In Praise of Black Badassery
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
”This ain’t about that. This is about my motherfucking money.”
By Eugene S. Robinson
Accomplished black actors have faced a weird Catch-22: Go dirty or don’t go at all.
So while Avery Brooks (Hawk in the 1980s potboiler private eye TV show Spenser: For Hire) was a classically trained Shakespearean actor, we know him as Hawk and not Hamlet. And the now-avuncular Morgan Freeman was just “Easy Reader” on the kid show The Electric Company until he broke out as the pimp Fast Black in the 1987 film Street Smart .
Now, while what you might expect to follow would be a caustic commentary on equal acting opportunity and outrage over John Wayne playing the very Asian Genghis Khan in The Conqueror , this ain’t about that either. This is about “well, at least they weren’t butlers,” and the fact that in the end, we ALL enjoy a good badass.
Count them down:
5. SY RICHARDSON
As Lite in the 1984 cult classic Repo Man , Sy Richardson is on the list purely on the basis of his dyspeptic portrait of a gun-toting repossession badass who dispenses world-weary advice (“You know how to tell when a woman loves you, boy? When she’ll have your dog”) as readily as the blanked bullets in his gun. You remember the plot, right? Repo men, aliens, punk rock and the search for a magical Chevy Chevelle. Off screen, Richardson has a degree in journalism paid for by the GI Bill after his two years in the service. And in his spare time? Art director at a church. In reel life? He’s “a fighter. And a winner.”
4. AVERY BROOKS
Avery Brooks as Hawk was yin to screen private eye Robert Urich’s yang in the 1985-1988 TV show Spenser: For Hire (with Urich as the titular Spenser). Hawk was equal parts mob enforcer and guardian angel, and Brooks brought a certain dead-eyed thrill to saving the quasi-hapless Urich from his weekly low-rent predicaments. That is, when he wasn’t meditating on his time as King Lear, Othello and the first black guy to get his master’s in fine arts from Rutgers. Well played, sir.
3. MORGAN FREEMAN
Sure, sure, it is easy to forget, what with all the driving of Miss Daisy and the kindly ex-con fella down on his luck in The Shawshank Redemption , but when Morgan Freeman came off of educational TV, he completely electrified audiences in the 1987 film Street Smart as Fast Black (and got nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe). Fast Black was a murderous and mercurial pimp who mixed in real native fears about BAD badasses — not the ones who help the hapless and weak but exploit them. Sort of like in real life. Gleefully, joyfully, Freeman reinvented himself as one of America’s least-loved characters in his brutal quest to extract info from the intrepid reporter, played by Christopher Reeve, who has written an ill-advised exposé on him. He was bad and we loved him for it. And when we’re not loving him for that, we’re enjoying any of the rest of his award-winning work: an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby and a 1980 Obie for playing Coriolanus at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Not bad for a badass.
2. SAMUEL L. JACKSON
There’s no way that this list exists withOUT Samuel L. Jackson as the peripatetic contract killer Jules of 1994’s Pulp Fiction fame. Jackson, previously seen in Goodfellas (blink and you’d have missed him — he got shot) and a few Spike Lee joints, takes his bow in Tarantino’s monster hit of interlocking stories amidst L.A.’s criminal underworld and he totally transforms the role. Because here, and for the first time, we saw a badass as a badass sees a badass: tough but principled, and not to be screwed with. Revelatory, and undeniably where Jackson made his bones. And in his spare time, of which he has so amazingly little? Jackson plays the trumpet and the French horn. Which is indubitably: badassed.
1. RICHARD ROUNDTREE
“Richard Roundtree got himself a fly deal: a black man wearing bellbottoms and high heels.” – Slick Rick
Despite Issac Hayes being told to shut his mouth in the title song , maxicoated Richard Roundtree as Detective John Shaft was a bad mother and “a complicated man.” Or as he liked to say, “Your worst nightmare: a Nigga with a gun.” AND a badge. And in Gordon Parks’s 1971 Shaft , in which Roundtree as Shaft rescued a mob boss’s daughter from kidnappers, it not only saved MGM from bankruptcy by pulling in $13 million on a $500,000 budget, but it also codified and deified the 6‘2“ former male model as almost everything a badass should be: smart, sleek and well dressed. And he’s appeared in over 100 film and TV titles since. Now if you’ll excuse Mr. Roundtree, avid golfer that he is, he has a tee time to make.
Dig it, baby: golf. Niiicceeee…