|Directed by||Larry Yust|
|Produced by||Marshal Backlar
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
Trick Baby is a 1972 Blaxploitation film starring Kiel Martin and Mel Stewart. This crime-drama is based and named after a novel by Iceberg Slim written in 1967. The film was directed by Larry Yust and produced by Marshal Backlar and James Levitt. The film first premiered at the DeMille Theater, Seventh Avenue and 47th Street theatre, Juliet 2 Theater, and Third Avenue and 83 Street theatre in New York. This film is distributed by Universal Studios, runs for eighty-nine minutes, and is rated R.
"Blue" Howard (Mel Stewart) and "White Folks" (Kiel Martin) are two con men in Philadelphia. Blue is an older black hustler who raised White Folks and taught him "the con". White Folks is the son of a black mother who is a prostitute and a white father, a customer. Being born to a black prostitute and her white "trick" is the reason why his enemies call him "Trick Baby". Folks' complexion is light enough for him to pass as a white man which gives him an advantage in the con. The duo exploit the dynamics between whites and blacks to achieve their cons. "Blue" usually plays a vulnerable black man being exploited by "White Folks" which allows Folks to gain the credibility needed to pull off the con. In a 1973 review in the New York Times, Roger Greenspun wrote "Trick Baby seems most interesting in its understanding of race relations…relations between Folks and Blue are absolutely normal, not very competitive, resilient, and rich in a kind of mutual professional appreciation." While Folks' skin color has various implications in society and is crucial to the con that the pair runs, it does not impact the relationship between Blue and Folks. Due to Folks’ ability to pass, the pair pull off the biggest score of their lives. Before they can collect the money, a previous con complicates things. Unbeknownst to them their previous victim had mob ties and now they have run afoul of the Mafia and a corrupt cop. They must decide whether to leave town or risk their lives to collect the $130,000 from their most brilliant con.
- Kiel Martin as “White Folks”
- Mel Stewart as "Blue" Howard
- Vernee Watson-Johnson as Cleo Howard
- Beverly Ballard as Susan
- Clebert Ford as Josephus
- David Thomas as Frascatti
- Jim King as Duke
- Dallas Edwards Hayes as Dot Murray
- Tony Mazzadra as Nino Parelli
- Don Symington as Morrison
- Don Fellows as Phillips
- Tom Anderson as Felix the Fixer
The racial dynamics in Trick Baby drive the plot of the movie. Due to Folks’ ability to pass as white, each plan is executed and ultimately is successful. When they are running a con, Blue plays the poor Negro man who is easily exploited by white men while Folks play a white man preying on the unassuming Negro. For this reason, Blue states that “his white skin gives us a slick edge”. He is trusted by the white men they are trying to con because he looks like one of them, all the while, identifying as black. While his look allows him to gain access to white spaces, it causes him to be ostracized within the black community. It is during interactions with Black people that he is derogatorily referred to as a “trick baby”. His light skin and white blood does not allow him to be recognized as Black by other Black people.
This movie flips the normal formulation of Blaxploitation films and utilizes Folks’ seeming whiteness subversively in order to take from white people. Through the manipulation of whiteness, Blue and Folks take what they want. They use the power that comes with white skin to their benefit. Blaxploitation films, however, usually feature power derived from Black people and Black culture. The mark of the genre thus, are Black characters and aesthetics. This is a reflection of a Black Power consciousness manifesting through film. Black Power leader, Stokely Carmichael, makes it clear that whiteness does not have a place in the movement. In “What We Want” Carmichael indicts the Civil Rights movement “whose tone of voice was adapted to an audience of liberal whites,”  and ignored angry communities of black people. He critiques the Civil Rights Movement for a continued allegiance to white standards and institutions. Black Power instead centers Blackness and therefore the films derived from this consciousness are divorced from whiteness and white characters as well.
The move to an authentic Black politics through the Black Power Movement manifests itself in film. In his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Donald Bogle states that the Black Power Movement shaped the aesthetic of the films the 70’s. The character that becomes popular in films is black and appeals to black audiences because he takes the system on head-first. He is in control of all aspects of his life, sexually, politically, and economically. He is power, and he has no time for whiteness. His aesthetic and the aesthetic of the films “played on a certain social/political philosophy prevalent in some sectors of the black community in the late 1960s and early 1970s” during which time there was a rejection of anyone who “aided and abetted White America through attempts at cultural assimilation.”. The consciousness of the movement and the art forms influenced by it pushed whiteness to the periphery. However, this film uses Folks’ white skin against white people.
Black Women in Blaxploitation
Women are largely absent in this film. The two women present in this film have minor roles which hinge upon their relationship with the men in the film. This reflects the absence of women and supporting roles to which they were relegated within the Black Power Movement. Blue’s wife, Cleo Howard, is a peripheral character. The focus of the film is Blue’s relationship to Folk’s and the con. Early on, it is made clear that Cleo is a non-essential factor to the con and as a result, she is largely unimportant to Blue. Her relationship with Blue does not at all compare to the partnership Folks and Blue have. Blue states that “[Folks] was living here long before you came. But that don’t matter, you’re still the star boarder”. Referring to her as a boarder was supposedly a joke, however the way in which he treats her in the movie proves that this is her true position. She is merely a boarder, she has no claims or ownership to the property or the money and thus she has no say in its distribution and allocation. Thus, she is to be silent when those issues are concerned. She is only relevant insofar as she provides the only service that Blue does not require from Folks, sex.
Cleo’s role reflects the silence, absence, and peripheral roles of women in the Black Power Movement. In her article “Framing the Panther: Assata Shakur and Black Female Agency,” Joy James states that “one can easily imagine antiracist revolutionary struggle against the state without (black) women clearly in the picture, but to imagine revolution against state violence in the absence of (black) men often draws a blank”. In the fight against racism, women also had to fight against patriarchy. While many women joined Black Power movements and made many significant contributions, they are largely unheard of, save a few famous women. In “Black Women and Black Power,” Darlene Hine claims “the cult of black manhood worked against them”. She theorizes that in reaction to the suppression of masculinity during Jim Crow, there was a strong emphasis on masculinity in the Black Power Movement. Additionally, women were confined to traditional notions of femininity. By these notions, it was emphasized that women’s roles was to support the movement from the periphery. All the labor needed to run the movement behind the scenes were done by women. They were responsible for “implementing the medical, housing, clothing, free breakfast, and education programs”. But yet, these contributions do not circulate in the discourse of Black Power. Even popular Black female icons such as Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis were recognized in conjunction to their lovers or revolutionary male counterparts. Thus, patriarchal logics were a hindrance to women in the movement. James states “men appear independent of women in revolutionary struggles; women generally appear as revolutionaries only in association with men, often as ‘helpmates’. As a category, the female revolutionary remains somewhat of an afterthought, an aberration; hence she is an abstraction- vague and not clearly in the picture”. Thus, Cleo Howard’s abstracted role in the film serves as a parallel to women in the Black Power Movement: in the picture insofar of their relationships to great men, but abstracted and forgotten in their own right.
Background and Reception
Trick Baby is adapted from a book by Iceberg Slim. Slim, born Robert Lee Maupin, was a pimp in his early life before becoming a popular author for African American audiences. His novels reflect his personal experiences and provides an insider look into the world of black pimps. Trick Baby, his second novel published by Holloway House in 1967, was not a direct look into the life of pimps but was still heavily influenced by pimping (remember a trick baby is the product of pimping). Slim became one of the best-selling authors of his time selling over six million books. An adaptation of Pimp, his first novel, has been in the works for some time, since the early 1990s, but have never come to fruition. Another one of his novels, Mama Black Widow, is in development with the screenplay being adapted by Marshall Tyler who is also set to direct the piece.
This is the first one of Slim’s novels to be turned into a film. The script was adapted from the book by A. Neuberg, T. Raewyn, and Larry Yust. The film was also directed by Yust. Critic Rossi Jackson of the New Pittsburgh Courier calls this adaption a “bastardized version of Iceberg Slim’s novel…they have watered down, misadapted and ultimately messed up Iceberg Slim’s original work”. While Jackson claims that the film is well acted, he believes that the film lacks the ferociousness and passion with which Slim writes about the “places and the pains of the black ghetto experience”. The black ghetto life is largely lost in the movie and many of the exciting characters, such as Cleo, are lost.
Jackson praises the performance of Dallas Edward Hayes (the corrupt cop) and Mel Stewart (Blue Howard), but states that Kiel Martin’s performance falls short. Left to our own imaginations in the book, Folks’ black identity is not questioned. However, in the movie, Martin plays the white man well, but lacks the soul needed to play a black man. Jackson states “since the credibility of the whole film rests on the actor’s performance in the title role, this film falls flat on its face. Even if the leading actor were really black, one would still question his ability as an actor to credibly project black masculinity on the screen”.
The movie was produced with a $600,000 budget and was produced independently. Universal Pictures bought the film for 1,000,000 dollars and the movie grossed $11,000,000 at the US box office. The cast was not well known before the movie’s release.
Kiel Martin went on to appear in many movies and TV shows until his death at the age of 46. He died from lung cancer in 1990. Mel Stewart was an active actor until 1993. In addition to his career as an actor and director, he was also an accomplished jazz saxophonist and a black belt in aikido. He died in 2002 of Alzheimer’s disease. Vernee Watson-Johnson went on to play a recurring character in the TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter and appear in the 1976 film Norman…Is That You?, but she is best known for her role as “Vy” Smith, Will Smith’s mother, in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
- "Movie Review - - The Screen: 'Trick Baby':The Cast - NYTimes.com". www.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2016-05-06.
- Carmichael, Stokely (1966). "What We Want". MIT.edu.
- Bogle, Donald (1973). Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Viking Press. p. 236.
- Joy James. "Framing the Panther: Assata Shakur and Black Female Agency." Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle. New York: New York UP, 2009. N. pag. 138 Print.
- Hine, Darlene Clark., and Kathleen Thompson. A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print. 298.
- Joy James. "Framing the Panther: Assata Shakur and Black Female Agency." Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle. New York: New York UP, 2009. N. Print. 140.
- Rossi, Jackson. New Pittsburgh Courier (1966-1981), City Edition [Pittsburgh, Pa] 03 Mar 1973: 17