A year before TALES FROM THE HOOD was a black Tales From the Crypt, the Hudlin brothers’ HBO TV movie COSMIC SLOP was “a multi-cultural Twilight Zone.” Even if the VHS cover didn’t have a Chicago Tribune quote calling it that, you’d get the idea from the intro, when a trail of terrible 2D computer animated objects (basketball, rolling pin, chair, bust of Beethoven, electric guitar, bra, asterisk) float in under George Clinton’s familiar “free your mind and your ass will follow” narration and a re-recording of the 1973 Funkadelic song that the title comes from.
It’s even lower budget than TALES and much cheesier, with crude, video toaster style digital effects. It’s clearly a pilot for a show they decided not to make, but it’s another admirable attempt to bring a different perspective to the tradition of short genre stories that explore social issues.
Clinton’s disembodied head floats in, on fire, a blinking animatronic third eye on his forehead, and morphs between different hairstyles as he cryptically Rod Serlings a trio of stories with his cryptic afro-futurist catch phrases.
Warrington is usually the producer of the Hudlin brothers team. His only two other directorial works were student films in the ’70s. But he wrote and directed the second story here, “The First Commandment,” starring Nicholas Turturro (HELLRAISER: INFERNO) as a Catholic Priest in a housing project looking into a Virgin Mary statue that comes to life. And then some business with comparing Christianity and Santeria. Sounds kinda promising, but to be honest this one is a snooze, like Steven Spielberg’s part of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE.
The third segment, “Tang,” is the weirdest and most accomplished. Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan (HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK), written by comic book artist Kyle Baker, adapted from a story by Chester Himes, it’s basically a two-person play starring Chi McBride (PAID IN FULL) and Paula Jai Parker (TALES FROM THE HOOD) as T-Bone and Tang. T-Bone is an abusive junkie asshole on parole who sits around lazily sponging off of Tang and telling her what to do. When a box of flowers is delivered to the apartment, he gets real suspicious of her. Then when they realize the flowers are hiding a gun that’s meant to be used for a black uprising, things get even more dangerous.
It’s kinda arty, getting more feverish and unhinged as it progresses. It makes kind of a weird capper to a movie, but probly could’ve been a standout episode if it had been a weekly show. “Remember that one where it was just the couple in the apartment fighting over the gun? I didn’t like it at the time but now I think it’s the best one!”
I looked up “Tang” and learned that it’s actually not a short story, but the opening chapter of Himes’ unfinished last novel, Plan B. In the book, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones (the detective team that stars in COTTON COMES TO HARLEM and other novels) show up, and Grave Digger kills T-Bone!
I saved the first segment to discuss last because that’s the one I really want to talk about. “Space Traders” is about aliens who land (or I guess levitate) at Plymouth Rock and – appearing as a Ronald Reagan face on a screen to make us comfortable – offer to solve all of America’s problems. You have five days to decide if you want it or not. We’ll be in touch.
p.s. In exchange for all the black people. No big deal. Let us know.
The news broadcasts have little satirical asides to tell us this is the near future we could be headed toward, like mentioning that this is our “first encounter with space since NASA went bankrupt back in 1998” and that Connecticut is gonna be evacuated by the EPA due to high levels of carcinogens. But of course the focus is on race relations, for example in the long scene in a DR. STRANGELOVE-inspired war room set where the cabinet discusses whether or not to accept the aliens’ deal. They’re pretty excited about solving pollution and war and what not. It takes them a minute to get to what would be “the down side to all this”:
“You know, Casper is absolutely right. The guilt that many whites would feel for sending the blacks away could take a severe psychological toll, with medical costs possibly reaching astronomical levels.”
They go around the table, everybody saying clueless stuff like that, until General Wright (Tom Finnegan, chief of police in ROAD HOUSE) has had enough. How can these people be okay with sending away part of our population? Someone has to stand up to this. He literally stands up. “This is madness!” he says.
And then explains that the military would lose 30% of their man power.
There is only one black person at the table. When the not-so-subtly-named Professor Gleason Golightly (Robert Guillaume, SUPER FLY T.N.T.) finally speaks up and says in no uncertain terms that what they’re talking about is at best banishment of all African Americans, at worst extermination, everybody else gets upset and acts like he’s way out of line.
“Did I miss something? Who said anything about extermination!?”
The oppressive cloud of white cluelessness is sadly recognizable. Ultimately, they don’t want to straight up say yes to the aliens, so they decide to set up two 900 numbers and let the people vote. Same way they killed Robin.
As they leave the meeting, the president says “Gentlemen. Lady.” And you see this circle of all white men except one black man and one white woman leaving, and it’s a perfect image to explain why it’s important to have people with a variety of backgrounds in charge of important decisions that affect everyone.
Golightly is a lifelong black Republican who has always stood by these people, and now they’re not standing by him. On one hand it seems kind of mean the way they portray him, because it definitely has kind of a “you reap what you sow” attitude toward his conservatism. On the other hand, he’s clearly shown as a man of great integrity, whatever his political leanings.
As the man who goes lightly, the White House wants him to help calm the black community about the proposition, because their reaction to the vote “could make the L.A. riots look like a slumber party.” If he does it they’ll let him draw up a list of 100 black families that will be smuggled to England.
Although he pretends to take the offer, he works behind the scenes to stop the trade. First, he appeals to the greed and racism of the power elite, convincing a bunch of guys that their fortunes in Cognac and Newport cigarette sales must be protected. With their money he puts together a TV special hosted by Casey Kasem (as himself) talking about the contributions of African-Americans in front of a picture of Michael Jordan. Michael Jackson (played by an imitator) shows up for an all star performance.
Then the professor comes up with the idea that the black community should pretend to be in favor of the trade. He wants to start rumors that they’re being taken to a much better planet, thinking that would turn white people against the trade. But people don’t trust him because of his conservative past and won’t listen to him. Similarly, the Jewish leaders who immediately pledged solidarity were scoffed at by some of the black community. There’s no unity among the people trying to stop this.
As if there’s not enough in-fighting already, we learn (from Roger Guenveur Smith, also in TALES FROM THE HOOD) that the aliens would use “the paper bag test” to only take people with a certain darkness of complexion. This leads to a goofy joke when the news reports that “actor George Hamilton vowed today he too will go.” But also it tears families apart. Gail Golightly (Michele Lamar Richards, TOP DOG) is lighter skinned than the rest of her family, and tries to convince her daughter to use a skin lightener so she won’t have to go. Later she tries to darken her own skin, because she’d rather go with her family than stay behind while they have to go. Heartbreaking.
I guess I just spoiled it. The answer is yes. This is the best part of COSMIC SLOP, the transition from this outlandish situation and broad jokes to grim seriousness as it unfolds its pessimistic view of how this would go. For me, the 2016 election has made it easier to believe and relate to the scenes where they see the polls and have to accept how their fellow Americans feel about them. Of course, voting for that one guy is not the same as voting to trade away all African-Americans for alien technology. But it is kinda like trading America’s proud history as a country of immigrants for the illusion of safety from foreign terrorism and crime. Don’t give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore! Send away these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, do I look like a sucker?
Even if you don’t see a parallel there, the current climate of resentment towards pro-black movements and mainstreaming of openly racist groups and policies forces me to wonder how a vote like this would go today. Whether or not the proposition passed I think it would be high enough to be very, very upsetting.
Of course, Russian hackers would probly make a whole bunch of calls to one of the numbers just to fuck with us.
There are plenty of moments in COSMIC SLOP that don’t hit right, but they’re worth sitting through for the powerful scene of the Golightly family sitting in horrified silence as a black news anchor grimly announces that the referendum has passed. The promise of refuge in England becomes a SCHINDLER’S-LIST-type last hope that’s then dashed when he finds out the government knew about his secret lobbying the whole time.
Of course, we never see what happens to them on the other side. We stay on earth with the white people, who are still looking on the bright side. For example, TV’s Stryker O’Rourke (Larry Anderson, DR. STRANGE) says, “And so as we say goodbye to our dark friends and neighbors, we say hello to a new era of American peace and prosperity.”
Let’s try not to be Stryker O’Rourke, guys.
The story comes from a book called Faces At the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell, who was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School and left two decades later in a protest over not having a tenured black woman professor yet. I haven’t read the book, but a New York Times review tells me it’s in the form of a conversation between two people trying to make a larger point through a series of parables and fables like this. I guess one of them is about allowing white people to purchase a license to openly discriminate. So, this is not from some sci-fi magazine, but a pretty hardcore book about law and racism.
In fact, in 2012 Cosmic Slop’s adaptation of “Space Traders” was criticized on breitbart.com because they found out Obama had once hugged Bell after introducing him at Harvard. On one hand it’s kinda hilarious for anybody to get up in arms about an obscure 20 year old made-for-cable movie/failed pilot hosted by Dr. Funkenstein. On the other hand, it sounds like those Breitbart guys are way ahead of me on these old VHS tapes, which is embarrassing. I gotta get my shit together.
“Space Traders” was directed by Reginald Hudlin, adapted by Trey Ellis (THE INKWELL, THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN). Reginald had directed HOUSE PARTY and BOOMERANG at that point. He was a major filmmaker for a few years there, but like so many ended up in TV, where he’s been working for 15+ years now. He also wrote Marvel’s Black Panther comic from 2005 to 2008, during which time the King of Wakanda married Storm of the X-Men. During those same years, Hudlin was the president of BET. He has an executive producer credit on The Boondocks, but that’s only because it was originally developed at BET. Creator Aaron MacGruder had such a low opinion of Hudlin that he made two episodes ridiculing him, and they were so harsh that they never even aired them, just put them on the DVD.
More recently, Hudlin produced DJANGO UNCHAINED, and convinced Oprah that it could be enjoyed as a cathartic experience. I give him credit for that.
I’ve always been interested in COSMIC SLOP because of George Clinton being the figurehead. The Hudlins had given him a cameo in HOUSE PARTY as the DJ at a rich people party, and they were talking about making a movie based on the classic Parliament album Mothership Connection. There’s not really a story there, but there are a few characters and a spaceship. I can’t really imagine what the movie would’ve been, or how they’d be the right people to do it, but man I wish they’d made it. Also, in the ’70s there was talk of a movie based on their underwater-themed album Motor Booty Affair. I’m sure it would’ve been a low budget SPACE IS THE PLACE type of thing and an incredible time capsule. These guys are so unique and so visually oriented, it’s surprising none of this ever got off the ground. We just have to be happy for George to host this or cameo in GOOD BURGER or for the band to play in the scary-black-people bar in THE NIGHT BEFORE starring young Keanu Reeves. And then eventually I’m sure there will be a biopic, which I hope will be crazy and full of animation and flying saucers and shit.
Personally I think Cosmic Slop is one of Funkadelic’s lesser albums, but the opening track “Nappy Dugout” is a heavily sampled classic, and the title track is an absolute anthem. Most of the songs on the album are just normal relationship stuff, not political like the show, but “March to the Witch’s Castle” is about a Vietnam vet struggling back at home (unusual subject matter for P-Funk) and “Cosmic Slop” is the sad tale of a mother who works as a prostitute to feed her five kids. Every night the singer hears his mother crying to God for forgiveness. The lead vocalist was Garry Shider, who made it his signature song, performing it at pretty much every P-Funk show until his death a few years ago. He was the guy who would come on stage in a diaper. Don’t worry, sometimes he’d have a leather jacket or something too, he wasn’t a total weirdo. But he’d be up there pouring his heart into the soulful guitar and gospel vocals on this thing, and it was beautiful.
(tip: Hardcore Jollies is a better album in my opinion and includes a great live version of “Cosmic Slop”)
But I don’t think this show has anything to do with that, they just liked the title. I still don’t understand what it means in the context of the song. When they play it live they always open singing to “Space people” and “universal lovers,” and the chorus asks “Would you like to dance with me, we’re doing the cosmic slop?” But it doesn’t specify what that is.
The album is also notable as the first one with a cover illustrated by Pedro Bell, who had a one of a kind psychedelic style, full of surreal imagery and corny puns. Somebody might call his work “outsider art” because of its crude colored marker rendering, but the amount of detail and imagination is astounding. It would be cool if his work could’ve had more of an influence on the visuals of COSMIC SLOP, but they clearly didn’t have many resources to work with in the special effects department.
COSMIC SLOP is only available on VHS, and to really give you an idea of when this was, the cover is a Magic Eye picture – those squiggles that were briefly popular where you have to stare at it a certain way and it reveals a 3D image. Hopefully it’s an image of George, but I can’t see it so I have no idea.