Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Content of Their Character Actors: Juano Hernandez

By Odienator (click here for all posts)

I knew Juano Hernandez from the small, beautiful and sad role he had in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film, The Pawnbroker. I’d never seen a Black man talking about Voltaire onscreen, nor had I witnessed a man who would pawn his items not in exchange for money, but for a few minutes of human connection. Hernandez has big, expressive eyes, and even as he rambles on, somewhat incoherently at times, the pleading in those eyes stays with you. Unfortunately for Hernandez’s Mr. Smith, he is attempting this exchange with Rod Steiger’s Sol, a Holocaust survivor who has completely shut down emotionally. Sol is incredibly mean to Mr. Smith, and finally, Hernandez addresses him with devastating dialogue. I never forgot this performance; not even Steiger’s brilliant work in the picture could erase it. Pauline Kael wrote, The great old Juano Hernandez, as the man who wants to talk, gives the single most moving performance I saw in 1965.” Kael and I disagreed quite a bit, but she’s on the money here.

I had only read about Intruder In the Dust, the 1949 Clarence Brown film marking the debut of Juano Hernandez, in Donald Bogle’s book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. Bogle writes:

“Hernandez plays his character with skill and insolence. He strode through the film with a haughty arrogance that made him seem like a wise, many-faceted version of Hattie McDaniel.”

Turner Classic Movies ran Intruder in the Dust a few months ago, and I recorded it. As a first, I’m writing about something here at Black History Mumf with which I was not familiar beforehand. I watched the movie for the first time last night.

Running at a short 87 minutes, Intruder is part murder mystery, part coming-of-age story, part slice of Southern life tale, and part lawyer picture. William Faulkner’s book, and the subsequent film adaptation, have some of the same aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird: The pipe-smoking lawyer who takes the important case, the kids who observe, and the Black man who may or may not be wrongfully accused. Both also show a large slice of White Southern life, that is, of the things that concerned citizens in the segregated South. That’s where the similarities end.

I have not read Faulkner’s book, though the movie version has made me invest in a copy. I have read To Kill a Mockingbird, as most of you probably have, and am quite familiar with the film version made in 1962. As a high school junior, I was less than enamored with Harper Lee’s book, finding it too long and meandering. She was telling the side of the story that didn’t interest me. I recall our teacher telling us that Harper Lee’s original story was considerably shorter, which explained why it felt so padded. Oddly enough, the character of Scout, the narrator of the novel and the daughter of Atticus, shares some similarities with Eve’s Bayou’s narrator in that both of them use childhood memories to paint a very idealistic and somewhat unreliable portrayal of their father. It’s daughter’s love for daddy distilled down to its essence. Atticus seems perfect, because to his daughter, he is.

As much as I love Gregory Peck’s performance in the film (he truly IS Atticus Finch, and it’s one of the best performances ever given), I don’t have the reverence for the movie most people do. It’s never about the Black character on trial (Brock Peters, who would team up with Hernandez on The Pawnbroker two years later). He’s just the Noble Negro who earns Atticus his wings. Peck never makes it about being taught Soul(TM), but the movie makes no attempt to hide its intentions, carrying the novel’s flaws to the screen. Roger Ebert sums it up:

“The problem here, for me, is that the conviction of Tom Robinson is not the point of the scene, which looks right past him to focus on the nobility of Atticus Finch.”

How I would have loved if Atticus had turned to the jurors and cussed their asses out, or if Tom had let out a Chris Rock-worthy yell of “You Cracka Ass Crackas!!” He’s doomed anyway, so why not? But no, this is 1962, and Hollywood was still so scared of the South. I’ve beaten that dead horse before. Let’s move on.

The similarities between the cinematic interpretations of Lee and Faulkner end with the portrayal of the accused. Clarence Brown shows his first full shot of Lucas Beauchamp (Hernandez) by panning up from his boots to his hat. He is standing over a frozen creek helping a teenager who has fallen in. I immediately realized what Hernandez had done with his body language in The Pawnbroker. Hernandez is HUGE. In the Pawnbroker, he seemed so small and inconsequential; here he seems to tower over everybody. Beauchamp’s character had appeared in Faulkner’s work before, in Go Down, Moses (which I have read). Chick Mallison (Claude Jarman, Jr.), the character whom Beauchamp saves in this scene, and whom he addresses when they first bring him to the jail, has also appeared elsewhere in Faulkner.

Lucas asks Chick to bring his uncle to the jail. Chick’s uncle, John Stevens (David Brian) is a lawyer, but he’s no Atticus Finch. Stevens offers to take the case, but he believes Lucas is guilty of the crime. After all, a White man named Crawford Gowrie tells him he saw Lucas standing over his brother, Vinson, with the smoking gun used to shoot him in the back. Lucas has a hot gun, and he is seen standing over the body, but that doesn’t make him the killer. Stevens takes the case because Chick asks him to, though Chick’s motivations are a little complex.

Chick tells Stevens that, after Lucas saved him from the frozen creek, Lucas took him home to feed and clothe him. Chick attempts to pay Lucas and his wife for their troubles, but Lucas asks “What are you doing?” Chick throws the money on the floor and demands that Lucas pick it up. It’s almost absurd, this young punk disrespecting his elders in such a fashion, but it portrays Chick’s sense of entitlement; he wouldn’t have done that to Miss Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson), the revered old White lady in town.

Lucas tells Chick’s Black teenage pal/servant boy to pick up the money and give it back to Chick. Chick is infuriated—he owes this Black man for helping him and that’s a pox on both his houses. He tries paying Lucas back numerous times, but Lucas knows his game and keeps doing things to keep the “debt” unpaid. Lucas never saw a debt in the first place. Perhaps Chick’s delivery of Lucas’ message to his uncle will settle the debt.

Chick also mentions to Stevens the altercation that gave motive to the crime. Lucas had come into town to do his weekly shopping. In the store is Vinson Gowrie, who, along with the other Whites, hates Lucas’ sense of entitlement. Hernandez plays Lucas as a proud Black man, bending to no one. He doesn’t acknowledge the Whites’ presence in the store, and when Vinson attempts to attack him from behind, Lucas shows absolutely no fear. He doesn’t even turn around to give Vinson the satisfaction. Chick yells out “RUN LUCAS,” but Lucas just stands there, eating a candy bar, before walking away. The Whites in the store, all of whom (wisely, considering the size of Lucas) restrain Vinson, look at Lucas with that hatred reserved for a Black man who considers himself in the same human race they inhabit. Chick wonders why Lucas would shoot in the back a man he wasn’t afraid of, because only cowards strike from behind.

At the jail, Lucas refuses to tell Stevens the entire story. Stevens is frustrated, but Chick feels that Lucas may tell him. It’s Sunday, which, according to the movie is a no-lynching day in Oxford, Mississippi, so Lucas will at least be able to survive in the jail until after midnight. The townsfolk will wait for the signal from the Gowries before attacking, which buys Chick a little time to do what Lucas asks him to do. Lucas tells Chick that he’s innocent, and if he’d go look at the body, he’d see that the bullet hole in Vinson Gowrie couldn’t have come from Lucas’ gun.

The townsfolk could care less whether Lucas is innocent, even John Stevens, but Miss Habersham does. She’s an elderly woman, a fascinating character in the film, who helps Chick go up to the gravesite to see if Lucas is right. Assisting the odd couple is Chick’s Black servant friend, Aleck, whom the cin-togger shoots like an ace of spades with eyes. Chick and Aleck dig up Vinson’s grave to find out that he isn’t there. They hear a mule in the distance, and hide. Our detectives avoid detection, but that mule will provide the key to this mystery.

I’m not going to tell you how this mystery is solved. Instead, I want to focus on the depiction of the town on the day the lynch mob plans to storm the jail. The town center is full of cars, people playing cards and dominoes, kids eating ice cream—it’s a fucking carnival! Brown pans his camera over an endless series of faces, all anxiously awaiting the show. It’s a chilling moment that Brown takes his time to show.

The menfolk get restless as they await patriarch Nub Gowrie’s OK to storm the jail. Nub (so called because he only has one arm) is away, but his son is at the front of the jail. Impatiently, he decides to storm the jail, only to be met by Miss Habersham. Miss H.’s job is to keep people out of the jail while Chick and Stevens work out a plan to clear Lucas before he’s murdered. While the rest of the menfolk won’t storm the jail while she’s sitting there (homegirl has that much dap in this town), Crawford Gowrie doesn’t care. He tosses gasoline at her feet and strikes a match. But Miss Habersham is gangsta. She doesn’t move. “You’re in mah sewin’ light,” she tells Crawford. He backs down.

After Lucas is freed (and trust me, rent the movie because it’s a good mystery), he shows up at Stevens’ office. Stevens is just telling Chick that he’s expecting Lucas to show up to rub his face in the fact he was wrong. “He’ll stand there, expecting his apology,” says Stevens, as if the mere thought of a Negro expecting an apology is a slap in the face to Southern pride. Lucas does show up, to pay for the lawyer services. Stevens charges him 3 dollars (he’s cheaper than Johnnie Cochran). Lucas pays, and then stands in front of Stevens’ desk. “Well what are you waiting for?” demands Stevens, fearing that Lucas will ask for that dreaded mea culpa.

“My receipt,” says Lucas.

Juano Hernandez’s portrayal of Lucas sticks with me because I don’t believe I have seen a stronger depiction of a proud Black man onscreen, one whose thought process didn’t allow for a single moment of feeling inferior because of his skin color. He never bends to any White character in the film, and in 1949, this must have been shocking to witness onscreen. When Stevens suggests Lucas bring Gangsta Granny Miss Habersham some flowers for staring down that crazy lynch mob, he reluctantly agrees. I wanted to see another movie with Hernandez and Patterson, the proud Black man and the tough as nails grandmother. Based on the personalities, she’d probably drive him!

After Intruder, Hernandez played in a few other movies, including John Ford’s similar Sergeant Rutledge, but outside of this and the Pawnbroker, he didn’t do too many memorable roles. What was Hollywood to do with him? Hernandez, a former vaudevillian and actor in Oscar Micheaux movies, died in his native Puerto Rico (he was of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent) in 1970.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Getting Creamed By Coffy

By Odienator (click here for all posts)

Women in Blaxploitation pictures were disposable characters who usually served two purposes: Screw the hero, and bring him information or a weapon. Youngblood Priest is seen in bed with White girls, but they get far less screen time than The White Girl (ahem, cocaine) in his movie. Shaft’s women are memorable for having a hand clenching orgasm and for telling him to “get it yourself, shitty!” Rudy Ray Moore’s “Kung Fu hos” assisted him in fights and love scenes, both of which were horribly choreographed. As in most B-movies of the era, women were there to be seen and not heard, regardless of race.

Pam Grier changed all that. Already a veteran of B-movies by 1973, she was cast in what seemed like the typical Blaxploitation female. In Coffy, she picks up two drug dealers with the promise of crack and smack. As one guy strips down to his purple boxers, and the other watches while prepping for his fix, you might be thinking that the guys are the heroes of this picture. After all, Youngblood Priest was a dope pusher and he’s the hero of Super Fly. Pam changes your opinion quickly: She calls Mr. Purple Drawers a word that rhymes with blubbermucker, pulls out a sawed off shotgun and shoots the guy point blank in the head. BLAM!! Then she turns to the other guy and demands he shoot up with a Secretariat sized portion of horse. “This will kill me!” he tells her. “Maybe it will and maybe it won't,” says Pam. “But if it do, you gonna fly through them pearly gates with the biggest fucking smile St. Peter ever seen!”

Director Jack Hill’s third collaboration with Pam Grier wastes no time in establishing its premise. Coffy has a problem with drug dealers, and she’s willing to lure them to their violent ends by any means necessary. It isn’t difficult when you’re tall, sexy, confident and have double D guns to go with your actual guns. This wasn’t the typical Blaxploitation hero. Shaft spent the first five minutes of his movie walking through Times Square. In the same amount of time, Coffy sends two bad guys to their Maker, one of them without a head. The poster was right: Coffy will cream you!

Before Coffy, Pam Grier appeared in chicks in chains movies like The Big Bird Cage, its sequel, The Big Doll House, (both by Hill) and Black Mama, White Mama. Mama, a personal genre fave of mine, pairs Grier with leggy blonde Margaret Markov in a sleazy update of The Defiant Ones. They’re handcuffed together, but it doesn’t stop them from having cat fights. Grier was tough, both as hero and villain in her earliest films, but they didn’t start writing her legend until she put on Coffy’s nurse outfit and took on the drug world.

Having a kick-ass female for a hero isn’t Coffy’s only deviation from the genre. The negative portrayal of drugs was also unusual, especially after Super Fly. Super Fly’s hero snorted so much cocaine I’m surprised he was able to stand up. It looked cool, the way Bette Davis’ cigarettes looked cool. Curtis Mayfield said that the film was “a giant commercial for cocaine,” and used his music to counter that. Mayfield’s Pusher Man is a boastful number, but the fool he’s besting in the song is the junkie he holds sway over with his product: He’s your Mama and your Daddy, that is, he owns your ass. It’s telling that Mayfield appears in the film singing this song. Later, he sings on the soundtrack “my life’s a natural high, The Man can’t put no thing on me.” Meanwhile, the people onscreen make Tony Montana look like a newbie.

Coffy has an anti-drug plot. Coffy’s 11-year old sister has gotten hold of some bad smack, and is now incapacitated. Coffy takes her cop ex-boyfriend, Carter (William Elliott), on a tour of what passes for the pediatric ward of the Betty Ford clinic. She points out that some of the patients are under 10 years old. Unbeknownst to Carter, Coffy has been roaming the streets at night, a year before Chuck Bronson would do the same, seeking revenge on the pushers who hurt her family. Unbeknownst to Coffy, Carter’s involved with some shady police dealings with the Mafia. When he backs out, they treat him like a piñata while Coffy helplessly watches. This is a bigger Mafia mistake than Godfather III; Coffy knows how to keep—and settle—a grudge.

Meanwhile, Coffy’s current boyfriend, Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw), is running for Congress. He’s not right for our heroine; he’s corrupt as shit and stupid to boot. He, like most of the men in this picture, underestimates Coffy. She thinks he’s busy, but honest. His campaign race gives Coffy time to execute her plan undetected. Little does she know it’ll all end up back at Howard’s.

Coffy goes undercover (and under the covers) as a prostitute for King George (Robert DuQui), the pimp whose bad heroin her sister injected. King George (his theme music goes “George…KING GEORGE!”) dresses in colors that will burn holes in your retinas, and he has a rainbow coalition-worthy stable of women. Coffy pretends to be a Jamaican ho, complete with an accent so bad it makes Miss Cleo sound like Rita Marley, so she can find his stash. She learns of its whereabouts from a hooker named Priscilla, who makes the mistake of threatening Coffy with a knife. Coffy returns the threat with a broken bottle. Check out some of the dialogue in this scene to find out why Grier says she’s a lesbian icon.

Priscilla: Now, listen. My old man's coming back any minute, and if SHE catches you here, she's gonna wanna kick your ass!

(after the bottle gets pulled by Coffy)

Coffy: Now I'm gonna give you another slice to match the one you got from that dope-pushin' pimp, unless you tell me where he keeps the stuff!
Priscilla: No, please! He'll kill me! Ow... ALRIGHT, alright! He's got a fireplace! It's in a box under the ashes!

(Priscilla's tough-looking black lesbian lover/pimp returns suddenly)

Priscilla: Harriet! Harriet!
Harriet: What the hell is going on here?
Priscilla: She busted in here tryin' to make me! Get her outta here!
Harriet: Come on, bitch!

After Coffy escapes Harriet’s clutches, Harriet turns her anger on Priscilla:

Harriet: I go away for half an hour for you to turn a trick... and I come back and find you ballin' some nigga bitch! You WHITE TRAMP!

Back at King George’s, Coffy gets into the greatest cat fight ever committed to celluloid. Titties and broken glass fly everywhere as Coffy’s Afro gives new meaning to the word nappy: One unlucky vixen grabs Coffy’s coif, only to discover it’s loaded with razor blades. (In another film, if memory serves, Grier pulls a gun from her Afro, making her hair the ghetto equivalent of Felix the Cat’s bag.) This display of feminine ferocity gets Coffy her first client for George, a freaky Italian guy named Arturo.

Grier’s Blaxploitation output has been accused of being misogynist, an argument I understand to a point. In all her films, Grier gets abused in ways far worse than the scene I’m about to describe. However, I counter that Pam always gets her payback. James Brown once sang that a woman has to use what she got to get what she wants, and Grier’s characters understand that it may come at the expense of luring the objects of her wrath with her sexuality. In her films, she gets slapped around, abused, and in a Foxy Brown scene her Jackie Brown director would lift for Kill Bill: Volume I, repeatedly raped while unconscious. It’s manipulative, yes, and even distasteful, but this isn’t Merchant Ivory. Without exception, Pam turns the tables and exerts her empowerment on her tormentors. I understand the claim, but it was par for the course in order to see the kind of Black feminine empowerment I enjoyed so much in these pictures.

Arturo is a sick son of a bitch. He spits on the half-naked Coffy as she’s on the floor. I give the film credit for deglamorizing johns, but the racial aspect is truly cringe-worthy, at least until Pam pulls that gun.

Arturo: Crawl, nigger!
Coffy: (pulls gun): You want me to crawl, white muthafucka?
Arturo: What are you doing? Put that down.
Coffy: You want to spit on me and make me crawl? I'm gonna piss on your grave tomorrow.

Speaking of uncomfortable racial aspects, King George is certainly not a nice guy, but what happens to him at the hands of Grier’s frequent co-star, Sid Haig (Captain Spaulding to you Rob Zombie fans) is truly disturbing. Coffy has set him up, first by replacing his heroin with Domino sugar, then by telling the Mafia that King George set her up to assassinate crazy ass Arturo. The mob gets its revenge by tying King George behind Haig’s car and dragging him down the street for a long, long, long time. I feel a tad hypocritical, baying for blood whenever Coffy gets the upper hand, yet cringing when the guy who set her revenge plan in motion gets his. The scene doesn’t look completely convincing, but its premise and imagery shake me every time I watch Coffy. (Full disclosure: I watched Coffy for the 7,000th time last night, and I punked out. When that scene came on, I went to do the dishes.)

As aforementioned, it all ends up at Howard’s. Coffy learns that her man is, like all politicians, corrupt. Howard, unlike Arturo, knows how to talk sweet when faced with Coffy’s wrath:

Howard: Now, maybe I have done a few bad things, but that's the way the world is today. Sometimes you have to do a few, little wrong things in order to do one big right thing and that's what I'm trying to do for you and for our people: that big right thing!
Coffy: You always were a good talker, Howard.

If you think Coffy’s going to let Howard off the hook, you haven’t been paying attention.

Coffy is the best of Grier’s run of starring roles in the Blaxploitation era. Hill keeps the film tightly constructed and paced, and it delivers the goods in a savage howl of fury. Grier channels her character’s anger and vengeance right through the screen and into the deepest animal recesses of your being. People have complained about her acting (outside of her accent in the Jamaican scenes, I think she’s fine here), but nobody can deny that this woman knows how to convincingly kick ass.

In the Blaxploitation book I assigned for homework yesterday, Jack Hill expresses regret for making Coffy’s pseudo-sequel, Foxy Brown. Foxy is almost a Coffy remake, but it’s meaner, more graphic, and less tightly paced. One plus of the film, besides Pam’s creatively disgusting use of an airplane propeller, is Kathryn Loder’s performance as a dick-crazy psycho White woman, Foxy’s nemesis. Loder chews the scenery better than Shelley Winters in the prior year’s Cleopatra Jones (which is a must see), baying for her man Steve’s love rocket throughout the picture. When Foxy brings it to her, minus Steve, she recognizes it immediately and drops it on the floor. (It’s that kind of movie, folks.) As the kiss off, Grier delivers the best line she has in the series that includes (in the order I like them) Coffy, Friday Foster, Foxy Brown, and Sheba Baby:

Katherine: Why don’t you kill me too?
Foxy: Death is too good for you, bitch. I want you to SUFFER!

See why I’m in love with this woman? Even today, where you’ll find her on The L Word, Pam Grier is still a looker, and the only woman tougher than my mother! No wonder QT is in love with her, and wrote her best performance in Jackie Brown, the movie that put Sam Jackson where he belongs, in Blaxploitation!

Hurt me. Hurt me good, Ms. Grier! Wham, Bam, Thank You Pam!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Your Blaxploitation Homework Assignment

By Odienator

It’s Blaxploitation Day here at Black History Mumf. I’ll be back later to drool over a certain famous player from the era. For now, here’s another homework assignment for you.

Run out and get a copy of Josiah Howard’s Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide. Howard has interviews with directors like Larry Cohen, Arthur Marks and the man whose name I just love saying, Jamaa Fanaka. He also has reviews of practically every single Blaxploitation movie ever made, plus color posters from many of them. You’ll see posters for Sweet Jesus, Preacher Man, which I’ve seen, and The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger, which I ain’t nevuh HEARRRRRRD of before. The only Six Thousand Dollar Nigga I know is Old Man Johnson that day he hit the number.

If you remember that Leon Isaac Kennedy movie where a bruva gets bloody revenge by using the samurai skills he learned from a Japanese dude on some remote island, but you don’t remember the name, you’ll find it here. Do you remember that flick where the guy strangles The Man with his humongous penis, but don’t remember its name? It’s here too. Looking for Jayne Kennedy on a prison island trying to escape with two other chicks? It's in there. And if you’re stuck for the title of the film where a sistah gets screwed by a cloud of green mist and has to dodge flying beer cans, you’ll find it in Howard’s book.

Alas, if you’re looking for that movie where the extremely busted-looking church lady buys the possessed Stevie Wonder puppet that forcibly eats her out and gets her hooked on the kind of lovin’ only Willie Tyler and Lester could understand, I’m going to have to tell you the name of that one: Black Devil Doll From Hell. Howard can’t tell you everything! But between the interviews with several players in Blaxploitation (including Jonathan Kaplan, director of The Accused), he tells you enough to warrant the price I paid for this book.

Come back later for the Odie Luvs Pam post! Wikipedia should have their ass beaten for not even providing a picture of her with that link. Bastards.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Get to Know Your Movie Negroes: Part II

By Odienator (click here for all posts)

It’s the return of Get to Know Your Movie Negroes, the show that tells you, through the power of song, a Who’s Who of Blackness on your screen. Like last year, Bob from Sesame Street is inadvertently helping me by providing the melody I sampled.

Sing along!

Ohhhh oh!
Who are the Negroes in your cinema?
In your cinema?
In your cinema?
Yes, who are the Negroes in your cinema?
They’re the people movies make us play!

Now the Boss Negro yells at you!
He’ll take your badge and say you’re through.
He thinks he’s the H.N.I.C.
But no one takes him seriously.

Cuz the Boss is a Negro in your cinema.
In your cinema.
In your cinema.
Boss Negro’s hollering in your cinema!
He’s the boss who never gets his way.

Look at police chiefs in movies, and I’m sure you’ll find some Boss Negro screaming at White folks (or even Black folks) demanding their badges and then having to eat their words when their underlings prove to them that they overreacted. Look at Gilbert Hill in Beverly Hills Cop for an example. I bet if Norman Jewison showed Sidney’s boss in In The Heat of The Night, he would have been yelling “Tibbs, if you help that racist Southern cracka, I’ll have your goddamned badge!!” Next verse!

Now the Token shows up with Whites,
But never gets character’s rights.
Whether film or animation,
He’s the one spot on that dalmation!

Cuz the Token’s a Negro in your cinema!
In your cinema!
In your cinema!
Ask “Who is this Negro in my cinema?”
He has no character to play.

Ever watch a movie and there’s a group of people, like 18 White folks, and then out of nowhere there will be a smiling Black or Asian person in the group? He or she never says shit, or if they do, it’s completely worthless dialogue that could have been cut out of the movie quicker than Lena Horne in the South. Why is this person there? It’s pure pandering! I can accept that there are plenty of places where you won’t find minorities. I’ll always hold it against Charles Schulz for putting Franklin on those Peanuts TV specials. He could have at least given the bruva an Afro. Or a line to say. Final Verse.

Now the hoochie she shows her ass.
She’ll jump in bed with men quick-fast.
She’ll shake what her mama gave her.
Black image she does no favors.

Cuz the hoochie’s a Negro in your cinema,
On your videos
And on BET.
And The Boss and the Token are in cinemas
They’re the people that you meet
When you’re in your theater seat
They’re the Negroes Ho’wood makes us play!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Musical Mondays: Me and Miss Jones

By Odienator (click here for all posts)

Suppose you bought a copy of Carmen: A Hip Hopera on DVD. I’ll attribute this choice to your drug use and your improper fixation on Beyonce Knowles. I won’t judge you; she IS Sasha Fierce. You get home, fire up your DVD player and start the movie. Beyonce shows up, looking as tasty as yo’ Mama’s baked macaroni and cheese. Even better, this is a musical so you’ll be privy to hearing Foxy Cleopatra sing her heart out. And sing her heart out she does, along with Mos Def, Lil Bow Wow and Wyclef Jean. But something’s wrong. That figure on the screen LOOKS like Beyonce, and it’s definitely her ass in the ass clap sequences, but every time she opens her mouth, she sounds like Paul Robeson.

You think it’s your weed. Didn’t you tell your roommate not to buy that shit from that dealer who looked like Bea Arthur? But your roommate, who didn’t inhale, points out that Rah Digga sounds like Busta Rhymes and Wyclef Jean sounds like Aretha Franklin. You both note that Lil Bow Wow sounds like Lil Bow Wow. “Is this from in front of the Beacon Theater?” your roomie asks. “Nah, I bought this from Amazon,” you reply. “Maybe it’s the TV.”

You tweak every single knob on your TV. Nothing changes. You’re looking at people whose singing voices you know well, but when they open their mouths, somebody else’s voice comes out of them. Beyonce as Paul Robeson is ESPECIALLY jarring because now you’re envisioning him in that Single Ladies video. “If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it ohh oh ohh!” sings Paul, jumping around in Sasha Fierce’s skimpy outfit and heels.

What I have just described is ridiculous. It is also exactly how it feels to watch Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones. Preminger cast a bunch of singers and then had them all dubbed, with one exception, in other people’s voices. How the hell do you dub Harry Belafonte and expect no one to notice? The dubbing is so distracting that it destroys the film, which is a shame because this movie has one of the sexiest depictions of a Black woman ever put on the screen.

Carmen Jones is based on Georges Bizet’s opera, Carmen. Carmen holds a special place in my heart as the first (and thus far only) opera I have ever seen performed live. I’m not an opera fan, but Bizet’s music is irresistible, full of passion and perfectly suited for its temptress of a titular character. Before we went to see the opera, the great love of my life played a CD of it for me, translating every lyric as it was sung. She sat next to me, almost whispering in my ear what was being said, like my own personal Babelfish. It made me love the opera even more.

I’ll bet the lyrics I got were a lot better than the ones written by Oscar Hammerstein II for Carmen Jones. Keeping Bizet’s music, Carmen Jones updates the story, translates the lyrics to suit it, and then casts it with an all-Black cast. The all-cullud cast treatment wasn’t a new phenomenon when Jones debuted on Broadway in 1943; 13 years earlier, The Green Pastures adapted Bible stories, colorized them on Broadway and won the Pulitzer. Eight years earlier, DuBose Heyward and George and Ira Gershwin unveiled Porgy and Bess, whose success Oscar Hammerstein II must have been trying to duplicate with Carmen Jones. Both are operas and both contain that ignorant pseudo-patois White writers put into the mouths of Black characters for decades. I’ve known plenty of dumb Black people in my time, but I’ve never heard any of them sound as unnatural as this.

Carmen Jones was a hit on Broadway in 1943, and in 1954, director Otto Preminger brought it to the screen using the new technology called Cinemascope. As Carmen, Preminger cast perhaps the finest Black woman to ever grace a Hollywood screen, Dorothy Dandridge. Preminger also cast Harry Belafonte as Carmen’s doomed lover Joe (why is the guy’s name ALWAYS Joe in these all-cullud musicals? See Cabin in the Sky) and Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll (in her debut) as Carmen’s friends. These are all singers, and excepting Pearl Bailey, they are all dubbed. The first time Harry Belafonte opens his mouth, and some opera dude comes out of it, the movie lost me.

As a lover of musicals, I know actors are dubbed all the time. But this is different. Deborah Kerr could have sounded like a deranged nightingale on crack when she sang, but I wouldn’t know because I never heard her. I always heard Marni Nixon. I do know what Audrey Hepburn sounds like (that’s her singing Moon River), but her dubbing in My Fair Lady didn’t bug me because she isn’t a singer. Julie Andrews IS a great singer with a distinctive voice, and if she were dubbed, it would result in the same uncanny valley-esque feeling I got watching Harry Belafonte and not hearing the voice that yells out “DAY-O!” I understand that this is an opera, so they should have cast someone who could handle the singing, or cast an actor like Sidney Poitier and dubbed him (Preminger did exactly that, in Porgy and Bess).

Dorothy Dandridge was also a singer, but when I saw Carmen Jones the first time, I wasn’t very familiar with her work as such. Her dubbing bothered me less, especially since she gives a fantastic performance, one that garnered her the first Best Actress Oscar nomination ever bestowed on a Black woman. In 1954, the censor still had a tight rein on how sexy a woman can be, and a woman of color this hedonistic and unbridled must have ruffled some feathers. Carmen Jones is one HOT mamacita, burning as hot and bright as the red flame that flickers in Saul Bass’ opening credits. You can always tell when the director is screwing the lead actress, because she seems to burn a hole through the screen when the camera is on her. Preminger and Dandridge carried on an affair for four years, which started during the making of this film. It must have been a hot one.

The plot is something like the opera. Carmen is a free spirit who is attracted to men she can’t have. If they pursue her, she’s not interested. As a parachute maker, she’s surrounded by men, one of whom is Joe, a pilot-in-training. Joe is betrothed to Cindy Lou, a girl who looks busted compared to Carmen but who loves Joe and will be true to him. Like the Mounties, Carmen always gets her man, so Joe’s attempts to resist her are futile. Once she gets Joe, as her song says, she grows tired of him, preferring to move on to boxer, Husky Miller. Joe’s jealousy gets the best of him, leading him to fulfill the prophecy Carmen foresees when her cards are read.

Preminger was notorious for giving the finger to the Production Code. The year before Carmen Jones, his film The Moon is Blue was condemned by the Legion of Decency and refused a seal. Preminger put the movie out anyway, which was unprecedented. In Carmen Jones, he’s really poking his finger in the proverbial eye. Dandridge is allowed full range and control of her seductive wiles, getting involved in a vicious catfight, flirting with Belafonte in front of his steady Cindy Lou (Olga James), and stripping down to reveal a black bra and zebra striped panties. “Zip me up,” she tells Belafonte as she thrusts her ass in his direction. Her seduction of Belafonte involves her reaching to undo his pants, something I’d never seen done in a movie of this era, and the film’s dialogue about her way with soldiers is surprisingly frank. For the ladies, Preminger shoots Belafonte shirtless and oiled up (at least it looks that way) for several minutes as he lip-synchs his love for Carmen.

Dandridge delivers her dialogue like a serious Mae West. It’s kind of funny to hear, but it’s also completely believable and quite arousing. Belafonte does a fine job of showing his lapse into obsession, though his last scene is rushed and doesn’t work. Carroll and Bailey are funny as gold-diggers latching on to the boxer who vies for Carmen’s hand, and Bailey, just by virtue of singing it herself, gets the film’s best musical number. Singing about drums (RAGING STEREOTYPE ALARM!!!), Bailey dances in the most energetic number the film offers.

Hammerstein’s lyrics are rather dismal, sounding more like the parodies I do here at Big Media Vandalism than a serious musical. Occasionally, he surprised me with a great lyric or two, and his take on Habanera is good because it’s pretty faithful to the original. Most of the time, his attempts to make it sound ethnic fall horribly flat. When Carmen gets the card of death during her reading, Dandridge opens her mouth and this panicked White mezzo-soprano sings out “DE NIIIIINE! LAWDY DE NIIIIINE!!!” Hammerstein’s version of the Toreador song, here called “Stand Up and Fight” is a travesty.

Dorothy Dandridge holds Carmen Jones together, and since she’s onscreen for most of the movie, the film is watchable despite its flaws. She certainly deserved her Oscar nomination, and I wish Hollywood had found better things to do with her. As a side note: Halle Berry, who not only resembles Dandridge (Dandridge is hotter) but also hails from Dandridge’s home town of Cleveland, Ohio, does a wonderful job in the HBO movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. I’ve never been high on Berry as an actress, but both she and Brent Spiner are fantastic in this movie. Check it out after you watch Ms. Jones.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Content of their Character Actors: Taraji P. Henson

By Odienator (click here for all posts)

Sports Illustrated has the Cover Jinx, and Black History Mumf has the Oscar night curse. Last year's Oscar night post asked "Can Ruby Dee Win Tonight?" Dee pulled a surprise upset at the SAG awards, and my rationale was that, as the only active Black actress from the old Hollywood days, the Academy would see the symbolism in giving her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She's only in American Gangster for a few minutes, but this was the category of people winning for short performances. I felt that if she'd had one more scene in the picture, she'd be more of a lock, but I predicted she would win. A few hours later, Dee lost to Tilda Swinton, an actress who admittedly gave an excellent performance in Michael Clayton. But what if my mentioning Dee here on Oscar night cursed her in some way? Someone wrote me with this very accusation.

I don't possess that kind of magic, because if I did, I'd fill this entire entry with two words repeated over and over: Kate Winslet. Winslet, a usually fine actress who can't keep her top on to save her life, is up for one of the worst movies to ever get a Best Picture nomination, The Reader. Winslet's performance is nowhere near as useless as her nominated role in Iris (where she did absolutely nothing but show her tits—where are Sybil Danning's Oscar nominations for doing the same thing?), but as bad as her illiterate, pedophile Nazi performance is in The Reader, I'm forced to believe the Academy nominated her because she has the last real pair of juicy White hooters in Hollywood. They're fantastic, and they get more airtime in The Reader than in any of her pictures. They just can't act, and therefore should not receive Oscars. If it were about acting, they'd have nodded her for Revolutionary Road, which isn't a good movie, either, but at least she's not relying on her fun bags to gain sympathy. But I digress.

To keep angry folks from writing me if Taraji P. Henson doesn't win the Oscar tonight, I've stuck her in my character actor bucket here at Big Media Vandalism. She deserves to be discussed for the other performances Oscar ignored, as well as the one to which it paid attention. If the Oscars were like the Grammys, Henson would have an Oscar already. The last time she appeared on the show's stage, she sang the hook in Three 6 Mafia's Oscar winning song, It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp.

When I saw the scene in Hustle and Flow where she hears the playback on the hook in Terrence Howard's version of the song, I said to my friend, "that's her Oscar nomination scene right there." The Academy thought differently. After watching her quiet scene with Chiwetel Ojiofor late in Talk To Me, I said to another friend, "there's her Oscar nomination scene!" The Academy thought differently. After watching Benjamin Button, and wondering about the Curious Case Of Odie's Numb Butt, I asked myself "where was her big Oscar nomination scene?" BAM! The Academy nominates her.

Henson deserves her Oscar nod for Benjamin Button, if only for bringing warmth to the cold, emotionally detached world David Fincher and Eric Roth trapped me in for three hours. The film is beautiful to look at (I like dark cin-tog), and the effects are first rate, but you can't sell a love story where the filmmakers are afraid of genuine emotion. There is a credible, emotion-filled love story in this picture, and it's the maternal one starring Henson and a shitload of special effects posing as Brad Pitt, not the one between Cate Blanchett and the actual Brad Pitt posing as a special effect. If she loses tonight, and I believe she will, it will be because David Fincher and company failed to provide her lovely character with a worthy exit. She gets figuratively slapped out of the picture, much like Marisa Tomei did in her nominated turn in In the Bedroom (except, well, Tomei literally got slapped out of that picture). SPOILER ALERT: Her character dies, and nobody even mourns for her. Pitt is told that Henson is dead, and the movie just hops back to its shitty love story. I was infuriated.

On paper, Henson's roles look stereotypical and potentially offensive. I submit into evidence Exhibits a through d:

a) A ghetto girlfriend who loves her immature asshole of a boyfriend too much.
b) A pregnant hooker in love with her pimp.
c) A loudmouthed, sassy, ostentatious and sexy Black woman with a prisoner boyfriend and a taste for revenge.
d) A barren Black caretaker tasked with dealing with raising a deserted White kid in 1918 Louisiana.

Just reading these descriptions make me itch, until I think about Henson's take on the material. a, b, and c are all better than d, her nominated performance, and I'm not the only person who noticed this. Perhaps Benjamin Button's nod is to rectify past Oscar wrongs; if so, Henson's nod is in the same boat as Kate Winslet's Reader win will be if my constant mention of her name doesn't work here.

Exhibit a: Baby Boy. In John Singleton's movie, Henson plays Yvette, a round the way girl involved with a trifling Mama's Boy played by Tyrese Gibson. Yvette loves Baby Boy so much she's willing to get an abortion to keep him, and right after the procedure he takes her car to cheat on her. Yvette is tougher than she appears, however, and Singleton gives her great dialogue and a powerful scene where she, in one line, talks her ex-boyfriend (Snoop Dogg) out of raping her, an event Yvette then uses to shock Baby Boy into offering her some sympathy. Yvette is smart, has a job, and should be running like a bat out of Hell from Baby Boy. Everybody knows an Yvette, and since I'll never be a woman, I'll never understand why they do the stupid things they do to keep a worthless-ass man. Henson brings so much realism to Yvette that, of all the characters she's played, this is the one every hood denizen I know loves most.

Exhibit b: Hustle and Flow. Once again, Henson is cast as a woman who knows just how bad the guy she pines for is, yet sticks around. She's pregnant and hormonal here, and at times seems in fear of Howard's Djay. She's almost petrified when he scares her into projecting her voice to sing the hook in his rap song. Such ironic lyrics—here's a hooker singing about how hard it is out there for a pimp—and Henson nails them. However, it's the scene where she hears her voice back, and she realizes how good she sounds, that is the film's sole scene of realism. Her facial expression, her surprise and her joy wordlessly push an influx of self-esteem into her being. Her line "letting me sing on the demo made me feel real" sounds cheesy, until you hear her say it.

Exhibit c: Talk to Me. Kasi Lemmons loves her strong female characters, but for much of Talk to Me, Henson's Vernell Watson is employed as comedy relief. She's funny as hell, and won't take any shit from her boyfriend Petey Greene (Don Cheadle). When he cheats on her and she finds out, the scene she plays with a naked, cheating Cheadle is a comic masterpiece, and she slays her revenge scene afterward with three words aimed at Greene: "Now we're even." I kept thinking she was going to fall off the edge of dignity, but then Lemmons gives her a scene where she talks about Petey with his friend/boss Chiwetel Ejiofor. Suddenly, you realize there's more to this woman than her extroverted exterior. By itself it's not a showstopper; in context it's a whole 'nother side to this character. This is my favorite performance of hers.

Exhibit d: Benjamin Button. I snarkily called Henson "Brad Pitt's Mammy" on another site, and I should be slapped around a bit for it. Henson refuses to be a Mammy character, and for the most part, Benjamin Button doesn't imply that. She's a caregiver, and Benjamin Button's arrival on her doorstep fills an emotional need for her, much like Djay's demo or stealing back her car from Baby Boy. Henson looks at that decrepit, ugly robotic baby with a motherly love one could envy. She's also, unlike Mammy, given a love life and a side story. Her strength shines through, both in her interactions with the literally old folks in her home and with her adopted old man of a baby. When she's onscreen, Benjamin Button lives up to the emotions it thinks it employs throughout. When she's gone, the movie's heart remains as dark and clinical as its cinematography, and the film doesn't even acknowledge that she is missed. That'll doom her come Oscar night.

Viola Davis, like Ruby Dee last year, has one really good mother scene in Doubt. The difference there is that one scene is all Davis needs to take home that Oscar. It's the linchpin scene in the movie. I hope she wins, but on my official ballot, I predicted Penelope Cruz. Let's hope Davis' fans don't blame me for mentioning her if she loses!

Happy Oscar night folks!

Himes on Harlem: Pop Goes The Weasel

By Odienator (click here for all posts)

After the success of Cotton Comes to Harlem, Warner Bros. brought Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques back to the screen in a sequel called Come Back, Charleston Blue. Directed by Mark Warren and based on The Heat's On, the Chester Himes book that followed Cotton, Blue is more a curiosity piece than required viewing. Boasting a score by Donny Hathaway and its place as the second detective movie sequel to feature Black characters, the PG rated Blue is far too tame for its source material. It's not a bad movie, and it has some funny moments, but it would have benefited from an R-rating and the return of Ossie Davis as director.

Fast-forward 19 years to A Rage In Harlem, which shares numerous similarities with its 1970 predecessor. Harlem is based on a Chester Himes book and directed by a Black actor turned director, Bill Duke. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones are back, with the latter again played by a sarcastic comedian. There are schemes involving religion and money, a fine woman or two, and language and nudity that earn it the same rating Cotton Comes To Harlem got. Both were billed and advertised as comedies, but both have an action-oriented side.

Cotton Comes To Harlem doesn't shy away from Himes' violent world of hustlers, marks and damsels, but A Rage in Harlem veers closer to its graphic nature. It's less an adaptation of the first Coffin Ed and Gravedigger novel, For Love of Imabelle, than an evocation of the moods and ideas found in Himes' books. Rage uses the novel's plot as a jumping off point, spinning a neo-noir fairy tale. There's a big trunk of gold, a character named Goldy, a crime lord who loves an animal more than a man should, and recited nursery rhymes. There's also a love story, complete with the rescue of the damsel in distress by a man of virtue.

All of this is presented with a nod toward the absurd, of which Himes would have approved. The full text of the quote I cited in my Cotton post is:

"And I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference."

An example of this absurdity: The man of virtue is a city boy named Jackson (Forrest Whitaker). He bucks the stereotype of the urbanite being smarter and more dangerous than the country folks he encounters. He's clueless about life, but as an undertaker's assistant, he knows a lot about death. Jackson is so overJesused, he has a picture of de Lawd over his bed, right next to a picture whose identity is a hilarious running joke in the film.

People will see this picture. The dialogue goes like this:
Person 1: Who's That up there?
Person 2: That's Jesus!

Person 1: I know who Jesus is! I mean who's the other dude.

Person 2: That's his Mama.
Person 1: (incredulously) That's Jesus' Mama?!
Person 2: No! That's Jackson's Mama.

Person 1: (looking again) DAMMMMMMN!!!

Jackson doesn't realize the damsel in distress he intends on rescuing is actually part of the gang from which he wishes to extricate her. For a virtuous man who is always quoting Scripture and looking at sinners with scorn, his reason for rescuing his gal is purely sexual. Perhaps he wants his virtue back from the woman who took it. Jackson may be the most pussy-whipped character in movie history, and he's the hero of A Rage in Harlem.

Our damsel in distress is actually a femme fatale, not that the virginal Jackson would know the difference when he meets her. Her name is Imabelle (Robin Givens), and she's sexy, vampy and curvy in ways Jackson's Jesus picture would disapprove of, even if Jesus looks like All That Jazz's Joe Gideon.

It's Showtime Folks!

Imabelle is a hooker with a trunk full of gold who, during the film's opening gun fight-slash-mole mutilation sequence, runs away from a dangerous Bama named Slim (Badja Djola). The trunk belongs to Slim, whose shootout results from a trade deal gone wrong. Trapped in Harlem with no liquid funds and no place to hide, she seeks a mark with whom she can crash while she contemplates her next move. She winds up at the Undertaker's Ball, the kind of social event Jackson finds distasteful because of its potential for hook-ups. Of course, Jackson is there this time, but he needs a little coaxing to get trapped in Imabelle's spider web-slash-coochie.

Jackson takes Imabelle home, but not for her intended purpose. When Imabelle wakes up, clothed, after falling asleep in his bed, she finds that her sexy red dress has been covered with a blanket. "You covered me up," she says incredulously. "Most men would have uncovered me." Never once does Imabelle think that Jackson might be gay, or if she does, she's convinced she can at least get him to try the other side of the menu.

Imabelle realizes that she has to uncover herself for this guy to get the picture. When he does, the floor gets the picture too; Jackson removes Jesus and Mama, placing them next to his bed. "I don't know anything," he shyly tells her. "It don't matter, Jackson," says Imabelle. Their coupling is set to the most perfect 2 minutes and 43 seconds ever pressed into vinyl, James Brown and the Fabulous Flames' Please, Please, Please. As James begs on the soundtrack so convincingly that only the most heartless woman would leave, director Duke intercuts Jackson's ecstasy with pictures of Jesus and Mom; it's hardly a subtle representation of a soul's carnal corruption. Afterward, Imabelle looks at Jackson, her face revealing she knows she has her mark hooked. "Will you marry me?" he asks. He's not kidding.

Meanwhile, Slim and his posse find their way to Harlem to make a deal with a crime lord named Easy Money (Danny Glover). Easy Money carries a lap dog wherever he goes, decades before Paris Hilton and Mickey Rourke made it fashionable. Glover juggles the juxtaposition of this tough guy with his fluffy dog, convincing us that his love for the dog could be (and is) his undoing at the hands of Slim. The poor thing suffers the most ruthless piece of slapstick comedy A Rage in Harlem has to offer, but it will be avenged before the credits roll.

When the jealous Slim finds out Imabelle is shacking up with a man as gullible as Jackson, he's at first angry, but then he can't resist running an easy con to get all Jackson's life savings. Imabelle protests--the poor guy's innocence and doggish devotion has softened her heart—but it's either his money or his life. Slim's henchman (Rage's screenwriter, John Toles-Bey) recites the nursery rhyme that precedes much of Rage's carnage, Pop Goes The Weasel. It's Mother Goose's answer to Pulp Fiction's Ezekiel 25:17.

The scam Jackson gets roped into is even more ridiculous than cashing a check from Nigeria. It involves cooking your money in an oven. Slim breaks in, pretending to be a cop cracking down on this particular type of voodoo. Jackson is scammed, his apartment damaged, and his heart broken when he discovers Imabelle is gone when he returns home after giving Slim all his money as a bribe. "Please don't let her be gone," Jackson asks de Lawd, and you almost feel badly for laughing at Whitaker's delivery. The neighborhood Muslim, Claude X (Willard Pugh, looking very Nation of Islam in his tie and glasses), tells Jackson to seek out his step-brother to help him get his woman back.

Jackson's step-brother is named Sherman, though he prefers Goldy. Goldy (Gregory Hines) is a gold-toothed horndog who scams the kids in Harlem by selling them $5 tickets he says will get their dying loved ones into Heaven. He hasn't spoken to Jackson in years, which suits the latter fine until he needs help getting his groove back. Goldy isn't interested in helping Jackson who, despite ignoring several religious tenets in the last few paragraphs, still acts pious when he encounters Goldy dressed like a priest. Goldy shoos his bro away, until he hears about the trunk of gold Imabelle has in her possession. "You get the girl, I get the gold," he tells Jackson, who agrees to take love over money.

Goldy seems less dangerous than most of Harlem, but Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones (Stack Pierce and George Wallace) are obsessed with shooting him. When Ed and Digger discover that Goldy is wrapped up in the Slim caper, they can't resist this two-for-one sale. Jackson's landlord (Helen Martin) describes the woman he has been "fornicating with," and the men who took her. Martin would remember Imabelle, too. When Jackson brings her home, Martin looks at her and complains "if Jesus was on Earth today, He'd climb back up on the cross and start over!" To the detectives, she mentions the heavy trunk the men were hurrying out of the building. "That may be that trunk of gold," says Digger. "Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't," says Martin, "but somebody's gonna pay $179 for my busted stove!"

The love of a good woman, or should I say the too-damn-good punany of a no-damn-good woman, empowers Jackson. He's still way too naïve for Goldy's taste, for he thinks Imabelle has been kidnapped. His attempts to save her lead Jackson to leap across rooftops, dodge bullets, and get involved with some of Harlem's lowest criminals. He is so delusional that, at one point, he challenges Slim to a fistfight for Imabelle's hand.

The film treads an uneasy line between Jackson's obliviousness and the dangerous nature of those with whom he interacts. To assist in the gold's retrieval, Goldy enlists his only friend, Big Kathy. Big Kathy is the tall, blonde madam of a Harlem brothel, but that ain't no lady, that's Zakes Mokae in drag. Jackson is horrified, and even more terrified after Big Kathy cleans his clock with one punch. Big Kathy is an interesting character, embodied by Mokae without once winking at the audience, and I wish he'd had more screen time. In his one non-drag scene, Mokae provides the film's consequences of the single-minded actions of both Jackson and Goldy, as well as Himes' penchant for broad comedy giving way to brutality. "I recognize that voice!" says an astonished Toles-Bey before slitting Big Kathy's throat while Goldy wastes time chasing his brother. "When I last saw you, you was dressed as a woman! You dat bitch that runs the whorehouse!" It's the film's most brutal sequence, infused with the notion that there is no way on earth anyone could have mistaken Zakes Mokae for a woman.

Redemption isn't high on Himes' priority list, but A Rage In Harlem seeks it in numerous characters. Givens, in her film debut, is convincing both as a heartless seductress and a woman confused about the mark she discovers she has feelings for; he may be the first man in her life to have treated her well. Late in the film, she tells him she doesn't deserve him, and she's right, but the film puts a gun in her hand and the audience on her side. Goldy's loss of his only true friend doesn't cure him of his greed, but it does allow the return of brotherly feelings toward Jackson. Jackson is still naïve, but his passion for Imabelle, regardless of its naivety, makes him man up.

Rage and Cotton are time capsules of their respective eras. Davis' film is looser, less moody and more comedic. It exists not as a period piece because its release was only 4 years after the novel was written. To look at it is to look at 1970. Rage is a period piece, heightened by the director's noirish cin-tog, the cars and the costumes. To look at it is to look at the 1940's filtered through the stylishly violent pictures of the late 80's and early 90's. The music in both films support this theory; Cotton has Galt MacDermott writing music for 1970, and Rage has the ever-reliable Elmer Bernstein offering a jazzy throwback that sounds like 1948 in something that feels like 1991. Both films succeed in their intent, and would make a fine double feature.

That oven scam involves putting money in a cylinder and then baking it until more money "appears." This is how President Obama is going to fix the economy, by the way.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Himes on Harlem: We Kick Cotton's Ass

By Odienator (Click here for all posts)

Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference. –Chester Himes

Chester B. Himes wrote novels that spanned genres, but he’s best known for his crime novels, four of which have been made into movies. Himes was an Ohio native who, after being expelled from Ohio State, turned to a life of crime that would net him a 20-25 year stint in the penitentiary. While incarcerated, Himes turned to writing as a way to earn respect and avoid violence. His novels ranged from autobiographical stories about racism to a candid take on homosexuality. Himes’ greatest fame came with the eight novels he wrote about Harlem, featuring recurring police detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. I’ve read six of Himes’ novels, and four of his works have been transformed from novel to screen with varying degrees of success. Today and tomorrow at Black History Mumf, we’ll take a look at two of these features, Cotton Comes to Harlem and A Rage in Harlem.

In 1970, the late Ossie Davis became one of the first Blacks to direct a major studio feature. His compatriots all chose material that came from literary sources. The pioneer, Gordon Parks, chose his autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree, for Warners in 1969. Melvin van Peebles chose Summer of ‘42 scribe Herman Raucher’s book, Watermelon Man, as the film he made before he changed the independent movie game. Davis, an actor and playwright (Purlie Victorious), chose Chester Himes’ novel, Cotton Comes to Harlem, as his directorial debut. Parks went on to direct Shaft, and van Peebles tackled Sweet Sweetback. Davis, the most cinematically experienced of them all, never directed another hit after Cotton.

Davis proved surprisingly adept at directing, balancing Himes’ penchant for hilarity and slapstick with his reliance on shady characters and graphic violence. Cotton is less brutal than both the novel it’s based on and the cinematic version of A Rage in Harlem, but it still has plenty of violence. Causing a fair bit of it is a duo played by Calvin Lockhart and Judy Pace. Lockhart, no stranger to playing men who are as trifling as they are charismatic, plays a preacher whose Back to Africa movement has stirred up a lot of interest for Harlem residents. The Right Reverend Deke O’Malley has promised them a boat ride back to the mother country for a thousand bucks apiece. This being 1970, that’s a helluva lot of money to go to a place none of these Negroes had ever been to before. Marcus Garvey and James Monroe may have been serious about sending folks Back to Africa, but Reverend Deke is full of more shit than a Christmas turkey—a jive Christmas turkey.

Seeing through O’Malley’s ruse is Coffin Ed Jones (Raymond St. Jacques), a police detective working the Harlem beat with his partner Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge). Ed complains to Digger every chance he gets, stating that O’Malley’s flim-flamming of his own people is worse than mistreatment by Whites. Digger responds with amusement, but doesn’t disagree. Ed wants to kick the Reverend where the Good Lord split him, and as Cotton Comes to Harlem opens, it looks like he may get his chance. O’Malley has shown up in Harlem to peddle his Africa scam, and the neighborhood outpouring is huge. O’Malley, true to the form of so many Black preachers, shows up dressed like a pimp, using de Lawd to get him chosen by the naïve and the overheated.

After taking in his haul of cash, O’Malley’s rally is interrupted by several machine-gun wielding men. They shoot up the place and are given chase by Digger and Ed. In the fracas, $87,000 manages to disappear from the scene of the crime, and O’Malley’s right hand man is murdered. Davis handles the action well, presenting a car chase with several entertaining angles, plenty of gunplay, an explosion and a punch line that plays hilariously on a certain stereotypical fruit.

It’s the film’s first juggle of comedy and violence, and it’s well balanced.

Digger and Ed find the getaway car and the stolen armored truck hoisted at the rally, but there’s no money in it. Even more puzzling is a large piece of unprocessed cotton found at the scene. Digger, Ed, and their chief, played by Eugene Roche from Webster, are confused. What would cotton be doing in Harlem?

A pickpocket named Early Riser is run over by the robbery suspects’ car. He goes flying comically into the air, a visual reminder of an earlier scene where Digger absurdly tosses a Black militant guy about 50 feet in the air. The pickpocket’s fate is a lot more tragic—he’s killed—but his death may provide a clue to the robbery suspects. Seems Early Riser’s junkie sidekick, Lo Boy, may have seen more than enough to help Coffin Ed and Digger’s investigation. Lo Boy is played, rather convincingly, by Cleavon Little 4 years before he brought color to the Wild West.

Digger and Ed question Lo Boy, but he’s too high to be coherent. At least until Ed starts slapping him around. St. Jacques must slap six different people in this picture; Lockhart looks like a pimp and St. Jacques uses his hand like one. Ed slaps information out of Lo Boy that indicates the thieves in question were White. “They had masks on,” yells Ed. “How the hell did you know they was White?” SLAP SLAP! Lo Boy cries out “because they ran White, dammit!” The duo think it’s the Mob, but the Don tells them otherwise.

Meanwhile, Deke O’Malley, whose name conjures up images of Bing “Dial O for O’Malley” Crosby’s priest in Going My Way, works his way to the home of his right hand man’s woman, Sister Mabel. She’s very cute, and very stupid. O’Malley turns on the charm and gets with her (“Dial O for Orgasm?”). She’s willing to be his spy in exchange for what Biggie Smalls once called “that good luv, gurl, you didn’t know?” (Aside: Calvin Lockhart’s character in Let’s Do It Again is where Christopher Wallace got his nom de rap.) This doesn’t sit well with O’Malley’s woman, Iris (Judy Pace). Iris is as hot as she is hot-headed, and when Ed and Digger assign a goofy, White cop to guard her until O’Malley shows up, she not only manages to get him (and us) so hot and bothered with her nudity that he’s willing to wear a bag over his head in order to have sex with her, she also manages to outwit him before he can get any nookie. He runs after her wearing nothing but that bag, and winds up locked outside butt naked as she runs out of her apartment. The neighbors, all Black, have a good laugh at the guy’s equipment.

While the cop treats the ladies in the audience to an equal amount of nakedness, Iris runs to her friend’s rehearsal at the Apollo. The friend is a stripper (Ossie likes these hot Black women!) who lets Iris borrow something less revealing to wear. “You must have left in a hurry,” says the stripper, who until this moment has been frustrated trying to find a new hook for her big routine. Iris grabs an outfit and heads to the house where her man has been shacking up with that other woman.
As aforementioned, Iris is one angry sistah. When she becomes aware that her man has been screwing the competition, she erupts in violence. “I just needed somewhere to stay,” yells Deke, trying to prevent Iris from whipping the other woman’s ass. “Yeah, between this bitch’s legs!” she screams. As played by Pace, Iris is one hell of a character. One minute she’s peaches and cream, the next minute she’s punches and screams. Davis gives us some tasty catfight shots between the two women before Iris uses a model boat—the same one O’Malley has promised the faithful Back to Africa folks—to fracture Mabel’s skull. O’Malley takes a page from his nemesis, Coffin Ed, and bitchslaps Iris unconscious, leaving her to pay for her sins when the cops show up.
That bale of cotton, the one in the title, winds up in the hands of a junk man played by Redd Foxx. This was before Sanford and Son, though a scene with Foxx and Helen Martin plays like a dress rehearsal for Aunt Esther and Fred. Martin winds up with a huge hole in her dress as the result of an earlier, botched robbery where a man cut the hole to get at her money. Why was she keeping her money under her ass? Had she not heard that Black women kept their dough in their bras? Speaking of money, guess where that $87,000 is hidden in this paragraph? Here’s a hint: It’s not in Helen Martin’s ass.

Turns out the shootout at the film’s beginning was planned by O’Malley, who was going to take the money and run anyplace BUT Africa. It winds up planted in a bale of cotton, which was lost when Early Riser got creamed by those cars. The bad guys know where the money is, so whenever someone mentions they’ve seen the bale, gunfire ensues at its location. Foxx’s Uncle Bud sells the cotton for $30 to a rival junk dealer played by the guy who played Sam Breakstone on those cottage cheese commercials, but buys it back at the behest of his friend. Said friend is the boyfriend of the stripper Iris borrowed clothes from earlier. Neither O’Malley nor the mob knows the bale’s not there, which leads to a gunfight where O’Malley is captured by Ed and Digger. After the gunfight at Breakstone’s yard, he asks “Who would kill for junk?!” Coffin Ed and Digger have an answer, but that person has apparently killed Uncle Bud.
O’Malley’s questioned at the jail, but he refuses to cooperate, calling our heroes all manner of Uncle Toms and demanding to be sent back to his cell. They allow him to leave, where he’s met by the jailed Iris. She does NOT look good at all, and after being in jail she’s gone from pissed off sister to full blown nuclear bitch on wheels. She tells O’Malley she’s spilled the beans on his corrupt operation, and then attempts to whip his ass. Digger and Ed have their man and their proof, but the next day O’Malley makes bail and attempts to find his $87,000. Iris also makes bail, and she still wants to kill Deke’s criminal ass. So do the people he swindled. And the mob too. Of all of those, I’d be most afraid of Iris.

Earlier, I didn’t mention that stripper for nothing. When Iris comes by to get that dress, the stripper is complaining that her routine is “too Uncle Tom.” She needs something different. So when she winds up with the cotton thanks to her man, she decides to use it in her act. Galt MacDermot, one of the writers of Hair, wrote Cotton Comes to Harlem’s score, and the song he comes up with for this routine is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever heard. It’s as if someone said “take the title of this movie and bring me back a song.” Stripper girl doesn’t want Tomism, yet she comes onstage at the Apollo theater dressed like Mammy and proceeds to dance all over this cotton while George Tipton sings some warped ass lyrics:

Down South, we sweat and strain
We were the prisoners of cotton
But when cotton comes to Harlem,
We kick cotton’s ass!

Down South, cotton was king
A Black man’s life meant not a damn thing.
So when cotton comes to Harlem
I kick cotton’s ass!

I suppose Tipton wears silk underwear.

Sondheim’s strippers sang “You Gotta Have A Gimmick,” but this is fucking insane. The woman strips down to this skimpy bra and panties, both of which are covered in cotton balls. She looks like Peter Cottontail doing ass claps. The audience goes wild. You deserve to see this routine before you die. Hell, it might even kill you. I refuse to believe the filmmakers expected me to take this scene seriously.

Is your cotton stretching right about now?

Everything comes to a head onstage. There’s a White man in blackface, a preacher having a nervous breakdown, a surprise in the cotton, an even bigger surprise by Digger and Ed that reverses the cottony surprise, and a completely out of place change of attitude by Iris. Digger and Ed solve the case, and Uncle Bud turns out to be in Heaven, but not actually dead. I wish I could show you the last shot in this film, which is of Redd Foxx and totally appropriate for that filthy, filthy man, but you’ll never be able to watch Sanford and Son again if I do.

Cotton Comes To Harlem is very well acted. Godfrey Cambridge is funny and credible as Digger, and Raymond St. Jacques, who starred in three of the four Himes adaptations, makes a fine bad cop to Cambridge’s good cop. The screenplay by Davis and (Spike Lee's film) Malcolm X cowriter Arnold Perl is full of funny lines, some taken directly from the book, and tightly written sequences. Lockhart is excellent here; at the film’s climax, he shows how pride does indeed goeth before the fall, revealing his character’s braggadocio as yet another con game. Surpassing him is his foil, Judy Pace who, a year later, would play Billy Dee Williams’ wife in the unforgettable Brian’s Song. The spirit of Chester Himes’ writing lives in her performance. I knew I was in love with her when, late in the film, she breaks a bottle and goes after the man who done her wrong. I didn’t buy her last minute change of heart for one moment, but I was too hooked to care.

Tomorrow, another fine soul sistah with a mean streak graces Black History Mumf in service to Chester Himes’ vision.

Ladies, don't fight! There's plenty of me to go around!