Five on the Black Hand Side

Laugh at the blacks!
Oscar Williams
Clarice Taylor, Leonard Jackson, Virginia Capers, Glynn Turman, D'Urville Martin
The Setup: 
Black woman in oppressive marriage demands her independence.

I got two emails right in a row alerting me to the existence of two unusual blaxploitation selections, so onto my queue they both went. Turns out neither of them end up being what one thinks of as blaxploitation. The other one, Poor Pretty Eddie, was a straightforward exploitation tale with artistic pretensions, and this, a family drama that was conceived explicitly as a reaction against the violent blaxploitation films popular in the early 70s.

We open with a fairly decent song [in fact, perhaps the best thing about the movie] that accompanies footage of the greeting gesture of the title: the touching of the back side of hands. It bears the smell of being invented with hopes that it would catch on in black communities as a uniquely black greeting, which I don’t think really worked out. It’s also a fairly awkward gesture, one that doesn’t really communicate closeness or fellow-feeling. The lyrics of the song express the positive vibe this movie is trying to get across: “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 rest of the lyrics are all about how blacks should treat each other with more respect and be united.

We then meet Gideon, who is camped out on the roof of an apartment complex. He awakes, then proceeds to practice his kung fu. I am a little mystified by the 70s black connection with kung fu, but there it is. Downstairs we meet his parents, John Henry Brooks, a fussy man who wears a suit and chomps a cigar, and his wife, Gladys Brooks, who looks like she’s been run over by a series of heavy trucks. He calls her “Mrs. Brooks” and makes her call him “Mr. Brooks,” shows no intimacy with her, won’t give her any money of her own, and forces her to keep a schedule book controlling every minute of her day. His son on the roof, Gideon, is “on strike” against him. He admires his other son, Booker T., who has a job and is “making something of himself.“ Also living there is daughter Gail, who is to be married the next day. She is planning a traditional African wedding, which John Henry refuses to participate in, appalling her by referring to it as a “foreign” wedding.

So Gail gets dressed in a shirt clearly designed by the same people who designed the packaging for Wonder Bread, and is soon joined by Booker T., who says “Don’t call me by that slave name.” He wants to be called Sharif, and he basically wants to murder whites. Gail tells him she’s “Tired of your criticism, I want to see some activism.” Gideon comes downstairs once his father has left for work, takes a shower and cleans up. Then these other people come over, and they all spontaneously start breaking into this BIZARRE dance where they thrust their hips at one another and touch the backs of their hands together—the black hand side. This occurs around 19 minutes, if you’re going to watch, and clearly belongs in the special category of Great Footage To Be Taken Out Of Context. Gladys has something to tell her children, and makes several attempts, but is always interrupted.

John Henry reports to the Black Star Barber Shop, which he owns with his partner, Sweet Meat. They get a contingent that come in and just sit around talking all day, and entertain vistors who come in and make grand flamboyant speeches about how they are better than everyone or understand more than anyone. I personally don’t get wanting to sit through such tedious and perfectly pointless displays, but hey, it’s a cultural thing. There’s a scene in which a woman trying to hand out religious leaflets tries to get in the door, but women are strictly prohibited from entering the barbershop.

So Gladys finally makes up her mind to leave John Henry, and enlists the support of her friends, one who is a portly housewife and the other slim, fashionable Stormy Monday. They tell Gladys if she’s going to be liberated she’s got to look liberated, so they return her hair to its curly state and cut it to look, why, exactly like Stormy Monday's. Gladys looks in the mirror and says “Is it me?” They then tell her she should look like an African Queen, throw an African-pattern sash over her, and make her walk for a second or two with a book on her head to correct her posture. Meanwhile, upstairs Gideon and Booker T. are having an intense scene where Gideon is berating Booker T. for only dating white woman and “sleeping with the enemy.” Which is a little surprising, as we earlier heard that Booker T’s idea of black liberation is that they should murder whites. Anyway, Booker T. responds with one of my favorites lines: “People who live in glass houses should just be cool.” Then Gideon picks up a SPEAR out of nowhere! A SPEAR. He holds it on Booker T, who begs him to put it down and have a fair fight like a man. You know they’re going to make up and forget it all a second later. Personally, when someone threatens me with a deadly weapon, that friendship is pretty much over. But hey—it’s a cultural thing!

So this other guy in the barber shop is going on in rhyming couplets about what a great guy he is and how all the women love him and he makes them all pregnant. As soon as he’s done, Gladys and her contingent come in to give her list of demands to John Henry, which she delivers with a punch in the face. The next thing we see is Gladys in Army fatigues on the roof of their apartment building. On the street below, Gladys’ friends have organized a picket line shouting about how John Henry must give in. Gail is on the roof, supporting her mother, but upset that all of this has to go down the day before her wedding. John Henry is in the apartment below—which we notice has a gigantic crank school-style pencil sharpener mounted to the wall in the kitchen—refusing to give in through several aimless scenes, until finally he receives word that if Gladys divorces him she can take all of his money and possess the barber shop, all of which is highly questionable.

Anyway, SUDDENLY it’s the next day, at the African wedding, which occupies the last 20 minutes of the film. Everyone is decked out in African-style dress, which ranges from colorful and flamboyant to off-the-chart colorful and flamboyant. Many of the woman also have hair that is EXTREMELY creative, including one I’ll leave you to discover, with a two-toned bushy look that appears like a thunderstorm parked right on her head. They dance, they smile, they great each other, and the story as we knew it just stops dead. Eventually someone drops the line that John Henry did sign the list of Glady’s demands, and at this point you may have a moment of “Oh, I see… so the most dramatic moment, that the entire first hour of movie was building up to, has no already transpired—offscreen?” Yeah, that’s about right.

John Henry is at the wedding in his suit, while everyone else is in African garb, and we see him begrudgingly accept a drink from this communal bowl. Then he leaves the wedding, seemingly appalled, and the ceremony goes on longer, aimlessly, people dancing, eating, making speeches. It really does seem as though money for the film itself abruptly ran out and they thought they’d just fill up the rest with easy-to-shoot party scenes.

At the end, John Henry returns, in an African shirt, and asks his wife to give him five—on the black hand side. Although we have never seen him be introduced to that gesture, and of course never saw anything that might have contributed to his conversion, aside from the threat of having to give up all his money. He and Gladys are reconciled, as is the whole family, and everyone is back together and happy.

Ultimately I found this film kind of depressing, on a number of levels. First of all, the film offers plenty to laugh at, especially in terms of wild fashion and outdated styles, but these aren’t just ANY styles, they are styles intended to demonstrate a cultural connection to Africa, and to express the heritage of African-Americans. Watching much of blaxploitation has always been edged with discomfort as in many cases if you’re laughing at the outrageous styles, you are also laughing at the black culture that created them, and considering blacks fools for thinking they were hot at one time. And this film is particularly jam-packed with absolutely ghastly styles and people looking just plainly silly. Although ostensibly a “comedy,” it is so unfunny that the only thing to laugh at is how poorly it’s made and the clothes, at which point you are really just laughing at black people.

Another sad thing is just how absolutely awful it is in terms of filmmaking, normally not such a big deal, except that this is a special movie meant to move us with the richness of the black community and everything it has to offer aside from drugs, ghettos and violence—and, using this movie as evidence, it doesn’t have much! This movie has good intentions, and was based on a play, and as such, I think one is SUPPOSED to like it, and give it an easy pass. I know from my own experience the mortification of sitting through a gay film or performer that is just soul-deadeningly AWFUL, only to hear everyone gush over how wonderful it is. They’re evaluating its intentions, and the fact that it exists at all, not the movie itself. One has that feeling here.

But the saddest thing about this movie is the way it documents blacks rather desperately trying to connect to some kind of cultural heritage and unique identity of their own, rather than just wholly assimilate and watch their distinctiveness be lost. You have Gideon, who refuses to join the labor system, Booker T., who has a job but wants to kill all the whites [and isn’t it kind of amazing that we can have ANY movie in which one race wants to kill all members of another race and it’s presented as a acceptable alternative viewpoint?], Gail wants to connect her marriage to African traditions, and John Henry is here to represent working within the capitalist [i.e. white] system. These different pathways to maintaining cultural identity is what the movie is ABOUT, and what’s kind of sad is not only that their attempts are so lame, but that they should be so wholly disenfranchised at the soul to need to scrape for a cultural identity so desperately. This film seems like essential viewing for college-level black history classes when discussing the enduring damage done by slavery.

So this overall grasp for cultural identity is what makes it difficult to laugh at the flamboyant dress of the final scene… sure it’s out there, but it’s an attempt to feel a part of something. Also adding to the overall sadness is the piss-poor quality of the writing and especially the filmmaking. Someone wanted to emphasize the rich variety of black experience and THIS is what they could come up with? Something that can’t even tell a coherent story?

So yeah, essential viewing for Black History courses, but otherwise, just a giant ball of sadness with multiple layers. What a bummer.

Should you watch it: 

If you’re looking for a blaxploitation film to laugh at, I would look elsewhere.