Friday, October 14, 2016

The Cat Who Won't Cop Out

If it wasn't one thing politics today, it was another blaxploitation in the '70s.

On my walk this morning, I saw a couple hammering a "Stoney for Mayor" sign into their pocket-sized lawn in the Fan and it was all I could do restrain myself from going over and demanding to know why they thought a man with such limited experience and tenure in town would be well-suited to running our city.

At the very least, I knew I'd have a sympathetic ear for the story later, when my plans were to meet up with an activist type to discuss all things mayoral before the VMFA screening of "Shaft" for the final night of the Gordon Parks mini-film fest.

Along the way, I spotted a dead raccoon laid out on Boulevard, with no cars parked anywhere near it, as if it had cooties or something.

Strolling down Floyd to get to Doner Kebab, I spied a yard with the right kind of political signs to give me all the feels, so I paused on the sidewalk to chat from a distance with the couple on the porch of the house, which just happened to be next to the one I lived in from 1993 through 2006.

It's a neighborhood I know well, even if it has become quite a bit more affluent since my early days there. Fortunately, funky still competes with renovated on block after block.

In a nutshell, the couple had been wowed by Balile's honesty and preparedness, could see why people were sucked in by Stoney's glibness, abhorred Morrissey and put up a Clinton/Kaine sign mainly to prove there's no shame in doing so.

I liked them immensely after 10 minutes conversation and discovering that her name was the same as mine.

A few houses down, I passed a raised garden bed from which sprouted the white legs of an upside down mannequin with black combat boots on its feet.

Ah, there's the Floyd Avenue that originally seduced me back in the '90s.

Naturally, the local political scene was all we talked about over Middle Eastern dance music and shawermas, mainly because there's so much at stake. As an unexpected bonus, the owner decided to throw his support behind Baliles while we were there, so perhaps we brought good vibes or something.

Walking into the museum afterward, the guard told me to enjoy my evening, and when I assured him I would because I was coming to see "Shaft," his face lit up and then fell. "That's playing tonight?" he asked. "And I gotta work."

We agreed it was a shame for him.

Downstairs, my dining companion and I met up to find good seats for the 1971 film and got to talking about that era when he'd been a conscientious objector assigned to work on LBJ's War on Poverty in Kentucky.

This is why you see a period film with someone who lived through the period.

During the introduction, we learned that "Shaft" was considered revolutionary both in terms of its cinematic role and its cultural role, not to mention the Isaac Hayes soundtrack that won the Oscar that year.

Told we were seeing the unedited version, we were both curious how it would stack up against current movies in terms of violence, language and sex.

And I've got to say that those first few distinctive notes of the "Theme from Shaft" (and the full soundtrack version, not the radio edit) along with shots of John Shaft moving through Manhattan (past Corvairs and picketers carrying signs reading, "I got my job through the New York Times") set the tone for a total immersion into the early days of black power.

It was a far cry from director Gordon Parks's debut film, "The Learning Tree," which I'd seen last night, despite there being only two years between the films. That had been a soft-lens focus look back at a difficult coming of age story where "Shaft" was all manhood.

And don't get me started on Richard Roundtree's dimple or the superb way that man wore a turtleneck.

It warms my black heart to see you so concerned about us minority folk.

But, man, was it ever a reminder of what another lifetime 1971 was. Hotels with telephone switchboards behind the front desk. Vegetable vendors with their products in wooden carts with metal wheels. A bag of hot chestnuts for two bits. A poster on a boarded up wall for an upcoming Four Tops show. "Wop" insults hurled with abandon.

Taxi drivers who refused to stop for black passengers.

When you lead your revolution, whitey better be standing still because you don't run worth a damn no more.

Drug humor - "Billy, could you go turn on..." "Hey, man, I already turned on!" "No, no, turn on the lights?" was no surprise but sexuality openness was ("I'm gay"), although both spoke to the time, as did Shaft's bachelor pad, complete with shelves holding hardback books, a reel to reel player and a turntable.

A sex machine needs that stuff in order to play Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield for any lady visitors. He apparently also needs to keep a spare pistol in a Baggie in the freezer, right next to the cans of Minute Maid orange juice every bachelor keeps around.

What did you get, Shaft? I got laid.

But my personal favorite was the sex scene, all soft focus and seen through a Calder mobile hanging above the white couch which provides such great contrast with Shaft's naked brown skin.

And while I knew intellectually that it was a blaxploitation movie, it came across more like a film noir with a black private dick in a fitted leather jacket. Suspenseful scenes were accompanied by Hayes' taut percussion and sometimes, the reddest fake blood you've ever seen.

After it ended, my companion and I couldn't wait to compare notes, starting with how even in its unedited form, it didn't come close to today's movie violence. Seems we've moved that needle so far in 45 years that a groundbreaking film like this just seems like business as usual with wide lapels. That brought up bell bottoms, which we hadn't seen a lot of in the movie.

Before I could even bring it up, he mentioned something I'd also noticed, namely the easily recognizable wallpaper ("I had that gray one in my house!" he tells me) and wall hangings (I had the green one in my first apartment) of that era. Bold, curved lines in dark and metallic colors had immediately taken me back to some of the hipper '70s homes I was in.

As we were leaving the museum, I paused to chat with the guard, telling him about all the '70s details, including Shaft's sound system.

"Reel to reels were the thing back then," he says, embracing the subject. "I still have mine and my turntable, but all my albums got warped."

Turns out he isn't the only reel to reel holdout because the activist still maintains two himself: one to play and the other to use for spare parts as needed. Come on, it sounds so good.

As Shaft would say, you're damn right. Relics that we are, we can dig it.


  1. Actually "1971" was so last century....worse in some ways, better in others. Suspect the issue of "Race" will always be a part of the American experience.


  2. CW!!!!!

    It's been eons since I heard from you so I figured you no longer read me anymore.

    My companion and I discussed this subject last night and he made the point that back then, it seemed as if we, the people, were finally making some progress in race relations, that we were trying to focus on a better future and not just the differences in our pasts.

    Agreed, 1971 and its bad wallpaper feel like a lifetime ago, but in some ways it also felt like a far more progressive era than we're living in now.

  3. Seems to me that people were a little more civil to one another back then....manners certainly have not improved. Hey you sound a bit excited to hear from me again?


  4. Civility does seem almost quaint by today's all-time low standards. Why we thought that manners were disposable is beyond me, but I do feel like there's been a definite erosion in my lifetime.

    Of course I'm excited to hear from you after so long! You used to be a devoted reader and full of commentary, so how could I not miss that interaction?

    Welcome back!

  5. Interaction challenges & champions the intellect. Rich, intelligent exchanges of thought, ideas, interests promote the mind & spirit. Men/Women must not live in a vacuum. A degree of social, interaction is necessary for a heathy balanced mind-set. Richness does not grow on trees alone but between people. A healthy society must act as well as listen. Enjoy your weekend K.


  6. And you enjoy yours, CW! Hope to hear from you again soon.