Trick Baby (1972)
The film opens and immediately an uneasiness settles in. Before we are introduced to any of the characters, we watch a middle-aged black man set a run-down room while two white men arrive at the dingy hotel. He spreads cigarette butts around, plates of food debris, newspapers. He makes the room look like he has been holed up for a week.
When the white men arrive, the younger asks to see the diamonds. He’s cocky. He’s threatening. He belittles the middle-aged man, who is obviously scared of him. It is uncomfortable.
Upon seeing the diamonds, the young man says they have made a deal. The older white man with him hands over ten thousand in cash. The young man pushes it at the black man, forces him to take it and says the deal is done. The black man panics. He’s selling a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of stolen diamonds for ten grand. He needs to get more than that. He begs. The younger white man lets him know he’s not getting a dollar more. The white men leave.
When they leave, the white men split up. The young man goes his way and the older man heads straight to a pawn shop. The black man smiles, changes his clothes and meets up with the young white man. Meanwhile, at the pawn shop, the older white man learns he just paid ten thousand dollars on fifty dollars’ worth of costume jewelry.
This is one of the most incredible openings to any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s disorienting, and exciting, and once the viewer realizes that the older black man, Blue Howard (Mel Stewart) and the younger white man White Folks (Kiel Martin) are friends and partners, you know this movie is not a run of the mill blaxploitation action flick.
We learn that Blue basically adopted Folks when he was a kid. His father was white and his mother black. (His enemies call him Trick Baby.) Folks can easily mingle with any crowd on either side of town, and this works to their benefit as he can find “white marks” to hustle. Blue has taught him everything he knows.
Mel Stewart as Blue Howard and Kiel Martin as White Folks, Trick Baby.
There’s a hard-ass dirty cop on their case and soon the local mob is looking for them. It seems the guy they hustled in the opening moments of the film was connected to a powerful Philadelphia crime family. After he was ripped-off he had a heart attack leaving the pawn shop, so now his family has "associates" scouring the city for Blue and Folks.
Folks goes to a high society function and mingles with some wealthy types who are not adverse to kicking in money on a land deal in the projects worth millions of dollars. (There is no deal, but Folks and Blue convince these unscrupulous men into believing they can get this ghetto land cheap and sell to a developer for top dollar.)
This is where the movie stops having fun to make a comment. It’s subtle. It’s sobering. Folks tells the wealthy men that the blacks don’t realize how valuable the land is, which is why he can swoop in and buy it for a song. His comments are harsh, but we know it’s part of the hustle. They’re marks and he is selling the hustle. (We also have to remember that Folks is also black.) But their reaction just crushes your heart.
Their enthusiasm is disturbing to what they consider an easy deal. They have money. They have power. They have influence. But man, when they find out they can get piece of ghetto land for a hundred grand and turn it into a million bucks just like that, they’re like hungry dogs. There’s no concern for anything more than their own gains. Again, it’s subtle, but it’s there. It might make you angry. You watch Folks pour it on, continuing to hook them and all you want to see from this point on is Blue and Folks get one over on these a-holes.
This deal is worth a hundred and thirty thousand dollars, the biggest hustle Blue has ever been a part. He can focus on only one thing, getting that money out of a bank safety deposit box. All goes as planned, until it doesn’t.
Based on the book by Iceberg Slim, Trick Baby is something special. (I watched it days after being underwhelmed by That Man Bolt (1973)- the Fred Williamson actioner that spends most of its running time ping-ponging The Hammer between Vegas and Hong Kong. It was overlong with not enough meat on its bones and long stretches were just boring.)
Trick Baby is not a film you will get ahead of. It is not a film that telegraphs its surprises and plot twists. It is not a film whose characters that are easy to classify. It is not a film that travels down the more comfortable, well worn roads of the genre. Trick Baby is its own thing.
Ted Lange as Melvin the Pimp.
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