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.


Hal said...

Damn, this must be one Hell of a top 30 to have BLUE COLLAR at 31! It's definitely on my list of the top 10 films of the Seventies. For me, BLUE COLLAR never gets old, and I notice something new every time I watch it. Schrader's never equaled it IMO.

I just watched BUSTIN' LOOSE again on Netflix Instant, and I agree, it's hard to imagine it ever being remade. I wish Pryor and Tyson had worked together more than once; she didn't do much comedy in her prime years, but she was good at it.

Hard to believe that Robert Christian (also memorable in ...AND JUSTICE FOR ALL) passed away just a year later.

odienator said...

Hal, Blue Collar is a great movie and should probably be higher. But the numbers don't really mean anything--it's me cheating! I moved stuff around a million times. I should have just put them in alpahbetical order, but that wouldn't have been any fun.

I completely forgot that Christian died that early. He's very memorable in ...And Justice For All. For some reason, I originally thought he was also on the PBS series "Watch Your Mouth," but that was Joe Morton.