My favorite of the Bond films is “Live and Let Die.” I know it’s not often listen as one of the best of the 007 films, but I’ve just always enjoyed it. It’s got a cool atmosphere and one of the best Bond girls in Jane Seymour, but ultimately, how can you get a cooler villain than Yaphet Kotto? He’s got to be one of the most criminally underrated actors around. He’s great in “Alien” and he blew me away last year when I saw “Across 110th Street.” Today, he stars in a good-natured blaxploitation flick from AIP…1976’s “The Monkey Hustle.”
Kotto plays Big Daddy Foxx, a smooth-talking small-time con man in Chicago. Big Daddy is idolized by several of the young teens in the neighborhood, including Player (Thomas Carter), Tiny (Don C. Harper), and Baby D (Kirk Calloway). Big Daddy is more than happy to take these eager pupils under his wing, but Baby D’s musician brother Win (Randy Brooks) is not as thrilled with the idea. On a side note, you can spot future “Hollywood Shuffle” actor & director Robert Townsend as one of Win’s bandmmates.
From there, the rest of the film is pretty episodic. There isn’t really one main story that takes us through the film, but we do meet several more neighborhood characters as the film progresses. One is a rival hustler to Big Daddy, the flamboyant Goldie (Rudy Rae Moore). There’s also strange electronics store owner, Mr. Molet (Fuddle Bagley), who wears ties with pictures of naked women on them, and a somewhat crooked local cop who calls himself “The Black Knight” (Frank Rice).
The youngsters fumble their way through some less-than-legal activities, but also manage to pull some successful cons under Big Daddy’s tutelage. In one scene they trick Mr. Molet into buying what he thinks are stolen TVs, but are really boxes full of garbage. Throughout the whole film, though, we hear hints that there are plans to demolish part of the neighborhood to make way for a new expressway. So this leads to the community coming together, with Big Daddy and Goldie leading the way, to stand up to city hall and save their homes.
This is a pretty tame film as 70’s blaxploitation films go. Sure the characters are hustlers and con men, but there’s not a lot of rough stuff. The film really focuses primarily on the teenage characters as they try to be big shots and impress the girls. It’s all pretty good-natured.
As mentioned earlier, there really isn’t a primary story here, and that’s fine with me. However, this approach doesn’t work as well as it might have had the characters been a bit better defined. We get bits and pieces of a lot of characters in this neighborhood, but none of them is really given much opportunity to stand out. The one exception might be Yaphet Kotto, who brings a fun approach to his role. I didn’t care as much for Rudy Rae Moore. Even back in 1976, I fear his take on Goldie may have come across as somewhat cartoonish.
I did really like the Chicago locations. It doesn’t show off the sort of locales that the tourism office in the Windy City would like to highlight. This takes place in a gritty part of town. There are rundown buildings, garbage…it ain’t always pretty. However, it does have character. Sure this neighborhood has its share of lawbreakers, but it’s also full of regular people who care about their neighborhood. In the often tough world of 70’s blaxploitation cinema, it’s a refreshing thing to see.
Though “The Monkey Hustle” stumbles at times, it does have more than it’s share of fun moments. Besides, Yaphet Kotto is the king of cool! That’s enough to get me to watch!