at last: Brown Sugar Brookdale!

I’ve been crowing about this one for a while, and I apologize, but…  “Brown Sugar” Brookdale is finally here for your reading pleasure, in Blood & Tacos #4! Thank you for your patience.

A homage to Billy Jack, Black Samurai and Black Belt Jones, this wild pulp adventure follows Brown Sugar, a Vietnam Vet back on American soil, in his battle against a mad cult leader in a “sundown town” in the Midwest.
blood and tacos 4
In issue #4 Sugar joins Father Dukes, Apache Blood, The Sanitizer, and L.A.N.D.B.O.A.T. (The Boat That Goes On Land), a title I can’t even say without laughing. These are loving, respectful homages mind you. You’ll get action aplenty, and lots of heart. You can read the stories for free at Blood & Tacos, and it will be available on Kindle for 99 cents shortly.

Stories are by TV writer Oren Brimer (Mr. Landboat), Bart Lessard, Brad Mengel, and Nick Slosser. The cover art is yet another stunning oil painting by Roxanne Patruznick. If I ever commission a book cover I’ll be giving her a call. Check out the other covers she did. #1 is a real work of art. The back issues are available on Kindle and online, and are worth going through. Chingon: The World’s Deadliest Mexican by Johnny Shaw (editor in chief) is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read, and when Danny Trejo is done with MACHETE perhaps he’ll give Chingon a whirl.

Issue #3 on Amazon

Issue #2 on Amazon

Issue #1 on Amazon

Brown Sugar Brookdale in Blood & Tacos

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NOT in this issue. But go read it anyway.

I’m proud to announce that my ’70s men’s adventure pastiche, “‘Brown Sugar’ Brookdale #17: Titty Titty Bang Bang,” written as Jerrold Chester Earnest, will appear in issue #4 of Blood & Tacos, due out this April.

This one was a labor of love. Inspired by the fine cinema of Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, Billy Jack, and Walking Tall, “Brown Sugar” Brookdale is a black Vietnam Vet who went AWOL when his commanding officer tried to commit another My Lai. He fought through the jungle to the Chinese border, and learned the ways of kung fu at the Shaolin Temple. Now he’s on his home ground, breaking his foot off in the ass of The Man!

I’ve admired what Johnny Shaw and crew have done with Blood & Tacos from issue one, and I’m proud to be part of their upcoming issue. I hope you’ll check out their previous issues at http://www.bloodandtacos.com – all three issues are available for 99 cents each on Kindle:

Blood & Tacos #1

Blood & Tacos #2

Blood & Tacos #3

Oh, and where’d the name “Brown Sugar Brookdale” come from? It’s the name of my first pet- a ginger tabby who liked to drop mice on the kitchen floor- and the street I grew up on, Brookdale Avenue in Nutley. So yeah, that’s my porn star name.

Aw yeah.

Django Unbrained

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED is disappointing, enjoyable, tedious, wonderful, and naive all at the same time.

No movie is judged on its own merit. Like any artistic work, it is compared to everything that has come before it, and depending on when you encounter it, you pit it against what has come after it as well. Tarantino loves pastiche, homage, reference and remix, so his work seeks these judgments. And his latest falls short from what we’ve come to expect. It is overlong and indulgent, it is too alike his last film in some ways, and it lacks tension in its big mushy middle, but some scenes are magical, especially to fans of garish exploitation films and spaghetti westerns like myself. It will remind his detractors of the interminable bar scene in Death Proof at its worst, and the clipped action will tease us until the very end.

Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is the prisoner of slave traders when Dr. King Schultz–a German dentist turned bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz–frees him because he can identify three fugitives Schultz wants to collect. Yes, he is named Dr. King. He plays the Samaritan, most often played by an older black man or person of color in other films, the “magical Caucasian,” if you will, to Foxx’s hero. If you’re unfamiliar with the “magical negro” character, think Scatman Crothers in The Shining. He helps our hero for no good reason, against his own self-interest, and is usually killed for his trouble, often sacrificing himself for the protagonist’s cause. Waltz plays that character, drawing deep from the well he used to create the memorable “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.

And while it is great fun watching Foxx become a bad-ass bounty hunter under Schultz’s tutelage, Waltz and his long-winded, fifty-cent word monologues lack the tension of Landa’s, because despite his crack marksmanship and disregard for the lives of vicious slavers, he is too good. We know exactly how he will react in a given situation, after we are introduced to how he collects his bounties. Which is to shoot first, then pull out his badge and papers, and say hey I’m working for the Federal government and if you shoot me, you’ll be in trouble. It was funny the first time, but seemed very unlikely, two years before the country was torn apart by secession and civil war, that anyone would give a tinker’s damn. And it gets less believable when Django plays his valet in full Lord Fauntleroy regalia, and later fakes being an Uncle Tom slaver assisting Schultz in purchasing a “Mandingo fighter,” or black bare-knuckle pit fighter, in their overly complicated and most likely unnecessary ruse to free Django’s wife.

christopher waltz jamie foxx django unchained

I love Blazing Saddles, and I’ve seen and enjoyed Fred Williamson‘s film about a bad-ass black sheriff leading a frontier town, Boss Nigger. Fred Williamson always had such screen presence that you never questioned how he became a sheriff in the west, or a commando in World War 2, as in the original The Inglorious Bastards. Foxx manages the same, but the plot keeps making excuses for him to be there. And the thing is, there was at least one black Federal marshal in the 1800’s, Bass Reeves (thanks to David Cranmer and his Cash Laramie tales for introducing me to this oft-forgot hero). It is not until the very end that Jamie Foxx gets to be a bad-ass, and by then, in a two hour and 45 minute movie, we’ve endured the longest dinner scene I’ve ever encountered, all so Leonardo DiCaprio can chew the scenery as supposedly, the most evil plantation owner ever. And he doesn’t even scratch the surface of the reality of chattel slavery, which is what bothered me. He makes men fight to the death, he has one torn apart by dogs. Brutal scenes, but “slavery” remains a word in this movie, not the horror that it was. This letter evokes more than Django Unchained managed.

Fred Williamson in Boss, an obvious reference
Fred Williamson in Boss, an obvious reference

Much has been said about the permissive use of the n-word in this film, and Tarantino has said before that “shouting words like this from the rooftops” rob them of their power, so I won’t go into it. It was repeated to a tiresome degree for me. I find it lazy when a villain uses racial slurs to make us hate him. DiCaprio’s Mr. Candie is revolting enough without it. For me, seeing this at a dinner theater staffed by African-American ushers and waiters, it was particularly uncomfortable, especially when it was not once used with any power. Blazing Saddles did more damage to the power of the word “nigger” than Tarantino has. Should he have censored himself? No, but he should have used his n-words more wisely. He uses “fuck” like a poet, but this word he stumbled with.

Now that I’ve torn the movie a new hole, let me say that the references to the original Django and the westerns and “blaxploitation” films of the ’70s are enjoyable, Jamie Foxx should make a black western and play it completely straight, like Fred Williamson did, and I’d go see it in a heartbeat. I’ll watch Django Unchained again on cable and let it simmer. I didn’t like Inglourious Basterds that much on my first viewing, but love it now. I don’t think any number of viewings will make the dinner between Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson playing an evil, Uncle Tom majordomo will ever be enjoyable. It’s the little things, like taking your guns to the dinner table, that don’t make sense, especially when you have a Taxi Driver-style derringer up your sleeve. And that Kerry Washington as Broomhilda gets very little to do. Django calls his love “troublemaker,” but we never see her raise any hell. In a 3 hour movie, there was plenty of time.

3/5 stars.

Other movies I’ve seen recently that are more fun than Django are:

The Grey, with Liam Neeson. A grisly meditation on icy death, this may be Joe Carnahan’s best.

Headhunters, based on Jo Nesbo’s thriller. Lots of fun, even if no one gets beheaded.

Savages, by Oliver Stone, adapted from Don Winslow’s excellent novel. Stop watching after the first ending. The second one is a not-so-subtle middle finger from Stone to the studio and focus groups, and changes the book’s finale.

And two to avoid: Sushi Girl, a horrible, boring, torture movie with a great cast, and Les Miserables, which might be fun for fans of the musical, but was awful for someone who’s read the unabridged book and had to listen to Russel Crowe destroy Javert while mimicking a statue. It had moments, but was so static and lifeless in so many places that I didn’t feel a thing. That, and whatever lives in Tim Burton’s hair seems to have bitten Helena Bonham Carter.

Black History Month 3: Big Bald Black Dudes

Every year at Pluck You, Too! during Black History Month, we celebrate the bad-assery of big bald black dudes. Prior award recipients include Ving Rhames and Keith David, Samuel L. Jackson and Bill Duke.
I don’t know how I let the most awesome Lou Gossett, Jr. go this long without being recognized. Best known for his Oscar-winning role as the drill instructor in An Officer and a Gentleman, it was tragically unfortunate that he also starred in the abysmal Jaws 3-D that year. He’s gone on to play bare knuckle fighters in Diggstown and of course, a pilot in Iron Eagle, and even an alien in Enemy Mine. He also played Black Bart in the TV pilot for a Blazing Saddles TV series- which thankfully never got made. He works a lot, and has a now iconic face that we recognize and attribute instant bad-assery toward. I most recently reviewed him in his buddy adventure movie with Chuck Norris, Firewalker (full review).
Woody Strode was a pioneering black actor who made his big splash as the hulking gladiator who fights Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. He was a pro football player and a dedicated martial artist in the art of kenpo as well as being a recognized character actor. He had a few starring roles such as the title character in John Ford’s Sgt. Rutledge, but I’ll always remember him as the silent, evil-looking gunman in the gripping first ten minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West among the three killers awaiting Charles Bronson’s arrival by train; he’s the one drinking rainwater off his hat! Also in The Professionals, he gets to shoot arrows with dynamite tied to them, and that’s the earliest role I remember him in. To this day I want to shoot dynamite arrows at barrels of gunpowder and blow up a bad guy’s compound, thanks to Mr. Strode.
Geoffrey Holder is best known as the 7-Up guy with the basso voice, “crisp and clean and no caffeine! ahahahaaa!!!” but he’s played memorable heroes and villains. Most recently he narrated Burton’s Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, but every girl who grew up in the ’80s remembers him as Punjab, Daddy Warbuck’s towering bodyguard. I think he was supposed to be Indian or Sikh since he wore a turban, but Hollywood wasn’t very sensitive about that sort of thing back then. He’s also a choreographer, which accounts for his physical grace that belies his 6’6″ height. James Bond fans will remember him as the voodoo priest Baron Samedi, one of the many villains in Live and Let Die.

Prior Awards:

Big Bald Black Dudes 2008
Big Bald Black Dudes 2009

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Trouble the Water

In 1927 there was a great flood in Louisiana; the National Guard came to rescue the white landowners, but left the black sharecroppers to tend to the crops. Immortalized in Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” some fleeing landowners sang “Bye, Bye Blackbird” to the doomed farmers. In the end, the “blackbirds” won; nearly 700,000 people were homeless, and they left for the cities, mainly Chicago. This gave birth to the Chicago blues, and the influx of new voters dumped Republican Hoover and his empty promises. The Party of Lincoln was abandoned for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. History repeating. It’s a bit more complicated, as Hoover got both elected and rejected due to how he handled the refugee camps for the displaced. The Wikipedia article makes for interesting reading.
Trouble the Water is the record of a family weathering Katrina, video camera in tow. 24-year old Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott don’t have gas money to evacuate, so they hole up in their 9th Ward home as the storm hits. We get to see the terror of opening your front door to see a raging ocean where your yard once was. They survive, and we see them survey the wreckage of their neighborhood, the remains of those less fortunate, and the utter lack of any government response. The Indonesian tsunami a few years earlier- we had people on the ground faster for that.
They reenact their survival tales, and interview their neighbors. Kimberly reports on the scene like guerrilla news anchor, signing off with her rapper name, Black Kold Madina. It’s easy to roll your eyes, but this is what we didn’t see. Instead of pointing at a man in water up to his neck, holding a single loaf of bread and crying “looter,” like our talking heads did, this is embedded reporting from inside the hell hole. Jean Valjean would get torched these days, wouldn’t he? Their footage is interspersed with news bites, 911 calls, and factoids. But the real meat of the film is just following Kimberly and Scott through the wreckage of what was once their lives.
What’s most distressing is the interview with the soldiers who guarded empty base housing. They talk of protecting “government interests,” and how “civilians don’t know how to survive.” Quotes were cherry-picked I’m sure, but they are damning enough. When even a few soldiers are more concerned with protecting the government than saving fellow Americans, the leadership of their superiors is morally bankrupt. Maybe the best of our men were too busy overseas. On the other hand, the neighborhoods pulled together. “My enemies helped me,” one man says. They help each other navigate the bureaucratic mess FEMA imposed.
Trouble the Waters was nominated for Best Documentary last year, and lost to the cheerful Man on Wire; personally I thought Errol Morris’s excellent Standard Operating Procedure should have won, but it didn’t even get nominated. Trouble may not be a great movie, but it is worth seeing to see what our news media missed and ignored about the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the second disaster of our government’s inept response. I think it might have been better as an episode of Frontline, but it got more exposure this way. If you’re interested in seeing one couple’s story of surviving Katrina, it should not be missed.

Rating: Worthy

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Miracle at St. Anna

I don’t understand all the hate for this film. It’s a little sloppy in places, and takes a while to start, but once we flash back to World War 2, I was gripped. It helps that I watched The Inglorious Bastards (full review) recently; this is not Saving Private Ryan, it’s an old-school World War 2 film, injected with hokiness, but also with a modern level of gruesomeness and brutality. Lee begins by showing an old black man watching John Wayne in The Longest Day as a hint to not expect a modern gritty tale. The first thing he says is, “we fought that war, too.” Miracle at St. Anna doesn’t always work, but I enjoyed it. It is more cluttered than deep, but there is plenty to enjoy here.
An elderly postal worker shoots another old man; cops find a priceless relic in his apartment. We learn its story, with the “experimental” all-black Buffalo Soldiers regiment in Italy in ’44. We get Spike Lee black soldier stereotypes in place of the classic motley crew- there’s the white commander’s lackey, there’s the man trying to uplift his race, there’s the idiot manchild, there’s the guy with the gold tooth and luck with women, who “sets the race back a hundred years.” It’s part commentary on WW2 film conventions and movie expectations of black characters as you’d expect from Spike Lee, but has a solid, old-fashioned heart of a war story, as gritty as The Story of G.I. Joe.
The Italian campaign of World War 2 was some of the most brutal combat of the war, and its tale is the least told. The black regiments, such as those with Patton who broke through the lines, liberated the camps- rarely get mention, and especially in film. Here we get a story of 4 men trapped behind enemy lines. The artifact, the head of a statue, hangs in a net from a huge man’s belt. He’s Train, a towering baby-faced soldier with a gentle manner. He’s been carrying the artifact because he thinks rubbing it for luck has saved his bacon many times. We see his luck or its power in the first battle, as his regiment stalks across a heavily guarded river, and calls for artillery support. Their white commander- who feels slighted for being forced to lead the experimentary all-black force- refuses to believe they’ve made it so far ahead, and corrects the coordinates, bombing his own men.
As they’re cut down between friendly and German fire, only four manage to escape across enemy lines and into a small Italian village. When Train searches a barn as a possible hideout, he saves a young boy from under a collapsed beam; he feels responsible for him afterward. The boy seems touched, like Train; they give the story a fantasy quality. Stamps is the cool & collected leader of the group, and once he gathers his remaining men he gets them holed up with friendly Italians, including the mysterious and sexy Renata (Valentina Cervi, who does get topless) and her fascist-leaning father. Eventually they team with Italian partisans, including the Butterfly, who has a huge price on his head.
When they finally make contact with their regiment, they’re told to grab a German prisoner to interrogate about the enemy positions. As you can see, there’s a hell of a lot going on- and not all of it gets the detail we’d like. We see what Spike Lee is interested in, which isn’t always the plot. There are Nazi atrocities, such as the slaughter of villages to root out partisans; the detectives in the present trying to make sense of the murder in the post office; the Butterfly wondering if rebellion is worth the heavy price they pay in blood; Train and the boy, who may have “the sight,” and dealing with their bigoted superior.
This all happens in the shadow of The Sleeping Man, the mountain that resembles a man’s face, who the locals think will awaken and wipe the country clean of enemies. There’s a lot going on, and it takes a long time for us to get back to the beginning. Don’t expect too much from it, and you’ll be rewarded. It reminded me a lot of Inglorious Bastards (full review), where the journey was more important than where it took you. At 160 minutes, it’s best classified as what we used to call a Sunday movie- maybe not an epic, but a long, busy story that improves with multiple viewings.

Rating: Worthy

Redemption for Mammy Two Shoes

Many of us grew up watching Tom & Jerry on the tube, but if you’re old enough you remember the day Tom’s owner changed from a sassy black lady to a strident Irishwoman. Tom’s owner was never named, but the media latched onto her during the 80’s revisionism craze and called her “Mammy Two Shoes” because we almost never saw her face. People began saying she was a servant, when it was obviously her somewhat ramshackle but dignified home, and MGM had her legs bleached and her voice re-dubbed by June Foray as an Irish stereotype. The original voice, by black actress Lillian Randolph, was rarely heard again.

One of my faves- Fraidy Cat, where Tom mistakes her for a ghost

As a child, I remember seeing some of the cartoons before the axe fell. I never thought she was a maid, and there are very few shorts that put her in a maid outfit- she’s usually in a slipper and housecoat, like a single woman reclining after a long day. In fact, in Mouse Cleaning, you can see her dressed up to go to church. That’s one of the few shorts where you get a glimpse of her face, albeit from a steep angle and her hefty bosom blocks most of it. The other banned cartoon, Casanova Cat, is the only one I recall her being in a maid outfit- it’s a fantasy short where Tom goes to call on his white cat beau, who lives in a penthouse.

Rarely seen- “Mammy’s” face

I’ll be the first to admit that Tom & Jerry’s jokes were crude, but I never felt there was a cruelty in how “Mammy Two Shoes” was portrayed. She does have an accent and inarticulate manner of speech, such as when she tells Tom, “if you is a mouse catcher, then I am Lana Turner! Which I ain’t.” When she clamors for Thomas to “git in here and get that mouse!” when she’s screaming up on a chair, she looks no more ridiculous than any white female cartoon character did when they did the same thing.

Mouse Cleaning

If anything, the old cartoons use of blackface- whether it was Tom & Jerry or Looney Tunes, or anyone else- shames us because it’s so offensive today. But if you look at the history of cartoons, racial caricature is pretty even handed. There’s a Hogan’s Alley of Irish cops and Italian criminals, French gendarmes in the Pepe le Pew cartoons, and even the Dover Boys spoof of college boys goofs on whitebread folks. If anyone should be offended by cartoon caricatures it’s the Japanese, who really got some hateful cartoons made about them during World War 2. The classic cartoon Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, shows the evil queen sending hit men who have a sign that reads: Rub outs – 10 cents, Midgets half price, Japs- FREE! In a short full of black caricatures, that ends up being the most offensive part, until you realize the context- it came out in 1943.

The whiteface version

The Tom & Jerry shorts won more Academy Awards than Disney’s or Warner Brothers’, but I feel they jumped the shark when Chuck Jones came along and reworked the characters. I like Chuck- Hell, I have a tattoo of Pepe le Pew in an undisclosed location– but his Tom & Jerry are way too much like a mute Sylvester and Tweety. They lack the great character of the originals, where Jerry was a tiny Chaplin tramp and Tom was lazy and only chased Jerry when Mammy threatened him with sleeping outside. My favorite of all time is perhaps Heavenly Puss, where Tom loses his 9th life and is going to Cat Hell unless Jerry signs an affadavit forgiving him for all his trespasses. It deservingly won the Oscar that year.

You can find many of the original cartoons on youtube, and MGM has released most of them in original form in the Tom & Jerry Spotlight Collection DVD sets. The third set omits two cartoons- Mouse Cleaning and Casanova Cat- and several are edited. But we take what we can get. Warner Brothers has said that they’ll release all the Looney Tunes uncut eventually, and I wish MGM would do the same for the Tom & Jerry toons- even if they make it some special collector’s set with big warning labels on it.