like fashion. Producer Gordy logically injects himself into the movie here, writing the song the team dances to as they march into town. Sung by disco legend Thelma Houston, it contains words you couldn’t use in a 1930’s movie.

One of Long’s new teammates is Charlie Snow (Richard Pryor). Snow has dreams of getting to the majors, but he knows they won’t accept a Black man. So he decides to try to pass for Cuban, rechristening himself Carlos Nevada (why not Carlos Nieve, Rich?) This is the first, and thus far only, film I know where a Negro is attempting to pass for something other than White. Pryor’s Cuban accent is intentionally half-shitty and half-convincing; his idea is totally ridiculous, and when it doesn’t work, he tries to get in as a Mohawk-clad Indian named Chief Takahoma. As usual, Pryor’s role invites both comedy and tragedy, the latter in a gruesome, bloody sequence that’s a bit much for a film as light as this.

Long also finds a country boy named Esquire Joe (Stan Shaw) who is playing for the other team but wants to defect. After seeing Joe’s almost supernatural abilities on the field, Bingo Long hires him. With Esquire Joe, the team is practically unstoppable. People stop going to the regular Negro League games to follow The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings.

When one of the other team owners suggests the league play Bingo Long’s team for money and prestige, Sally doesn’t listens to her because she’s a woman AND is played by his mortal enemy from The Wiz, Mabel King. Ross and King are hilariously mean to each other here, and his hatred of her only grows once he realizes her idea was right. Before he has his moment of clarity, Potter sends two goons to intimidate the now successful Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings. They’re played by Roc’s dad, Carl Gordon and Ken Foree. They’re not above using razors, robbery, fists and torture to strike back at the deserters. Foree in particular is nasty enough to make you hope the zombies will eat him in his next movie, Dawn of the Dead.

The goons work at splitting the team for a while, but this is a sports movie and you know what that means: Big Game at the End! Sally offers Bingo Long a shot at playing his best players. If Sally wins, The All-Stars and Motor Kings disband and come back to work for him at half-pay. If Bingo Long wins, his team becomes part of the league. I don’t have to tell you  how this ends up, but there are a few nice character surprises en route to victory. One of these surprises ties in nicely with the other President’s Day feature I wrote about earlier.

As a sports comedy, Bingo Long is pretty good. It started the small sub-genre of Black-themed sports movies, of which there should be more than there are. The actors are convincing as ball players and the film keeps them in enough trouble to almost justify its 2 hour running time. Bingo Long and his teammates have characteristics of real-life Negro League players like Josh Gibson, Willie Mays and Satchel Paige, which make for nice touches. Jones and Williams have a mischievous chemistry that makes their scenes fun to watch, while Pryor once again employs movie theft in his scenes. This is a good movie to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon when it’s too cold to go outside.

(Aside: If you’re in the NYC area, you can see it at BAM on February 19th, 2013.)

 You know I can't resist my old-school MPAA ratings screens. Bingo Long is rated PG.

President's Day Double Feature: Here's to You, Mr. Robinson

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

(Editor’s Note: Time for the third annual President’s Day Double Feature! Presidents Day consolidated Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday into one all-purpose holiday nobody but the gov’ment gets off.  For the past three years, I’ve done two pieces on this day to honor “the father of our country and a buncha cullud folks named Washington,” and “the Great Emancipator and a literal Log Cabin Republican.” Usually, I take on movies with topics they knew something about: slavery, bureaucracy, and capitalism have all been topics of the Pres Day Double Feature. This year, I chose a topic I thought only Lincoln would know about, but it turns out I may be mistaken.)

Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves* and won an Oscar**, but I wonder if he ever swung a bat in a baseball game. According to Wikipedia, the first game of baseball as we know it was played in Hoboken, NJ in 1846, when Lincoln was 37 years old. The Baseball Hall of Fame, which I have frequented several times, is located in Cooperstown, NY courtesy of the “Abner Doubleday Origin Myth.” Because of that myth, Hoboken got screwed out of bragging rights and the Hall of Fame location, which is probably for the best. There would be no place to park if the Hall were in Hoboken. As it stands, Hoboken has a better shot of being visited by Frank Sinatra*** than the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Washington was long dead by 1846, so he would have known nothing about baseball. Or did he? In 1791, when George was still around, the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts made reference to prohibiting the game of baseball from being played in certain areas. Perhaps this is not the same exact game of baseball that employs Derek Jeter and bans Pete Rose, but it’s possible Washington may have known of the concept of baseball. With such a rich and ever-shifting history, it’s no wonder why baseball is considered “America’s Pastime.”

How does that saying go? “It’s as American as baseball, apple pie and Mom.” If that were truly the case, then baseball would have been played by Blacks and Whites, separate and together. And that WAS the case, at least until 1889 when the game became segregated. I find it fascinating to learn that most sports were not originally segregated until some racist asshole realized they weren't. Football, for example, had Black players and even coaches before its segregation. That’s a topic for another time, one that the NFL hopes will never come for you. Visit the Football Hall of Fame and see if you find anything radical about Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. Yes, that Woody Strode.

At least the Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t afraid to note the separation, in part because the story of how baseball became integrated is well-woven into the fabric of American history and lore. Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, son of Georgia sharecroppers, all around sportsman proficient in multiple disciplines, and former UCLA student-athlete, integrated major league baseball in 1947. Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey brought Robinson up through his farm team in Montreal and into the professional spotlight the same year that Washington and Strode integrated football. All three went to UCLA, making that university at the time the epicenter of Uppity Sports Negroes Who Apparently Didn’t Know Their Place. This might explain why a certain political party thinks California is Gomorrah.

But I digress.


Three years after breaking the color barrier in baseball, Robinson heeded the call of Hollywood to play himself in the movie version of his life. If Babe Ruth could play himself in Pride of the Yankees, why not Robinson? The Jackie Robinson Story was released in 1950, when Robinson was still an active baseball player. While certainly no actor, Robinson acquits himself nicely beside actors like Ruby Dee (who looks stunning as Robinson’s wife) and Minor Watson. He does a far better job than Muhammad Ali did playing himself 27 years later in The Greatest. I’ll pick on Ali’s acting next week, provided you don’t tell him where I live.


The Jackie Robinson Story is something of a whitewash. It has a patriotic, self-serving “we’re a better country now because we did this” vibe that I’ll admit drove me batshit. It leaves out crucial information that would make America itself look bad. For example, it shows Robinson enlisting in the Army and rising to the ranks of second lieutenant, but conveniently leaves out that he was almost court-martialed for objecting to racial discrimination. Whenever something important happens, a familiar patriotic ditty plays on the soundtrack. The narrator at the beginning and the end of the film tells us of the importance of Robinson’s achievement, but it is way too congratulatory to an America that would treat Robinson as an equal on the diamond but nowhere else. Robinson’s presence in The Jackie Robinson Story goes a long way toward tempering the film’s occasional lapses into propaganda.

In its defense, The Jackie Robinson Story does show some of the torment Robinson went through once he turned pro. Minor Watson’s Rickey tells Robinson he wants a player who can take the abuse without fighting back. Robinson agrees to do so, for the greater good. But I wondered how he dealt with it. Robinson’s family was the only Black family in the area in his hometown of Cairo, Georgia, so racial threats and taunts had to become commonplace for him at an early age. But does one ever get used to them? Did the familiarity of the abuse help Robinson cope with Rickey’s request?

As a player, he went through an unimaginable amount of shit. Recreating some of these incidents must have either been business as usual or some form of exorcism/catharsis for Robinson. People threw stuff at him, called him everything but a child of God, and even threatened him after games. And those were the fans! Sportscasters and newspapers wrote derogatory articles. He was held to a higher standard than his White counterparts. (The film does a sideways glance at this by showing some sportscaster comments.) Fellow baseball players, including ones on his own team, didn’t want to play with him despite the fact that he was damn good at the game.

 In one scene, two fans heckle Robinson, using a helpless black cat as a prop. Robinson’s reaction to this felt so realistic I got chills. It was as if he were having flashbacks to this event’s actual occurrence. His anger gives way to concern for the animal. The film holds its gaze on Robinson holding the cat in the dugout, stroking its fur in a display of comfort he wishes someone would bestow upon him. I felt that scene in my core, and it made me so angry. What harm was there in Blacks and Whites playing sports together? I get the whole “don’t marry my daughter” thing, but why sports? What was the fucking purpose?

The filmmakers also give us a Brooklyn Dodgers fan who has “a change of heart.” When we first meet the thick-eyebrowed, dem dese and dose accented guy, he’s watching Robinson play with the Montreal farm team Rickey runs. He strikes up a conversation with some Klan members who plan to intimidate Robinson after the game. The Dodger fan says “I don’t like shines, and I don’t want one playing for my team.” Later, when Robinson is kicking ass and taking names at Ebbets Field, the guy starts cheering for the shine he didn’t want on his team. “Lookit what happened to youse!” says a bespectacled Brooklyn dame sitting next to him. The movie thinks this is progress, but I was reminded of the scene in Do The Right Thing where Mookie asks Pino about Michael Jordan. It’s OK to root for “the good ones” who get your team to the championship, but God forbid if they want to shit in the same public toilet you use!

I don’t want to be too harsh on The Jackie Robinson Story, simply because I’m viewing it from a different place and time than folks in 1950. It’s enjoyable as both a time capsule and a Hollywood biopic. In a way, it has to do what Jackie Robinson did. “Be good to the White folks,” says Purlie Victorious in Ossie Davis’ 1962 play, because, he implies, “they don’t know any better and they need to be taught of our worth.” It couldn’t have been easy, considering the amount of time and abuse it took. This makes me love Robinson even more than I did when I first encountered him, or rather, his statue. More on that in a second.

I did this piece for two reasons:


1. In April, Brian Helgeland’s film, 42, is  being released. Starring Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey and Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, 42 brings Robinson’s story to a new generation of moviegoers. I’d expect Boseman to be a better actor than Robinson, but he will lack the sheer verisimilitude of seeing Robinson play himself. I also hope that the film will do more to show the state of America at the time than director Alfred E. Green could in 1950. I haven’t seen 42 yet, but I can recommend spending 76 minutes with The Jackie Robinson Story to compare and contrast. I am very much looking forward to the new film.

2. Allow me this diversion. When I was a freshman in high school, I went on the first of my school’s annual “Activity Days.” This was a field trip where we all got together to play sports. I’ve mentioned before that I went to what could affectionately be called “the nerd high school” in Jersey City, but as I learned, there are jock nerds and nerd nerds. I was a nerd nerd, but I went to Activity Day anyway. It was held at Jersey City’s famous (and now gone) Roosevelt Stadium. The stadium had been slated for demolition by this time, a perfect coincidence for a public school having a function there. I had been to Roosevelt Stadium many times, but this particular day was the first time I heard mention of Jackie Robinson playing there.

That would have explained the statue of him at the stadium, but c’mon, I was 12 and not very observant. I was told that Roosevelt Stadium was the place where Robinson broke the color barrier for minor league baseball. Later, my own research and reading filled in the details. Robinson was on the Montreal Royals and they played the Jersey City Giants (farm team of Dodger rivals the New York Giants). It was the first time since 1889 that Blacks and Whites played baseball together professionally. This blew my mind because, as a kid, I didn’t think anything famous ever happened in Jersey City. It was constantly mocked in old movies, from Sweet Smell of Success (“me and my Jersey City brains!”) to Footlight Parade.

Plus, I lived in the ‘hood, so the concept of hometown fame was completely foreign to me. Shit happened across the Hudson in New York City, of course, but here? Nothing good happened on my street. At Activity Day in Roosevelt Stadium, all that changed. From that moment on, I became fascinated with Jackie Robinson. I’m glad The Jackie Robinson Story included this part of Robinson’s life in the film. The stadium is gone, but Robinson’s statue is now in front of the PATH terminal in Jersey City. It’s right across the street from where I saw so many movies growing up. For me, that’s the most appropriate place for it to be.



(Footnotes)
* but not in Mississippi until this month!
** Unless sabotage occurs, this will hold true.
*** Frank Sinatra hated Hoboken and vowed he'd never return. Of course, he's dead now, but still.