Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Uptown Saturday Night (1974) & Let’s Do It Again (1975) & A Piece of the Action (1977)



          Though he’s best known for his ultra-serious onscreen persona, Sidney Poitier not only starred in but also directed the hit comedy Uptown Saturday Night, the first of three Poitier-helmed ’70s pictures in which the actor shares the screen with funnyman Bill Cosby. The movies are not a series, since neither characters nor storylines recur from film to film. However, the movies all boast impressive casts, slick production values, and a certain kind of moral integrity, since they emulate the blaxpoitation aesthetic without perpetuating blaxploitation stereotypes. They’re celebratory movies designed to entertain and inspire African-American audiences.
          Uptown Saturday Night is the weakest of the trio, partially because of an episodic story structure and partially because Poitier and his collaborators let scenes drag on to excessive lengths. Another issue, which troubles the entire series, is that Cosby rarely gets to embark on comedic flights of fancy. Whenever he does, the movies receive a huge uplift, which means that any time he’s stuck delivering exposition or playing bland dramatic scene, the series’ best resource is untapped. Uptown Saturday Night stars Poitier as Steve, a steelworker, and Cosby as Wardell, a cab driver. One evening, Wardell persuades Steve to visit an expensive brothel/gambling joint/nightclub called Madam Zenobia’s. The blue-collar guys pay dearly for visiting the high-roller establishment, because robbers invade the club and steal personal items from everyone in attendance. The next day, Wendell realizes that his wallet, which was taken by the crooks, contains a winning lottery ticket worth $50,000.
          In order to find the stolen goods, the friends infiltrate the local underworld, which puts them in the middle of a war between gangsters Geechie Dan (Harry Belafonte) and Silky Slim (Calvin Lockhart). Culture-clash gags ensue, climaxing in a goofy finale that involves a car chase, cross-dressing, and a funkadelic picnic. While Poitier displays almost zero control over pacing and tone, the movie features excellent supporting turns by Roscoe Lee Browne and Rosalind Cash. (The less said about Belafonte’s embarrassing Marlon Brando imitation, complete with cotton-stuffed cheeks, the better.) By far, the best scene in Uptown Saturday Night is Richard Pryor’s extended cameo as a nervous con man, because he explodes with the edge and energy the rest of the film sorely needs.
          Poitier and his collaborators righted the ship for Let’s Do It Again, the best of the trio. A straight-up caper comedy filled with colorful characters and crazy schemes, the movie works fairly well almost from start to finish, though it should’ve been 15 minutes shorter. This time, Billy (Cosby) and Clyde (Poitier) are blue-collar types who run a con in order to raise money for their fraternal lodge, a vital community hub. Traveling to New Orleans with their wives—and $18,000 in purloined lodge money—the boys secretly hypnotize prizefighter Bootney Farnsworth (Jimmie Walker), then place huge bets on Bootney before a title match. Scenes of Billy and Clyde dressing like pimps while they pretend to be players are cheerfully outlandish. Predictably, fixing fights gets our heroes into hot water with two New Orleans gangsters, Biggie Smalls (Lockhart) and Kansas City Mack (John Amos). Once again, high jinks ensue.
          Some of the material is wheezy, like the bit of escaping a hotel room with tied-up bedsheets, but most of the scenes are inventive and lively. Cosby also gets to do more pure shtick this time around, and the tunes on the soundtrack are fantastic—soul-music legend Curtis Mayfield composed the score as well as several original songs, recruiting the Staple Singers to perform the songs. Let’s Do It Again has many famous admirers, including the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., who borrowed his nickname “Biggie Smalls” from the movie.
          The quasi-series took a strange turn with the final entry, A Piece of the Action, which is a social-issue drama disguised as a comedy. Running an exhausting 135 minutes, the movie opens with three vibrant heist sequences. The robbers are Dave (Cosby) and Manny (Poitier), who neither know each other nor work together. Enter Detective Joshua Burke (James Earl Jones), a recently retired cop who summons the crooks to a hotel room and blackmails them. In exchange for sitting on evidence that could put them in jail for years, Joshua forces the thieves to volunteer at a community center for at-risk youth. Once this plot twist kicks in, the movie becomes a riff on Poitier’s hit To Sir, With Love (1967). While Dave tries to find jobs for the youths at the community center, Manny becomes the kids’ teacher, giving tough-love lessons about dignity and responsibility.
          Many scenes in A Piece of the Action are downright heavy, such as a fierce showdown during which brash student Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) drives idealistic teacher Sarah (Hope Clarke) to tears by characterizing her as a dilettante exploiting poor African-Americans. Later still, the movie becomes a sort of thriller, because thugs from the heroes’ pasts show up for revenge. Despite featuring strong performances and sincere rhetoric, A Piece of the Action is awkward and unwieldy. Therefore, while it’s easily the most edifying of the three pictures, it might also be the least entertaining. Worse, the movie features Cosby delivering a crass rape joke that now has unwanted associations.
          Rumors have swirled for years that one or all of the Cosby/Poitier pictures would be remade, with Will Smith’s name perpetually floated as a likely participant.

Uptown Saturday Night: FUNKY
Let’s Do It Again: GROOVY
A Piece of the Action: FUNKY

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