Monday, December 24, 2012

The Big Media Vandalism Christmas Special 2012

by Odienator

Welcome to the 2nd Annual Big Media Vandalism Christmas Special. We started this tradition last year, and it features soulful Christmas songs that you can listen to while you're wrapping your presents and waiting for Santa Claus. It's a tradition at my house to crank up tunes like these (and last year's offerings) as I attempt to wrap my presents. The finished product always looks wrapped by an arthritic monkey; at least the recipients know I didn't pay anybody else to do the job.

Last year, I had some of the more familiar choices you might be expecting, so check that out if you haven't already.  As far as holiday wishes go, I'll leave you with what I said last year:

Surrey down to our Stone Soul Christmas Picnic and sample our Christmas playlist. Merry Christmas to the Christians, Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish audience, and Happy Kwanzaa to the folks who are Blacker than I'll ever be. 

 1. My Favorite Things, The Supremes

As pennance, I start with a song from a musical I dislike, sung by a woman who wants to kick my ass for prior offenses here at Big Media Vandalism. Miss Ross gets our first spot in the playlist, and deservingly so. Like Coltrane's take, the Supremes' version of Rogers and Hammerstein's My Favorite Things is different and wonderful. I don't know how this became a Christmas staple, but whenever I hear it, I smile, showing the teeth I am sure Miss Ross will one day knock out when she catches up with my Black ass.

2. Please Come Home For Christmas, Charles Brown

You're probably familiar with the Eagles cover of this, a fine version in its own right. But this is the original, and true to its blues origin, it's sadder and more bittersweet. Sad though it may be, it's just perfect for a nice slow dance with the one you love. That is, if he or she has heeded Mr. Brown's musical advice.

3. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Temptations

While nothing can top last year's Temptations choice, Silent Night, this choice is almost as good. This cover has so much soul that one can imagine Rudolph sporting an Afro. I love love love when the guys yell out "HEY RUDOLPH!" The delivery of the lyrics ("c'mon c'mon c'mon c'mon and guide my sleigh tonight") is so much fun you'll want to play it again and again. Not exactly what Gene Autry had in mind, but I doubt he'd complain too much.

4. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, The Jackson Five

Last year, I had Mike and his bros singing what I once thought was called "Give It Up On Christmas Day." Apparently, Ma Dukes must have also thought that was the lyric, for here she is playing tonsil hockey with Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. Instead of leaving out milk and cookies, Santa is getting Mom and nookie. Of course, Santa turns out to be daddy in disguise, which only makes the song creepier. Finding out your parents are into cosplay will scar a kid for life. And speaking of randy Santa Clauses...

5. Back Door Santa, Clarence Carter

This was a special request from last year's show comments. I knew of the song, but I tried to have a G-rated Christmas special in 2011. With the inclusion of this raunchy 1968 number, we might have to run this show on HBO. Sung by the man my mother once referred to as "that nasty blind bastard," Clarence "Strokin" Carter, Back Door Santa is about exactly what you think it is. Santa comes more than once a year, and he leaves his women "sassified" for sure. The horn hook in this song was sampled for Run-DMC's  Christmas In Hollis. Speaking of Santa coming to the 'hood...

6. Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto, James Brown

The Godfather of Soul makes a plea for Father Christmas not to forget those less fortunate. Somehow or other, Santa managed to make his way to the ghetto, at least for me. Knowing what I know about Mr. Claus now, all I can say is: Some years, my parents must have had magic wands at their disposal. 

7. Christmas Rappin', Kurtis Blow

 Once again, Beat Street's famous Santa Claus rap gets shafted, but as the singer of this song once said "That's the Breaks." Before Run (who called himself "the son of Kustis Blow") and DMC took Santa to Hollis, Blow and his DJ told a funky story about Santa showing up to party and deliver presents. Sometimes Blow's rhymes make you say "WTF?"  (A stereu, Kurtis?!!) No matter. Play this loud while you pop and lock.

8. The Christmas Song, Nat King Cole

Mel "The Velvet Fog" Tormé's greatest gift to the world wasn't his 7 million appearances on Night Court. Tormé wrote this holiday classic, here given life by the unforgettable Nat King Cole. How can anyone not like this song? The imagery, and Cole's beautiful presentation of it, could melt even the Grinch's two-sizes-too-small heart. And here's Nat singing it live on his old NBC show. What else can one say about this version other than it is utterly perfect? Not so perfect is that version where Nat's pushy daughter, Natalie, invades this song to "duet" with her late father. This is the musical equivalent of that commercial with Fred Astaire's image dancing with the vacuum cleaner.

9. Someday at Christmas, Stevie Wonder

Last year, I said this song was just too damn depressing to be included, because it made me cry every time I heard it. That was last year. This year, I need to cry. We all do.

10. All I Want For Christmas Is You, Mariah Carey

Truth be told, I was never crazy about this song. At least not until a) I had someone to dedicate it to this year and b) Jimmy Fallon, The Roots, Mrs. Nick Cannon, musical toys and some cute little kids made me love it. Even a cold, calculated cynic such as I could hold no grudge after seeing this performance. When the kids show up, your smile will be bigger than Kool-Aid's. It's the perfect way to end this year's Big Media Vandalism Christmas Special.

Happy Holidays to all!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Happy 20th Birthday, Love Deluxe!

by Odienator

The music of Sade disarms women. It puts them in a safe zone, fully conscious of your less than noble intentions but ultimately helpless against—or maybe just charitable toward—your modus operandi of seduction. Not for nothing is the opening track of Diamond Life, their 1984 debut, called Smooth Operator. Sade will help you be one, and not because their songs are raunchy wallows in baser instincts. They aren't. Their music is an all-purpose playlist for mellowing out, making out, and getting out. That’s what makes it so sneaky. The hypnotic bass lines by Paul Denman, the sensual saxophone of Stuart Matthewman, the keyboards by Andrew Hale, the ever-present percussion, and the delicate, cognac-silky voice of the band’s namesake lead singer, Sade Adu are your co-conspirators. Resistance is futile.

Sade’s fourth album, Love Deluxe, turns 20 this November. Containing a now-unheard of amount of 9 tracks, Love Deluxe deserves to be listened to straight through, alone or with company. There is none of the bullshit skits or useless filler that current artists feel they must employ to justify the extra space on a CD. At just over 45 minutes, Love Deluxe fit on a cassette tape. It gets in, and it gets out, leaving behind proclamations of love, a quiet protest or two, and invitations to couplings both gentle and torrid. It contains some of the band’s best lyrics, which  is saying something as this album follows songs like The Sweetest Taboo, Love Is Stronger than Pride, Smooth Operator, Paradise, and my own personal favorite, 1986’s Promise opener, Is It A Crime.

Speaking of opening tracks, Sade knows how to grab the listener’s attention early. Those familiar with their latest album, Soldier of Love, may incorrectly think the band can’t sustain front-loading an album with the strongest song (after the fantastic titular track, Soldier of Love goes nowhere but down). Love Deluxe opens with the song even the least devoted of Sade listeners can easily recognize. From its bang-ready opening notes to its post-coital sigh-slash-exhale of cigarette smoke ending 7 minutes later, No Ordinary Love  is pre-packaged for hay-rolling and j-rolling. It survived being played under the trailer for one of the worst movies of 1993, and became the band’s signature tune. Synonymous with mention of Sade, No Ordinary Love would barely make my top 5 best Sade songs. I completely understand the beloved place it holds elsewhere, however; its infectious bass line wrestles you  into surrender and out of your drawers.

And yet, there’s a sweet innocence to some of its lyrics. The music is rated NC-17, but one can find some diehard PG-rated sweetness. “When you came my way, you brightened every day with your sweet smile,” sings Ms. Adu. Its against-all-odds lyrics approach minor hyperbole (see the title), but they never risk offense. It’s puppy love, but the throbbing beat guarantees that these dogs are going to get stuck together in the backyard. If you haven’t gotten the booty yet, you might want to shuffle Love Deluxe. You can’t lead off with this song. She’ll slap you and leave.

Feel No Pain, Love Deluxe’s second track, has lyrics that sound as if they were written yesterday. “Mama been laid off, papa been laid off, my brother’s been laid off for more than two years now.”  Later, she sings (while her background vocals wail “why why why?”) “There’s nothing sacred, breathing hatred, we have to face it, no one can take it and feel no pain.” The folk-like lyrics are counterbalanced by a driving, percussion heavy beat that gets the head nodding, both in time and agreement. Feel No Pain implores us to help those less fortunate, even if it’s just by cheering them up with your company. “Don’t let them stay home, and listen to the blues,” Sade warns.

I Couldn’t Love You More contains one of the more interestingly spare uses of piano chords in a song, serving not to drive the melody but to accentuate Sade’s vocals.  You look forward to that single chord at the beginning of every line. Matthewman’s sax turns up mid-song, and again at the end, to inject a sensual undercurrent to this paean to being in love. I love this song’s mid-tempo gentleness, and it contains one of my favorite lyrics on the album: “If everyone in the world could give me what I wanted, I wouldn’t wish for more than I have.”

Like A Tattoo
is a far better boning jam than Love Deluxe’s opener. Slower, with a guitar-heavy musical accompaniment, Sade presents Love Deluxe’s sexiest vocal. The instrumental break 2 minutes in is hauntingly beautiful, leading to a strong, powerful finish. “Like the scar of age, written all over my face, the war is still raging inside of me,” Sade sings. “I reveal my shame to you.” My only complaint about this song is its length. A strong finisher, but damn, it could have used a few more minutes, even if they were instrumental. Look a brother out. Damn.

Love Deluxe’s other most recognizable song, Kiss of Life is next. It holds a special place in my heart because it’s one of the first songs I learned how to play on the piano. And I’m such a shitty piano player that Stevie Wonder would snatch my Casio and hit me upside the head with it. Kiss of Life is the album’s most uptempo song. And it is pure joy, with Sade doing what every R&B/soul songwriter knows will immediately get them laid: Enshrine your lover with metaphor that includes Heaven or God. Kiss of Life includes guardian angels leading the singer to the love to whom she rhapsodizes in song—it’s divine intervention y’all! I don’t know a Black woman who won’t at least look at you twice if you mention her and Heaven or God in the same sentence. This would be my favorite cut on the album if not for the song that follows it.

In Cherish the Day, Sade once again trots out de Lawd’s place in the lyrics. “If you were mine, I wouldn’t want to go to Heaven,” she sings, and all I can say is “damn.” Cherish The Day itself is heavenly, an ethereal mix of angelic chords in the background, a prominent beat that doesn’t overwhelm, and perhaps the most romantic lyrics Sade has ever written. “You are ruling the way that I move, and I breathe your air,” go the opening lines of the song, “you only can rescue me. This is my prayer.” Listening to this song is like chocolate melting on your tongue, even if your current romantic status makes that chocolate taste bittersweet. Right in the middle of listening to this track for this piece, I was overwhelmed by my own thoughts of my beloved, and I started crying like a bitch. Even a cynic like me isn’t immune from Ms. Adu’s lovely delivery. And the video for this song is SEXY AS HELL.

Pearls, Love Deluxe’s most somber song, is its most thought-provoking number. Opening with a string section, the song is melancholy, impassioned and despite the instrumentation, feels more than a little like a gospel song. The latter rings true when Sade, raising her voice louder than she has on the previous six tracks, repeatedly yells out “Hallelujah!” Telling the story of “a woman from Somalia,” Pearls is more effective, and more haunting, once you realize what the Pearls in the song actually are. “I don’t know what she’s made of,” Sade sings of the song’s main character, “I would like to be that brave.”

The album’s penultimate song, Bullet Proof Soul, is kind of by the numbers, feeling almost as an afterthought. But it is by no means objectionable, and its lyrics about infidelity are a lot darker than the song feels. To the Beatles, Happiness was a Warm Gun. To Sade, love IS a gun and “it hit me like a slow bullet.” There’s some feistiness, and even threat, in Sade’s vocal and lyrics. “I came in like a lamb, but I intend to leave like a lion,” she says at the end. Hell hath no fury, etc.

If there’s a misstep on Love Deluxe, and it’s a little one, it’s the album’s last track. An instrumental called Mermaid, it’s a little too new-Agey for its own good, evoking a “What the hell did I just listen to?” effect. I like to look at it as a sort of “we-had-a-great-time-now-get-the-hell-outta-my-house” underscore, playing as the credits roll on whatever sexy movie you  made while enjoying Love Deluxe.

This is an album every player should have, and every jazz lover, every R&B lover, every romantic, and so on. Twenty years later, it still holds up quite well.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Big Media Vandalism's Sight and Sound Ballot (10-1)

by Odienator
(click here for all posts)

Sorry for the delay! We're here in the top 10 now, and while there are a few surprises, you all should have known what number one was going to be. Here are links to the other four entires:

We start this list with probably the most jaw-dropping title on the list. 

10. Claudine (1974)- Claudine crept into theaters amidst a sea of action-oriented Blaxploitation movies. Originally a vehicle for Diana Sands (and what a movie that would have been), Claudine cast Sands’ own suggestion, Diahann Carroll alongside a pre-Darth Vader James Earl Jones. On paper, Carroll would seem too bougie to play a woman with six kids on welfare. Carroll obliterates this notion, giving a down-to-earth, lived in (and Oscar-nominated) performance. Romantic comedies of any stripe really didn’t exist for Blacks, and while Claudine fits the rom-com mold in a lovely, old-fashioned way, it dives head first into some very thorny issues. The individual romantic selfishness of both Claudine and Jones’ Roop is reaped by the innocent children both of them produce. Claudine keeps shacking up with men who leave her, sometimes with an extra mouth to feed, and Roop is far from an ideal father to the kids he rarely sees. The cynicism on the faces of Claudine’s older children when Roop comes to pick her up is juxtaposed with the optimism of her younger kids’ yearning for a father figure. Yet we root for Roop and Claudine, for they seem to be each other’s correctives. Jones and Carroll, for all their comedic lines and situations, remain rooted in a gritty working class reality; their Meet Cute is more like a Meet Real.  Together, they’re dynamite onscreen--sexy, charming, and infuriating--with their stations in life instantly recognizable to ‘hood audiences. Only Claudine could get romantic foreplay mileage out of a bottle of Joy dishwashing detergent, and only this film can manage to balance romance with a scathing satire on government bureaucracy. Heartwarming, heartbreaking and hilarious, Claudine is not only my favorite Black romantic comedy, it may be my favorite romantic comedy, period.

 9. Sounder (1972)- Every viewing of Sounder reduces me to tears both of anger and joy. Martin Ritt’s understated direction and John Alonzo’s stunning widescreen cin-tog give the actors space—literally and figuratively—to communicate all manner of emotion subtly. This subtleness is all the more effective because it quietly imbues Sounder with an unshakeable moral outrage. These characters have to take whatever life throws at them, and do so without complaint. The movie does too. As a result, weariness is physically rendered upon the carriages of its characters. The three lead performers, Paul Winfield, Kevin Hooks and the great Cicely Tyson, make you  feel not only the world on their shoulders but the occasional moments of cathartic, unbridled joy. So many scenes in Sounder evoke response simply by depicting the scenarios adapted by Lonne Elder III from William H. Armstrong’s novel. Ritt’s matter-of-factness is both disturbing and effective, and his actors deliver for him in astonishing, beautiful (and Oscar nominated) ways. Sounder contains two of the most heartfelt hugs I’ve ever seen on film, with Winfield’s Nathan Lee the recipient of both. The first is between father and son, with Hooks’ David Lee accepting a freedom of sorts from his father. The second is the reason you should watch Sounder, a reunion between Tyson and Winfield that Tyson plays to the hilt. The physicality of her emotional relief is so powerful that it nearly stops the viewer’s heart. Tyson runs with reckless abandon toward Winfield, grabbing him so fiercely that you can almost feel Tyson’s arms around you in the audience, the ultimate emotional consummation between the viewer and the film.

8. In the Heat of the Night (1967)- 1967 was Sidney Poitier’s year, with three hits that showcased his versatility as an actor. Poitier courted racial controversy in two of the features, appearing as a Negro more perfect than Mary Poppins in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and as detective Virgil Tibbs in  Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. The former had Sidney using his hands to hold his White fiancée, the latter had him delivering The Slap Heard ‘Round the World to a White actor who slapped him first. Neither played well in the South, where In the Heat of the Night was originally slated to be shot. Moving the shooting location to Illinois from Mississippi was as smart a move as Poitier taking this role. Harkening back to his angry performance in No Way Out 17 years prior, Poitier delivers a character far removed from the safer roles that endeared him to certain types of White audiences. Here, Poitier is defiant, an uppity Negro who demands respect (“They call me MISTER Tibbs!!”) and flaunts that he is smarter than all those White cops who originally accused him of the murder he’ll eventually solve. Oscar winner Rod Steiger in the audience stand-in, a blatantly bigoted cop whose sense of entitlement is injured first by Poitier’s paycheck, then by his big city detective skills. It all leads to the moment where, in an unscripted bit of business, Poitier broke the biggest taboo of beloved Black actors. Virgil Tibbs rises above his station and slaps the shit out of a White man of privilege onscreen. Black audiences reported erupted with cheers, and I think this scene alone may have been responsible for Poitier’s return to good graces with Black audiences. In The Heat of the Night is my second favorite Best Picture Oscar winner, and the only one that deals with race relations in a credible, realistic fashion. (If you think Crash does, please do a Sidney and slap the shit out of yourself.) Steiger and Poitier’s last scene together is a fine moment of under-the-surface things best left unsaid; it may have secured Steiger’s Oscar. Night is also notable for delivering an Oscar to editor Hal Ashby, who later directed another important staple of Black-themed cinema, 1970’s The Landlord.
7. Blazing Saddles (1974)- President Obama needs to watch this movie again. (I’m sure he’s seen it.) If he’s Black Bart, then the GOP doubles as the “God-fearing citizens of Rock Ridge” who, in the words of Dom DeLuise’s wife, “take issue with your choice of Sheriff!” I guess that makes the wonderful Gene Wilder’s Waco Kid, aka “The Deputy Spade,” all those liberal White folks who have “White guilt,” which makes them associate with Black folks. Regardless of how you slice the allegory, Blazing Saddles is an eerily prescient depiction of the majority’s reaction when somebody “different” is suddenly in power, be they a homosexual, a woman or, in the case of Cleavon Little’s Black Bart, a “suave urbanite.” Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest, most politically incorrect movies ever made, and  if I had two choices of movies to have with me on a desert island, it would be my second choice. (My #1 desert island movie tops this list—stay tooned!) Director Mel Brooks is in full control of the seemingly chaotic proceedings, crafting a credible oater out of the spare parts of leftover Westerns. And while racial slurs get thrown around for laughs, Brooks also uses them in one scene of genuinely effective heartbreak. Brooks and his co-conspirators, including actress Madeline Kahn and writers Andrew Bergman (who came up with the idea) and Richard Pryor (who wrote the film’s best line) get away with murder because they treat racists like the idiots they are. And while Bart’s nemesis, Hedley Lamarr, refuses to surrender to the monster he created by suggesting Bart for Sheriff, the citizens of Rock Ridge rally behind their leader in a show of solidarity they’d only do for one other person, Randolph Scott. This is a movie I can quote verbatim, from beginning to end, and it never gets tired for me.

6. Hoop Dreams (1994)- On my 1994 Ten Best list, I agonized over which films would be numbers 2 and 1. My choices were Pulp Fiction and Hoop Dreams. I had incredibly visceral reactions to both films, with the former filling me with a cinephile’s joy and the latter making me cry so hard I had to leave the theater to get tissue. My eyes were so blurry with tears I accidentally walked into the ladies’ room. In the end, I chose Pulp Fiction as #1 simply because QT had to create that from whole cloth while documentary filmmaker Steve James had a little help from forces beyond their control. In hindsight, I was probably mistaken about my decision. Hoop Dreams continues to haunt me in ways no other documentary has. This could have taken place in my neighborhood. I knew these people, and their struggles, trials and successes were MY struggles, trials and successes. I wanted to know what happened to William Gates and Arthur Agee, the two subjects for whom basketball may be the key to catapult them from the hood hustle to a lucrative career as a baller. For so many hoodrats like myself, sports seemed to be a potential way out, a stepping stone to pull you and yours into a better life. Well, for me, it wasn’t, as I’m way too blind to have been a pro at any sport, but as a kid I remained fixated on Black sports heroes. I looked at them and felt envy, but also the nagging feeling that I was going to have to use my brain to make a name for myself. That thought terrified me, and Hoop Dreams brought it all back in one fell swoop as I sat in the dark with other equally affected audience members. (One of them bummed some ladies’ room tissue off me.) Though nominated for editing, the Academy did itself no favors by not nominating Hoop Dreams in the Best Documentary category. 

5. Eve’s Bayou (1997)- Yet another instance when I was torn between two movies for my number one spot on my ten best list for that year. Eve’s Bayou wound up as my runner up, behind LA Confidential, but again in hindsight, I was probably wrong. Then and now, however, I was right about Debbi Morgan’s performance. It is one of the greatest performances given by an actress. She provides the balancing half of director Kasi Lemmons’ two-sided Southern Gothic tale. The other side is Sam Jackson in his sexiest role (yes, the man can be sexy, especially in Lemmons’ films). Eve’s Bayou takes over your imagination, creating a fully realized world heretofore unseen on the screen, at least with brown faces. Lemmons’ tale of the voodoo of selective memory and perception grabs you from its opening lines, immersing the viewer in the world of the Batistes. These well-to-do bayou residents have a generational tie to the titular location, and Amy Vincent’s cin-tog captures both the hazy heat and the hazy memories introduced by our narrator. The magical realism of Morgan’s Mozelle and her ability to see everyone’s future but her own has a counterpart in her brother Louis’ refusal to see a future that requires no magic to decipher. Jackson’s Louis has kinship with Donald Sutherland’s character in Don’t Look Now, that is, he is a man who refuses to give in to his own emotional observations until it Is fatally too late. Lemmons delivers a masterpiece that deserves mention in the same breath as other classics of this genre.

4. Do The Right Thing (1999)- I’ve written so much about Do The Right Thing already that I’m simply going to say this: Spike Lee’s best film so terrified critics that they thought the streets were going to run red with the blood of White America. Gil Scott-Heron’s revolution was FINALLY going to be televised! This ridiculous reaction, by critics who are still writing today, is amusing considering Lee’s even-handed treatment of the subject of race in America. The title itself should be applied to all of Lee’s characters; we should ask if they heeded Da Mayor’s (Ossie Davis) advice to Lee’s Mookie: “Always do the right thing.” What is “the right thing,” and does anybody employ it? This is the question I always ask myself while watching it, and the fact that the answers aren’t easy is what gave the wolf-crying idiots I mentioned earlier their sense of panic. Do The Right Thing is an American classic in that its day in the life plot masks a masterful construction of comedy, horror, and intense drama. Ernest Dickerson’s cin-tog makes you feel as hot and agitated as the characters, so when violence erupts, it is no surprise. Lee’s decision to cast himself as the one who throws the trash can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria is partially the reason for his reputation as a troublemaker in Hollywood. (Spike himself shoulders most of the blame, however.) Do The Right Thing pulls you through a gamut of emotions, and while it offers no easy answers, the questions it raises will be asked for years to come. This is the film whose shadow Lee has been trying to wriggle from under after all these years, but what a shadow to be under.

3. Imitation of Life (1959)- Death is The Great Equalizer. Like in Gone are the Days, Imitation of Life presents an integrated funeral for one of its beloved characters, Annie Johnson (Oscar nominee Juanita Moore). Ms. Johnson has succumbed to a broken heart, an appropriate fate in a film by melodramatic sadist Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s films are never about what they appear to be on the surface, and Imitation of Life’s subtle switcheroo from the rather bland story of its White family led by Lana Turner to the emotional powerhouse of its Black characters’ tale is truly subversive. Its passing for White subplot looms ever larger as the film unspools, and the death of Annie Johnson is the moment the viewer realizes which characters truly hold Sirk’s interest. Johnson’s longtime friend Lora Meredith (Turner) grants the deceased her dying wish, a huge funeral. Gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson sings on behalf of departed souls everywhere, and with every viewing, this is the moment I lose it. As Ms. Johnson’s casket is carried through the streets, Sirk plays his trump card against the status quo of the time. This is, as my grandmother once told me, the grandest funeral ever given a cullud woman onscreen. Annie Johnson’s life carried as much weight as her White counterparts, Sirk seems to be saying. Granted, this magnificent setting is a setup for Imitation of Life’s final gut-punch, delivered in the guise of Susan Koehner’s Sarah Jane doing the coffin leap so popular at Baptist funerals. “I killed my mother!” she yells, and though her agony is always tempered by my anger for her character, I realize that Sarah Jane is the only character who undergoes any change in Imitation of Life. Her acceptance of her unforgiveable Blackness comes at the highest price possible, the loss of the best person to instill and rebuild her Black pride. Sarah Jane is the film’s true tragedy.

2. The Color Purple (1985)- In spite of its occasional cartoonish depictions of negritude, The Color Purple remains one of the most beloved movies of “folks.” Critics stunned by the success of Tyler Perry were obviously not paying attention. With its downtrodden female characters, evil men, musical numbers and blatant gospel message, The Color Purple is the ultimate Tyler Perry movie. It’s a bootleg, ass-out ghetto fabbuhlous Beacon Theater gospel play helmed by a director at the height of his emotional powers. Yes, the edges are sanded off Alice Walker’s brilliant, epistolary novel. Yes, it is sometimes too pretty for its own good. Yes, its emotions are sometimes naïve. But my heart doesn’t care. Steven Spielberg kicks ass here, giving the old-school Hollywood treatment to a story of people of color. This film has everything, and for starved Black audiences like the ones who eventually gravitated toward Mr. Perry’s batshit, imperfect sermons, it’s a five course meal complete with dessert. The Color Purple is epic moviemaking, with spectacular acting across the board and unforgettable set pieces. The sequence where Miss Celie takes her revenge at the dinner table is so many things at once: A roundtable featuring 70’s cinema icons Margaret Avery and Adolph Caesar passing the torch to the next generation; an almost comical usage of the superstitious malarkey familiar to so many Black folks; a cathartic release for one character and the welcome return to normalcy for another; and one helluva crowd-pleaser. When Whoopi Goldberg’s Miss Celie finally stands up to Danny Glover’s Mr., you could hear a pin drop in my theater. When Goldberg yelled out “I'm poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I'm here. I'm here,” the roof nearly flew off my theater, with people applauding and yelling “Amen!” Shit like this is why I go to the movies, and no amount of bitching about technicalities will ever trump a response like the one I have whenever I watch The Color Purple. And I’ll dig myself even deeper here by stating that I love Oprah in this movie. Miss Sofia is the heart of The Color Purple, and seeing Miss Celie inspire her defiant spirit to return after so much misery made me want to cheer. They should have given her that damn Oscar instead of the honorary one she has no reason to get now.

1. Coming to America (1988)- This shouldn’t be a surprise to readers of this site. The most hate mail I’ve ever received isn’t for my takedown of The Help or any of the political satire pieces I’ve done here. It’s for my article on this film. There was an incredible amount of outrage because I called Coming to America “the Blackest movie ever made.” I was called all manner of racist because people thought I was implying that nobody else can appreciate it. My piece explicitly did not say that, so to quote Eddie Murphy: Fuck y’all.  No matter. Murphy’s hilarious tour of Planet Ghetto casts his Prince Akeem as the audience stand-in. Anyone unfamiliar with the quirky, funky characteristics of ‘hood life will get an education at the same time Akeem does. Whether it’s the church beauty pageant, or the reverse-engineering hustle of Cleo McDowell’s Mickey D’s ripoff, or the barbershop from where many of Coming To America’s most quoted lines come, Coming to America never steps wrong in its depiction of an environment folks like me know all too well. Toss in multiple comedic roles for both Murphy and Arsenio Hall, a sweet love story, James Earl Jones and his frequent onscreen love interest, Madge Sinclair as royalty, jHeri Curl juice stains and John Amos as a huge golddigger, and you have pure comic gold. John Landis and company give us such a beautiful, Ebony fairy tale. Africa is presented as a huge, glamorous heaven, with peace, riches and exorbitant costume design. From there, an African comes to America in a manner unlike any of the ancestors of the people he’d meet in Queens. And when he gets here, he finds love, opportunity and camaraderie amongst the hood denizens who see him as one of their own. In the real world, Akeem would have been rundown and depressed two weeks into this journey. But here, Akeem never loses his optimism. Murphy gives him a sweetness we’d later see in Sherman Klump, and when he walks down the street singing Jackie Wilson, he reminds you of your own moments of falling in love  Landis even manages to toss in his usual class commentary, with Jones (who gets so many good lines here) and Amos representing true bougie and wannabe bougie. “This is America, jack!” yells Amos at the snooty, rich King James Earl. “Say something else about my daughter and I’ma break my foot off in your royal ass!” If I were trapped on a desert island, this is the movie I’d want with me. Not only would it remind me of the characteristics of my old ‘hood that I’d miss, it would also remind me of the kind of unified America I wish truly existed.

I shall now return to the Fortress of OdieTude

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Big Media Vandalism's Sight and Sound Ballot (20-11)

by Odienator
(Click here for all posts)

We're in the "Top 20" now, though technically my numbers are bullshit. (Click for 50-41 or 40-31 or 30-21) They're designed to get you to take another look at certain movies--and to irritate you. Keep in mind this isn't a "Best of" list so much as a "Recommended" list. I recommend you take another look. Still, I expect trouble, which is what Big Media Vandalism is all about--we luv trubble!

20. The Blues Brothers (1980)- The best time I had at a theater in 2011 was a midnight screening of this film at the IFC Center. The theater had four (4) people in it, myself included, but I didn’t care. Seeing The Blues Brothers on the big screen for the first time since I snuck into it back in 1980 was awesome. The sound was cranked up, and since there was no one in front of me, it felt as if this were my own private screening. Like Stormy Weather, it assembled a cast of musical talent almost too big to fit in one movie. At the time Landis and Dan Aykroyd were penning the script, its musical stars were somewhat out of fashion. They existed more on the records your parents had than in the public eye. The Blues Brothers corrects that, introducing soul music celebrities to a whole new generation of kids via the fine art of multiple vehicular destruction (aka car crashes). Sure, it ushered in the disreputable genre of the “Saturday Night Live movie,” but this Mission From God serves a higher purpose. Jake and Elwood’s journey to save the orphanage is really a mission to save Cab Calloway’s job with the Penguin. Calloway raised the boys, giving them their style and their love of the music they once sang with The Blues Brothers band. To save Cab’s character, Otis, Aykroyd and the late John Belushi give the middle finger to the status quo, causing massive amounts of property damage. Landis seems to have made this movie, which wasn’t cheap, as his own mission from God to honor the music he and his stars loved. And what music it is, showcased in huge widescreen compositions and assaultive yet clear-cut editing by George Folsey Jr. Aretha Franklin, Brother Ray, and James Brown all shine. The latter’s musical number, set in a church, has a shot by Landis that drew gasps from me at that IFC screening. At the height of Brown’s number, Landis has him slide from one end of the huge movie screen to the other. The shot lasts about 4 seconds, but it was the perfect merge of two things I love most in this world, the cinema and soul music.

19. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)- I’m on record stating that Baadasssss, the Mario van Peebles’ film chronicling this film’s origin is a much better film than its subject. In fact, the most important thing about Sweet Sweetback is that it got made at all, for it changed independent and Black cinema forever. In the Hustling Hall of Fame, director Melvin van Peebles deserves a spot at the front of the room. The things he did for his visions are master classes in good old fashioned street ingenuity. Through those avenues, he managed to get a diverse crew of all races to shoot Sweetback, and even got Workman’s Comp for fucking too much on the job! What’s onscreen is sometimes an endurance test (the music, by Earth Wind and Fire and van Peebles, is at times pure torture), but the feeling it evoked in the community cannot be denied. It showed Hollywood that Black folks do indeed go to movies, especially if they’re about them, and ushered in one of my favorite genres of cinema, the Blaxploitation movie. Its ending is also worth noting, as not only does Sweet Sweetback get away (he’s on the run for murdering a cop in self-defense), he threatens to come back to collect the dues he’s owed by The Man. For a change, the brother on the run wins, and no amount of freaky looking, psychedelic cinema can undermine van Peebles’ message.

18. Shaft (1971)- van Peebles opened the door, and according to legend, MGM decided to turn their White detective Black. I put this above Sweet Sweetback for a personal reason: As much fucking as Sweet Sweetback did—and he did a LOT—I never wanted to be him. I wanted to be Richard Roundtree’s Shaft. Ike was right: He’s a bad mother-shut-yo-mouth. Sexy, tough, and yes, a private dick (told you I wasn’t giving up on my Private Dick Odie fantasies), Shaft is out to solve a kidnapping, outwit The Man and bed some sexy Mamas, all while looking so smooth he put all others to shame. Shaft opens with director Gordon Parks following Roundtree out of the Times Square MTA and into the wilds of Manhattan. With his leather coat, his attitude and his kick-ass theme music, Shaft cuts the figure of a cool cat I could look at onscreen with stars in my young eyes. He was my first movie man crush, and I haven’t gotten over it. Parks’ film mixes action with social commentary; Isaac Hayes’ vocals describe the ‘hood situation under scenes of Shaft’s investigation. Soulsville, the best song on the Shaft album, makes a stirring musical underscore to Parks’ montage (Parks himself appears here as well). For his trouble, Hayes won an Oscar for the “Theme From Shaft,” which he played at the Academy Awards while wearing a shirt made out of gold chains. For our trouble, John Singleton remade this movie and had the nerve to cast someone else as Shaft before bringing the actual Shaft back for a cameo. One look at Roundtree, who still looked superb, and I wondered why Singleton even bothered making HIS Shaft about Samuel L. Fucking Jackson.

17. Malcolm X (1992)- Idiots misunderstood Spike Lee’s use of quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at the end of Do The Right Thing. Imagine what they thought when Lee made an old fashioned epic about the latter, more openly militant civil right era figure. As the man once known as Malcolm Little, Denzel Washington gives his best performance. From hood to preacher to martyr, Washington carries this 202 minute movie on the strength of his transformations. The late Al Freeman, Jr.  is eerie as Elijah Muhammad, whose religious influence and mentoring Malcolm X embraces then reconsiders. Ernest Dickerson’s cin-tog doesn’t match his masterpiece work on Lee’s Mo Better Blues, but it at least deserved an Oscar nod. Considering how poorly the Academy treated the Prince of Darkness, it’s no surprise that The Prince of Dark Skin would get even worse treatment. I can think of only one other film about Blacks that can be considered an epic (it’ll be arriving later). Though Lee’s penchant for being a provocateur appears in full force during the opening credits sequence, he mostly stands back and lets Malcolm X tell his own story (via his book The Autobiography of Malcolm X). As usual, Lee was snubbed by the awards for his most ambitious work to date, and Washington was robbed of an Oscar by another actor who knew what that felt like. Malcolm X occasionally evokes memories of old studio system biopics about real life heroes like Darryl Zanuck’s Wilson, yet its subject is far more polarizing and by default more interesting than those old biopics ever were. Lee famously requested that kids cut school to see Malcolm X, which brought almost as much attention to the movie as all that damn merchandise that turned the 24th letter of the alphabet into jackets and hats and t-shirts.

16. Coffy (1973)- 1973 brought a double dose of fine Black women kicking ass and taking names. Warner Bros. gave us the PG-rated Cleopatra Jones, with its must-see performance by Shelley Winters and its fashionable heroine played by Tamara Dobson. Competing for the mantle of the Blaxploitation era’s first heroine was American International Pictures (AIP), who managed to beat Warner Bros to the box office by releasing Coffy. (Warners got their revenge on AIP later. See Abby for details on that!) Unlike Cleo’s movie, which I’ve much love for, Coffy is a very, very, very hard R.  The violence in this movie (especially its opening sequence) is still shocking. The chick doling out cases of cans of Whup-Ass is Pam Grier, an AIP staple finally getting her shot at a lead. When interviewed by Josiah Howard for his book on Blaxploitation, director Jack Hill said that he cast Grier as Coffy because “she had IT.” And she knew how to kick ass with IT too. Objectification of the heroine is a given, as this is AIP, but Coffy is oodles tougher and more violent than the three male Blaxploitation heroes who came before her. Priest from Super Fly would never have razor blades hidden in his hair (for starters, they’d either fall out of that damn UltraPerm or be dissolved by the lye) nor would Shaft pretend to seduce a criminal before blowing his head clean off.  Coffy is blatantly anti-drug, with its titular nurse going after the thugs who got her 11 year old sister hooked on smack. Grier unleashes a savage howl of fury, still unsurpassed by many heroines who followed, and to my female cousins, Coffy was far more empowering than exploitative. I saw this film way too young, as did my cousins, but none of us could stop admiring Ms. Grier. We went to all her other films too, but this one is her best. Affected QT so much that he cast Grier in Jackie Brown, a movie I wish I’d put on this list somewhere.

15. Uptown Saturday Night (1974)- The first pairing of  Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby is notable for so many reasons., not the least of which is that it’s funny as hell. Screenwriter Richard Wesley (who also wrote Let’s Do It Again) writes caper films for Black audiences, filled with little touches that ring true for ‘hood denizens. He also creates characters who are adults with adult problems. They may act ridiculous at times (Cosby sells some major woof tickets in this one), but unlike today’s movie adults, these guys are not written for 12 year old boys to relate to in any fashion. That alone is refreshing, but I dig jonesing on just how Black the plot details are in Wesley’s films. Here, Sidney loses a winning lottery ticket you KNOW he got from the neighborhood numbers runner. Said ticket is lifted from him during a robbery at an illegal after-hours gambling club. The thief, played by Calvin Lockhart, has a memorable voice and is probably known in crime circles. After trying a legal way to track down the ticket, by visiting Roscoe Lee Browne’s shifty politician, the guys take a tip from Browne’s ghetto fabulous wife (Paula Kelly) and decide to question members of the underworld. These figures have names like Little Seymour Pettigrew and Geechie Dan and are played by Poitier’s pals from his studio days, Harold Nicholas and Harry Belafonte. Belafonte’s Brando parody is inspired, as is Nicholas’ hyper-violent ass whipping of Poitier and the tough-talking Cosby. (The latter must be seen to be believed.)  It all ends up at a church picnic, where our heroes AND our villains follow that lottery ticket into some very treacherous places. As with Let’s Do It Again and A Piece of the Action, Poitier directs, and it must be said that he’s one of the most underrated directors of the 70’s. While I admit most of his 80’s directorial work is bad enough to make one’s hair stand up like Buckwheat’s, Poitier really had an interesting run of films he directed, produced and appeared in during the 70’s cinematic renaissance.

14. A Soldier’s Story (1984)- God bless Adolph Caesar. The voice of my childhood Blaxploitation trailers and United Negro College Fund commercials plays the ultimate illusion of inclusion victim in Norman Jewison’s version of Charles Fuller’s Pulitizer Prize winning play. Though technically a mystery, A Soldier’s Story is more of a whydunit than a whodunit. The who isn’t as compelling as the why. Caesar plays Sgt. Waters, a high ranking Negro official in the Army whose murder is being investigated by Howard Rollins Jr’s Captain Davenport. It’s 1944, and the Army is still segregated, but means of promotion are still approved by White superiors. Waters has done everything he can to ensure his position, including being extremely hard on certain types of Black soldiers AND selling his soul. As Davenport runs through the potential crime scenarios, a parallel back story emerges from Caesar’s performance. His death scene takes on a darker resonance after all the details are In place. His line “they’re all gonna hate you!” is a shocking moment of self-awareness, bringing with it the destruction of this man’s house of cards existence amongst his White superiors. Whoever murdered Sgt. Waters was doing him a favor after this revelation. All he created, and all he destroyed to achieve his position is for naught. It’s a harrowing portrayal, and the Oscar nominated Caesar sears his performance into your soul. A Soldier’s Story co-stars a young Denzel Washington and Larry Riley both of whom, like Caesar, were imported from the original stage play. Pay close attention to Mr. Washington, and you’ll see the early makings of Trip, the role that won him his first Oscar.

13. Killer of Sheep (1977)- Charles Burnett’s haunting, meditative and ultimately devastating indie film was resurrected from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight as a major work by a major talent. That it is, and it evokes memories of Nothing But a Man (# 25 on this list) in its depiction of the struggles of a married Black couple. Except here, it’s a free-flowing meditation rather than a narrative. The husband (Henry G. Sanders) works long hours in a slaughterhouse, which wears him down. Whatever is left of his resolve and nerve is worn down by everything else a life in Watts has to offer. I’ve read several articles on the film’s symbolism and its relation to Italian neo-realism, and you can read those too if you want that type of information. I will take a less scholarly approach: Watching this movie, with its seemingly disconnected vignettes, was like closing my eyes and listening to jazz--different types of jazz to evoke numerous feelings within me. It almost stopped being a visual absorption and started affecting my emotional sensors directly. Maybe it’s Burnett’s mastery of mood or simply the identification with his lead character. Someday I’ll put all my thoughts down and write a piece on this film. For now, I prefer to live with all my questions and my feelings toward it, and to read others’ work to see if they come close to saying what I’ve not yet been able to say.

12. Boyz N The Hood (1991)- Compared to its counterpart, Menace II Society, John Singleton’s debut feature plays like a kinder, gentler take on the topic of violence in the inner city. But I’m far more affected by Boyz, and I can relate to its lead character played by my doppelganger, Cuba Gooding Jr., more than any familiar character I met in Menace II Society. For a first timer, Singleton effectively uses numerous cinematic devices, but for me, the most memorable aspect of Boyz N The Hood is its sound mix. The realistic background sounds of the neighborhood are punctuated by the sudden pop-pop-pop of gunfire. Just like in real-life, it’s startling and unexpected, thereby keeping you on your toes. Boyz N the Hood builds its sense of unease—I’ve never felt more uncomfortable and worried while watching a dramatic feature—and we know things can only end badly. Ice Cube is fantastic as Doughboy, the jHeri-curled bad son of Tyra Ferrell. Morris Chestnut is her favorite son, an athlete most likely to catapult out of the hood and into a professional career. While it’s easy to predict who winds up dead, the scenes after the murder are even more powerful and horrific. Boyz made me reflect on my own upbringing, and how I managed to survive my neighborhood long enough to carve out a successful career for myself. Revisiting it reminded me of all those guys like Doughboy I knew growing up, giving me an unshakable sense of survivor’s guilt.

11. Gone are the Days (1963)- My piece on the movie version of Ossie DavisPurlie Victorious is probably not the best piece I’ve written for the Black History Mumf series. But it’s my favorite of all the Mumf pieces. Days is a satire, and as such has been criticized for being stereotypical. But the filmmakers and the actors know just how far to go before the line breaks. Godfrey Cambridge and Sorrell Booke (yes, Boss Hogg) have the hardest roles to play, and they both hilariously excel at them. Booke’s Cap’n Cotchipee owns Cotchipee County and Cambridge’s Gitlow is his favorite darky. Gitlow is smarter than he can let Cap’n Cotchipee know, and the ol’ Cap’n is a lot scarier than we’ll know for much of Gone are the Days. Booke plays him as a both a comic buffoon and a menace, a balancing act he admirably pulls off. Said performance is even more impressive because at the beginning of Gone are the Days, Cap’n Cotchipee is dead. He died standing up, and is about to be buried the exact same way. Preacher Purlie (Davis) and his galpal Lutibelle Jenkins (Davis’ wife Ruby Dee) come back to Cotchipee’s plantation to collect money due Purlie. It’s rightfully his, but he still needs to create a scam to get it. Purlie meets up with Charlie (a fine Alan Alda), Cotchipee’s far more liberal son, and Beah Richards as Charlie’s Mammy (and the scariest person on the plantation—even Cap’n Cotchipee is scared of her). It seems as if all the Black characters are playing roles in order to outsmart those In power, a note Davis’ play makes explicit in two lines of dialogue. Gitlow’s wife says “Being colored can be a lot of fun when ain’t nobody lookin’,” and during Cotchipee’s funeral, Purlie’s eulogy echoes the film’s theme: “and do what you can for the White folks.” To truly understand why he says that, and why it’s not offensive, you’ll need to watch this hilarious little sleeper. Remade as a Tony winning musical starring Cleavon Little, Melba Moore and Sherman Hemsley as Gitlow.

Next time: the "Top 10"

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Big Media Vandalism's Sight and Sound Ballot (30-21)

by Odienator
(Click here for all posts)

We're smack dab in the middle of the countdown, (click for 50-41 or 40-31) so let's keep moving with Big Media Vandalism's Black History Mumf Series' 50 Recommended Films, aka our Sight and Sound ballot IN COLOR.

We had a black and white TV when I was a kid, so this logo was bullshit!

30. Clockers- Spike Lee has always used his opening credits sequences to set the tone of his films. Clockers opens with one of the most harrowing credits sequences I’ve ever seen, full of young Black bodies cut down in their prime by bullets. Despite the slight desaturation of color, Lee’s crime scene photos pack a nauseous, horrific punch. The film that follows is no different, with its scenes of intense, graphic violence creating yet another set of crime scene photos. Richard Price adapts his novel, Marty Scorsese produces, and Lee coaxes outstanding turns from his actors, especially Harvey Keitel, Regina Taylor and Delroy Lindo. Keitel gives one of his best performances as the cop investigating a murder he thinks a low-level drug dealer named Strike has committed. Taylor’s scene of maternal ferocity stayed with me for days, as she batters Strike in an attempt to keep her kid from being influenced by him. Delroy Lindo, on his third tour of duty with Lee, turns in a ferocious, yet almost childish performance as Rodney, Strike’s boss and a man whom you do not want to piss off.  As Strike, Mekhi Pfeiffer holds his own against these heavyweights, but he is no physical match for Keith David, who beats him the way he beat Roddy Piper in “They Live.” The ending is a total cop-out, but in a way I completely understand Lee’s desire for some form of hope to push you out of the theater.

29.  Chameleon Street (1989)- I am purposely not going to tell you very much about this film, except that you need to see it. Wendell B. Harris plays Douglas Street, a con man who managed to outwit a lot of people by pretending to be something he was not, and playing off their perceptions of him. The real Douglas Street even managed to lie his way into the operating room, where he performed numerous hysterectomies. (In the film, Harris seals the deal on the job by solving his interviewer’s Rubik’s Cube.) At times, Chameleon Street plays as if Douglas Street were pretending to be a director and shooting this film, but overall, this is a challenging, rewarding work with much to say about how Black men are perceived and how we present ourselves. Poor folks in my neighborhood were always running a side-hustle (or a full frontal hustle, even). I think this is what Harris is saying—life is one big series of cons, some fun, some tragic. Despite being a big  hit at Sundance, nobody bought it and it slipped into oblivion for a while. It’s not in oblivion anymore, so you’ve got no excuse.

28. House Party (1990)- The Hudlin Brothers’ throw the titular event with rappers Kid n’ Play, and the widescreen party compositions shot by David Lynch’s cin-togger Peter Deming make you want to crawl into the screen to do the Running Man.  The duo with the same first name and their own dance star as two high school buddies looking to score some chicks at Play’s House Party. The women in question are Tisha Campbell and A.J. Johnson, who, like Kid n’ Play, are fully drawn characters representing the yin and yang of the Black color wheel. DJ’ing the party is Campbell’s future co-star, Martin Lawrence. Attempting to prevent Kid from attending the jam is practically the entire universe, from schoolyard bullies played by Full Force to the cops who refer to Kid and his high top fade as “Eraserhead.” Kid’s biggest roadblock is his single father, played by the late Robin Harris (who is excellent here). Harris punishes Kid by grounding him, quoting Bobby Brown in the process to add insult to injury. Of course, Kid sneaks out, and his satirical journey allows Kid to display impeccable comic timing graced with more than a hint of pathos. He gets to the party, but he also goes to jail (where the movie’s one big misstep occurs) AND he gets a leather-based surprise from his Dad when he gets home. We get to enjoy the Hudlins’ keen observations on growing up Black. I’m especially partial to a throwaway scene involving the proper way to make Kool-Aid.

27. Glory (1989)- Granted, it follows the aggravating trend of telling a Black story from a White character’s perspective, but at least Glory has a reason: It’s based on the letters of Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), who led the all-Black 54th Volunteer Infantry of Massachusetts into battle. And what a regiment he led: Andre Braugher, Jhimi Kennedy, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington have memorable supporting turns, with the latter two relishing the back and forth between young hothead and wise older man.  Washington’s Pvt. Trip is the stand-out, and after getting an Oscar nod for another (lousy) movie where he ceded the spotlight to a White character, Washington took home his first Oscar for this. Contains one of my favorite scenes in all of film, where Washington defiantly takes a beating for desertion. It was his Oscar clip, and probably why he won in the first place. I recall Pauline Kael disliking this scene, which led me to say “What the fuck are you talking about, Pauline?” for the 7 millionth time.

26. Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)- After I got hooked on the Walter Mosley “Easy Rawlins” series, I wished someone would make them into a movie. Enter Carl Franklin, director of One False Move. I chose Devil over Move if only to prove that Franklin was no one-trick pony, it’s a lesser known film of his, and also because it satisfies my fantasies about being an ace private dick (stay tooned for proof that I never gave up that fantasy). Washington is damn near perfect as Rawlins, sexy, dangerous and wary, but he is upstaged (and not enough times, I may add) by Don Cheadle’s terrifying Mouse. Had Cheadle 5 more minutes in Devil in a Blue Dress, he would have completely taken over. His introduction is an amusing bit of violence: “Fraaaank,” he says to his next victim. “His name Frank, ain’t it?” he asks Easy before shooting the guy. Jennifer Beals and Lisa Nicole Carson play salt and pepper femme fatales, with the former playing the titular character. Mosley wrote 11 Easy Rawlins books, and while they were a success, the movie underperformed at the box office and no other films were made. This remains devastating to me, as Franklin the adaptor and Washington the actor were perfect fits for all the material Mosley turned out. I want to kick the studio head who turned down a sequel in the balls—or send Mouse to make him change his mind.

25. Nothing But a Man- Ivan Dixon and jazz singer Abbey Lincoln star in this rarely seen love story co-written by Robert M. Young. Every time I see it, I’m astonished by how powerful it is, even in its quiet moments. Dixon plays Duff Anderson, a railroad worker with a checkered past who meets and falls for a preacher’s daughter (Lincoln). Director Michael Roemer constructs his film as a series of parallels; there’s a sequence where Duff visits the son he’s never met, then the father he never met. The father, played by Julius Harris, is a mean drunk married to another woman (Gloria Foster) when Duff visits him. While Harris acts up under the influence, Foster is both the voice of reason and a source of brief comfort for Duff. Foster conveys so much with her face as she looks at both men with a mixture of exasperation and understanding, a look mirrored by Lincoln in more than one scene. It’s easy to see why Duff couldn’t relate to his kid in the earlier scene. Nothing But a Man is a complex love story, with both parties attempting to be strong in a marriage tested by racism, unemployment and Duff’s own troubled past. It rings so true in its depictions of Duff’s trials and tribulations that I sometimes find it too painful to watch. But it is well worth seeing.

 24. Skin Game (1971)- James Garner and Lou Gossett play friends who run a con during slavery days. Gossett pretends to be a slave, and Garner sells him to make money. Then Garner helps him escape, after which they split the money. It sounds really distasteful, but Paul Bogart’s movie is a very funny satire with a dark undertone in the guise of Ed Asner’s mean slaver. That’s right, the nice old man from Up is buying Negroes! As an unusual take on race relations, Skin Game raises some interesting questions. It also provides some historical context regarding the battle of ideas between Kansas and Missouri during this time period. Garner and Gossett are game, and Brenda Sykes shows up as the one reason why the freed Gossett would consider re-enlisting as a slave. You would too. I’m going to close out this entry with my favorite lines of dialogue from this quotable, underrated flick. After the enslaved Gossett attempts to prove he’s been previously freed, he uses some SAT words. The overseer responds:

“That’s the goddamndest thing I’ve ever heard! The goddamndest thing I ever heard. I never heard a Nigra talk like that. If I ever hear it again, I’m gonna blow your Black ass off! Understand me, boy?”

23. The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 (2009)- Swedish journalist and filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson's documentary had such a profound effect on me when I first saw it that, to reconcile my thoughts, I wandered aimlessly around lower Manhattan for hours. Taking footage shot for Swedish TV, some unseen for decades, The Black Power Mixtape looks at some of the most polarizing figures of the civil rights era, those who chose not to subscribe to Martin Luther King’s notion of nonviolence as an agent for change. Olsson provides voice-over by Black musicians, writers and politicians of today while also allowing the surviving subjects to speak for themselves in present day recordings. The footage he collects from the TV interviews, some unseen for 30 years, is fascinating; these journalists are inquisitive and unbiased because they’re too green about the subject to form an opinion. This is a fact-finding mission for them, and for Olsson too. "I am not trying to tell the story about the Black Power movement,” he says. “I'm telling the story of how it was perceived in Sweden. So it's an outsider's look, from outsiders' material.” Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and others in the Black Power movement are seen both in moments of activism and moments of joking around, the latter of which humanizes them even if one doesn’t agree with their position. As I’ve stated here on this blog, I know what side of the fence I’d have been on in 1967—I truly understand why folks picked up guns. But the most interesting thing viewers may take from Mixtape is how Dr. King was seen by people in his heyday. One talking head speaks of “the Santafication of Dr. King,” and how all his rough edges and lack of popularity were swept under the rug in favor of a kinder, gentler man with a message. But make no mistake, he was perceived as just as dangerous and militant as his Black Power counterparts. I’d like to see a documentary on this idea as well.

22. Trading Places (1983)- John Landis loves Black culture (as we’ll see later) but he also cannot resist a good class and/or authority based comedy. Here he merges both, creating a fascinating argument about privilege and the impoverished. Don Ameche and his brother Ralph Bellamy make a bet over whether privilege or opportunity is responsible for success. Actually, the bet involves taking their rich colleague (Dan Aykroyd) and switching him with a con man (Eddie Murphy) off the street. They’ll give each the other man’s life and see just how quickly they start acting their new roles. With a little help, Murphy is making business deals (“oh, y’all a couple of bookies,” he says after Bellamy explains what his company does), and Aykroyd is forced into a life of crime and—gasp!—dealing with regular people. Trading Places is a sharper satire than it’s given credit for; it has something powerful to say about how unbalanced the scales are in relation to your birthplace and your birthright. It almost says that the American dream of getting rich is bullshit unless you have help from the people who refuse to give it to you. Unless, of course, they’re betting on your success or failure. The impoverished have become either a commodity or a nuisance in Trading Places, which still makes it timely today. Oh, and it’s funny as shit. This is Murphy’s best movie, but not my favorite of his.

21. No Way Out (1950)- The other 1950 movie for which Joe Mankiewicz was nominated for an Oscar finds Sidney Poitier in a role I wouldn’t have expected many Blacks to play at the time. He’s a doctor whose emergency room White patient dies in his care. The patient’s brother, Richard Widmark, is part of a family of racists that includes Blue  Collar’s Harry Bellaver (here playing a deaf mute whose signed, racist taunts Mankiewicz refuses to translate). They think Dr. Sidney killed their brother, and set out to destroy a man who worked hard to get where he is, yet whom they feel is less entitled to it than a White man who didn’t work hard at all. As with Billy Wilder in Ace in the Hole, co-screenwriter Lesser Samuels brings out the razor-edged brutality in Mankiewicz; the director visually treats Poitier’s examination of his patient as a violation seen through the eyes of the Whites in this racially tense town. No Way Out has stunning imagery for 1950: In addition to the examination, there’s a race riot where the Black part of town is invaded by an angry mob of Whites who immediately get their asses beaten. Poitier and Widmark’s final showdown is intense and ugly, with Linda Darnell a standout as a conflicted woman whose own enlightenment slips into darkness when reunited with her racist past. Before seeing it on TCM, I had never heard of this film nor had I ever seen Sidney this angry and militant onscreen. It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to see another side of the man who would become the biggest Black star in old Hollywood. I can only imagine how hard it hit people back in 1950, for it slapped the shit out of me decades later.

Next time: 20-11.