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The Bottom Shelf #150

03.06.2008

I'm entering this into the system on the day of the Oscars, where there are no faces of color dominating like there have been in sporadic years. I'd like to call this the Clarence Williams III column because he's in both of these movies. And because Black History Month should never just end in February.

HOODLUM (1997)
Directed by: Bill Duke
Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth

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There are some times when I don't mind if a movie is historically pinpoint perfect. Those times usually come when I'm watching gangster movies. I just want to view something which has rich colors, sharp cinematography, great gun-fight shots, slick costumes, blazing music and some terrific acting thrown in. And in the case of HOODLUM, this is what I got. While I've read a lot about the indictments of the mobsters from back in the '30's and know where the movie has flagrant inaccuracies, I don't care. Fishburne is magnetic, Roth is deliciously smarmy as always, Andy Garcia nails the cocky attitude of Lucky Luciano and the film glitters with a shiny layer of cinema class.

Based around the 1934-1935 time period when the people of New York were suffering the fallout of the Great Depression and the only way that people could try to make money was playing the "numbers," the film focuses on those who were in control of running the numbers. With Italian mob bosses like Luciano, Jewish mob bosses like Schultz and the Harlem boss simply referred to as "The Queen," (a luminescent Cicely Tyson as Stephanie "The Queen" St. Clair). As battles for shifts in power increase and Schultz starts to put his men out on Harlem streets, prompting a war from those who want to keep the neighborhood a black-run-only affair, things get ugly. The government starts to come in to crack down on the problem, bosses are put in jail and their underlings get drunk on the power. And there's nothing quite like watching Fishburne in a movie where he's drunk on power.

For me, however, one of the things that stood out the brightest was the side characters played by veteran character actors. People like Lorette Devine, Chi McBride and most impressively, Clarence Williams III. Williams was a major player during the blaxsplotation years in cinema and is usually cast as the wild-eyed black dude there just to creep everybody out. But here he is the black man working for the Jewish mob boss. Loathed by the people he works for because he's just another "nigger" and despised by those in Harlem who see him as a betrayer, Williams doesn't do wild-eyed. He does tired. He does worn. He has this look upon his face which tells you that he's as disgusted with himself as everyone else is, searching in vain for the pride he once possessed and lost a long time down the way. HOODLUM could have just been another slick period piece with a lot of faces that you recognize if it weren't for the fact that the names they use are well worth more than the paper that they're printed on. You've got to use class if you want to carry off classy.

Favorite Scene:

I can't pinpoint a particular scene, other than the feeling of redemption that you get when the "war" is completed. Perhaps this is when Dutch Schultz (Roth) stumbles down from the bathroom after being shot, sits down and smiles before finally dying. (Even though the scene is historically inaccurate, since Schultz took a day to die from a staph infection of the abdominal lining from his gunshot wound.)

Favorite Line:

"How do you sleep at night?"
"What makes you think I sleep?"

Trivia Tidbit:

This is the second film in which Lawrence Fishburne has played Harlem gangster Elsworth "Bumpy" Johnson. He first played him in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Cotton Club" as "Bumpy" Jackson in a small role.

See if you liked:

A RAGE IN HARLEM, MALCOLM X, THE COTTON CLUB

REBOUND (1996)
Directed by: Eriq La Salle
Starring: Don Cheadle, Forest Whitaker

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Bear with me here, I understand that this was a made-for-television movie. But it's available on DVD and shouldn't be dismissed as some trifle that they usually set up on the boob tube. Excellently directed by Eriq La Salle, a man better known for his acting on the long-running TV show "ER," this movie was made during La Salle's biggest years on the aforementioned TV show. It manages to showcase him not only as being a very adept director but also as a solid actor (even if there are a few scenes where they have fun with the basketball layups, like passing the ball backwards, between the legs, to another player). Don Cheadle as well as a huge round of some of the best black actors out there in Hollywood put in some great screen time, all adding up to a film that is far more than just some sports film watered down for mass television consumption.

Following the life of Earl 'The Goat' Manigault, a man who was a mere 6'1" (short by most NBA stats these days) who wore ankle weights as a child in order to gain distance in his slam dunks. When the local city players pick up on Manigault's skills, he's brought into their fray and resists the temptations of drugs and girls for as long as a kid with athletic abilities can. Back in the day when characters might be prone to using the quotes of "The NBA's a white man's game. They only recruit 2 black players a year!" it was hard to imagine that such a gifted player would go unknown. Poised to gain greatness but brought down when he wouldn't join the track coach's team, he is guided to a better place by Mr. Rucker (Forest Whitaker) a man who runs tournaments in a local park where college ballers would come play against the local kids. When a series of bad events go down for Manigault, he turns to heroin and loses his talent in a pursuit of killing the demons on his trail.

I don't normally like sports and I had to admit that this movie entertained me. Containing some of the best cinematography shots of a game at play (at one point it looks like the ball is coming straight for the camera and then a pair of hands appear and snatch it away), even if you're not a player, you get a very solid feeling for the game. Perhaps it took La Salle loving the game himself to showcase it in such a loving manner. Perhaps it took everyone involved who respected the best NBA player who never was to lovingly bring his story to the screen. I'm not sure. What I do know is this is hands down the best movie that I have watched about basketball, even if I have to point out that I haven't watched every movie about basketball made yet. This is the sports movie for the non-sports fan. This is the movie for the sports fan. This is an awesome movie, made for TV or not.

Favorite Scene:

The uplifting ending where you get to see that Manigault carried on the tradition of playing City Ball at the same court that he gained fame on.

Favorite Line:

"That's the problem with you people. You know how to play the game. But you don't know how to play the game."

Trivia Tidbit:

Despite the positive ending, Earl 'The Goat' Manigault died 2 years after the film was released, on May 15th, 1998.

See if you liked:

HE GOT GAME, ABOVE THE RIM, LOVE & BASKETBALL

I once was told: "You're an ornery little white girl." I think it was one of the best compliments that I've ever received.

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