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Trouble Man

TROUBLE MAN is a solid tough guy movie from the early ‘70s Black action cinema movement. Director Ivan Dixon was an actor (PORGY AND BESS, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, NOTHING BUT A MAN) turned TV director (The Bill Cosby Show, Room 222, Mod Squad) making his first theatrical feature. He followed this with the much more politically radical THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he went back to TV after that.

The script is by John D.F. Black, a white TV writer who had worked on some of the same shows as Dixon and then wrote SHAFT. The feel of this one is closer to SHAFT than SPOOK. It’s a serious and gritty movie, but it’s less concerned with militancy and more the standard staples of the genre often referred to as Blaxploitation: the wish fulfillment of larger-than-life manliness, some garish period style, and an outstanding soundtrack album by a genius soul artist – Marvin god damn Gaye!

The hero (Robert Hooks, STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK, King David in POSSE) is actually called Mr. T, or sometimes just T. Though he might be able to make a claim for Toughest Man in the World, he has little else in common with the other Mr. T. He has regular hair and wears suits and ties. Sometimes a little flashy, I guess. And the ties are almost as wide as your head, but everybody else in the movie is wearing those too.

Wikipedia describes T as “a hard-edged private detective,” which I guess is technically true, but it would’ve never occurred to me to describe him that way. I got the impression his primary profession was billiards player, something he’s so good at he has the means to give back as a freelance badass. His South Central neighborhood basically regards him as Don Corleone.

He walks into the billiards hall, a guy gives him a pound, when he’s challenged, some guys know to take the cover off a special table reserved for the occasion. While he’s busy humiliating his cocky challenger people are coming up to him telling him their problems. And he follows through. His guy (Bill Henderson, NO HOLDS BARRED) tells him about this baby that was injured because of a shitty handrail, so he goes right to the slumlord and scares him into making it right. The best part is when he walks in, the secretary asks, “Can I help you, sir?” and he says, “Yeah, just stand here and don’t ring his phone ’til I leave,” and barges into the guy’s office.

Later, when he mentions his private detective’s license, it’s to tell some cops that he legally could be carrying a gun even though he’s not. So it comes across just as an interesting tidbit – he also dabbles in private investigations. It’s another skill he has, just like he knows how to pick locks and rewire an elevator system. He’s a renaissance man.

Chalky (Paul Winfield, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, THE LOST MAN, WHITE DOG) and his white Austin-Powers-looking buddy Pete (Ralph Waite, COOL HAND LUKE, CHATO’S LAND, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE!) come to T because they run a dice game that keeps getting robbed by guys in ski masks. T sets up a plan to protect the next game and catch the culprits, but they’re really trying to set him up, shooting a guy that works for local kingpin Big (Julius Harris, following SHAFT’S BIG SCORE and SUPER FLY, BLACK CAESAR). So Trouble Man’s troubles are just the suspicion of the cops, the wrath of Big, and the betrayal of Chalky and Pete. No trouble at all.

T has a fashionable girlfriend named Cleo (Paula Kelly, SWEET CHARITY, DROP SQUAD) whose role unfortunately is to wait for him in their beautiful era-appropriate apartment, occasionally playing piano. She’s not too thrilled when he calls her and demands she pack a bag to leave town, no explanation offered. (Always a relationship issue when that comes up.) In the tradition of the genre, T is a ladies man – there are two different characters implied to be former lovers excited to see him and willing to do anything for him – but he stays loyal to Cleo. Well, at least until the end when he hits on a cop (Tracy Reed, RUNNING SCARED), gets her to help him and then leave with him.

“My name’s T, baby.”

“I know who you are.”

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for the superficial visual pleasures of ‘70s movies, because I like checking out his blue velvet suit, the striking design of the wallpaper, etc. I like the fantasy of this world of the past where everybody’s okay wearing polyester and where whatever home, business or office you visit you’ll be offered a drink or access to an open bar. (At the dice game he requests gin with one ice cube.)

In the billiards hall I kept admiring the sleek retro Coke machine. Only fifteen cents in the glass bottle. And then later it’s revealed that he has a gun hidden inside it for emergencies. A good set up.

Chalky and Pete eventually get what they deserve, but at times I kind of felt bad for them. Everyone else is experiencing the joys of the era, but these guys seem to spend most of their time together in small offices. They work out of a beautiful old theater that’s open all night, but their office is up above and might as well be on a construction site.

I remember not being very impressed by TROUBLE MAN when I was younger, but now I really like it. It’s a good rendition of this type of unfuckwithable anti-hero, not a goody two shoes but a good person, a guy who can pull off anything, has no problem telling a police captain (William Smithers, DEATHSPORT) to fuck off, uses his power to help the downtrodden and then doesn’t take credit for it.

And of course I realized even back then that the soundtrack is what is now known as a banger. It surprises me that Marvin Gaye was willing to contribute to this macho movie with DAWN OF THE DEAD colored blood as his followup to What’s Going On, but I guess he was into it. He had just achieved full artistic control (plus the biggest payday for an R&B singer to that date), but Motown asked him if he was interested in doing this movie they made a deal for, and he was. (I don’t think Stevie would’ve done it. He was working on Talking Book.)

Gaye was of course a very sincere artist, so he follows the Curtis Mayfield SUPER FLY tradition of singing about some of the characters and events of the movie, giving voice to T’s emotions not evident in the movie. Those are great, but man, to hear songs like “’T’ Plays It Cool” where he just grooves with funky keyboards and wah wah guitars…

(That’s from an expanded edition I didn’t know I should’ve bought while it was available.)

Also, the soundtrack cracks me up because 8 of the 13 tracks on the original album have either “Trouble Man” or “T” in their titles:

Main Theme From Trouble Man (2)
“T” Plays It Cool
Trouble Man
Theme From Trouble Man
“T” Stands For Trouble
Main Theme From Trouble Man
Don’t Mess With Mister “T”
There Goes Mister “T”

It was Gaye’s only soundtrack. He followed it with another classic, Let’s Get It On.

I like Hooks in this movie. He has a look and a sense of coldness that make him different from other actors who could’ve played the role, like Jim Brown or Fred Williamson. His background was also different – in 1964 he had founded a free acting workshop for urban youth called the Group Theatre Workshop, producing and advocating for plays about the Black experience, getting enough attention to receive funding from the Ford Foundation to create the Negro Ensemble Company with playwright Douglas Turner Ward and theater manager Gerald S. Krone. Not everybody liked the name, but it was intended as a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance. The original company included Rosalind Cash and Moses Gunn, with Michael A. Schulz (later director of COOLEY HIGH, CAR WASH, KRUSH GROOVE, THE LAST DRAGON, DISORDERLIES, and many more) as director. Later alumni include Debbie Allen, Angela Bassett, Avery Brooks, Keith David, Bill Duke, Giancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Danny Glover, Louis Gossett Jr., David Allen Grier, Sherman Hemsley, Samuel L. Jackson, Delroy Lindo, S. Epatha Merkerson, Garrett Morris, Ron O’Neal, Phylicia Rashad, Richard Roundtree and Denzel Washington (who was in A Soldier’s Play, which won a Pulitzer). And believe it or not that’s a heavily edited list. So founding that group was a pretty big contribution to the world.

He wasn’t in any other movies considered Blaxploitation, unless you count Gordon Parks Jr.’s last film, AARON LOVES ANGELA, which starred Hooks’ teenage son Kevin. The younger Hooks was a child actor known for The White Shadow and SOUNDER (co-starring with Winfield) who followed the Ivan Dixon path of moving behind the camera. He directed his father in HEAT WAVE, PASSENGER 57, FLED, GLORY & HONOR, plus episodes of V, Dragnet and Lincoln Heights.

Apparently the Medved brothers put TROUBLE MAN in their The Fifty Worst Films of All Time book – surely an honor. Vincent Canby called it “a horrible movie,” but I think his criticisms are well-intended, excoriating it as an extreme example of “white-financed black films” that glorify violence and sexism in the name of capitalism. He called it an “all-American movie that urges the preservation of the rotten system that makes all the loot possible. In the most mindless fashion, this commercial film neutralizes not revolution but all sorts of other less cataclysmic social changes.”

I don’t think depiction is endorsement here, and I bet we could find white directors he gave more leeway in stories of amorality, but he’s right that these aren’t values we want to see in the real world, so I won’t get mad at him. I’ll leave that to T.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2020 at 3:41 pm and is filed under Action, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “Trouble Man”

  1. Underrated and underseen; it always makes me happy when this movie gets a nod from hip hop, whether it comes from Big Daddy Kane or TI (the first two that come to mind, but there are others).

  2. I’m not too proud to admit that the first time I became aware of this movie was because the Falcon recommended the soundtrack to it to Captain America in WINTER SOLDIER and then they’re listening to it in the hospital at the end. I remember thinking it was a cool choice because it wasn’t so well-known a song that it was distracting, but it has a real warm, familiar kinda vibe.

  3. Dammit man, im trying not to buy music until the holidays but now I need to have this!

  4. I keep meaning to see this. The soundtrack is great.

    Has there ever been a critic who did more damage to film culture than Michael Medved? I don’t even mean the far-right HOLLYWOOD VS. AMERICA stuff, I mean THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME and THE GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS and all the rest of that contemptuous bullshit. (The worst films of all time, like, you know, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, THE OMEN, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, IVAN THE TERRIBLE, ZABRISKIE POINT, GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH, LAST FUCKING YEAR AT MARIENBAD, that kind of thing.) It’s a direct line from the Medveds’ sneering ignorance to the Razzie Awards, CinemaSins, and the worst aspects of MST3K.

  5. That’s a good point, Matthew B. I went through a phase where I was super into “bad movie” sites that looked upon Medved and his work as some kind of great legacy or some shit (I don’t regret that phase, it actually led me to opening myself to unironically appreceating some good stuff, but boy were a lot of those writers assholes. Not all, some were cool and had the right approach, but those others, damn). That’s an insane “worst of all time” list – it goes well beyond even the usual snobbery of casually dismissing movies based on genre, budget or the presence of this or that person in the cast.

  6. It’s a really weird list. I think the Medveds sat down and made a list of the 58 movies they’d seen at that point in their lives, and crossed off the eight they liked best.

  7. I love a good bad movie, which is why every book I’ve read about bad movies has been garbage, because there’s no love there. I see an epically bad movie, I see an artist’s love that would not die even in the face of crushing reality. I see a craftsman making the best lemonade he or she can with the lemons he or she got handed. There’s a lack of humility and compassion to the Medved/Razzie set that makes their approach untenable to me.

  8. Yeah, that sounds about right to me, M. To me, the thing that will make a movie truly “bad” (and this is a very “I know it when I see it” kind of thing) is soulless-ness. I think this is a feeling that Tim Burton captured really well in ED WOOD, actually- were Wood’s films technically bad? Yes of course, but there’s also a love and enthusiasm at the heart of them that somehow elevates them beyond the simple, forgettable badness of a million other long-forgotten alien invasion or exploitation pictures.

    Also, I’d hold MST3k apart from stuff like the Razzies or Medved’s work. I don’t think they’re just “‘making fun of bad movies” (though that’s certainly the easiest way to describe the show quickly)- I think it’s something more akin to hip-hip remixing, where they’re taking one work and adding new layers and interpretations and interactions with it- for comedic effect, certainly, but also just because I think deep down those guys (Joel especially) actually really love these movies. I mean, if they didn’t, then creating a job where they had to watch watch one like 20 times in the course of making an episode would have been sheer torture. And that’s not to say they aren’t doing bad movies or that they don’t complain about the movies, it’s just…it feels like the feeling I get from ED WOOD. There’s a love there, not a sneer.

  9. I was not counting MST3K and its offshoots in with that assessment, particularly the Joel years. I always thought Joel felt a kind of kinship with the homemade, “Let’s put on a show!” scrappiness of schlock cinema that fit right with the cobbled-together junkyard aesthetic of his own creations. Mike always felt more like your standard snarkmonger sniping from the sidelines, but he’s a way better joke writer than Joel so he mostly gets away with it. He seems to sincerely love ROAD HOUSE, at least.

  10. I wouldn’t put MST3K in the same trash bag as Medved et al., which is why I restricted my complaints to its “worst aspects.” Joel is genuinely affectionate towards the movies they screen, and the jokes are way more clever than the lazy snark they might easily have settled for. But at the same time ….

    … At the same time, nah, fuck ’em. They make recondite references to William Golding and Calvinism and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, ha ha. That doesn’t really compensate for taking a decent film like THIS ISLAND EARTH, hacking half an hour out of it, and then wisecracking about how stupid the plot is. You can’t find a discussion of MOON ZERO TWO or KITTEN WITH A WHIP or even, Christ help me, DIABOLIK without someone popping in to say how shit it is and quote their favourite Tom Servo zinger. The movie must be shit, right? It wouldn’t be on MST3K if it weren’t. Q.E.D.

    I went to the Letterboxd page for THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT recently and saw post after post of this stuff. “½★ for the movie! ★★★★★ for the MST3K episode!” They all parroted the same stupid complaints. Why was the protagonist such an imperialist hothead, even compared to some of the German WWI U-boat crew who’d sunk his ship? Gosh, that’s a poser. Why would Michael Moorcock, noted anarchist, anti-jingoist, and literary subversive, script the characters that way? Who can explain this blunder?

    I suppose that Mike irritates me a lot more than Joel, and the fans more than either. And they’re not to blame for the excesses of their fans. Well, not entirely to blame. Even so, if that runaway trolley car is headed towards the collected master tapes for all 12 seasons, and I can pull a switch and send the car over STARCRASH instead, I’m going to stand right where I am and drink my coffee.

  11. Hey man, how you feel is how you feel and I gotta respect that, but I do think you may be overestimating the cultural appetite for respectful critical discussion of MOON ZERO TWO in 2020 absent its MST3k ep.

  12. What is better? A person watching the MST3K version of a film OR that person never seeing that film at all? I lean towards the person who saw it. Every movie, no matter how good or bad, deserves an audience.

    Every year I have to hear people complain about year end worst lists but I love ’em. There are so many films I had never heard of before that came to my attention and so many are movies I really like. So half full kinda guy here I guess.

  13. Reposted in correct thread: I’m sure whoever’s getting the licensing checks for MANOS: HANDS OF FATE wakes up every day and thanks the lord for MST3K.

  14. Manos is public domain so no one’s making money off that one! It’s like Plan 9 or Night of the Living Dead, there are suddenly no-budget remakes and sequels coming out by people cashing in.

    To Stern’s point I don’t know, but I can’t imagine watching Manos by itself. Maybe with some friends where you can joke around about it. But even THAT didn’t save Verotika which has GOT to be one of the legit worst movies I’ve ever seen. The horrible thing is that’s the last movie I saw with a group before Covid hit.

  15. MOON ZERO TWO is a sci-fi film from Hammer studios with strange retro-future production design. There’s an audience for that. I watched it, and I didn’t have a clue that MST3K had covered it. As to whether people give it “respectful” discussion, I really couldn’t care — it’s not a neglected masterpiece — but discussion, period, would be nice, and not endless repetition of someone else’s one-liners.

    But The Kurgan has the right idea when he says the show does remixes. You haven’t seen a movie if you’ve only seen the MST3K episode. Besides the overdubs on the soundtrack, you’ve got the silhouettes across the bottom of the frame, the cropped images, the scenes that get cut so that the show can fit into its time-slot. It’s like WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY? — fine for what it is, which is definitely not KEG OF GUNPOWDER or KEY OF KEYS.

    Most of MST3K’s movie choices are public domain in the U.S., right? That’s why they picked them.

  16. Most of the movies had to be licensed. Some are PD like the Ed Wood ones, Manos, Killer Shrews, Brain That Wouldn’t Die. Funny enough, some of the actual better movies. I think all of the shorts are. This is why some titles are out of print, they couldn’t get the rights again for whatever reason. Probably jacked up too high BECAUSE of MST3K.

    A lot of the movies they run though, to me are like when I was watching Joe Bob Briggs on Shudder. I’d fast forward a number of the movies. My friends were like how could I do that, but I really don’t need to watch Blood Feast. Like Verotika, maybe with people, but to sit there and actually watch it? Noooo thanks!

  17. Thanks, Muh. I’m more familiar with the early shows, where it looks like the proportion of public domain was higher.

  18. I still like MST3K, I’ll put it on as background noise every once in a while while I’m doing something else. I’m fond of it, I guess, because it was never on in my country in any capacity I’m aware of, and it still feels to me like an arcane, recondite discovery that I made and that’s a part of my relationship with movies.

    That being said, I think that, with maybe one exception or two, they’re not coming from a place of love. Maybe I’m wrong – I hope I am – but I get the feeling they have very similar views on movies to the worst members of the “B-Masters Cabal,” the ones who tended to seemingly regard the Medveds as taste-makers, and basically never gave a movie a chance (though I think most of those B-Masters people were on the Light side).

  19. I’ve had the soundtrack to this for decades – man, I love it. I’ve never seen the actual movie, but from listening to the CD, I have this sort of free-floating blaxploitation movie drifting around in my mind, conjured by those synths and guitars.

    I forgot Dixon directed this. Every time you mention him, Vern, I feel obliged to ask if you’ve ever seen NOTHING BUT A MAN, because I think you’d really dig it.

    Also – that alumni list from the Negro Ensemble Company is just freaking insane.

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