Monkey See
11:18 am
Fri December 14, 2012

'Trouble Man' At 40: A Classic, But Where's Its Cult?

Forty years ago, Trouble Man was released in theaters. Penned and produced by screenwriter John D.F. Black, it screens like a re-imagining of Shaft -- another "blaxploitation" film released nearly a year earlier. In fact, Black shared writing credits on Shaft with author Ernest Tidyman, a Cleveland police reporter turned pulp fiction novelist and screenwriter.

And really, you can't talk about Trouble Man without talking about Shaft. Both movies were different, necessary takes on two pervasive black male tropes of the day: Richard Roundtree's John Shaft as the burgeoning black hipster; and Robert Hooks' Mr. T, the working-class public benefactor and race man. Both were emblematic of the new New Negro reborn out of civil rights-era America.

Where Shaft is bubblegum blaxploitation, Trouble Man is a detective story for black folks that mostly cleaves to the tried-and-true conventions of the genre. And so we have two films, released within a year of each other, that both look unforgettable on paper — yet only one endures. Shaft is the better-known picture, but Trouble Man is a strong film with a legacy hobbled by three things.

Beyond his car, Mr. T lacks any readily accessible iconography for a mass audience. He has a love for nice suits and drives a Lincoln Continental, but doesn't sport much else in the way of strong visual artifacts or signifiers. Many other black movies of the era feature men clad in black leather, wearing Afros — both fashions heavily associated with the Black Panther Party. These visual hooks were appreciated back in the day by the black audience — and were curious, even frightening, to the white one.

On the poster and in the trailer for Trouble Man, Mr. T screens merely as an angry black man with a gun — an image that made white folks afraid then and in later years, not an image designed to generate box-office gold from a wide audience.

Second, Mr. T is not a man without politics. Shaft is a New York bohemian with an easy East Village demeanor; Mr. T is very West Coast, cool and radical, a race man through and through. A private detective with a pool hustle on the side — can you dig it? Shaft has no politics whatsoever; Mr. T works in the 'hood, for the 'hood. That narrative wasn't built to resonate with everyone.

Neither suffers fools gladly, but Mr. T sincerely does not like white people; he's so pro-black as to be nearly anti-white. He very deliberately doesn't share Shaft's affinity for white women.

Lastly, Shaft is a movie driven by music, where Trouble Man is pure story, no filler. Isaac Hayes' soundtrack to Shaft helps a weak script drag the story along. As revered as Marvin Gaye's soundtrack for Trouble Man may be, it doesn't work hard or well in the movie; it functions best by itself, as dinner-party music or a prelude to an evening's seduction. It's a record many whites have never heard of, but it remains a staple in many black record collections to this day. Hayes made a record that got airplay; Gaye made a record for himself and others who were feeling his vibe.

These films, both scripted by white men, tell nearly identical stories. Both are groundbreaking films in their own way, but Shaft is a pop-culture staple, while Trouble Man never had an entry point for mainstream audiences to grasp. It is a truer form of blaxploitation — less a genre film packaged for crossover, more a complete work with a narrative tailored for a specific audience that was hungry for no-nonsense heroes. Some count it among the best of its kind, some count it among the worst.

Forty years on, the debate still rages. Check it out and be your own judge.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.