Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973)


After overcoming extraordinary difficulties to complete his racially charged magnum opus, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song (1971), filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles was undoubtedly ready to tackle lighter fare, but he wasn’t about to abandon his idiosyncratic style. Originally presented as a stage play, his follow-up film Don’t Play Us Cheap explores what happens when demonic visitors try to interrupt a house party in Harlem. Van Peebles has said he was inspired to write this story by people he met in Europe whose optimism and warmth seemed unshakeable, so the idea of the piece is apparently to convey the joyous side of black life as a counterpoint to the hardship depicted in Sweetback. Unfortunately, even if the filmmaker’s intentions were good, his execution is awful. Setting aside the fact that this is more of a filmed play than an actual film, Don’t Play Us Cheap presents a tedious procession of inane dialogue, silly situations, and tepid music. The family members throwing the house party shout nearly all of their lines and punctuate conversations with foolish laughter, so Van Peebles inadvertently perpetuates some of the same racial stereotypes he tried to upend in his other work. Worse, the whole gimmick of the demonic visitors is strange and unconvincing. These characters appear in the form of devilish human-sized bats, wearing ridiculous costumes, and they declare their intentions so bluntly that one of them actually sings a number titled “I’m a Bad Character.” (Subtlety is never the watchword in Van Peebles’ movies, but still.) Predictably, the sweetness of the black family warms the hearts of the demonic visitors, prompting one of them to give an embarrassing speech about how “It’s boring being mean all the time.” The movie goes on and on and on, with Van Peebles trying to liven the visuals through the use of arty flourishes like jump cuts and superimpositions, but the storyline is so juvenile that nothing can bring it to life. The actors, including Ester Rolle of Good Times fame, do what they can, but the only moment with any mojo is Joshie Armstead’s gorgeous performance of the gospel-styled number “You Cut Up the Clothes.”

Don’t Play Us Cheap: LAME

2 comments:

D said...

I saw this on stage and Joshie Jo Armstead rocked the house with her song the full title of which is "You Cut up the Clothes ( In the closet of my dreams)" and the great Avon Long ( the orignal Sportin' Life) was also in it. It was terrible but at that time Black shows on Broadway were a novelty and we given a break because of that. If it hadn't been filmed Don't Play Us Cheap would simply be a vague memory to those of us who saw it. Now, it's an artifact of a bygone era.

Stacey Williams-Chandler said...

I Loved this movie.It made me think of the Saturday night get together at our house. The only thing missing was a game of Bid Whist or Spades.Also the only singing going on at our house was along with a L.P. This movie was great. It made me miss my childhood.I bought in 2004 and every so often I just HAVE to watch it.