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Five On The Black Hand Side

Five On The Black Hand Side(1973)


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teaser Five On The Black Hand Side (1973)

Charlie Russell, playwright and author of the 1969 play and 1973 movie adaptation Five on the Black Hand Side, grew up in West Monroe, Louisiana in the 1930s, encountering racism that plagued his family as far back as he could remember. He and his famous younger brother, Boston Celtics star center Bill Russell, often described incidents of vile racism and bigotry that filled their childhood, including harassment from local police, one of whom once ordered their mother to go home and remove the "white woman" dress she was wearing, and threats from local businessmen, including a frightening moment at a gas station when the white owner held a shotgun to their father's face because he was going to leave rather than "wait his turn" while one white customer after another was helped before him.

It was unsurprising then that Charlie Russell wanted to be the kind of writer who used his art to advocate for the black community. In a 1973 interview, when asked if he wrote for an audience, he replied:

"Yeah, I do, I write for a particular audience. I write primarily for black people, for a black audience. I write for, what I consider to be the workers, the masses of black people. I'm talking about, like, clerks, I'm talking about bus drivers, you know, working people."

Expanding on the differences between writing for blacks and whites, he said: "There's a definite difference between what we call a black play and a white play and it all comes from the premise you start with, the premise of what reality is... I start from the premise that black people are oppressed in America... A black play must deal with this oppression in some way.

In Five on the Black Hand Side I tried to do two things, and that was raise the level of consciousness and to unify black people."

Coming on the heels of a Blaxploitation movement in American cinema, with films such as Coffy (1973) and Blacula (1972) and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) making big bucks for the African-American film market, Five on the Black Hand Side must have seemed out of place, a complex look at the lives of a black family and their friends, struggling with their identity through the plot machinations of a gentle comedy, not a fast-paced or tense thriller.

The story centers around Mr. and Mrs. Brooks (Leonard Jackson and Clarice Taylor), a married couple that refer to each other as, indeed, "Mr. Brooks" and "Mrs. Brooks." Their daughter is getting married to a man (acclaimed director Carl Franklin) who insists on an African wedding, much to the disapproval of Mr. Brooks, successful small businessman (he owns his own barbershop) and a man who considers himself "American" not "African." Their two sons constantly butt heads: Booker T. (D'Urville Martin) and Gideon (Glynn Turman) argue over black identity, not exactly what audiences had come to expect from the Blaxploitation movement. Booker T. hates his name and fancies himself as "Sharif" but sleeps with a white woman (never seen), something Gideon refers to as "sleeping with the enemy." He calls Booker T. a hypocrite and a traitor.

Taylor doesn't just play the one angle though; he also explores the themes of the male/female dynamic within the black community. Mr. Brooks' barbershop is a sanctuary for the black man, no women allowed. He even has one of his employees "man his station" anytime a woman is seen approaching the shop, lest she get through the door. It is here, in the shop, that Russell, by showing the men talking, joking and laughing, produces in Mr. Brooks a full character, putting on a stern face at home while relaxing at work, the exact opposite of most people in the world. But unbeknownst to Mr. Brooks, Mrs. Brooks is planning on leaving him unless he changes his controlling, dictatorial ways.

Five on the Black Hand Side is a revelation for the power of Leonard Jackson's portrayal. Rarely has the stage or screen been blessed with someone with as powerful a set of lungs and commanding a voice as Jackson. He dominates an uneven, but good, cast and that's a good thing since the story makes or breaks according to Mr. Brooks' actions.

The other two standouts in the film are Glynn Turman as Gideon and the multi-talented Ja'net DuBois as "Stormy Monday." If the name isn't recognizable the face may be. DuBois played best friend and neighbor Willona Woods on Good Times and wrote and sang the theme song for The Jeffersons, "Movin' on Up!"

Five on the Black Hand Side addresses issues affecting the African-American community and does so unapologetically. Sensing this may not be the instant ticket to big box office, the studios got Godfrey Cambridge to appear in the opening vignette as a frustrated driver who suffers a fender bender of his own making. When Cambridge gets out of his car, the actor playing the other driver in the incident says to him, "Hey, you're Godfrey Cambridge!" Rarely has a cameo been so forced and tacked on in a desperate attempt to add star power to a movie that clearly doesn't need it. It's not that having Godfrey Cambridge attached to your movie is ever a bad thing but it signaled a lack of confidence on the part of the studios with the strength of the finished product.

They needn't have worried. Five on the Black Hand Side builds slowly, using the barber shop scenes as a way to get to know the community and the main character, Mr. Brooks. Before long, the viewer is invested in these characters and when the wedding day arrives, feels like a part of the family.

Charlie Russell remains most famous for this play and its film adaptation, and that's fitting. It grew out of a need to unify and enlighten the African-American community at a time when such messages could finally be relayed in mainstream cinema. Russell went to college to major in literature but took years to work up the nerve to consider himself a writer and start writing full time. In his interview for Black Drama, released by Folkway Records in 1973, he says he read Shakespeare and Chaucer, Richard Wright and Chester Himes and finally started to find his own way by going in a different direction from those writers altogether. He expresses this with the wisdom of an artist confident in who he is and what he produces:

"You learn from other artists and in the process of learning from them, you become yourself."

Producers: Kay Korwin, Brock Peters, Michael Tolan
Director: Oscar Williams
Screenplay: Charlie L. Russell
Cinematography: Gene Polito
Art Direction: James L. Schoppe
Music: H.B. Barnum
Film Editing: Michael Economou
Cast: Leonard Jackson (Mr. Brooks), Clarice Taylor (Mrs. Brooks), Virginia Capers (Ruby), Glynn Turman (Gideon), D'Urville Martin (Booker T.), Ja'net DuBois (Stormy Monday), Sonny Jim Gaines (Sweetmeat), Carl Franklin (Marvin).

by Greg Ferrara

Black Drama - Barbara Ann Teer/Charlie Russell (Folkway Records, 1973)

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