Although marred by murky storytelling and a mediocre leading performance, Trick Baby offers a unique riff on the blaxploitation genre—one of the two heroes is a white dude whose mother was black, so his lineage allows him to bridge different racial communities. Based on a novel by the colorful Iceberg Slim, a self-proclaimed pimp-turned-novelist, the picture takes place in Philadelphia. Two pals, dark-skinned African-American veteran con man Blue Howard (Mel Stuart) and his light-skinned mixed-race apprentice “White Folks” (Kiel Martin), run scams on unsuspecting citizens, mostly collecting chump change. One day, they score big by ripping off a man whom they later discover is related to gangsters. After the victim suffers a heart attack, underworld enforcers are tasked with identifying the culprits. Meanwhile, Blue and “White Folks” lay the groundwork for their biggest rip-off yet, conniving a group of rich white men into buying ghetto properties that aren’t really for sale. Given this setup, the tension of the picture comes from multiple sources—including friction between Blue, who senses it’s time to leave town before things take a deadly turn, and “White Folks,” who gets so high off winning he can’t recognize real danger.
The basic story of Trick Baby is interesting, and the street-crime milieu is presented believably. Furthermore, costar Stuart makes a great con man, all pretense and smiles when he’s working a mark and all fuck-you attitude when he’s standing up to a corrupt cop or a Mob enforcer. Had Stuart been matched with a costar of equal skill—and had director/co-writer Larry Yust manifested stronger discipline as a storyteller—Trick Baby could have become a great little crime picture. Alas, leading man Kiel Martin (who later found fame as a flashy plainclothes detective on TV’s Hill Street Blues) has the cockiness and good looks of a movie star, but not the charisma or talent. He’s merely okay in a role that requires dramatic fireworks. Partially as a result of Martin’s underwhelming presence and partially as a result of Yust’s inability to build and sustain narrative momentum, Trick Baby ends up feeling slapdash. Having said that, the picture is refreshing inasmuch as it doesn’t portray urban blacks exclusively as illiterate thugs in tacky polyester outfits. Additionally, the movie spreads the wealth by depicting its African-American hustlers as part of a vast and multiracial criminal universe.
Trick Baby: FUNKY