Re-Viewdy Ray Moore Project #1 Monkey Hustle
For a long time being a Chicagoan was central to my identity. When my grandparents came to America they came to Chicago. Chicago is where my daddy was born and lived almost all of his life. I was raised in Chicago. I came of age in Chicago. My oldest son Declan was born in Chicago. I spent my tween and teen years in Chicago, and most of my thirties and forties as well. Throughout my adulthood I was convinced that I was going to live in Chicago for the rest of my life even if meant being miserable and freezing to death half the time for decades.
Then everything went Pete Tong for me professionally and I skedaddled down to Atlanta with the family to rebuild my life about four and a half years ago. I thought I would miss Chicago something awful, that my soul would pine for the land of deep dish pizza and Da Bears but honestly the only time I’m ever really homesick for Chicago is when I see my old hometown in a motion picture.
Consequently, half the reason I dug the wonderfully loose and ramshackle 1976 comedy Monkey Hustle is because it was filmed in all-black neighborhoods on the West and South side of Chicago, as well as downtown and consequently serves as a fascinating sociological document of what my home town looked like around the time I was born not too far away in Kansas City, Missouri.
Oh, but I experienced an exhilarating surge of nostalgia looking at Chicago at its funkiest. Watching beautiful black kids with big Afros and outsized personalities come of age, bullshit and waste time in neighborhoods that were at once vibrant and alive with music, color and brash personality and the product of urban blight and societal and governmental neglect and mismanagement I missed Chicago, and missed it deeply, for the first time in a very long while.
Director Arthur Marks, who made terrific use of Motor City locations in his 1973 cult crime movie Detroit 3000, which Quentin Tarantino dug so much he re-released it through his Rolling Thunder distribution company, similarly gets the most out of Chicago.
Monkey Hustle works splendidly as a star vehicle for the wonderful Yaphet Kotto, who had an absolutely magnificent 1970s: The Liberation of L.B Jones, Larry Cohen’s explosive debut Bone, which I recently covered for my First and Last column at TCM Backlot, Across 110th Street, Live and Let Die (where he was the first black man to play a Bond villain), Friday Foster, Monkey Hustle, the TV movie Raid on Entebbe, where he was nominated for an Emmy for playing Idi Amin, Blue Collar and Alien.
Oh, and then the next year he played Othello. Not half bad. That is a very impressive run of films and performances. In sharp contrast, Kotto’s only film acting credit for the last twenty-three years is a supporting performance in the 2008 Larry the Cable Guy vehicle Witless Protection.
Man, it is tough being a black actor in Hollywood.
Monkey Hustle may not be as well known or as commercially or critically successful as some of the other films on Kotto’s resume but it gives him a role as juicy and outsized and gloriously theatrical as any in his filmography. Yaphet Kotto makes wily trickster Daddy Foxx a glorious addition to the great pantheon of film-flam men in pop culture. Dressed like a prep school kid on picture day, his voice a sonorous purr of seduction and misdirection, his razor-sharp mind playing all the angles simultaneously, Daddy Foxx puts the “art” in “con artist.”
He’s a grifter, a bamboozler of squares and marks, a man who is not just a hustler but the very personification of the hustle. When rappers rhapsodize about true hustlers they’re talking about legendary-status players like Daddy Foxx.
How charismatic and larger than life is Kotto in Monkey Hustle? Rudy Ray Moore, who is billed as a co-lead but is more what Best Defense would deem a “strategic guest star”, spends his entire time onscreen dressed like a villain from the 1960s Batman series who is a gold-obsessed gay disco pimp and he just barely avoids being blown offscreen by Kotto at his cigar-chomping biggest and best.
I’ve been curious about 1976’s Monkey Hustle ever since I fell in love as a teenager with the oddball cinematic oeuvre of Rudy Ray Moore, the eccentric blaxploitation icon whose too strange for fiction life story has been adapted for film by director Craig Brewer and Ed Wood and Man on the Moon screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski with Eddie Murphy in the lead role as the man who gave the world Dolemite.
Rudy Ray Moore was one of those pivotal figures that made me fall in love with b-movies and bad movies and cult movies and trash movies in the first place. Moore was like no one I had ever seen before. He was hypnotic, magnetic, unforgettable, a true pop culture original with a cadence and swagger and style all his own.
So Monkey Hustle hit me right smack dab in the nostalgia sweet spot in more ways than one. It reactivated my long-dormant love of Chicago in all its beautiful brokenness but it also reminded me of my high school days exploring the funky, vibrant, lurid world of Blaxploitation as a clerk at Blockbuster Video. I loved every aspect of Blaxploitation, even those that objectively speaking qualify as “bad” and no element of blaxploitation was as bad (meaning bad), and also as “bad” (meaning good) as the vehicles of Rudy Ray Moore.
Monkey Hustle is a fascinating anomaly in Moore’s filmography in that it’s a major film that he appeared in during the Carter-era prime of his career but it’s most assuredly not a Rudy Ray Moore vehicle or a Rudy Ray Moore movie. How can you tell? Well, the boom mic is not in the frame much of the time and nobody accidentally looks at the camera for a distractingly long stretch of time.
Monkey Hustle is a real movie from a real filmmaker with real production values that is ultimately really good in a wholly non-ironic way. In other words, it’s decidedly atypical fare for the flamboyantly dressed proto-rap pioneer.
Monkey Hustle is a splendid vehicle for Kotto and to a lesser extent Moore, who is given the star treatment every moment onscreen, with a flashy introduction and wardrobe so blindingly tacky late-period Liberace would reject it as hopelessly gauche. He’s Goldie, baby, a big-time wheeler dealer with a booming, righteous line of patter but even though Moore is in a professional production here he does not do anything that can be construed as acting.
No, Rudy Ray Moore doesn’t act in Monkey Hustle. He does not disappear into character. No, he does his Rudy Ray Moore thing, with its halting, hypnotic rhythms and exquisite, ineffable off-ness and as always that’s more than enough. Goldie is Dolemite is Petey Wheatstraw is the Avenging Disco Godfather and they’re all obviously just Rudy Ray Moore with a different name but the same game.
It’s surreal and awesome seeing Rudy Ray Moore, one of my early heroes, in neighborhoods I recognized in a movie that has a vague whisper of a plot but is mostly content to just hang out with a lovable cross section of small-time crooks, hustlers, musicians and dreamers as they hang out, make and listen to music terrific even by the very high standards of blaxploitation scores/soundtracks run scams on each other and various suckers and basically live their lives.
The IMDB plot synopsis for Monkey Hustle reads, “A new highway threatens a Chicago neighborhood, so to protest the residents throw a block party.” That makes the movie seem as threadbare plot-wise as a breakdancing exploitation movie, which tended to revolve around nasty developers and winning a talent show or throwing a party to raise money to stave off eviction.
That’s not inaccurate. Monkey Hustle does not have much of a plot. It doesn’t need to. It’s a wonderful hangout movie, a loose and lively slice of life comedy with a majestic lead performance by the perfectly cast Kotto, a rare, if not unique opportunity to see Rudy Ray Moore play a sizable role in a film of quality, and a wonderful sense of time and place.
Monkey Hustle is an irresistible time capsule of an era in Chicago I have enormous affection for, set in neighborhoods that did not exist as far as mainstream pop culture was concerned. When the media does pay attention to these neighborhoods it fits into a larger narrative of the south side of Chicago as killing fields, murder city, the enduring shame of our nation, an area whose crime rate is continually cited by Trump as proof of the pathetic failure of Democrats and gun laws.
Arthur Marks’ raucous comedy serves as an important reminder that so much is happening in these neighborhoods beyond gangs and murder, death and hopelessness. The Chicago of Monkey Hustle is riotously alive with pleasure and casual joy, with music and glorious explosions of verbosity delivered with palpable glee by the great Kotto.
Monkey Hustle is a wildly enjoyable trip back in time that reminded me how much I love the blaxploitation era in general and Rudy Ray Moore’s movies in particular. Thankfully I’ve got four more Moore joints left to go in my binge-watch of his filmography in Dolemite, The Human Tornado, Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son in Law and Avenging Disco Godfather so the fun has really only just begun!
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