Monday, February 27, 2012

A Mumf Field Trip: Visiting The Hi-De-Ho Man

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, click here)

Sorry folks. I've been so behind on the Mumf pieces this year due to illness and other assorted madness. I'll make it up to you by extending the Mumf untll March 10th this year so I can get everything I want in. It'll be worth it, I promise. Tomorrow, I'll be here with a rather controversial take on the first Black Princess in Disney history.

For now, please stomp on over to Roger Ebert's The Demanders Blog, where you'll find Minnie the Moocher, Cab the Bandleader and Odienator the observer. I'm reviewing the PBS American Masters documentary, Cab Calloway: Sketches.  After reading it, check out the documentary on PBS On Demand. It's short--way too short--but enjoyable, especially for fans of the self-proclaimed "Hi-De-Ho Man."

I celebrated Mr. Calloway in my Blues Brothers piece a few years ago. It made perfect sense that he'd be The Blues Brothers' mentor, as Calloway's influence was felt in so many different places. Elwood and Jake sneaking past the cops in time to "Minnie The Moocher" was a perfect visualization of this.

See you tomorrow!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dumping Out My Elmo Haterade

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey made me feel guilty for disliking Elmo. I got over it, but this film made me see what all those little kids see in Elmo. He’s a comfort to them, and they identify with the little red monster with the squeaky voice and a love of Katy Perry’s ta-tas. As much as I tried to connect with my Elmo Hateration during this documentary’s running time, I found it impossible. Watching him come to life on the arm of Muppet performer Kevin Clash was hypnotic in a Manchurian Candidate kind of way. (“Elmo is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful furry monster I've ever known in my life.”)  Being Elmo doesn’t exist as a conversion tool; it tells a simple story of a boy and his obsession with bringing life to inanimate talking objects. It’s Frankenstein crossed with Willie Tyler and Lester.

Before becoming a cultural icon with toys that parents kill for, Elmo was a secondary character on the old Sesame Street. I have no recollection of Elmo being on any incarnation of Sesame Street I grew up with, but Being Elmo drags out clips of Original Elmo. He looks the same but has a deeper, more caveman-like voice courtesy of Muppet master puppeteer Richard Hunt. The clip shown in Being Elmo features Northern Calloway’s David, so I’d peg it around the mid 70’s, the same period I was hooked on the Street. I don’t recall Elmo at all.

Maybe I missed him because I was so wrapped up in two Muppets of my childhood, Lefty and Roosevelt Franklin. Lefty was a flim-flam man, a con artist with a shady Frank Oz voice. “Hey Bud,” he’d call over to Jim Henson’s Ernie, motioning him over to see what wares he was pitching. Gullible Ernie would occasionally fall for Lefty’s schemes, all of which cost “just a nickel (shhhhh!)” Lefty’s song about the first letter in Odienator is a classic in its own right. He was a parody of the old Times Square guys who used to sell things under their coats. One of those guys tried selling my Mom a television set he had under his coat. I’m not kidding. Lefty was a ghetto hustler, and that’s why I loved him.

Roosevelt Franklin was even more ‘hood. Created by Sesame Street’s original Gordon, Matt Robinson, Roosevelt had more than a bit of an ethnic tinge to him. Muppets don’t have racial constructs, but I won’t be going out on a limb by saying Roosevelt Franklin was as Black as his name indicated. He was also smart, something the other Muppets he appeared with were always saying. I was drawn to that as a kid, because unlike me, nobody was beating Roosevelt Franklin’s ass for being smart in the ‘hood.  He was cool and had soul.

Eventually, Roosevelt Franklin disappeared after Gordon’s role was recast with Big Media Vandalism favorite, Willie Dynamite himself, Roscoe Orman. Lefty was phased out as well, presumably for getting busted fencing jars of air and “The Golden An.” They live on YouTube and on DVD’s of the old Sesame Street, the ones with the ridiculous “adults only” labels.

At the same time Lefty, Roosevelt and the others lit up PBS, a teenage puppeteer named Kevin Clash was absorbing everything the Muppets had to offer. He sat so close to the TV that his mother had to scold him. Clash wanted to know how Jim Henson and company made their puppets. His puppets had stitching one could see, and the Muppets did not. His fascination with all things puppet made him a social  oddball. Even his sisters would torment him, throwing his puppets out the window and making fun of this teenage boy who should be outside trying to put his hand up a dress, not a puppet. While in high school, Clash gets a puppeteer job on the local Baltimore station WMAR. Suddenly, his hobby didn’t seem so silly to his classmates and family, and he decides to make this his career.

After Kevin Clash saw Muppet designer Kermit Love on TV, he desperately wanted to meet him. Mrs. Clash looked Love up in the phone book and called him. What kind of mother would call a stranger out of the blue and ask him to meet with her son? One who truly believed he had talent. Clash recalls making a monkey puppet out of his father’s trench coat, leaving it on his parents’ dresser to await their return home. As the time drew near, Clash realized his father might treat his behind the way he treated that coat. Instead, Mr. Clash gave him some advice: “Next time, just ask.” Mrs. Clash was astonished by Kevin’s talent. “I knew he was going to make money,” she tells us. “He could buy him another coat!”

Mrs. Clash babysat a lot of the neighborhood kids on the outskirts of Baltimore, Maryland. Clash would put on puppet shows for the kids, further demonstrating his passion to his parents. So Mrs. Clash called Kermit Love, and Mr. Love agreed to meet with her son. Love became a mentor to Clash, showing him how Muppets are made, explaining their seeming seamlessness and helping Clash create and work a puppet named Cicely. Afterwards, Clash gets hired by Captain Kangaroo and joins Love on the Great Space Coaster. (I have fond memories of the latter. Captain Kangaroo always got on my last nerve.)

It was through Love that Clash met Jim Henson. Henson and Frank Oz were working Ernie and Bert on the Sesame Street float at the Macy’s Parade, so Oz couldn’t do some of his other Muppet characters. Clash got to play Cookie Monster, which gained him access to Henson’s after party. One of the veteran Muppet performers tells Clash to go talk to Henson, as Henson has no Black puppeteers. When Clash freezes from shyness, Kermit Love does the talking to Henson for him. When Henson invites Clash to  work on a project (The Dark Crystal), Clash doesn’t want to give up his insane network TV salary. So he tells his idol no. “I couldn’t believe it,” Clash says. “I was invited to work with Jim Henson and I said no.”

Network TV got its revenge. The Great Space Coater was cancelled and, after 29 years, CBS did to Captain Kangaroo what I wanted to do to Mr. Moose: They kicked his ass off the tube. Now jobless, Clash got lucky when Henson invited him to work on the Jennifer Connelly/David Bowie adventure film, Labyrinth. (My undying love of this film is expressed here.) Clash played one of the freakiest characters in Labyrinth, a Fiery. In that role, he not only sang on one of David Bowie’s awesome songs, but he had to execute a complicated piece of Muppet Magic. It took him 29 takes. After the 28th take, he attempted to tell director Jim Henson it couldn’t be done. “This cloud came over his face,” Clash recalls. “He was NOT having it.” That 29th take is in the film. The result disturbed the hell out of me the first time I saw Labyrinth. It still does.

From Labyrinth, Clash gets hired on Sesame Street. After playing characters like Hoots, the sax playing owl,  a frustrated puppeteer throws a life-changing curveball at Clash. Literally. Richard Hunt, who had been performing Elmo all those times I didn’t remember, throws the Muppet into Clash’s hands. “I’m tired of this Muppet,” he tells him, “see what you  can do with it.” Clash put Elmo on his arm, and it was like Cinderella and her magic glass slipper. BAM! A Star is Born, one who takes over Sesame Street.

One of Henson’s veteran puppeteers says in voiceover “when a puppet is true and meaningful, it’s the soul of the puppeteer you’re seeing.” Clash’s soul beams through Elmo, and the childlike wonder emanating from Elmo attracts kids of all walks of life. As himself, Clash is soft-spoken, telling us stories in a quiet, sometimes bashful voice. As Elmo, Clash is dynamic and fearless. Seeing him interact with disabled children and Make-A-Wish kids whose dying wish is to spend time with their favorite Sesame Street character, I felt like a heel for finding Elmo so damn annoying.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is as sunny as its subject’s alter ego, but for a moment it treads into deeper, darker waters. Henson’s death is discussed, featuring that clip from Henson’s funeral that I can’t  watch without falling apart. Also explored, though not quite enough for my taste, is the toll Being Elmo takes on Clash’s family. He has a daughter who writes him an E-mail when she’s 15. The E-mail has a simple message: “I’m going to be leaving the house in a few years, and I’d like to spend time with you before I go.” Clash changes his schedule to accommodate his daughter (her Sweet 16 party features video messages from Jack Black, LL Cool J and a certain red puppet).

Clash is also shown training the performers on the French Sesame Street, providing the documentary with a little technical detail. I would have liked to see more of this as well, but I think director Constance Marks is going for something kids can also watch. She paces the film at a good clip, populates it with short talking head pieces by famous Henson collaborators like Joan Ganz Cooney and Henson’s right hand man (sometimes literally), fellow puppeteer Frank Oz. (Seeing Oz as a young man is JARRING.) It’s Oz who gives Clash some great advice about creating a character: focus on a defining aspect. Oz tells Clash his inspiration for Miss Piggy, and it’s worth watching this film just to hear it. (Being Elmo is streaming on Netflix right now.)

At the end of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, Clash returns the favor Kermit Love bestowed on him, meeting with a young Black girl with as big a puppet addiction as he had. He signs an autographed Elmo picture with “looking forward to working with you one day.” I wouldn’t be surprised if he does.

One final note: While Elmo was plotting to take over the world, Clash stole another show on regular TV. Using a voice strangely similar to Elmo’s, Clash portrayed the Baby Dinosaur on ABC’s Dinosaurs. The documentary makes no mention of this, but if you watched Dinosaurs, you got the feeling that Baby is Elmo’s dark side. He sticks his tail into electric sockets, beats his father with a frying pan, then has the nerve to sing about it. He’s a little brat. For some reason, I liked him a lot.

 People beat each other up over these dolls. I called it the "Fisher Price Vibrator."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

President's Day Double Feature: An Epiphenous Experience of Pure Religiosity

by Odienator
(for all Mumf  pieces, go here)

(Editor's Note: OK, President's Day is over by 26 minutes, but I'm going to attribute this to our double feature anyway! See here for the first half!)

Something the Lord Made holds a special place in my heart, with its searing, haunting and beautiful take on Dr. Vivian Thomas’ accomplishments. It’s my second favorite HBO movie.  The cable channel has made some great movies in the past 30 years, so I had plenty to choose from when considering what my favorite HBO movie was. Barbarians at the Gate. And the Band Played On. A Lesson Before Dying. Wit. Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Miss Evers’ Boys. The list goes on and on, and I’m sure I haven’t listed some of your favorites. But when I really thought about it, there was only one movie that could fill that number one spot. It says something about me that I’d choose a film about an unsavory type over Mos Def’s honorable doctor: I’m a nostalgic fool. So be it.

I grew up with Don King’s electrified ‘do on my TV. I asked my mother who he was, and she said the same thing she did when I asked who Nixon and Reverend Ike were. “He’s a crook,” she said. But not just any crook, as I’d later discover. Once he became a fight promoter, Don King was more Teflon than the Mafia. Nothing stuck to him, and on top of that, he was everywhere in boxing. The legend went that Don King always left the ring with the winner—even if he entered the ring with  someone else. Some of the winners he left with were Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, and Mike Tyson. In his heyday, he controlled 8 of the top 10 heavyweight boxers, and as King says in my favorite HBO movie, Don King: Only in America, “he who controls the heavyweights controls the world.”

Don King: Only In America is based on the book Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King by Jack Newfield (which I have read). Screenwriter Kario Salem and director John Herzfeld allow the events presented to occasionally be interrupted or framed by comments from an onscreen Don King. On paper, it sounds disastrous, but the concept is seamlessly integrated into the film’s narrative fabric. Salem’s adaptation and the film itself both won Emmys, and its lead won a Golden Globe he famously tried to give to someone else. Don King certainly wouldn’t have done that!

Herzfeld and company present a warts-and-all portrayal of Don King. The film opens in Cleveland in the 50’s, with a home invasion set to the O’Jays’ For the Love of Money. The crime results in King shooting one of the perpetrators who broke into his home to kill him. He gets off on that one and becomes a club owner with singer Lloyd Price. Price’s Personality (sung here by Price’s portrayer, Vondie Curtis-Hall) becomes sort of a theme song for Don King: Only In America. All of the fighters King manages during the course of the film can describe their careers with the word Price sings most in that song. (Hint: It’s not “Personality.” See for yourself.)

In 1966, after being humiliated by the mobster to whom he’s paying protection money, King storms into a local pool hall and beats to death a guy who owes him money. Don King: Only In America doesn’t flinch in presenting this crime—it’s brutal, violent and fatally rendered by Marsellus Wallace himself, Ving Rhames. Even as he’s being arrested, King makes it his business to stomp in the victim’s face. “I was defending myself,” says King, only to be followed by our “commentator” version of Don King. Meant to represent the current version of King, he tries to explain what we have just seen by using the Don King doubletalk and bullshit you’ve become accustomed to if you’re my age. Several times, King will show up to dispute what we’ve seen with our own eyes. At one point, his bullshit is so tight he almost convinces you to question yourself.

While in jail for manslaughter, King gets the idea to become a manager/fight promoter. He teams up with Hank Schwarz (an unrecognizable Jeremy Piven) and opens a business in Cleveland. King sets his sights on Ali, who in 1971 was trying to get his title back from Joe Frazier in the first of their three classic bouts. Ali lost that bout, and Frazier went on to lose his belt to the old-school George Foreman, the one who was mean and scarier than Tyson in his heyday. In order to sever Ali’s ties with his longtime promoter,  King tries going through Ali’s manager, Elijah Muhammed’s son Herbert Muhammed (Keith David). When that doesn’t work, he tries to block Arum by offering more than twice as much money for the title fight between Ali and Foreman. King doesn’t have the money, but a little detail like that won’t stop his determination. Knowing Ali is a Muslim, King plays up the importance of being promoted by a Black man, even if that Black man has no experience whatsoever.

Now that he has the fish interested in the bait, King gets an idea or, as he calls his ideas, “an epiphenous experience of pure religiosity.” He decides to set the match in Africa. This intrigues Ali, who sees a trip to the motherland as something that would fulfill a need in him to be close to his ancestors. King gets his deal, as history tells us, and the Rumble in the Jungle is set for October 1974. There will be a big concert with Lloyd Price, The Pointer Sisters, and James Brown before the fight. Don King: Only in America does a good job covering the same ground as the excellent documentary, When We Were Kings. It fills in some blanks with dramatized scenes of King interacting with the president of Zaire and Lloyd Price’s apology to a lawyer King has assaulted with a thrown drink. King sees this as a betrayal by Price, and their relationship is basically severed.

Don King: Only In America benefits from a superb acting turn by Darius McCrary (Eddie from Family Matters!!!) as Ali. McCrary nails the voice, and the prosthetics make him into a credible Ali. The Rumble in the Jungle is the fight where Ali used the “rope-a-dope” to defeat Foreman. “Rope-a-dope” can also describes what King did to his fighters, including Ali. Late in the film, a battered McCrary slowly speaks to the man who beat his ass in the ring, Larry Holmes. Holmes begs him not to fight anymore. “If you need money, I’ll help,” Holmes tells the mentor with whom he used to spar. “When Don King gets finished with you,” Ali tells him, “you won’t have much to spare.”

Ali should know. He sues the shit out of King, but King knows Ali is tired and suffering from what will later be diagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease. He sends $50,000 cash to Ali, along with an agreement for him to sign. The agreement will absolve King of any moneys rightfully owed Ali. When challenged on whether Ali will accept or go on with his suit, King says “To someone who grew up with no money, $50,000 cash is better than a check for a million dollars.” Cash doesn’t bounce. Ali takes the money.

Commentator King pops back onscreen to give his standard defense. “Did I hold a gun to his head?” he asks us. It’s this slippery logic that makes both the fictional and the real Don King fun to watch, a guilty pleasure simply because we know he’s horrible. “You love my Black ass!” he tells us. “I’m entertainment!”

Salem’s screenplay gives Ving Rhames plenty of delicious dialogue to render, both in context and in commentary. Don King: Only in America contains the greatest use of the word motherfucker ever put onscreen. King convinces an old reverend and his wife that the word “muthafucka” was invented by Blacks and was the only thing that hadn’t been taken from us. “Black people don't get no credit for nothing,” says  King in order to combat the couple’s offense at the word. “All we've got is one word. That word is muthafucka.”

He goes further, as always surveying the situation (these are religious people) and adapting to it. “You know who’s a muthafucka?” King asks them. “The devil’s a muthafucka!” He convinces the wife to say the word multiple times. In print, I cannot do it justice, but when you see this prim and proper woman yell out with religious fervor a ten letter word that isn’t “hallelujah,” you will find yourself on the floor. Don King is a man seductive enough to make both Lloyd Price and George Foreman sign blank pieces of paper as contracts. Surely he can get the pastor to cuss.

As King, Ving Rhames is brilliant. This is a fantastic performance, nuanced and complex, running the gamut from comic to horrific to tragic. Rhames nails King’s voice and mannerisms. He even looks like Don King. Whether turning on the charm for the film’s characters, or talking directly to us, Rhames is flawless. He even successfully navigates the film’s one cutesy meta moment, turning a profanity laced tirade about the network running this film into more than just an audience wink. He also tells HBO “I don’t see y’all making a movie about Bob Arum!”

Rhames also handles the dramatic moments well. Don King: Only In America gives him a terrific speech about his father falling into a vat of molten steel at the mill. “They didn’t even close the mill,” Rhames tells his stepson Carl (Lahmard Tate). “They gave us what they called ‘nigger tragedy money’,” he continues, telling Carl that this was the moment he realized that the world was “out to fuck him.” King sees this as solid reasoning for the way he flim-flams the boxers he gets after Ali, including Larry Holmes. The boxers don’t fight back, at least not physically. The film’s earlier scenes of graphic violence illustrate just how dangerous this man, with his silly hair and his made up words, can be if provoked.

Like Super Fly’s Priest, Don King is out to make money for himself, and it doesn’t matter how many people get crushed en route to the Big Score. King fucks with contract verbiage, pays less than he promises, and then plays the victim. The one time he’s actually right about being the victim, it still comes off as insincere. When Tyson bites Holyfield’s ear, King tells us “Y’all said Tyson bit his ear because I wasn’t feeding him.” He goes on, saying “let me tell you something: Tyson will be heavyweight champ again. And this time, you'll pay twice as much to see it.” We would have.

For all its comic dialogue, this is a very dark picture. So why do I like it so much? I can attribute that to Rhames, who plays Don King as if we were being told the Garden of Eden story from the snake’s perspective. King tempts these impoverished boxers (or boxers of some success like Ali) with the promise of a tangible payday, and when they bite into the apple, he entraps them. Then he says “well, I didn’t force you to eat it…” There’s something awesomely wicked about that, and while I could never root for King, the real or the fictitious one, something about him never being caught for his hustle caters to the hoodrat in me. King tells us at the end of Don King: Only in America, “If you didn't have Don King, you'd have to invent him.” Just reading about all the things King did and got away with, it feels like somebody did invent him. Truth is stranger than fiction.

 He'll share his popcorn with you, but only if you'll sign this blank piece of paper.

Monday, February 20, 2012

President's Day Double Feature: Cocaine Is A Helluva Drug

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

(Editor's Note: Time for our second annual President's Day Double Feature! This year, our topic is something both political parties love fighting over: Capitalism! We've got two rogue capitalists for you  here at the Mumf. I'll be back later to tell you about my favorite HBO movie of all time.)

The early days of Blaxploitation are filled with milestones. Sweet Sweetback showed that films for a built in Black audience could be made. Shaft provided the blueprint: sexy bruva, trendy clothes, lots of action, a little bit of sex and a killer soundtrack by a soul superstar. Coffy upped the violence, tapped into an anti-drug message and gave the male dominated genre a female hero who could kick a guy’s ass better than most men. The Mack introduced the Oakland pimp scene, giving cinema a glimpse at the bitch-slappinest fashion show to not feature Naomi Campbell, The Player’s Ball. Between Shaft and Coffy, my two favorite movies in the genre, is the film many consider to be Blaxploitation’s masterpiece, 1972’s Super Fly.

Gordon Parks, Jr.’s directorial debut has much in common with his father’s 1971 ghetto classic, Shaft. There’s a sexy, fine bruva in the lead. He’s got trendy threads, a bevy of women, a kick-ass mustache, impressive fighting skills and theme music by a soul superstar. The Junior Parks grabs these elements and Philip Fenty’s script takes them on major detours: Super Fly’s hero, Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal), is on the opposite side of the law. He dresses fancier than Shaft because Priest has a shitload more money than Richard Roundtree. Shaft is dark skinned with a natural ‘do. Priest is light-skinned, with an UltraPerm that puts the capital P in Processed Hair. Priest does martial arts instead of always shooting a gun.

On the soundtrack, Shaft was followed around by the soulful, deep voice of Isaac Hayes. Priest takes his cue from the superbad falsetto of Curtis Mayfield. Ike tells us his subject’s a “complicated man” and a “bad mutha SHUT YO’ MOUF!” Curtis sings of his hero’s “solid life of crime, a man of all circumstance, a victim of ghetto demand.” Both men were, to quote Shaft’s theme song, “sex machines to all the chicks,” and their methods of lovin’ put a twist on the old adage that cleanliness was next to godliness: Shaft gets bizzy with his woman in the shower; Priest gets bizzy with his lady in the tub. In slow motion.

From a cultural standpoint, Super Fly is the clear winner. The soundtrack sold like gangbusters, influenced soul music and cementing a market space for film soundtracks. Super Fly’s success at the box office proved that Shaft was no fluke, extending its genre. His Eldorado remains one of the baddest cars ever filmed (it was owned by a pimp who gets an opening credit AND a scene in the film in exchange for its use). And the film’s fashions were emulated by ‘hood denizens, including yours truly. For years, I’ve been threatening to post that picture of 3-year old Odie in his Super Fly coat and hat, an outfit as rust-colored as my red Afro. The reason there’s been no delivery is that I’ve yet to find that picture in any of Mom’s photo albums. Someday, folks, you’ll bear witness to a kid who looks like the pimp of the playground.

Until then, I’ll focus on the one other way Super Fly influenced we people who are darker than blue. According to comedian Sinbad, Super Fly convinced a lot of his cronies to enter the drug trade. I am too young to have paid any attention to a trend such as this, so I cannot speak for its truthfulness. But if you’ve seen Super Fly, you could make a convincing case for Sinbad’s argument. This movie makes selling and using drugs look cool. The amorality with which the film depicts this brands it as a product of another time, but it’s also a major sticking point for me. I am certainly no prude, and I enjoy when a film is ambiguous or amoral about the actions of its characters. But I also grew up in a crack neighborhood where I knew a lot of drug dealers and even more drug users. I’ve seen the ravages of drugs firsthand, especially on people who couldn’t afford their habits. Super Fly’s pusher won’t let the junkie go free, and from that he becomes one hell of a capitalist. It’s a little hard for me to root for this guy’s million dollar big score when much of it is linked to ravaging the neighborhood.

Youngblood Priest is a coke dealer. He wears a coke spoon on a necklace he is never seen without, not even in the aforementioned bathtub romp. Priest snorts a fair amount of The White Girl, and even appears with both figurative and literal White Girls in a scene that still carries a jolt today. The woman begs Priest not to go, and when he offers her a sniff of his product as a trade for him having to leave, she quotes an old cola slogan: “Some things go better with coke.” Priest doesn’t need anything to go with his coke—every other scene has him snorting it, with no reaction to it at all. I wondered why he was snorting it in the first place if it did nothing for him. “Maybe cocaine keeps his hair looking that good, like some nasal equivalent of jHeri curl activator,” I thought.

Rick James told us “cocaine is a helluva drug.” Eric Clapton told us “she don’t lie.” Priest’s product has netted him and his partner Eddie (Carl Lee) $300,000 over time. Priest wants to get out of the business, and he needs one big score to push his coiffers up to a cool million. Eddie thinks he’s crazy for wanting to get out of the life.

“You're gonna give all this up?” asks Eddie. “Eight Track Stereo, color T.V. in every room, and can snort a half a piece of dope every day? That's the American Dream, nigga!” 

Priest complains about what he has to deal with in order to maintain this “American Dream:” corrupt officers looking for a slice, insubordinate dealers, and occasional attempts on his life.

Later, Eddie challenges Priest’s plan:

“What the fuck are you gonna do except hustle? Besides pimpin'? And you really ain't got the stomach for that.” 

I would think with a million dollars, one could retire from The Game. Hell, $300,000 is enough—this is 1972 money we’re talking about here. Priest is motivated purely by business greed, and he’s willing to sacrifice a few of his cronies to get dat loot.  The Mafia is involved as are the police, both of whom want Priest to stay around because his organizational and sales skills are preternaturally good.  He recruits his old supplier, who has retired from the life, and gets one of his pushers killed. That pusher, Freddy (Charles MacGregor from Blazing Saddles) looms larger on the soundtrack than he does in the film. Back to Freddy in a minute.

Super Fly’s most controversial sequence references the photography skills of both elder and Junior Parks. Parks Senior took photos for Life magazine. Parks Junior was also a shutterbug of some note, and he uses his skills to take pictures of numerous people enjoying Priest’s product. This becomes a montage set to Mayfield’s score. Ron O’Neal objected to this sequence, calling it “a commercial for cocaine,” and his point is well-founded. This montage is edited with Madison Avenue precision, showing people enjoying coke more than Eddie and Priest seem to in the film. Parks gets maximum mileage from a low-budget idea, and along with the notorious bathtub sequence, provides Super Fly with its most seductive images.

If Sinbad’s claims of drug pushing are correct, Super Fly’s climax could be seen as the clincher of convincing people to try selling dope. Priest’s nemesis the Deputy Commissioner (played by the producer of Super Fly, Sig Shore) finally catches up to him and demands not only a big cut of the profits from this big score but also Priest’s continued employment. But Priest has outsmarted him by taking out a contract on the Commisssioner’s life. Should anything happen to Priest, the Commissioner gets rubbed out by, as Priest tells him “the best killers, WHITE ONES!”

“You better take real good care of me,” Priest warns. “Nothing, nothing better happen to one hair on my gorgeous head. Can you dig it?”

The Commissioner has no choice but to comply, and Priest drives off into the sunset (and into a sequel, Super Fly TNT, and a reboot, The Return of Super Fly).

In Josiah Howard’s Blaxploitation book, the author calls Super Fly the best Blaxploitation movie ever made. It is certainly one of the best acted, with O’Neal a standout as the protagonist. Whether sharing a quiet scene with his main squeeze, Georgia (Sheila Frazer) or threatening to put Freddy’s wife on the street if Freddy doesn’t deliver his money, O’Neal brings credibility and smoothness to Youngblood Priest. The supporting players are also convincing in their roles. The screenplay gives them several speeches, and the actors make some of them more believable than they deserve to be.

Ron O’Neal is billed as the star of Super Fly, but its real star makes only a cameo appearance onscreen. Curtis Mayfield shows up at a club to sing Pusherman, the second song on the Super Fly CD and the soundtrack’s most clever number. Mayfield also thought Super Fly was a commercial for cocaine and decided to counter it musically. On the surface, Pusherman sounds like a boastful Blaxploitation hero’s song, but underneath it is a warning to users. Containing the most shocking lyrics of the Super Fly soundtrack, Mayfield tells the junkie:

“I’m your Mama, I’m Your Daddy
I’m that nigga in the alley.
I’m your doctor when you need
Want some coke, have some weed.
You know me, I’m your friend, your main boy thick and thin.
I’m your Pusherman.”

Later, he tells you what your money gets him.

“Feelin’ good for the man
Super Fly, here I stand.
Secret stash, heavy bread,
Baddest Bitches in the bed.
I’m your Pusherman.”

Mayfield’s falsetto is sexy, seductive, and ultimately Satanic. This is a deal with the devil that won’t work out for you. The song is hypnotic, with its relentless percussion lulling you as a distraction from the bluntness of his words. His delivery of the line “baddest bitches in the bed” is an almost cruel taunt.

While the movie lives a fantasy, Mayfield’s songs bring a cold dose of reality. In Freddie’s Dead, Mayfield sings about Charles MacGregor’s fate in Super Fly. Super Fly spends little time lamenting Freddie’s demise  or making him any form of tragic figure. Mayfield fixes that on the soundtrack. The song’s matter-of-fact lyrics are jarring and real.

“Everybody's misused him
Ripped him up and abused him
Another junkie plan
Pushin' dope for the man
A terrible blow
But that's how it goes
A Freddie’s on the corner now
If you wanna be a junkie, wow
Remember Freddie’s dead.”

Later, he warns us “Don’t be misled, just think of Fred.”

All of this is wrapped in music that’s both bold and sad. Wah wah guitars and a walking bass line co-exist with a sad string section, representing the super highs and the terrible lows of Freddie’s addiction. This is my favorite song on the Super Fly soundtrack. For years, its funky opening sequence was my ringtone.

Mayfield also tries to bring a little more context to the life of the pusher. In the title track, Mayfield sings about Priest’s hustle:

“The game he plays, he plays for keeps
Hustlin’ times and ghetto streets, tryin’ ta get over.
That’s what he’s tryin’ ta do y’all.
Taking all that he can take
Gambling with the odds of fate
Tryin’ ta get over.”

Tryin’ ta get over. That’s what all we hood denizens were tryin’ ta do, y’all. But at what cost? That’s what makes me itch about this film. Should my feelings be filed under “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game?” Am I walking some kind of socialist fine line by making a distinction on what kind of capitalist hustle I can tolerate? Honestly, I don’t know. But Super Fly has always held me in a suspended state of equal fascination and repulsion. Its lead character’s ideas on making money at any cost to the disenfranchised would make him the best candidate the GOP would have to offer in the 2012 election, though I doubt the establishment could handle him.

 This would make one hell of a campaign poster!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Poitier-Cosby Trilogy: Biggie Smalls Is Da illest

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, George's not looking at a hamburger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The back of this couch sure feels like Negro!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their asses get thrown in jail!

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

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

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

This is worth $1 million!

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

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

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

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

 God, I love the 70's!