Archive for February, 2011

by Michael A. Gonzales

By all accounts, 1971 was a great year for former newspaperman- turned-pulp novelist Ernest R. Tidyman. Along with the paperback release of his hardboiled debut Shaft, the Cleveland, Ohio native co-wrote the film version for MGM as well as the screenplay for The French Connection. The year before, French Connection producer Philip D’Antoni and director William Friedkin read Shaft in galley form and was impressed with Tidyman’s gritty gumshoe story.

“I was shocked when he (Tidyman) walked into my office, because I was expecting a black person, because Shaft was about African-Americans,” D’Antoni recalls in the documentary Making the Connection: The Untold Stories. “Not only was he white, but a very WASP-y person from Ohio.”

At the time, Tidyman was a 42-year-old former New York Times reporter who began his career as a teenaged journalist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. After Tidyman’s stint at the Times, he started thinking about writing Shaft. “The idea came out of my awareness of both social and literary situations in a changing city,” Tidyman told a writer in 1973. “There are winners, survivors and losers in the New York scheme of things. It was time for a black winner, whether he was a private detective or an obstetrician.”

Three years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, “the Black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks,” as soulful composer Isaac Hayes described him on the Oscar-winning Theme from Shaft, became a cinematic symbol of Black power and a mainstream household name. The seminal film also helped birth the 1970s blaxploitation film movement that includes Super Fly and The Mack.

Ironically, the same night Hayes accepted the Academy Award for best song, Tidyman also won a gold statue for The French Connection screenplay. Yet, in Shaft’s forty-year history as a movie icon, most fans of the film know little about Tidyman’s pulp fiction series. Between 1971 and 1975, Tidyman wrote seven Shaft novels with titles that include Shaft Among the Jews (1972) and Shaft Has a Ball (1973).

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On photographer and filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu

Written by Michael A. Gonzales

“Where I come from people worked, they did real jobs,” laughs Nigerian filmmaker and photographer Andrew Dosunmu.

Dressed in stylish plaid pants, gray long-sleeved shirt and a brown felt hat, he lounges in the warmth of a SoHo coffee shop a month before his much-anticipated feature debut Restless City premieres at Sundance Film Festival.

Selected for the festival’s innovative and original work in low and no-budget filmmaking category, Restless City starring Tony Okungbowa, the dj from The Ellen DeGeneres Show, already has a major buzz. “The genesis of Restless City was born out of my frustration with trying to make another film (Mother of George) that I was having problems getting financed,” Dosunmu explains. “I got tired of waiting for things to happen. My thought was, ‘I’m a filmmaker, I should be making films.’ I just wanted to create something.”

Teaming up with friend and screenwriter Eugene M. Gussenhoven, the pair set out to tell a different kind of immigrant story. “Living in Harlem, these characters are young adults who come to New York from Africa to get theirs. America is where dreams are made, but New York City is where Run-DMC was born.”

Dosunmu, who directed the award-winning documentary Hot Irons about competitive hair styling in the inner city in 1999, insists that Restless City, the story of an African immigrant surviving on the fringes of New York City is not autobiographical, but his life experiences have clearly left him with an understanding of the do-it-yourself aesthetic that many New York newcomers must adopt to be successful in the city of ambition.“In this film, I try to explore the consequences of displacement,” he explains. “There can be such a restlessness in this metropolis, because it’s a constant hustle just to provide and survive.”

In 1994, when I first met Dosunmu, the former design assistant for Yves Saint Laurent in Paris had come to Atlanta styling Public Enemy for a Vibe magazine article penned by Kevin Powell. Grinning, he says, “I remember that day; I put Flavor Flav in a cool plastic raincoat. I’ve always loved images and in the beginning of my career styling was the closest I could get to photography.”

Between sips of coffee, Dosunmu says, “Fashion got me into shooting pictures. Although I am a self-taught photographer, when I was styling, I worked with some great ones that I learned from; they were inspiring.”

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Who Is Gil-Scott Heron?

Last November. BB King’s Blues Club. Times Square, New York City.

A lanky man enters the spotlight from Stage Left. His crinkled brown suit falls loosely over his lean frame; his eyes are lost beneath the brim of a matching hat. With his gray beard and twitchy mouth, he looks a little like the character Grady from “Sanford & Son.”

Gil-Scott HeronIn fact, it’s Gil Scott Heron, the rap forefather and master tribal storyteller.

Initially, the performer defies the expected. Instead of sitting at the keyboard that’s before him, diving into a track from his recent CD I’m New Here, or one of the many classic songs from a career spanning more than 40 years, he spends the next 15 minutes standing alone, holding a microphone, and telling jokes. He talks slurrily about bad interviewers, disappearing, and why Black History Month should be moved (because February is hard to pronounce and, besides, “all kinds of shit starts happening on the 28th that you thought was gonna happen three days later”). He chuckles a lot. And so does the audience, though they’re not quite sure what to make of the spectacle: Is the band late? Is the performer just vamping for time? Is he too wasted to make music tonight? Or is this just part of the act?

Finally, he sits down, bends his long, bony fingers over his piano’s keys and starts to sing. First it’s “Winter In America,” which bubbles forth with familiar beauty and quiet rage. Relief fills the room: Gil Scott Heron can still captivate with a few well-paced chords and his smooth-as-sandpaper tenor. Despite his reputation as a provocative poet, his voice these days is a laid-back, gravely croon which is still quite flexible. Heron’s compelling set came mostly from the past, including the emotional testament “Pieces of A Man,” the title track of his first landmark studio album. Backed by percussion, flute, sax, harmonica and a second keyboard, he also performed the tender “I’ll Be There for You” from I’m New Here. All were anchored by the fact that Gil Scott Heron is first and foremost a great writer and gifted storyteller.

At one point he mused, “We have a large catalog of tunes that I did not practice.” More chuckles. He ends the show with an extended version of “The Bottle,” which featured fiery piano and percussion solos. There was ultimately no “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” or “Johannesburg.” The artist left the stage after raising his arm in triumph and declaring, “Thank you! My name is Gil Scott Heron.” He never came back.