You can call blaxploitation films a lot of things, but one descriptor you don’t hear very often about blaxploitation movies is that they’re “nice”. That’s kind of the inherent fact about exploitation movies – blaxploitation or otherwise – that they gotta be aggressive at the very least with what they’re selling so that it slams on the lap of the viewer, whether it’s sex or violence or anything else that exploitation cinema is all about. And Arthur Marks’ 1976 film The Monkey Hustle (or The Monkey Hu$tle as the marketing referred to it and though I love that spelling, it’ll be too much of a hassle to type that out over and over in this review) isn’t really all that aggressive about anything, barring a few sequences. Its grit is minimal and in the service of realism more than attitude.
That realism being subject to Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods, because of course a 1970s blaxploitation movie would have to be set in the area most famously populated by Black-Americans (though a not insignificant part of it passes through Downtown Chicago). And the sort of story that writers Odie Hawkins & Charles Eric Johnson weave into the movie is kind of loose – the subject of its unfair negative reception that it still suffers to this day – but of all the colorful personalities in this movie’s vision of South Side, the one we attach ourselves most to is Daddy Foxx (Yaphet Kotto), a fast-talking hard-hustlin’ small time con man who has already taken under his wing the young Baby D (Kirk Calloway) as his protegé when we first meet him and is taking to teaching two other teens Player (Thomas Carter) and Tiny (Donn C. Harper) in his “Monkey Hustle” schooling.
And while I hate to show my hand so early in this review, I did dedicate this review to Kotto to begin with: this is by and large his movie, owning every shot he is in and delivering all his winding lines with a culture crispness and a speed that rivals any door-to-door salesman. Foxx is not just our anchor because the screenplay frames him that way, conflicting with a plot line involving Baby D’s older brother Win (Randy Brooks) coming back to town after a bad attempt at showbiz on the road and suspicious of Foxx as an influence on his sibling. Foxx is our anchor because he just dominates the screen, being performed by the best actor in the varied cast and having a dynamic swagger in how he walks and talks that would explain how easily somebody could be swayed by his charms.
And yet there are other characters. Some even making for worthy foils towards Foxx, like the flamboyant numbers man Goldie (Rudy Ray Moore, cast at the height of his Dolemite fame to the point that he’s billed next to Kotto for a small part and even takes up the front of my DVD cover) or the matriarchal restaurant owner Mama (Rosalind Cash). And they all have their own negative responses to the proposal of an expressway being built over their neighborhood, something that all the local forces band together to rebel against whenever we’re not just watching Foxx and his crew scam shop owners or Win work to regain the affections of his abandoned beau Vi (Debbi Morgan) or the local cop self-proclaimed The Black Knight (Frank Rice) just fucking up everywhere. I can’t help understanding the complaints about how unfocused and half-baked its script is, while also admitting it’s something I don’t care much about.
The manner in which issues are picked and dropped and forgotten is a big part of what gives The Monkey Hu$tle the amiable feeling it has. Goldie plays as something like a semi-antagonist for a brief time, being the employer behind the closest thing to a full-time antagonist this movie has: Win’s drug-dealing rival for Vi’s affections Leon (Frank Barrett). But one second, Goldie is confronting Player and Tiny for jumping Leon, the next he’s renouncing Leon in the view of everyone. Another moment emblematic of this amnesiac conflict-building is how a truck driver that Foxx’s crew rip off will jump into a length car chase with them, but then halt once he’s stopped by some firefighters being sprayed by local kids and jump out not in an angry mood but laughing at the scene along with the children. The troubles are abandoned the moment the chase is over. Even the last few scenes introduce a crisis of conscience for Foxx late in the game regarding Baby D that just gets tossed aside eagerly so we can rush to the credits.
That’s the way the world of The Monkey Hu$tle feels: nothing particularly personal, everybody is just playing the game and as Foxx puts it “there are many large and small inequities in life that Man must live with…”. And when it comes to actually confronting the man and telling them “no, you’re not stepping in our community” as the climax shows them doing, it’s by that shaggy solidarity that we buy their sincerity and success between the characters’ tension. It’s not a good script, but it tends to amplify the movie’s strengths: letting actors just hang out and be broadly cool. But particularly there is one strength I neglected to address and that’s the loving portrayal of that South Side and Downtown of Chicago that Marks and his crew bring.
It’s not just enough to have a colorful cast, but a grounded environment that is believable for all these characters to live and believe in enough to defend it. And Marks finds a variety of distinct locations to capture like little biomes of one giant world in between Bridgeport and South Shore: empty warehouses and lots, street parties, residential areas, and offices right near the elevated train, all consistent enough to belong to one idea of a Chicago neighborhood that every character feels right at home with.
So a sense of place and a sense of people, neither of which are bad things to have carrying your film. It just tends to show how my sensibilities are different from other filmgoers that I am so easily able to shake off the writing and attach to the liveliness of The Monkey Hu$tle that it ends up one of my favorite blaxploitation movies and thereby a source of optimism and comforting good cheer on the times when I need to watch it and get pulled in by Yaphet Kotto’s silver tongue and cool confidence. I hesitate in calling it Kotto’s best performance (largely because I’ve never watched Homicide: Life on the Street) but when I think of the actor, it’s his giant grin and hanging suit in this movie that pop up first as an image, even before his better-known work in Live and Let Die or Alien or Midnight Run. Just can’t deny why Daddy Foxx gets his way.