Sunday, May 18, 2014

To All My Friends on Shore (1972)

          An interesting curio nestled inside Bill Cosby’s voluminous output, this fine telefilm features the iconic comedian in a strong dramatic performance. Additionally, To All My Friends on Shore offers one of its era’s most humane depictions of life among financially challenged African-Americans. It’s clear why the project failed to evolve into a theatrical feature, because the story is far too slight. Nonetheless, the texture of the piece—especially in terms of acting, sociopolitical rhetoric, and tone—is outstanding. Cosby, who came up with the idea for the story, stars as Blue, a jack of all trades struggling to support his wife, Serena (Gloria Foster), and his preteen son, Vandy (Dennis Hines). The first half of the picture is a character study about Blue. Although he’s a dreamer who is saving money to buy a house, he’s deeply cynical about opportunities for black men in America. Still, Blue prides himself on doing honest work, thereby shunning the urban pitfalls of drugs and welfare. For all his professional persistence, Blue fails as a father simply by spending too much time away from home and by squirreling away money for future purchases. As a result, Vandy resents Blue terribly, and Serena pushes Blue to work harder on parenting. All of these elements come together in the second half of the picture, during which Vandy is diagnosed with a lethal disease.
          As written by Allan Sloane, who won an Emmy for his teleplay, To All My Friends on Shore exudes credibility and toughness in every scene. The quarrels that Blue and Serena have about priorities ring true for anyone who’s tried to balance family and money. Similarly, the rage that Vandy expresses is painfully believable. “How come everything has to be someday,” he asks at one point. “How come there’s never anything good right now?” Producer-director Gilbert Cates, who made a number of solid dramatic films for the big screen in the early ’70s, executes To All My Friends on Shore with his customary good taste, giving actors ample room to inhabit characters instead of merely reciting lines. Foster and Hines both do well, though it’s Cosby, obviously, who dominates.
          Among other things, Cosby pulls off the neat trick of illustrating a paradox—Blue comes across as prideful and self-pitying at the same time, with both emotions seeming equally justified. Better still, Cosby assiduously avoids playing for cheap emotion, portraying a man who perceives life as a steady barrage of body blows. His durability, coupled with Vandy’s vulnerability, makes a poetic statement about existence on the fringes of society. (As Blue says in one of the film’s most pointed lines, Vandy’s ailment is merely a symptom of something worse: “Vandy’s sickness is he was born black and poor.”). To All My Friends on Shore hits a few rough spots along the way, narratively speaking, but the project’s biggest flaw is that should have been longer then 70 minutes, since there was more story yet to tell. What exists is quite good, though, especially with a powerfully downbeat funk score accentuating the anguish that permeates every scene.

To All My Friends on Shore: GROOVY

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