The Tale of the Foxx

In memory of Yaphet Kotto
15 November 1939 – 15 March 2021

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.

Spider vs. Octopus

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Let’s go back, boys and girls, to a time before 2008 when The Dark Knight nuked the whole cinematic world into a frenzy and remember the last time a comic book movie was close (but not that close) to being as widely acclaimed as the Nolan Batman films. Just four years prior, right on the first rise of the superhero waves, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 came out and had honest-to-God film critics proclaiming it as the second coming of popcorn movie Jesus, most notably when Roger Ebert (who had given the first Spider-Man an unenthusiastic “ok”*) titled it to be the Best Superhero Movie since Superman.

When I saw Spider-Man 2 a little later than the rest of the civilized world in July 2004, I was in Algeria and isolated from all of that noisy celebration. And my response to it was… I didn’t like it. This has changed significantly over the years to which I hold it close if slightly below its predecessor in my esteem, but when I remember the reasons I wasn’t fond of it, I’m not sure I’m entirely ready to dismiss 12-year-old me’s thoughts. The biggest one, as he’d ineloquently put it, is that it “doesn’t have much action”.

As I am now, I’d deviate a bit and say that Spider-Man 2 just doesn’t have that much energy. It still feels like Raimi is happy to return to the web-slinging superhero and help him grow like he’s Richard Linklater and the films are his personal Before trilogy. Spider-Man 2’s script (now by Alvin Sargent) is a lot more grounded in the human drama, expanding beyond the points in which its characters had been left off – namely Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) totally alone of his own volition and his regret for taking up this responsibility so overwhelming that he’s apparently losing his web-slinging and wall-crawling powers alongside his will, struggling actress Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) tired of waiting for Peter’s call and making decisions on her own terms, and boiling “friend” Harry Osborn (James Franco) who obsesses over revenge against Spider-Man for killing his father Norman (Willem Dafoe) just as their strained relationship was beginning to heal, unaware that Norman was Spider-Man’s foe, the Green Goblin. And while that grounding means the excitement is gone, the drama has more stakes and this allows the cast in on giving fuller performances than they already gave in the original.

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This lack of pizzaz is also reflected in the new cinematographer Bill Pope and his attempt to reel back from the original’s comic book color into providing New York City as a working town backdrop to Peter and Mary Jane trying to figure out where they stand in their relationship.

Spidey’s new foe this time around is also anguishing over the death of a loved one, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), seeing red for his wife’s sudden death during an accident gone wrong that left him under influence of his four metal A.I. tentacles** that earn him the nomiker Doctor Octopus. Octavius begins rampaging his way through Manhattan in movie monster sequences (including his awakening after the accident) of big sound and effortlessly breakable sets. Molina doesn’t have half the dizzying frenzy Dafoe had in his round (and that seems a casualty of giving him that tragic background, which prevents Molina from playing Ock as a total mad scientist monster like he clearly wants to), but he compliments the movie’s balance between soap opera drama and gigantic creature feature nicely, working so well with his co-star tentacle effects (puppets provided by Edge FX) to feel physically one with them.

He’s also the best thing about the movie’s sudden adoption to anamorphic aspect ratio, filling out the screen real nicely with the width and length of his evil robotic claws. Raimi and Pope aren’t 100% sure what to do with that screen space when Doc Ock isn’t eating it up, but every once in a while we get some really inspired moments like the unstoppable train being rescued by Spidey’s might with his exhaustion visually portrayed by his stance (though the idea of all these people knowing Spider-Man’s face REALLY put me off as a kid and I still think the Christ imagery is pushing it more than any scene of New Yorkers throwing trash at the Goblin). Or of course the comic book image of Parker walking away from an alley with his Spider-Man costume in the foreground and in the trash.

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The concept of Raimi and Pope’s visuals being able to compliment both the action and themes of the film is an aesthetic bilingualism that polishes Spider-Man 2 as possibly the most mature work in Raimi’s whole output, which again turns back to all of the dialed down Raimi-esque silliness (it’s there in teaspoons: Hal Sparks and Joel McHale both have comic cameos – Sparks’ is more farcical in the slightly extended and slightly inferior Spider-Man 2.5 cut, as well as the addition of J.K. Simmons hopping around his office in Spidey’s discarded outfit, and my single favorite bit of acting in Maguire’s turn as the character giving a passenger on the doomed train who’s criticizing his efforts a great big “are you fucking kidding me?” look). But the tonal groundings give more breathing space for Dunst, Franco, and Rosemary Harris as Aunt May to get to tease out their characters’ internal conflicts and have their little subplots as visible as the superheroics. Maguire himself meets up with most of the emotional arcs and stakes of the film, but seems to put up more of an effort than he should have to in this film, which only makes me turn once again to preferring Spider-Man.

At the end of it all, though, Raimi’s still having a ball of a time. The horror movie awakening of Doctor Octopus, the grandiose battle between Ock and Spidey on the Clock Tower followed by the train battle and rescue, these are all inarguably more interesting setpieces than any of the fights in the first movie, full of velocity and impact and opening many opportunities for the CGI Spidey to strike comic book poses like the final shot of the original film. The melodrama feels genuine and sincere, somehow having a few layers too many but propped up by a cast willing to justify all of them. And the saga of Spider-Man himself growing from outsider to big time hero continues to evolve thanks to Raimi’s sense of pace and utter love for the material he gets to hash out.

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*Indeed, this “meh” attitude to Spider-Man was literally my first encounter with a review by Ebert and given I was a child who loved that movie, it got us started on the wrong foot.
**Shout out to D.M., whose criticism of the film comes down to “1. How the fuck are people more impressed by this failing sun project than the invention of functioning, personality-full Artificial Intelligence? and 2. Why the fuck are they automatically evil robots who want to rob banks?” If anybody would ever come close to murdering my enjoyment of this movie, it’d definitely be you.