In recognition of Black History Month, I want to talk a little about a couple of cats who put the “bad motherfucker” in blaxploitation, and left an indelible impression not only on me and my generation, but on the entire film industry for generations to come.
I remember one of the first books (and films) I ever fell in love with. The name of the story was: “J.T.” The film was about an hour long, one of those Afterschool-type specials for kids, and, since it was essentially a black story, my school showed it to us several times.
It was about a shy boy living in Harlem (played by a young Kevin Hooks, who would grow up to be a hell of a director and actor) who’d found a crippled, one-eyed cat in an alley and decided to nurse it back to health. His family was poor but he would buy tuna from the local grocery store on his mother’s credit and feed it to the cat. He made an eye patch as well as built a home for it in an old stove in an abandoned lot. He had gotten in trouble previously with a couple of neighborhood punks, named Claymore and Boomer (appropriately) when he stole a radio that they’d wanted to steal. And, eventually, they caught up with J.T…and his cat. They’d followed him to the home he’d built for the cat, as a shelter from the snow, you see, and…
Well, suffice it to say the ending was both heart-wrenching and uplifting at the same time. I bet you can see how this story could have had even the most cynical viewer reaching for Kleenex, right? And, me, well…put it this way: Even recounting the story just now for you guys made me misty. And I haven’t seen or read it in at least 25 years.
It was around that time, three decades back, that I started wanting to make stories of my own. Stories set in places I knew, populated with characters I could identify with. Stories that could move, and inspire.
The film/book was written by Jane Wagner and, if you can see on the book cover above, beneath her name it reads, with pictures by Gordon Parks Jr.
Gordon Parks Jr. did not direct J.T., however. His photographs- taken during the shooting of the film- were used for its novelization. He would go on to direct his own films, though…and how!
This book was the first time I saw the name Gordon Parks, and I never forgot it. Even though it was actually Gordon Parks, Jr., who pays attention to the Jr? Who calls Martin Luther King, Junior? It’s not necessary, right? If Martin Luther King Senior were a world renown civil rights activist you might have need to, but he wasn’t. It would take many years before I realized that there was not one but two Gordon Parks’, a father & son, working not as a team but separately, running around the world with cameras (both movie and still) and using them to tell stories.
Fast forward about 15 years.
I was an undergraduate student at Long Island University Brooklyn Campus, a Media Arts and English major, taking a film class being given by the man himself, Spike Lee, and his brand spanking new production company, Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks, which he’d just opened a block or two away from the school. Spike grew up in the neighborhood around LIU so occasionally he’d use the school’s facilities for editing, etc…
Members of his production staff taught different aspects of the film industry. From costumes, to cinematography, to casting, to makeup. Soundtrack and Scoring was naturally taught by the man who had done the scoring for some of Spike’s earlier films: Mr. Bill Lee, Spike’s Dad.
Mr. Lee spoke about everything involved in scoring a movie and selecting tracks for the soundtrack, the advantages and disadvantages of using previously published music versus original music, and how to use music to establish the emotional core of the film and capture the essence of scene and character. His knowledge was extraordinary and impressive. You could readily see where his son Spike got a lot of his traits and knowledge.
After the lecture, I was out front of the school having a smoke and kicking it with one of my classmates, a cat named Paul, about film scores and soundtracks. He was a film buff like myself with an impressive catalogue within his mnemonic grasp.
For scores, he antied up with John Williams.
“Williams??” I almost screamed. “Are you mad? Everything the man makes sounds the same…Superman, Star Wars, what the fuck was the difference? He just does re-mixes, that’s all…”
“Who you know that’s better?”
“Ennio Morricone, of course…”
“Morricone??!!” he snapped. “Get the fuck outta here! ”
“Bubblegum scoring for B-movies,” he laughed, contemptuously.
I didn’t let his words faze me. Anybody that knows film knows Sergio Leone was the genius behind the best westerns ever made. I’ve argued John Ford fans to their ears bled too many times. So, I whipped out the big guns, and whistled a few bars of Cheyenne’s theme from Once upon a time in the West. I had Cock-eyes’s song from Once upon a time in America in the bullpen warming up if he snubbed that. But he didn’t.
“Ok, ok, you got that one…” he said, nodding.
We worked our way through compilations around to original soundtracks. A much more difficult call…at least for him. For me, it was a no-brainer.
“I’m gonna go with Shaft,” he said. I was impressed. Issac Hayes certainly did himself proud with that one…
“…but that ain’t got shit on Mayfield’s Superfly, come on!” I said, thinking ’nuff said. “I mean, can you even name another song on that soundtrack besides the theme song?”
He actually tried, god bless him. But, failed.
“Every song on the Superfly soundtrack was a bona fide classic,” I said.
“So, why didn’t it win the Oscar, then? Huh? Shaft did!”
“Yeah, I was just fucking with you,” he laughed.
“Mayfield was cheated, plain and simple…” I said. “Politics. Racism. Call it what you want. He got cheated. Spielberg films’ scores can win year after year, but put a black director in there and…it ain’t no surprise.”
“What?” Paul said. “Shaft and Superfly had the same director?”
“Yeah…damn don’t you know shit? Gordon Parks was the fucking man!”
“Nah, young blood, you got it wrong,” came a familiar voice from a bench near us. We both turned. It was Bill Lee, sitting alone, same wizened face, grey bearded “been to hell and back” look to him, rifling through what looked like sheet music, not even looking at us. We both glanced at each other in stunned silence, and waited to be taught some more from this exceptional musical mind. “Shaft was directed by Gordon Parks, Senior, and Superfly by his son, Gordon Parks, Junior.”
I didn’t say anything but my mind was racing. There’s two of them??? Get the fuck outta here!
Bill Lee didn’t elaborate. In fact, he didn’t say anything else. It wa as if he’d forgotten we were there…
I had both films on videotape at home, and as soon as I got there I rushed to my room and scanned the boxes. Sure enough, Bill lee was right on the money. Not only that. Until that day I had been thinking that Gordon Parks was dead, died in a plane crash in Africa, as I recalled. But, I would find out, through a visit to the library, that it was Junior who had passed tragically before senior, and the father was still alive and kicking and exposing injustices and inhumanity around the world through his photographs.
Later that semester, for an assignment in my writing class, I wrote an essay comparing and contrasting the differences between the father’s Shaft and the son’s Superfly. Though both characters are held up as heroic figures in black cinema by most African-Americans I know, they said something about the vision either man had of the world. On the surface, the difference between John Shaft and Superfly’s main character, Priest, are clear-cut: One solves crimes and the other sells drugs.
But, on closer examination of the characters, we can see where their methods, aims and visions converge. Shaft was a man who, fed up with the politics, racism and legal impotence of the police force, decided to take matters into his own hands and become a private detective, operating virtually outside the law, only to find himself enlisted by criminals to do their bidding. Though his soul is essentially good in the heroic sense, he spends the film walking the line between the criminal underworld and the morally compromised law enforcement world. While Superfly, a lifelong hustler, realizes that what he believed to be the American dream was really a nightmare and that if he wanted to survive he’d better turn his life around, but ironically it is the police who try to force him to keep funneling drugs into the community in order to line their pockets. Both stories were ultimately variations on the same theme. The system is corrupt and the only way to survive with some semblance of your soul intact is to understand that corruption is virtually inescapable, so one must operate accordingly.
Some hellified life lessons from two superfly bad motherfuckers, Father and Son…You might call their wisdom cynical, and in a way you’d be right. But time and time again, from the flooding of New Orleans, to the economic meltdown on Wall Street, we find that corruption is something we have to be, not so much paranoid about but on constant vigilance against.
To the Parks’ (as well as the Lees’, Bill & Spike) thank you for sharing your gifts and visions with us, and for allowing us to see the world through your eyes via your photos and films (and music), and inspiring me to do the same.
All of you will always be a part of Loco’s Patronus!