Sunday, August 3, 2014

Five on the Black Hand Side (1973)



          Although the success of the blaxploitation genre created tremendous employment opportunities for African-American actors (and filmmakers), the genre propagated so many stereotypes that several enterprising producers recognized opportunities for counterprogramming. For example, the domestic comedy Five on the Black Hand Side takes a lighthearted look at the tensions within a middle-class black family in Los Angeles. Not a dealer or pimp is in sight, and there’s nary a hint of inner-city blight or rampant poverty. Five on the Black Hand Side explores the affluent (or at least comfortable) side of American black life circa the early ’70s. Adapted by Charlie L. Russell from his play of the same name—without any distracting traces of its stage origins remaining—the picture explores the novel premise of a family practicing civil disobedience against their patriarch to force positive change.
          Said patriarch is John Henry Brooks (Leonard Jackson), a self-made success who runs his household like an empire. “Mr. Brooks,” as he insists on being called, dresses in three-piece suits, scorns the way his adult children embrace Afrocentrism, and treats his wife like a personal assistant instead of a spouse. The joke is that instead of being a captain of industry, Mr. Brooks is merely the proprietor of a neighborhood barbershop—respectable, no question, but hardly grandiose. When the story begins, Mr. Brooks’ overbearing leadership style has alienated nearly all of his relatives. His youngest son, Gideon (Glynn Turman), has moved out of the family apartment to live on a rooftop. His oldest son, Booker T. (D’Urville Martin), has left the house entirely. His daughter, Gail (Bonnie Banfield), has raised Mr. Brooks’ ire by insisting on an African-style wedding to her fiancé. And Mrs. Brooks (Clarice Taylor) breaks down in tears every day because her husband is so cold and imperious.
          As the story progresses, Mrs. Brooks’ children and friends encourage her to revolt, so she stages protests and walkouts, insisting Mr. Brooks sign a list of demands. Meanwhile, Mr. Brooks finds support among his male buddies, who encourage him to stand his ground. Five on the Black Hand Side moves along at a leisurely pace, lingering on long scenes that depict the texture of everyday life in the Brooks’ neighborhood—Mr. Brooks and his pals tell boastful stories in the barbershop, while Mrs. Brooks and her friends gossip in the beauty parlor. And in one of the movie’s best scenes, Booker T. and Gideon tussle over the thorny issues of assimilation and miscegenation—Black Power advocate Gideon calls Booker T. a traitor to the race because Booker T. has a white girlfriend. The way that Russell and director Oscar Williams jam signifiers and topics into the story gives Five on the Black Hand Side heft, even though the picture is largely designed as light entertainment. And entertaining it is, thanks to charming performances and spirited writing.

Five on the Black Hand Side: GROOVY

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