It continues to be Black History Month; it’s not just February 1!
So we find it excellent that Film Forum is choosing to screen these two Godfrey Cambridge comedies for their Far Out in the 70s series today. Cambridge was a major star in the ’60s and ’70s. Watching somebody like this fade from the public’s consciousness over the past few decades is apt to fill the long-time observer with something like existential terror. Godfrey Cambridge wasn’t just popular, he was important. The movies they’re showing today are a case in point.
Watermelon Man (1970) is a sort of mash-up of Metamorphosis and Black Like Me. Cambridge plays a white, Archie Bunker style bigot who wakes up one morning to find that he is as black as, well, Godfrey Cambridge. The movie chronicles his evolution from a guy who desperately wants to escape the predicament, to having to come to terms with it as all of society begins to turn away from him. The cast includes Estelle Parsons as his wife, and a young Erin Moran (Joanie from Happy Days) as one of his kids, with classic comedy character actors Mantan Moreland and Emil Sitka also in the ensemble. The movie is particularly significant for being the Hollywood debut of Melvin Van Peebles. When the movie was a success Van Peebles was offered a three picture deal but instead opted to make the independent Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) which in turn spawned the entire blaxploitation genre. Disappointingly Watermelon Man does not include Herbie Hancock’s eponymous 1962 instrumental tune; Van Peebles composed his own score for the film.
Also on the bill today is Five on the Black Hand Side (1973), based on the play by Charlie L. Russell, brother of basketball star Bill Russell. Cambridge only has a cameo in this one, as himself. This is a comedy about an African American family on the eve of a daughter’s wedding. The father (Leonard Jackson) is a tyrant, a sexist and generally old-fashioned. His wife (Clarice Taylor, who also played the part off-Broadway) leads the family in a Feminist/ Black Power revolt against him and he eventually sees the light. D’Urville Martin, who’d played a bus driver in Watermelon Man, plays one of the sons.
Tickets and additional information here.