This quirky family comedy conceived as an antidote to blaxploitation pictures was adapted from a play that claims no goal beyond feel-good entertainment — and a little preaching about black solidarity. Broad humor, simple characters and thin dramatic conflicts can’t blur the fact that this comedy has its heart in the right place. A game group of talented actors assures us that we’re gonna be glorified, unified and filled-with-pride!
Five on the Black Hand Side
1973 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date February 27, 2018 / available through the Olive Films website / 21.99
Starring: Clarice Taylor, Leonard Jackson, Virginia Capers, Glynn Turman, D’Urville Martin, Richard Williams, Sonny Jim Gaines, Ja’net DuBois, Bonnie Banfield, Frankie Crocker, Tchaka Almoravids, Carl Mikal Franklin, Cal Wilson, Philomena Nowlin, Brenda Sutton, Imamu Sukuma, Godfrey Cambridge.
Cinematography: Gene Polito
Film Editor: Michael Economou
Original Music: H.B. Barnum
Written by Charlie L. Russell, from his play
Produced by Brock Peters, Michael Tolan
Directed by Oscar Williams
Only five minutes into Five on the Black Hand Side, I was thinking somebody had made a big mistake, and maybe I could find another picture to review. Not being an expert on black cinema of the ‘seventies, I had expected a drama something along the lines of Raisin in the Sun, something sober about the struggles of an average black family. But a serious drama this is not. Looking like a TV sitcom and performed on a very broad, very simple level, Five is a feel-good comedy with a message that calls for unity and harmony. The lyric to the title song spells it out: “Give me five on the black hand side. . . Make it so sisters and brothers can love one another. Give me five on the black hand side, so we can feel good vibrations and fill our relations with love.”
The show was filmed fifteen years before the Wayans family started their wave of popular black-oriented productions, and ten years before Bill Cosby brought his successful mainstream black family to TV, in a show that wasn’t primarily a comedy. The Jeffersons wouldn’t begin for two more years. Five on the Black Hand Side was announced, produced and marketed as a response to the early ’70s wave of Blaxploitation pictures. Although the violent and sexist tales of pimps, drug pushers and rebel cop killers made a pile of money (mostly for white producers) and put a lot of black talent on movie screens, they were decried as doing black pride and black culture no favors. Five’s new direction is expressed in its advertising tag line. In the trailer, Tchaka Almoravids performs it:
“You’ve been Coffy-tized, Blacula-rized and Super-flied . . .
But now you’re gonna be glorified, unified and filled-with-pride . . .
When you see Five On The Black Hand Side!”
Adapted by Charlie L. Russell from his own play, Five was produced by black star Brock Peters and white actor Michael Tolan, for United Artists. Through the amusing Brooks family, we meet a appealing group of near-caricatures that represent factions in a divided black consciousness. The main conflict is not black versus white, but Old Black Thinking versus Liberated New Black Thinking. Paterfamilias John Henry Brooks (Leonard Jackson) is a cartoonish bastion of male authority. Proud of his fully self-owned and run ‘Black Star’ barbershop, John Henry struts to work in a three piece suit and hat, with his head held high. But he browbeats his mousy wife Gladys Ann, who he only calls ‘Mrs. Brooks.’ He gives her a daily schedule that says when she should take her walk. Expressing her despair and frustration, Gladys Ann conspires with her girlfriends Big Ruby (Virginia Capers) and Stormy Monday (singer-personality Ja’net DuBois), who urge her to make a big change.
The rest of the family has differences with John Henry, too. Son Gideon (Glynn Turman) lives on the roof, avoiding his father because wants to study anthropology instead of business. Older son Booker T. (D’Urville Martin) prefers to go by the African name Shareem, but argues with Gideon over his preference for white women. Gideon thinks that getting together with white women confuses black solidarity. But Booker T. says that sisters just don’t have what he wants.
The big event that changes everyone is the wedding of the Brooks’ daughter Gail (Bonnie Banfield) to Marvin (future director Carl Franklin, billed as Carl Mikal Franklin). Gail wants an African wedding, which John Henry naturally opposes. Then Gladys Ann announces that she’s leaving John Henry after the ceremony, unless he agrees to her list of demands, which simply ask that she be treated with common courtesy, and as a wife, not a possession. Gladys Ann and her supporters practice military drills on the roof. John Henry holds court at the barber shop, where his cronies egg him on, entertain each other, and make sure that no women enter. John Henry scoffs until somebody tells him that Gladys Ann controls the apartment, the shop and all their money. Even as the wedding begins, nobody knows what John Henry will do.
I don’t pretend any great insight into black culture, but I do recall the enthusiastic responses given movies tailored to the black audience. I vividly remember the breakthrough pictures Cotton Comes to Harlem and Shaft when they were new. I saw both with audiences of mostly black airmen, who roared in approval every time a black hero prevailed over a white villain, or shot down ‘the man’ with a righteous word. The screenings were major audience participation experiences. Five on the Black Hand Side’s fantasy has a different agenda. The film is not about race problems or social injustice; no whites appear. A black family works out its differences in accordance with the author’s judgment: everybody needs to drop their old ways and get with the new hip & liberated pro-African pride. Besides Mr. and Mrs. Brooks working out their problems, the only changes we see are costume changes. Gladys Ann stands up straighter and adopts an Afro hairstyle. Having the entire cast shift to African dress for the wedding may express liberation in an issue-free context, but it can’t be denied that it’s a huge improvement on the garish 1973 street clothes.
It’s more of a position statement than a drama, as none of the conflicts we see are resolved. After Gideon threatens Booker T. on the rooftop, the issue of race mixing is just dropped. Perhaps airing these complaints makes the problems go away? Even the major differences between Gladys Ann and John Henry are never worked out. John Henry’s transformation happens offscreen. We never see exactly why has a change of heart.
Yet Russell’s play fulfills its function by just existing as a black feature without vice, murders and suffering. I winced at quite a few old Sidney Poitier movies until I realized that American racism was so entrenched that just getting a black actor on screen playing a fully-realized person was a big achievement. Until the 1960s, particular influential censors in the South would reject any Hollywood movie in which black and white characters associated with each other as equals. Poitier served as an ambassador from the Land of Rational Tolerance, an icebreaker inviting whites to take the big step of accepting a black man as a (gasp) real person. Sure, Poitier’s characters could sometimes be so genteel and unthreatening as to verge on humiliation. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner can be criticized as the most timid film conceivable about the subject of interracial marriage. But it is said that it also opened up the South to the acceptance of movies with major black characters.
Five on the Black Hand Side was made by artists that knew what they were doing, and that knew their audience. Critics that slam the picture for being unsophisticated and unsubtle forget that before the 1970s films by and for blacks were few and far between. Spokesmen lamented that black kids embraced the blacksploitation pictures because their identity in white mainstream cinema was so marginalized. The film’s idea of positive black liberation is purposely oversimplified, and the one-dimensional characters simply divide up speeches expressing the playwright’s point of view. But nobody complains about the lame characterizations and simplistic situations in mainstream white genre pictures, or films catering to children. Five isn’t trying to be the black equivalent of Death of a Salesman; it simply wants to give black audiences the ability to feel good celebrating their own families & community. Instead of a dramatic showdown, the final act opts for a wedding party where everybody looks good and feels happy. Who complains when John Ford interrupts his own dramas to directly address the audience with his equally broad and idealized Irish characters? Show me the depth of social relevance in an average TV show from the ‘sixties aimed at general family audiences. I recently watched about three hours of Flipper, until the nostalgia tap ran dry.
As in a comic strip, the film gives us lovable characters for audience identification. Clarice Taylor takes top honors for her adorable mugging as the sweet Gladys Ann, suffering her husband’s comic bullying. Leonard Jackson’s imperious John Henry huffs and puffs as if steam were about to come out of his ears. The supporting cast allows some notable performers to play comedy and spout Charlie Russell’s messages disguised as dialogue. Director Williams secured some notable names — Glynn Turman, D’Urville Martin, Ja’net Dubois.
Some things are a bit grating. When the kids decide to dance in the Brooks living room, their steps seem strange and stiff, as if the cast suddenly transformed into smiling black mannequins. During Gladys Ann’s domestic rebellion, her sudden switch to a military uniform with helmet to plot her marital campaign is glaringly inconsistent, something that belongs in a different kind of skit. On the other hand, the housewife looks even cuter dressed up like General Patton.
We’re intrigued by the play’s use of rhyming dialogue. Both John Henry’s partner Sweetmeat (Sonny Jim) and Fun Loving perform for their peers in John Henry’s shop, doing what are basically rap recitations. These aren’t musical interludes, but a natural form of communication/self expression. And what about the ‘black hand side’ greeting. Is it an invention of the play? It is introduced as if it is something new.
Russell’s celebration of a new black harmony hits familiar talking points about equality between brothers and sisters, but without taking sexist male attitudes into account. We see no sign that the communal culture down at the barbershop — leering at women, sharing tales of sex conquest — will change one iota. The play accepts the numbers man Rolls Royce (Frankie Crocker) and the pimp [at least I think he’s a pimp] Fun Loving (Tchaka Almoravids) as legit members of the community — they’re as welcome at the wedding as anybody.
The show is resolutely, refreshingly square — tame family fare with no swearing, no sex and nothing that would offend a grandmother. The fifteen-minute wedding scene basically stops the show dead while the happy cast members enjoy looking good, greeting each other and smiling. The faith-neutral ceremony itself is simple and sincere. With the exception of a statement or two that makes it seem that Gail is now Marvin’s property, the actual text read by the minister (Imamu Sukuma) is actually quite moving.
From what I’ve read from fans online, Five on the Black Hand Side is a respected and well-remembered movie. Are Black Studies classes still in place in college curriculums? This show would surely ignite a powerful discussion about what black cinema should and should not be.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Five on the Black Hand Side is a perfect encoding, picture and sound, of a feature in fine shape. The film’s high-key lighting and colorful art direction. Exteriors were filmed on Union Street near downtown L.A.. The celebratory title tune Five on the Black Hand Side sounds okay to me, but was reportedly not a hit. By the way, Godfrey Cambridge’s cameo is just that, a brief bit to get his name on the advertising. The black acting community clearly wanted to support this movie.
The trailer included is a real winner. It is a direct sell to the viewer, edited to that lively rap recitation by Tchaka Almoravids, who played Fun Loving in a stage version as well. The disc also carries English subtitles.
At MGM Home Video in 1993 we had Meteor Man, Robert Townsend’s attempt long before Black Panther to provide black kids with their own superhero. An editor took it upon himself to create a ‘rap TV spot’ for the show without first arranging for the idea to have originated with a marketing executive. The funny, quirky rap approach was of course not considered, leaving the VHS release with a standard, mostly dull, marketing campaign.
The MGM feature department arranged better advertising for 2002’s hit Barbershop, although its success was due mostly to word of mouth. That family-friendly PG-13 release might have been inspired by Five on the Black Hand Side.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Five on the Black Hand Side
Movie: Good + Plus
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 12, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson