In tribute to Black History Month, I've chosen to combine my guilty love for the most openly exploitative period of black cinema, early 70's blaxploitation, and my fascination with that most openly exploitative field of printed media, the movie novelization. Perhaps because both were so shamelessly fast, cheap and financially sound, blaxploitation became one of the most novelized of subgenres: my personal library of novelizations boasts an entire shelf of such, from Slaugher's Big Rip-Off to The Black Gestapo. So consider this the first in an annual 'smoke tradition reviewing Blaxploitation Novelizations in the possibly wayward attempt to legitimize two largely unrespected cultural phenomenons. john cribbs
by John D.F. Black
I was excited to dig into this book, the first novelization I've reviewed that was written by the author of the film's screenplay. This aspect of the science of novelization intrigues me: how does the writer approach the same material in a different medium? Of course, the result could turn out so identical to the movie as to render the novelization completely superfluous. On the other hand, it could offer further insights into the characters, the writer's ideas, the intended tone of the story. In a lot of ways, this is a more interesting proposition than examining how a writer adapts his own novel into a screenplay, as the rules of transitioning from book to movie are a lot more commonly defined. That is to say, certain things work on the page that clearly don't on screen. But how about reversing the process: what aspects of the finished film remain and how much more can we expect in novelized form?
Despite its name and low reputation, blaxploitation is often slighted when it comes to the classier proceeds of its existence, namely the soundtracks by prominent black musicians, the emergence of great actors like Pam Grier and Yaphet Kotto, the unexpected crossover to audiences outside of predominantly black urban areas and continuing cultural influence on hip hop artists and DTV Leprechaun sequels alike. Because of that kind of neglect, it's also easy to overlook the fact that several notable blaxploitation films have literary backgrounds. No I don't mean Blacula; there's Cotton Comes to Harlem, Trick Baby, Across 110th Street - some of the best of the bunch (also Mandingo). The director of Trouble Man, former Hogan's Heroes regular Ivan Dixon, followed his feature film debut with an excellent adaptation of Sam Greenlee's 1969 nationalist novel The Spook Who Sat By the Door (which then got the ol' paperback movie tie-in treatment). Even Shaft, arguably the most famous blaxploitation film, was based on a novel by Ernest Tidyman.
Shaft's screenplay was co-written by Tidyman and John D.F. Black, a t.v. writer who penned scripts for everything from Star Trek* to Charlie's Angels. A year later, Black would write Trouble Man with a hero who served as a West Coast companion to John Shaft: the enigmatic, charismatic Mr. T, who cruises the streets of Malibu in his Mark IV bolstered by self confidence and a sharp $500 suit. Like Shaft, T's an immaculately well-groomed, lady-loving, part time P.I. who stands his own ground after finding himself targeted by two different gangs and hassled by the local law enforcement. Black doesn't enlist T to a cause as noble as locating a kidnapped little girl: if anything, T's business leans more to the unlawful than Shaft's, his activities fall into the category of loan shark/thug although he does use his powers of persuasion to settle the hash of a greedy slumlord after a child falls off the faulty balcony of his building. If he's forced to occassionally place a smoking gun in a dead man's hand or smuggle a few things out of an evidence locker, hey that's just T's method of survival.
The appellation "T" is open to speculation. Even when he's being harassed by cops down at the station, none of them use his full name as you'd expect they might, if for no other reason to rattle him a little. The tagline for the movie draws attention to the mysterious handle - "His friends call him Mr. T. His enemies call for mercy!" - even though most of the characters refer to him simply as "T," so the majuscule could stand for a first or last name. Could it be a shoutout to an earlier tough, no-bullshit black figure in Hollywood films, the one they called Mister Tibbs? Maybe it's "Mr. Turner" - T might be related to Truck (or Timothy Spall in the new Mike Leigh movie). Logic dictates that the "T" stands for "trouble": Marvin Gaye seems to read it that way, based on the unambiguous cut "T Stands for Trouble" on the film's soundtrack. Not to call out someone as legendary as Marvin Gaye, but I disagree with this interpretation. In the movie, T hires himself out as a man who can fix trouble - he doesn't seek it out, it just naturally finds him. In fact, the character is defined by how he's molded himself in such a way to specifically avoid trouble, a personal code that's put to the test when trouble does indeed come a-knockin'.
No confirmation from the book on this whole name business, sadly. The only clue that maybe John D.F. Black (whose name also includes mysterious initials) doesn't necessarily intend the title to refer directly to the lead character is a possibly subtle, possibly irrelevant passage from the novelization in which the abbreviated protagonist notes to himself that nervous pimp Chalky White is likely to give himself something like an ulcer: better yet...get the stomach trouble, man...you deserve it. Considering that Chalky is the one who vengeance will indeed fall upon, T determining that he's due some "trouble, man" seems to suggest that the title refers more to his enemies than himself. They're all in trouble, man.
What makes T such a badass - besides an equally intimidating and chilled performance from Robert Hooks - is that, for all his flash, fashion and effortless conquest of females, T follows a very strict sense of composure over appearance. He maintains an edge on his foes by sizing them up and determining they're "all style and no cool"; they make a good show, but are easily outwitted and break under pressure. While this assurance invites a superior, almost smug attitude, Dixon & Black curb any cockiness in the character by examining the facets that have earned him his elevated stature. He's not only tough, he's businesslike: licensed to carry a gun, even though he often doesn't bother, he also holds licenses to tend bar, drive a cab and transport diamonds(!)** And of course he's got a private detective's license, which comes in handy whenever he needs to indulge in such sketchy activities such as stealing guns from the police evidence locker. He's established himself in the community, which means he's resourceful: after he's arrested he sends the word out through what he calls the "jungle drum" so that a bail bondsman has already contacted the station before T's initial interrogation is even over. All of these carefully prepared tools serve as defense against trouble, so that T's attitude can consistently reflect the lyric from Marvin Gaye's theme song: "I come up hard baby, but that's okay." The song itself is based on T's supreme suitability to handle whatever might come his way, so it's more character-based than simply boasting about how he's a "black private dick who's a sex machine for all the chicks," even though that applies as much to T as his West Coast surrogate.
The description of Shaft from Isaac Hayes' signature tune is actually more than you learn about the character than in the book which the previous movie is based on. Tidyman's is very much a pulp novel - heavy on dialogue, low on description - so you don't get much of a sense of who Shaft is beyond his actions. I know, he's a complicated man, perhaps too complicated to learn any more about in a book than we do in a movie or its eponymous theme song, but Gordon Park's film avoids any moral or psychological scrutiny of its hero by focusing on nothing but his extreme cool. Trouble Man's plot is also extremely simple: two pimps want to horn in on a rival's territory, but instead of declaring all-out war they frame T to make it look like he's the one causing trouble rather than trying to fix things. So T's got the cops, the pimps' rival Big (not to be confused with Yaphet Kotto's Mr. Big from the sub-blaxploitation Bond outing Live and Let Die) and goons from both sides all gunning for him, and he has to figure out who's playing him and who's going to end up on the business end of a beatdown. Again, the focus is on T's slick handling of his enemy's uncomplicated machinations, so for the novelization it wouldn't have been unreasonable for John "Delta Force" Black to adapt his Shaft co-writer Tidyman's style of essentially hanging back and letting the swinging dick do his thing.
Instead, Black uses a completely different approach: he makes the entire novelization one long stream of conscious narrative through T's perspective. That's right - rather than merely transcribe one scene after another, adding a few adjectives that would probably be left out of a shooting script, Black gets inside T's head and basically lets the events of the movie flow through his brain while the reader follows along. That probably sounds a lot more pretentious than it is unbelievably awesome, but you've got to admit the decision to apply a literary device more at home in the pages of James Joyce and William Faulkner to tell the story of a suave inner-city point man/ghetto fixer in South Central Los Angeles is a pretty bold move. If it doesn't instantly elevate Black to the status of Nobel Prize laureate (the publisher at least seems to have been impressed: there are not one but two classy ads for James Baldwin novels at the back of the book),*** it certainly elevates the Trouble Man novelization to the "refreshingly experimental" category.
Here are two excerpts - one of them from Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, the other from John "Drug Free" Black's novelization of Trouble Man. See if you can guess which is which:
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it always seemed to me when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which I can hear now, I burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as I then was) solemn, feeling as I did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen...
Ok? Now Excerpt #2:
Hey, man, what are you doing to your ownself?...you're buyin' your cool as straight goods, man...like you can war with an army of cats and come out like you went in...don't jive yourself, man...you start jiving with your ownself and you'll start digging on it...you dig on it and groove on yourself, T, and you'll stop thinkin'...can't stop thinkin', man...stay hip to what's goin' down, T...don't lay no kind of con on yourself...these dudes are bad mothers, baby...that's why they keep walkin' around and doin' cats in...you ain't movin' on no losers, T...these dudes are the winners...now drink your damn Scotch and be cool, man...be cool outside and stay cool with your ownself, T...dig on it, man...you bleed when you're cut, T...so stay hip and don't get cut...that's the only way, baby...stay hip...yeah...all right...good Scotch, man...goes down nice...
You guessed it - T is the 18 year old girl entranced by the calm yet foreboding air outside her room.
Actually T does enjoy a private moment of admiring the ambience, although his appreciative venue is the murky coast off I-10 as he cruises from downtown L.A. towards Malibu:
Slap...Oscar...chung chung chung chung...!
Right on...yeah...right on!
If, like me, you're the kind of novelization enthusiast who's delighted by differences between the movie and its printed spin-off, this part of Black's book is for you. Not only is it a weird phonetical orgy that occupies nearly an entire page (and a rare moment T allows himself to let loose, in his own company of course), it replaces the title credits of the movie during which Marvin Gaye's double-track alternate vocal version of the theme song plays. So in case anyone was wondering, Gaye's "Trouble Man" is not diagetic to the world of the film; apparently, T isn't grooving on Gaye but on some guy named Oscar.**** Of course Black couldn't be expected to include bits of the soundtrack - it was either under copyright or hadn't been recorded yet - but it's interesting that this particular drive down the California coast was always a placeholder for some kind of smooth tone-setting music.
But we learn more about T besides the fact that he enjoys both classic jazz and R & B contemporary (and Coca-Cola, which gets as much endorsement in the novelization as in the movie) - we also learn what he doesn't like...and how. I guess if you spend a day in someone's head you find out about lots of different gripes and pet peeves, and the Trouble Man novelization is loaded with lists of things that don't impress T. He disapproves of everything from one night flings standing around watching him dress expecting an "I love you" to Guy Lombardo playing in the elevator. Things he classifies as "terrible" include his pal Jimmy's choice of sandwich (salami & onions), sandals (which are "bullshit") and the fact that there's no toilet paper on the roll in his prison cell (he mentions this four times over two pages). Besides the tacky houndstooth check coat the bad guys use to confuse and trap T during the dice game heist,***** at one point the offended self-stylist apparently spies someone wearing epaulets on his jacket - I thought only Isaac Hayes' A#1 Duke of New York wore those!
Most amusingly, T complains to himself that the cop doesn't bother oiling the locks of the evidence room gate as he's breaking into it, making it more difficult for potential intruders such as himself to noiselessly enter - how rude! Then in an inspired parallel later on, T pays an internal compliment to Chalky for keeping the dumbwaiter door in his private business front oiled, making it easier for T to break into his office and kill him. Very thoughtful of him. Not to criticize Hooks' performance, but you'd never have suspected T held such a high set of standards on the maintenance of bearings and fastenings; he should have a carpenter's license too! Jack of all trades.
T silently acknowledges that it's not the rusty locks that bother him - everything is jiving you...even door hinges - any more than the lack of toilet paper is the real reason he's pissed about being in jail. If anything, he's irritated that the rest of the world can't be as cool as he is. He complains about what's playing on the radio during the opening drive and the lack of style of the foxy lady he's just bedded (Bitch scuffed the toe of my shoe...funky damn socks), not to mention the actual bed itself (Too damn soft, this bed.) It's unfortunate to report, although not all that surprising, that T comes off a little homophobic in the book, stating at one point that the elevator smells like a fag rode it last and, after seeing a brother with an earring, wondering Black fruit? to himself. But again I'm sure it's just because he doesn't understand why everyone can't be a dominating lothario, and he almost makes up for it with his admiration of the fairer sex and private assurance that he'll beat down Chalky White if he tries to pull some poor girl for his own pimp-tastic purposes. In what must be his most bizarre personal thought, when he goes to confront the slumlord about paying the little girl's hospital bill, T thinks the guy looks like a cat caught raping a dog...guilty... A cat raping a dog? I suppose it's possible he's jiving so bad at that point that he temporarily lost his gift for analogy.
Let's be up front about this: obviously, there is a great deal of joy to be had from the book's consistent street slang. The entire thing reads like Zeno's Conscience if it were written by Iceberg Slim, and I never get tired of T sizing up a lovely lady with an admiring appraisal of her high rise ass and sugar sweet face. The reason I bring this up is to acknowledge that, yes, this manner of speech is exactly the kind of embarrassing stereotyping that's chiefly responsible for blaxploitation films being deemed satirical or, even worse, offensive - no less so coming from the pen of John "Darkness Falls" Black who, despite his last name, is as white as Ernest Tidyman. What redeems the Trouble Man novelization from minstrel show repugnance is that the streaming consciousness approach is so beneficial to the character of T. We know from the movie that he's a stone cold badass, that he towers over the other would-be tough characters and ultimately burns through them like a lawnmower rolling over a kleenex, yet he's so careful not to let his guard down we never really know him any more than we know John Shaft. And that's not a fault of Ivan Dixon, Robert Hooks or John "Dark Future" Black-the-screenwriter: it's simply not the syntax of common movie language to get inside the head of an untouchable action hero like T to that degree. (Although it would be awesome if there were an audio book of the novelization: you could set it over the movie to sync the thoughts in T's head with the images onscreen! Someone get Robert Hooks' agent on the phone!)
What I'm saying is that, for all its goofy ghetto prose, the novelization is a great tool for following T's deconstruction of every moment, every movement from his enemies, to make sure he's always on top. We know from the movie that T isn't impressed by showy gestures from when he watches the young show-off pool hustler put together his own custom cue stick then dismissively orders a lackey to "Get me a stick off the wall." (He knows it's not the nail, it's the hammer.) Hooks' intense concentration while he's waiting for his turn on the pool table is great, but it's just so perfect to be able to read along as he sizes up his opponent, judging that the young hotshot doesn't have enough cool to maintain his impressive performance long enough to beat him. In the movie, T turning the tables on a thug holding him at gunpoint is super slick, and it makes the moment even more impressive to read how T watches his armed escort, waiting for the exact second when he jerks his gun at the door and says "Get out of the car" to grab his hand. In the film, T seems to consider Caucasian gangster Pete Cockrell, the man who wants to hire him for a job, with pure contempt and kind of pettily demands he get in the back seat of the Mark IV, citing Civil Rights restitution. But in the book he considers Cockrell to be a cool character who doesn't easily take crap; the fact that he orders him into the back seat and he accepts shows T that Cockrell must really need his help, prompting him to think, Okay...the price just went up. That T is only using racial tension as a means to read something about his rival makes him seem that much more complicated - in fact, later on when he does pull the race card out of anger when talking to a cop he privately chides himself: That was crap, T...what's that supposed to do? Not only is T more than just a big angry black man, he's smart enough to know how to use that stereotype to his advantage.
T's expert reading of other people bolsters his confidence to call out the "all style and no cool" truth behind cats on the street who turn out to be nothing but "bullshit and position." If Black's hero is not quite a kindred spirit to Clarissa Dalloway or Darl Bundren from As I Lay Dying, it's at least fascinating to read T size up and dismiss those around him, whether it's surmising that the Best thing about this police station...the water cooler...ice cold, man... or privately mocking Chalky's attempt to try to save a little face...had a Japanese grandpa or something maybe (alternatively, T admires his friend Jimmy for having no cool and he don't care.) Of course the book benefits from having seen the film: being able to conjure Robert Hooks' smooth voice in one's head is advocacy enough for the mutually beneficial co-existence of novelizations and their cinematic counterpart. But by telling the story through T's perspective, John "Dog Fight" Black does explore an entirely different angle of the story. The police chief, Marx, comes off as a lot more intimidating in the book, and being privy to every carefully weighed response and calculated insult from T makes you appreciate how effortless his handling of this petty cop appears in the movie (some of that could have to do with the actor playing Marx, although he was plenty intimidating as the warden in Papillon). In the film, Chalky's scheme to set up Poor Abbey Walsh to take the fall for the hit on the craps game is revealed early outside of T's perspective; in the book the reader finds out how T got framed at the same time he is, way back on page 145,****** so the whole thing is more of a mystery than in the movie. (Black makes a point of T noting the smell of one of the hold-up men's aftershave: it would be an easier thing to pull off in a book than a movie if the scent ended up being what led T to discover it was one of Chalky's men - and relevant, considering grooming and personal hygiene are part of T's near-superhuman specialties and the fact that, at the end of the day, he's supposed to be a private eye - but weirdly it doesn't come back into play.)
Finding out along with T who set him up also provides a greater sense of outrage and urgency to the final shoot-out, which runs for about 20 pages near the end of the novelization, and Black even makes T's rampage more honorable: T wants to allow his enemies to walk away, but they keep opening up on him, and he seems to genuinely regret all the men he's had to put down. For those 20 pages, Black does a great job getting into the mind of the lone wolf entering the lion's den. While the novelization includes all the great lines from the movie - "Now get out of here, the two of you are fuckin' up a nice day," "He'd walk through the jungle in a pork chop jacket if Big told him to" - one of the film's most important pieces of dialogue is notably absent, again since it's said in a scene without T. What's missing is Chalky's warning to Cockrell about T being a one man army, an apparently trivial bit of badass build-up that ends up visually linked to the film's most famous image: the half dozen reflections of T in the shattered mirror at the conclusion of the bullet-fueled finale as he's standing over Cockrell's grilled corpse. The multiplied image of T, who just took out all Cockrell's men, so perfectly ties into Chalky's line and T as a self-reliant soldier that it ultimately became the film's poster. In substitution, Black has T criticize himself just before going in to face Cockrell's gang for acting like you can war with an army of cats and come out like you went in, which is of course exactly what he ends up doing. With or without Chalky's assurance that he represents an entire army, T knows he's all alone against impossible odds, which is what makes Black's decision to tell the story through his stream of consciousness so fitting. Like Marvin Gaye's theme song, John "Droopy Flange" Black's novelization is the first person narrative of a man who expects the worst yet stands his ground and maintains his cool. To me, that summarizes the best of blaxploitation in general, and by creating that connection to a great theme song that doesn't even appear in the book itself, Black seems to be acknowledging that T is so cool that, if he were a crooner, he'd be Marvin fuckin' Gaye.
Odds & Ends
Just a few last comments on the movie's cast that I couldn't find a place for anywhere in the article. I love seeing Paul Winfield sweat his way through his role as Chalky White. Trouble Man came out the same year as Sounder, for which Winfield was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar - for that reason, it's easy to forget how active he was in the blaxploitation subgenre: he played Gordon in Gordon's War for Ossie Davis and was cousins with Blacula (true story!) He and Ralph Waite (Pete Cockrell) would end up working together in Cliffhanger 20 years later (sadly, it turns out Waite just passed away last month at 85). Also great to see Julius Harris as Big: not only is he amazing as Papa Gibbs from Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem, his Tee Hee in Live and Let Die has always been one of my favorite Bond henchmen, and his character in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three sets up one of Matthau's funniest lines (awkwardly meeting Harris in person after talking to him on the radio through most of the film: "Oh I thought you were a, um...tall guy, I dunno.") In one of the weirdest moments of the Trouble Man novelization, Black has T note that Big keeps a picture of Bernie Casey in his Rams uniform in his office, which T deems "too damn good for you, Big." Now in the movie, I just assume the photo is a little visual nod to Casey, star of blaxploitation gems Hit Man and Black Gunn, both released the same year as Trouble Man. But why would Black mention the photo in the book, and why would T decide a picture of Bernie Casey was "too damn good" for Big? Also it's kind of weird to show Casey in Rams gear, since he was only with the Rams for one season...I know the Rams are in L.A., but San Francisco is in California too, and that's where Casey spent most of his professional sports career. It's not a big deal or anything, just feels like the 1972 equivalent of a modern movie character having a picture of Reggie White wearing his Carolina Panthers uniform.
* Specifically, Black's famous for writing the "Sulu fencing shirtless" classic The Naked Time. Coincidentally, Trouble Man's two leading actors ended up playing Starfleet officers in the bigscreen Star Trek universe: Paul Winfield in Wrath of Khan and Robert Hooks in The Search for Spock (which, based on Hooks' work with Ivan Dixon, they really should have called The Spock Who Sat By the Door).
** Sadly, several of these never come into play in the movie itself: T is never shown transporting diamonds in a cab while fixing himself a martini.
*** Somebody on Good Reads posted this trivia question: "What do Louis-Ferdinand Céline's 1936 novel Mort à crédit (Death on the Installment Plan) and John D.F. Black's novelization of the 1972 blaxploitation film Trouble Man have in common?"
**** I'm not entirely sure who "Oscar" is supposed to be. My best guess is that it's Oscar Peterson, the jazz pianist who was dubbed "Maharaja of the keyboard" by Duke Ellington. No connection between him and Marvin Gaye except that they both covered a lot of the same popular songs like "Unforgettable" and "Yesterday." Peterson does have a song called "A Foggy Day," which would logically fit the "silver fog" response from T, although it's about walking in London as opposed to driving in L.A. I guess it could be jazz singer Oscar Brown, known for 60's albums such as Sin & Soul...And Then Some and Between Heaven and Hell, although he's more noted for his civil rights activism than his musical career. I haven't had time to compare these two artists and determine which one has more "zap" and/or "chung."
***** Black identifies T's attire of choice as a knit brown geometric sports coat.
****** Most novelizations are two, three-hundred page affairs. Trouble Man fills out about 180.
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