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.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Big Media Vandalism's Sight and Sound Ballot (40-31)

by Odienator
(Click here for all posts)

Our list continues with entries 40-31 (50-41 is here). Since Black History Mumf was so protracted this year, I've decided to include this list (and a few pieces after it) as part of the series. Better late than never, and you know Big Media Vandalism is on CP Time. 

Before we get started, Happy 80th Birthday to Sweet Sweetback himself, Melvin van Peebles. In Identiy Crisis, he has the one funny scene in the entire film. After he says "well, fuck a duck," this really hot lady says "Quack Quack!" Quack Quack indeed! 

On with the show.

40. Lady Sings the Blues (1972)- One could debate the merits of casting Miss Ross as Billie Holiday, but none could deny that she gives one helluva performance in Lady Sings the Blues. Ross’ opening scene is fearless, an intense howl of drug-withdrawal fury, and she’s equally adept at other feelings of desire, passion and longing. Her songs aren’t approximations so much as interpretations, and not as objectionable as Holiday purists would have you believe. She anchors the film with her Oscar-nominated turn (she’s better than the winner, Liza Minelli—yeah, I said it). As the love interest, Billy Dee Williams provides a blueprint for Black male suaveness unsurpassed even by Denzel. Williams is so debonair and sexy that if he needs Colt 45 to get a woman, I must need an actual .45. Cin-togger John Alonzo bathes his Black stars in the glamorous lighting usually reserved for the finest of old Hollywood studio system White stars. The resulting visual bling-bling is pure magic, even when Miss Ross is going after someone with a straight razor in order to get money for a fix. Richard Pryor gives the true definition of a supporting turn, and his comedic chemistry with Ross foreshadowed the similar vibe she had six years later with the Scarecrow we all miss most of all (see #50).
39. School Daze (1989)- Spike Lee followed his indie darling hit, She’s Gotta Have It with this ambitious feature no one saw coming. Part Animal House, part lecture, and all musical, School Daze proved two things: 1. Lee should make more musicals, and 2. Lee is just as sloppy and batshit insane behind the camera as his nemesis, Tyler Perry. Except Lee had the great Ernest Dickerson aiding and abetting him behind the camera on this, his most important picture.  Taking place on a historically Black college campus not unlike the one where Lee spent his undergraduate years, School Daze presents a conflict not seen before or since onscreen: The conflict between light and dark skinned Blacks. Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring and Gina from Martin rep the “wannabees”; the man who played Ike Turner and Lee’s sister, Joie rep the “jigaboos.” Lee tosses them into a dramatized fire with way too many plot irons in it, but Daze’s moments of brilliance (and there are many) outweigh its flaws. Lee may have literally defined satire at the beginning of Bamboozled, but he, his dad Bill and choreographer Otis Sallid visualize it in the astonishingly brutal and hilarious musical number, Straight and Nappy. That’s worth the price of admission alone. Sure, it’s a hot mess, but any movie that gives the world a song as good as EU’s Da Butt deserves a spot on any list of significance. I’ve gone through about 4 copies of this film’s soundtrack.

38. Super Fly (1972)- Widely considered the best of the Blaxploitation films, Gordon Parks Jr’s Super Fly certainly has the best acting of the bunch. But its message of capitalism at any cost always stuck in my craw. Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal) snorts more cocaine than Tony Montana while aiming for the big score that will get him out of the life for good. Never mind that he and his partner Carl Lee have over $300,000 (in 1972 money!) at their disposal already. That’s just plum greedy, and growing up in a drug-infested neighborhood gave me mixed feelings about this film. Priest is willing to stomp on the downtrodden so he can get paid, making him the ultimate Republican, but goddamn is this man cool or what? He’s a little too cool and seductive, dangerously so for impressionable young viewers like I was when I first laid eyes on Priest’s killer conk. Curtis Mayfield must have seen this danger as well, because the Super Fly soundtrack is full of cautionary tales disguised either as sexy braggadocio or funky riffed dance music. It may be the best soundtrack ever afforded a film, and though not the pioneer (stay tooned for that) it paved the way for every other movie soundtrack to come. It also started a fashion trend that, trust me, looked pretty damn cool in  the early 70’s. 

37. Bustin’ Loose (1981)- The lesser known of the two movies Richard Pryor did in 1981 is actually a better film. Tossing the foul mouthed Pryor with the prim and proper Cicely Tyson and a bunch of kids seems a recipe for twee disaster. But wait: these kids are fucked up, far more so than most mainstream movie kids would be allowed to be. And so is Pryor, their reluctant mentor, who drinks, smokes, cusses and wants nothing to do with them simply because they remind him of the troubled world from whence he came. One kid is a pyromaniac, another was forced into prostitution and another won’t let his blindness keep him from getting into trouble. Pryor deals with these kids in sometimes shocking fashion, but the way he begrudgingly accepts them with a “shit, I guess I’m all they got” is touching without being syrupy. Though it degenerates into some last reel slapstick (admittedly funny), Bustin’ Loose gives Pryor some of the best scenes of his career, both dramatic and comedic. He gives Tyson a run for her money acting-wise, and the scene where he runs into the KKK ranks as one of the funniest moments I have ever seen. My heart belongs to this movie. Features a Roberta Flack soundtrack that’s pretty damn good, too.

36. Which Way Is Up? (1977)- Pryor again, this time a lot raunchier and in three different incarnations. Echoing Peter Sellers’ turn in Dr. Strangelove, Pryor plays three roles here: a randy grandfather, an even randier grandson, and Reverend Lenox Thomas, a preacher so spiritually corrupt he heals people with a silver glove while sleeping with their wives. Director Michael Schultz colorizes Lina Wertmueller’s The Seduction of Mimi, and the result is not for the politically correct nor the faint-hearted. This is a nasty piece of work, and your tolerance for it depends on how dark you like your comedy. I think it’s hilarious, especially a scene of domestic dispute between Pryor and Shug Avery herself, Margaret Avery. Their relationship is a source of dysfunctional comic gold. Avery shoves a vibrator up Pryor’s booty (in a scene that blew my 8-year old mind) and whips him with a whip. Later, during that kitchen-set domestic squabble, Pryor chokes Avery to near unconsciousness before she turns the table in such stunningly violent fashion (Shug knows how to throw knives y’all!) you almost forgive the film’s misogyny: She gives far better than she gets. By the film’s end, you’ve seen one Pryor crushed by a tram (his casket is FLAT) and another practically raped by a prim and proper church lady whose husband was the prior Pryor. For a comedy this stank and risqué, the last scene between Pryor and Lonette McKee is a somber stunner. 

35. The Mighty Quinn (1989)- Denzel Washington stars in this island-set murder mystery, one of the best films of the 1980’s. Washington is looser than he’s ever been as Quinn, the island lawman married to reggae singer Sheryl Lee Ralph. The murder Quinn is investigating has his best friend Maubee (Robert Townsend) as the prime suspect. Maubee has no job, a penchant for Woodrow Wilson and at first seems like a Magical Negro until you realize Maubee’s keeping all his magic to help his own Black ass. An incredibly hot Mimi Rogers, representing the class line Quinn would love to pole vault over, shows up to play a tense, erotic and suspenseful scene with Washington. M. Emmett Walsh shows up as his usual bad news character and Esther Rolle gets her jollies as a mean voodoo woman way too familiar with snakes. This is a film where listening to the dialogue is a must, and for such a short movie It manages to provide volumes of entertainment and local color. These characters are all memorable, as is the scene where Washington channels his inner Taj Mahal at a bar piano. Director Carl Schenkel and screenwriter Hampton Fancher deserve mention for the film’s construction, which is so laid back despite its violent content that you could almost float a rubber raft lazily across its surface.

34. Cabin in the Sky (1943)- Lena Horne’s back! This all-cullud musical, the directorial debut of the great Vincente Minelli features Horne and her songstress rival, Ethel Waters battling over the same man. Waters represents good, Horne is evil, and the man they both favor is just plain no damn good. Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) gambles one time too many and gets his trifling ass killed. Waters’ Petunia prays to de Lawd and one of His angels is so impressed with her prayers that he decides to send Joe back to Earth. Unfortunately for Joe, his soul is property of Old Scratch. Beelzebub sends his son Lucifer Jr. (Rex Ingram, who played de Lawd in that earlier cullud musical mess, The Green Pastures) to negotiate. Junior agrees to send Joe back to Earth so he can straighten up and fly right, but he also sends Georgia  Brown (Horne) to tempt him. The smokin’ hot Horne sings “Honey in the Honeycomb,” which must be a euphemism for coochie, and Waters sings “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe,” though I seriously question that description. You could make a drinking game out of this: every time Petunia drops to her knees to pray to de Lawd, take a shot. You’ll be seeing Lucifer Jr. before the film’s final number. Yet another movie the South couldn’t cut Horne out of, because they damn sure wouldn’t have wanted to see Lucifer Jr. seduce Rochester.  Minelli shows signs of what would  later make him truly famous, and Waters is surprisingly good (and quite limber for a big gal).

 33. A Raisin in the Sun (1961)- Lorraine Hansberry adapts her classic play for the screen, bringing Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Lou Gossett Jr. and the magnificent Diana Sands to play her characters. The trials of Walter Younger and his family are compelling, and the story about “moving on up” to a home in a neighborhood that does not want colored people is no less moving despite somewhat showing its age. Hansberry’s dialogue is memorable: When Beneatha Younger (Sands) says there is no God, her mother Lena (McNeil) demands she say “In my mother’s house, there is God.” Later, Sands gets a line I’m surprised the studio let Hansberry keep: “That’s the way the cracker crumbles!” She is not talking about saltines, either. Poitier’s Oscar for this was actually given to him two years later for the trivial yet entertaining Lilies of the Field. Forty-some-odd years later, P. Diddy would  play the Poitier role onstage, and while he couldn’t hold a candle to Sidney, Phylicia Rashad evoked memories of what great acting can be as Lena Younger. Rashad’s version would make a fine double feature with this one.

32. Cooley High (1975)- Before Glynn Turman sported the greatest UltraPerm in film history in J.D.’s Revenge, he played a geeky high school student named Preach in Michael Schultz’s Cooley High. He was 30, but you wouldn’t have known that. Written by the co-creator of Good Times, Eric Monte, Cooley is sometimes referred to as “the Black American Graffiti.” I don’t remember anybody getting hit with a pile of monkey shit in George Lucas’ nostalgia movie, but they both share a musical soundtrack representing their era. Cooley is full of Motown hits, including a memorable use of The Four Tops’ Reach Out (I’ll Be There), but is mostly known for spawning both the TV show What’s Happening and the original version of It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye To Yesterday. With a song like that on the soundtrack, you  know somebody has to die in Cooley High. I’ll leave you to find out who that is, but I’ll say Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs’ character is destined for greatness, so it probably won’t end well for him. I saw this on a double feature with Cornbread, Earl and Me, but my fondest memories of this film are the numerous times NYC’s Channel 7 ran it on The 4:30 Movie.

 31. Blue Collar (1977)- This list’s second series of 10 is definitely the Richard Pryor era. He’s at 40, 37, 36 and now here. Pryor channels all the rage of his comedy into a stunning, Oscar worthy performance as one third of a hapless trio of auto workers whose decision to rob their union’s safe has dire consequences. Making the trio 2/3rds Black was unprecedented (Yaphet Kotto joins Harvey Keitel and Pryor), as was the overwhelmingly dark yet truthful depiction of class warfare. The powers that be, led by Harry Bellaver, turn the trio against one another, resulting in death and the violent dissolution of a friendship. It’s all for the union’s amusement, though this is a far cry from the comedy Universal presented it as when it opened. Director Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard give Kotto the film’s thesis statement, one that is more timely than ever nowadays:

They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.

Tomorrow, 30-21.