Saturday, November 27, 2010

Man and Boy (1971)

          After scoring in the ’60s as a comedian and TV star, Bill Cosby tried expanding his popularity to movies in the early ’70s, beginning with this Western about a former cavalryman who embarks on a dangerous quest with his young son. Perhaps because the movie cast Cosby in a purely dramatic role, Man and Boy failed to connect with audiences, but it’s actually a fairly strong piece of work, blending life lessons with violent action and rich characterizations. As the title suggests, the story is shot through with themes of male identity, and specifically African-American male identity; throughout the movie, the protagonist uses deeds instead of words to convey notions of duty, honor, integrity, and loyalty in a world that expects black men to behave like second-class citizens. As directed by journeyman TV helmer E.W. Swwckhamer, Man and Boy makes the most of a thin budget by employing vivid locations and a lively supporting cast. Reliable players including Yaphet Kotto, Dub Taylor, and Henry Silva enliven small roles, while young George Spell, who plays the protagonist’s son, effectively conveys the experience of a youth discovering the troubling complexities of the adult world.
         In the first act, we meet Caleb Revers (Cosby), a proud man struggling to make his small farm viable, despite meager resources and pressure from racist neighbors. Through a fortunate circumstance, Caleb comes into possession of a fine horse, which aggravates whites who resent blacks becoming property owners. One day, because of carelessness on the part of Caleb’s son, Billy (Spell), the horse is stolen, so Caleb takes Billy on a trek to recover the animal. Most of the film depicts their adventures out on the frontier. An encounter with an old enemy of Caleb’s turns violent, forcing Billy to grapple with the idea of standing up to thugs, and a visit with a lonely widow who comes on to Caleb stretches Billy’s understanding of the way men and women relate to each other. During the picture’s final act, the travelers cross paths with a black outlaw named Lee Christmas (Douglas Turner Ward), giving Billy a harsh view of life outside the law.
          In some ways, Man and Boy is obvious and schematic, as if the filmmakers made a list of lessons they wanted George to experience, then contrived a narrative situation for each lesson. And, indeed, the storytelling hits a few bumps as the storytellers move too conveniently from one episode to the next. But because screenwriters Harry Essex and Oscar Saul avoid easy sentimental payoffs, the picture feels relatively credible and tough all the way through. Cosby’s performance helps create the desired illusion. Imbuing his portrayal with equal parts idealism and world-weariness, Cosby creates a portrait of a man with one foot in the cold truths of everyday reality and another foot in the empowering possibilities of dreams. Regrettably, Cosby’s next attempts at drama netted similarly middling results, though he’s excellent in the TV movie To All My Friends on Shore (1972) and intriguing in the theatrical action picture Hickey & Boggs (also 1972), so he mostly ditched serious acting once he returned to comedy in the mid-’70s. It would have been interesting to see how his dramatic chops evolved.

Man and Boy: GROOVY

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