Judge Paul Corupe once got tricked by a baby. It took his candy.
Shake hands with "Folks" and "Blue." And then count your fingers!
Under the pseudonym Iceberg Slim, Robert Beck became one of the most successful African-American authors of the 1970s. Beck's 1969 debut novel, Pimp: The Story of My Life, is a fascinating autobiographical account of his days as a hustler on the streets of Chicago in the 1930s and 40s, a book acclaimed by critics and readers alike. After the success of Pimp, Beck went on to write six more books in his lifetime, all engaging portrayals of inner city life, which combined have sold over 6 million copies.
In the blaxploitation-crazed 1970s, it seemed like a natural to adapt Slim's gritty street novels to film. Universal originally optioned the screen rights for Pimp, but the book was considered controversial, and repeated attempts to bring it to the screen failed. Instead, Universal went ahead with a film version of Slim's second novel, Trick Baby: The Story of a White Negro, which is one of only two movies based on Slim's writing to be made to date (the Charles S. Dutton-directed Mama Black Widow is the other). A raw, streetwise crime drama from the 1970s that seems to have fallen through the cracks on home video, Trick Baby should be of interest to everyone, not just blaxploitation aficionados or Iceberg Slim fans.
Facts of the Case
Johnny "Folks" O'Brien (Kiel Martin, Hill Street Blues) hates being called "Trick Baby," the hateful neighborhood nickname given to him as the son of a black hooker and a white john. Folks is also disliked because of his extremely light skin tone, but he knows that being able to pass as a Caucasian is an advantage that allows him to move between Philadelphia's high society haunts and poverty-stricken ghettos without question. Together with his black partner and mentor, aging con artist "Blue" Howard (Mel Stewart, Scorpio), the pair bilk some of the city's most gullible citizens out of their hard-earned cash with a phony diamond scam that unloads $50 worth of cut glass for a cool $10 grand.
Unfortunately, when their latest victim discovers he has been duped, the stress causes a fatal heart attack. A crooked cop (Dallas Edward Hayes, Darktown Strutters) on the make for a bribe tells the con men that the dead mark has familial ties to the Mafia-involved Parelli family, and threatens to rat them out to the vengeful Don. Blue pulls a bait and switch ploy to cheat him out the agreed-upon kickback, and the two decide they better head to Chicago until the heat dies down. Of course, it helps to have money to finance a new life, and Folks and Blue are right in the middle of perpetrating the score of a lifetime, a $90,000 fraudulent real estate deal that will let them retire from the hustling game once and for all. They manage to trick their marks into handing over the cash for safekeeping in a safety deposit box, but key holder Folks can't get back in time to retrieve it and skip town. Faced with either spending another night in the city with both the mob and the cops looking for their hides, or forgoing their big payday to save their lives, Folks and Blue's relationship begins to unravel.
Trick Baby may feature hip dialogue, decaying urban locations, and a couple of inner city hustlers trying to make it, but it's distinctly out of the familiar blaxploitation mold. A crackerjack crime drama that hinges less on the implied heroics of Blues and Folks than it does the tense moral dilemma that lies at the heart of the film, Trick Baby is certainly no scam on the audience's pocketbook; this is a diamond in the rough worth considerably more than the fake, back alley ice peddled on unsuspecting marks.
The plot itself does an adequate job of capturing Slim's novel. Rife with twists and double cons, it's far better plotted than most crime dramas that come out today, and has held up remarkably well over the years. Since Trick Baby is primarily a character and dialogue-driven piece, there's very little reward for those looking for exploitation thrills, but the film easily succeeds without them. The screenwriting is often compared to the films of David Mamet, and while there may be some similarities in the stark dialogues, it's much less contrived and pulses with a natural life all its own. Blue and Folks are well fleshed out, fairly realistic characters who are perfectly sympathetic despite occasionally lapsing into ghetto stereotype. The film, like the book, is also populated with colorful minor characters like Reverend Josephus (Clebert Ford, Ghost Dog) and Felix the Fixer (Tom Anderson) that keep the narrative hopping during heavy dramatic moments. Likewise, the back alleys, juke joints, and ghetto slum locations help give the film that intangible grittiness that drenches the film in an air of authenticity.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Trick Baby is that almost all of the cons that Blue and Folks pull are designed to play upon the inherent racism of their marks, whether black or white. When Folks convinces a group of prominent white backers that he is about to make a mint by buying run-down ghetto property from the black owners and selling it to a shopping mall developer at a huge profit, his victims seem far more motivated by the desire to cheat the residents out of what they have coming to them than they are by their own greed. Later, when Blue and Folks try to buy their way out of town, they run the classic pigeon drop scam on an affluent black tourist that, at least to his eyes, apparently pits Blue against Folks, black against white.
Mel Stewart and Kiel Stewart are hardly big name actors, but they are both excellent here, and play off each other convincingly. This is especially true for Stewart, who is utterly persuasive as the veteran grifter who lies like he's making love to the tall tale itself, but proves to be utterly human when it most counts. The rest of the cast are less notable, but Hanna-Barbera voice actress Vernee Watson-Johnson does an admirable job with the role of Blue's unfaithful wife, Cleo.
Universal was not very active in the blaxploitation genre, especially in comparison to Warner Brothers, MGM, and the B-film studios that cranked them out like they were going out of style—which in fact, they were. Their entire library of blaxploitation films—That Man Bolt, Willie Dynamite, and Trick Baby—were released very late in the VHS game, and now they all make the leap to DVD as the first (and undoubtedly last) releases in Universal's bare-bones "Soul Showcase" line. Although digitally remastered, the quality of this release is nothing special. The image generally looks okay, although the transfer is a shade on the grainy side. Colors may be deep and solid, but a few recurring artifacts makes Trick Baby look the worst of the Soul Showcase titles. The Dolby Mono track is always clear and free of extraneous noise, but fidelity is obviously limited. There are no extras on this disc, not even a trailer, which may not be surprising, but it is disappointing.
Not a blaxploitation film in the same cartoonish manner as That Man Bolt and Willie Dynamite, Universal's Trick Baby will be of interest to fans of gritty '70s crime dramas like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Across 110th Street. A highly underrated treat.
Guilty—the phony patch soured the score. Blue and Folks shoulda ankled the joint when the bunko turned Larry, and got their kicks somewhere else.
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