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Beyond “Blaxploitation”: A Few Oft-ignored Black Working-Class Microdramas of the ’70s

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While the month-long Classic Black Cinema series at the Enoch Pratt libraries and the 2019 African Film Festival shorts showing at the Parkway and Wax Print at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum are a few notable exceptions, there has been an overall dearth of Black cinema screening in Baltimore this month—Black History Month—and it is not a surprise. A lack of Black movie programming is a problem in Baltimore in general and in film communities pretty much everywhere. And there is always an unsettling sort of tokenism to it when institutions dedicate a month or, hey, even a whole year, to an “underrepresented” group. So this week, I figured I would suggest a few Black movies that stand a little outside of “respectable” film culture: Cotton Comes to Harlem and The Monkey Hustle, two of the sorts of small, working-class movies often forgotten for more serious fare when it comes time to think about Black History. Both movies are available at Beyond Video (2545 N. Howard St.), an attempt to counter the very convenient though inarguably movie culture-killing world of streaming.

A convoluted crime tale bouncing with Black joy, Cotton Comes To Harlem brings street fiction progenitor Chester Himes’ headbusting cop characters, Coffin Ed (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (the incredibly charming Godfrey Cambridge) to life. We watch as they race around Harlem looking for a bail of cotton with money hidden in it and chasing after a radical capitalist reverend—a Marcus Garvey meets Creflo Dollar antihero by virtue of him at least not being the cops—who stole the money from hardworking Harlemites hoodwinked by a “Back To Africa” scheme.

Directed by actor, writer, and activist Ossie Davis, Cotton Comes To Harlem has a Looney Tunes quality (a car chase results in a man flying twenty feet in the air) which complicates its rather grim view of politics and racial justice—as if it just plain refuses to be as cynical as it has every right to be and finds ways to crack grim jokes about 1970s Amerikkka instead. A goofy white cop gets seduced by the Reverend’s girlfriend (she says she’ll sleep with him if he puts a bag over his head) and then she sneaks off and leaves the cop naked and ashamed, a ridiculous kind of revenge surely rewarding for audiences at the time. An elderly hustle man played by Redd Foxx finds the cotton stuffed with money, and ultimately receives a heartening, ridiculous happy ending that Hype Williams’ Belly and dead prez’s video for “Hell Yeah” owe a little something to for sure and turns radical wealth redistribution into a quick gag.

And because it was shot in and around Harlem, you see the neighborhood closer to how it was, I imagine, or at least unencumbered by having to represent its storied Black history in every frame or, as it often was in white movies, as racist shorthand for the scary “inner city.” One sequence of Harlem storefronts at night, all in artfully composed medium shots, affords them some quiet dignity in the few frames they appear and, fifty years later, archives them in high-contrast comic book color. When characters pass by a movie theater, you notice Putney Swope, another radical politics send-up, is listed on the marquee—and two entries in a new sort of Black movie canon are suggested simply by chance. 

The Monkey Hustle

The Monkey Hustle, a Chicago-set movie following around Daddy Foxx, a Southside scam artist (played by Yaphet Kotto at his most mischievous), and never quite catching up with him has an almost Sesame Street quality to it. Sure, pimps strut around the periphery of the movie and crooked cops are in on the take, so crime is ever-present but only because, as its title suggests, crime is a harsh hustle—a job, really. But the movie moves along like a sunny, carefree day. This is surely naive. It is also crucial counter-programming to “blaxploitation” cliches that had really calcified by 1976. The plot—which here is just a thing to associatively tie these communal scenes together—is something about stopping a highway from being built through the middle of a neighborhood and how everyone bands together to oppose it, including Daddy Foxx, Goldie—a numbers man in an Isaac Hayes-like gold chain shirt (played by Rudy Ray Moore, who Eddie Murphy played in Dolemite Is My Name)—and Mama (Rosalind Cash), who runs a greasy spoon out of her home. Now that’s solidarity.

Similar to Cotton Comes To Harlem where cartoonish characters run through real-life locations barely touched up by Hollywood set design considerations, The Monkey Hustle puts semi-charmed characters up against the Southside of Chicago as it actually was. Even the Crosstown Expressway the community opposes in the movie was an actual project—in real life it also never happened—and so much of the movie happens on or around 63rd Street, in the Woodlawn neighborhood. Mama’s diner—some Googling reveals its exact address as 6431 South Kimbark Avenue—is full of concert posters (Natalie Cole, Sun Ra, Yusef Lateef) and if you’re really looking, an album poster for the nerdy British progressive rock group, Camel. This has nothing to do with the movie directly, but it speaks to contingency and complexity of culture and life that The Monkey Hustle captures so well: It is as if its sense of character and place is so strong it effortlessly manifests in even the tiniest details.

As a bonus suggestion—although it is not currently available at Beyond Video—I’d recommend political comedy Amazing Grace. A 1974 movie set in Baltimore and shot here, Amazing Grace is about developers trying to rig a mayoral election by contriving a Black candidate to run and split the vote and the people, led by elderly West Baltimorean Grace (played by comedy legend Moms Mabley), who fight back in typically complicated and slapstick-y ways to stop it from happening. Directed by Stan Lathan—who later co-created Roc, the Baltimore-set sitcom starring Baltimore actor Charles Dutton and co-starring Baltimore-born comedian Slappy White—Amazing Grace, like Cotton Comes To Harlem and The Monkey Hustle, is also a document of place: Morgan State University plays a major role in the movie and there are glimpses of the West side as it really was, especially during the opening credits which show arabbers rolling up Pennsylvania Avenue towards North Avenue and folks diligently scrubbing their white marble steps.

The Monkey Hustle

MOVIE LISTINGS

THE BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART, 10 ART MUSEUM DRIVE, ARTBMA.ORG

We Are Arabbers (Scott Kecken and Joy Lusco Kecken, US, 2004). Sat: 2:00 (free screening)

THE CHARLES THEATRE, 1711 NORTH CHARLES STREET, (410) 727-3464, THECHARLES.COM

2020 Oscar Shorts Animated. Fri: 4:00; Sat: 9:35; Sun: 1:45; Tues: 4:00; Wed: 9:35; Thurs: 4:00

2020 Oscar Shorts Live Action. Fri: 9:35; Sat-Mon: 4:00; Tues: 9:35; Wed: 4:00; Thurs: 9:35

The Assistant (Kitty Green, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 1:05, 6:50; Sun: 6:50; Mon: 1:05; Tues-Thurs: 1:05, 6:50

Revival: The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1963). Sat: 11:30 a.m.; Mon: 7:00; Thurs: 9:00

JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, US, 2019). Fri: 1:00, 4:00, 6:55, 9:35; Sat: 1:20, 4:00, 6:55, 9:35; Sun-Mon: 1:00, 4:00, 6:55; Tues-Thurs: 1:00, 4:00, 6:55, 9:35

Little Women (Greta Gerwig, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:55, 3:50, 6:45, 9:35; Sun-Mon: 12:55, 3:50, 6:45; Tues-Thurs: 12:55, 3:50, 6:45, 9:35

The Lodge (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:55, 3:55, 7:00, 9:35; Sun-Mon: 12:55, 3:55, 7:00; Tues-Thurs: 12:55, 3:55, 7:00, 9:35

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Sun-Mon: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40; Tues-Wed: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Thurs: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40

ENOCH PRATT FREE LIBRARY

The Best Of Enemies (Robin Bissell, US, 2019). Mon: 5:00, Edmondson Avenue Branch

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (David Leitch, US, 2019). Mon: 5:00, Pennsylvania Avenue Branch

Frozen Sing-Along Edition (Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, US, 2013). Sat: 2:00, Central Library

Jackie Robinson (Ken Burns, US, 2016). Fri: 3:00, Clifton Branch

Race (Stephen Hopkins, US, 2016). Sat: 2:00, Herring Run Branch

THE PARKWAY THEATRE, 5 WEST NORTH AVENUE, (410) 752-8083, MDFILMFEST.COM

1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri: 12:45, 4:00; Sat: 4:00, 6:45, 9:15; Sun: 12:45, 4:00, 6:45; Mon: 9:15; Tues: 9:30; Wed: 9:15; Thus: 6:45

And Then We Danced (Levan Akin, Sweden, 2019). Fri-Sat: 1:00, 4:00, 6:45, 9:15; Sun: 1:00, 4:00, 6:45; Mon-Thurs: 6:45, 9:15

Mariah Garnett: Documentary Appropriation Fiction. Fri: 7:30

Downhill (Nat Faxon and Jay Roach, US, 2020): Fri: 1:30, 4:30, 7:15, 9:30; Sat: 1:30, 4:30, 7:15; Sun: 1:30, 4:30; Mon: 7:15; Tues: 9:30; Wed: 7:15, 9:30; Thurs: 9:30

Fantastic Fungi (Louie Schwartzberg, US, 2019). Fri: 10:00; Sat: 1:15, 9:30; Sun: 7:15; Mon: 9:45; Thurs: 9:30

Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy (Kelly Makin, Canada, 1996). Mon: 7:30

Masquerade (Choo Chang-min, South Korea, 2012). Tues: 7:00 (free screening)

THE SENATOR THEATRE, 5904 YORK ROAD, (410) 323-4424, SENATORTHEATRE.COM

1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:45, 3:45, 6:40, 9:40; Sun: 12:45, 3:45, 6:40; Mon: 12:45, 6:40; Tues-Thurs: 12:45, 3:45, 6:40, 9:40

The Call Of The Wild (Chris Sanders, US, 2020). Fri-Sat: 12:50, 4:00, 6:45, 9:35; Sun: 12:50, 4:00, 6:45; Mon: 12:50, 4:00, 6:45; Tues-Thurs: 12:50, 4:00, 6:45, 9:35

Revival: Doctor Zhivago (David Lean, UK, 1965). Mon: 1:00

Revival: Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, US, 1964). Wed: 7:30

Downhill (Nat Faxon and Jay Roach, US, 2020). Fri-Sat: 4:05, 9:35; Sun-Tues: 4:05; Wed-Thurs: 4:05, 9:35

Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, US, 2019). Fri-Sun: 12:40, 6:35; Mon: 6:35; Tues: 12:40, 6:35; Wed: 12:40; Thurs: 12:40, 6:35

Sonic The Hedgehog (Jeff Fowler, US, 2020). Fri-Sat: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00, 9:30; Sun: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00; Mon: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00; Tues-Thurs: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00, 9:30

Revival: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, Japan, 2014). Tues: 9:30

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