An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.
You don't have to dig deep into the annals of the hyper-violent, uber-sexual 1970's African American cinema movement known as Blaxploitation before you start to notice a certain character actor who stands out as much for his sharp, jaw-thrusting features as he does for his collection of brightly colored, pimpalicious threads. This profile, of course, belongs to none other than legendary street thespian, Antonio Fargas - a man who defined the genre of Blaxploitation just as much as Fred Williamson or Pam Grier. Which is funny, because if you take a look at Fargas's role sheet you realize that while he's had a robust career, he really wasn't in that many Blaxploitation films. He did have major roles in "Foxy Brown" and "Cleopatra Jones," two of the most important movies of the moment and did some supporting work in "Car Wash," and "Shaft" which are also important documents of the genre. He also brought the 'Sploitation movement to the small screen when he played the definitive cool daddy, Huggy Bear*, on the hit 70's cop show "Starsky & Hutch." But while that may seem like a healthy list of accomplishments, you have to consider that the Blaxploitation movement was a b-movie assembly line that pumped out hundreds of titles over the course of its decade run. Action star Fred Williamson alone starred in over twenty films of the genre. By comparison, Fargas's contribution seems rather small.
* A character that, as many of you must already know, will be recreated by Snoop Dogg in the upcoming "Starsky and Hutch" movie.
So why is Fargas such an obvious candidate for discussion when one starts talking about seminal Blaxploitation actors? Because Fargas is, as Nat King Cole might croon, unforgettable. Whenever I think of "Foxy Brown," the first image to come to mind is Antonio's portrayal of Foxy's pimped-out, coked-up, jive talking, ne'er do well brother, Link. (Well, in all honesty, the first thing I think of is Pam Grier's numerous topless scenes, but Fargas comes immediately after - it's a disconcerting combination of images, lemme tell ya.) And whenever I recall "Cleopatra Jones" I can't help but focus in on Antonio's Doodlebug Simkins, the pimped-out, coked-up, jive talking, ne'er do well (starting to see a pattern here?) drug henchman with a Napoleonic complex. (Why don't I recall Tamara Dobson's numerous topless scenes? Because the bitch didn't do any, which is Exhibit A for my argument that "Foxy Brown" was a superior film.) Fargas had a talent for stealing the show in almost every movie he was in.
This is partly due to his appearance. Antonio wasn't* one of these ruggedly handsome, rough and tumble brothers like Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree or quintessential bad-azz mofo, Bernie "That's a real heavy trip" Casey. Those goombahs were a dime a dozen in Blaxploitation films (though sorely needed to make sure the sistas left the theater seats soggy.) But few players could capture the black loser - the wannabe Mac Daddy that always got picked last in gym class and had to take his grandmother to the prom - as well as Fargas**. Physically, Antonio was everything the traditional Black hero was not: gawky, lean (but not "sexy lean"), short and decidedly unintimidating. (Such attributes could be used to described a much bigger Black star of the same era, Richard Pryor, who compensated for his shortcomings by a) being funny, and b) channeling the rage of the urban street.) And in addition to his limited musculature, Fargas was just plain 'ol ugly. Suffering from a severe underbite and jagged, angular features, he is noticeably reminiscent of Sammy Davis jr., a man who, in all fairness, had to rely more on his charms than looks to get the girls. Even Link, Antonio's character in Foxy Brown honestly summarizes his shortcomings by saying, "I'm too small to be a football hero and I'm too ugly to be elected mayor!"
* I realize I've switched to referring to Fargas in the past tense which may be confusing since he's very much alive, but you have to realize that I view Antonio Fargas the Blaxploitation caricature as a completely separate entity from Antonio Fargas the human being.
** Chris Rock nailed this archetype in the 1991 film "New Jack City" and I expect good things out of Marlon Wayans.
Then there's Antonio's outfits. When we talk fashion, I think every right-thinking human being will concede that the 70's were an era that should never have happened. The honkeys were bad enough with their bellbottoms and cotton sweaters, but Black folks went just plain KKKRAAZZY*. Hats with peacock feathers, exorbitant fur coats, diamond studded walking sticks, leopard skin boots with six inch heels - and that was just the men! Nobody did a better job of bringing this look to the silver screen than Fargas, particularly with his pimp characters in "Foxy Brown" "Cleopatra Jones" and "Starsky and Hutch's" Huggy Bear. Every outfit he trots out in is an assault on the eyes that lays waste to the most basic rules of color coordination. Bright red dashiki patterned shirts are tucked into blue striped golf pants. Blue leather jackets cover glowing yellows vests. Have you no shame, man? HAVE YOU NO SHAME?
* Hey, three
K's! What kind of racist bullshit is this?
It would be easy to dismiss Fargas' characters as obscene epitomes of 70's pimpdom and leave it at that. But I honestly think that if you peel away the layers of plush velvet jackets and silk undergarments you arrive at something. a profound truth about the black experience in America or whatnot. To make my point, I first need you to accept an admittedly questionable theory, that with Blaxploitation African Americans were able to take control and portray their vision of how they saw themselves. (I'll admit, this is debatable - "Shaft" was created by a white man, and many 'Sploitation producers were white - but I think is true enough to stand on its own legs.) With that assumption in place, it's easy to see how characters like Black Caeser and Superfly came to fruitiion. They were strong Black archetypes who had pride, confidence, and most importantly, didn't take shit from the man. And it's equally understandable why characters like Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones were created - they were sexy, afro-touting females who highlighted the Africa ideals of beauty (e.g. big bootays and a voluminous rack.) while running their own show. (Watching special agent Cleo Jones boss around whitey is in-and-of-itself worth the price of admission.) Now the creative instigators of Blaxploitation could have stopped there but I suspect they were plagued by a knowing realization: not all black men are statuesque ex-football players and not all women were big-bossomed soul sisters. And if you were going to argue, as Blaxploitation did, that the legacy of racism had so stalled your best and brightest (It goes without saying that most Blaxploitation heroes are either on the run, ex-cons, or have lost friends/lovers to the scourge of drug violence.) then it only stand to reason that Black losers were even doubly affected. And that's where Antonio Fargas came in.
For starters, take a look at Link, Antonio's character in "Foxy Brown." As a mewing, self-pitying whiner who makes little effort to move out of his life of crime even after Foxy saves him from a mafia beating, it's easy to dislike the guy. At one point he even sells out Foxy's boyfriend - a Federal agent who's just had face-altering surgery because he recently testified against. uh, it's kind of hard to explain - to the mob, resulting in his execution. Foxy discovers this betrayal and bursts into Link's apartment, overturns his furniture but stops short of killing him. Why? Familial loyalty is part of it, but she also realizes that Link has been forced down the sorry spiral of his life because he can't pursue the limited paths to success that Black men had available to them at that point. (As he says to Foxy, "What am I supposed to do with all this ambition?") Forced to chose between the tedium of a dead-end ghetto existence or the glamorous (but dangerous) lifestyle of a street-hustling drug pusher, a big dreamer like Link can't help but go for the gold, and more importantly, Foxy can't really blame him. As a result, the film delivers its message - a call to arms over the limited options for Black men in American society - in a much more understated and nuanced manner than could ever be achieved by a placard waving Al Sharpton*. (Of course, there's a third reason Foxy doesn't kill her brother: she assumes, correctly, that eventually the path Link has chosen will take its toll on him.)
* While I'm getting seriously concerned by the number of asterisks in this article, I have to footnote this point as well. You might say, "Gee, Wil, are you saying that the only way minorities can get through to white society is by breaking their arguments down to gentle, digestible chunks that won't cause ol' peckerwood to have a heart attack on the spot?" On some level, yes, I guess I am, though I don't like the manner with which you phrase it. More correctly, I'm saying that in cultural debate, as well as physical combat, one should follow the rules of aikido, which seeks to use the existing flows of energy to augment its own motion. "Foxy Brown" voices its call for black self-determination against a plaintive yet beautiful chorus of gospel singers, as opposed to screeching it out against a cacophony of seething rancor. Which one would you be more prone to listen to?
That said, I generally find Al Sharpton to be a very amusing fellow.
Doodlebug Simkins, Fargas' egomaniacally over-reaching drug dealer in "Cleopatra Jones" is a more successful criminal than Link, but the film uses him to make many of the same points. Epitomizing the adage, "clever not smart," Doodlebug manages to use his street wits to climb up to the role of lieutenant in the street army of "Mommy," Shelly Winter's lesbianic Mafioso (Both "Cleopatra Jones" and "Foxy Brown" put forth the dubious theory that Harlem's drug trade in the 70's was controlled by unattractive white women.) but makes a fatal mistake when he decides to go out on his own. A Black man, you see, can only climb as high in the crime biz as whitey will let him, and if he starts to get uppity he can expect to meet his demise in a hail of gunfire. (Though for the brief period that Doodlebug operates as an independent, he lives it up, taking obvious pleasure in ordering around his British manservant, Mattingly.)
So what do we take away from the realization that behind some of Antonio Fargas most treasured Blaxploitation characters was an honest rumination of the trials of Black citizenry during the 1970's? At the very least we should conclude Antonio Fargas was a great actor - probably the most skilled thespian in both "Cleopatra Jones" and "Foxy Brown." And that the exploration of his stereotype - the meek, angst-ridden Black underdog - was just as important as the more positive portrayals of African American masculinity as offered by Fred Williamson and Jim Brown.
Of course, as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Fargas' Blaxploitation roles are* really just a small part of his career. He stayed busy throughout the 80's and 90's in a gamut of under-the-radar parts in films like "Streetwalkin'", and "Howling IV" as well as generating acclaim for his theater work, including his role as a 90 year old witch doctor in the Broadway play "The Great White Hope." If you haven't given up on MTV yet, you might recall seeing him as the bus driver in the Backstreet Boys video where they all turn into monsters. The Fargas fortunes have also passed to the next generation as Antonio's son, Justin, is a college football player for USC. (A curious twist considering Fargas' ectomorphic build.) Finally, his web site notes that he's started a film production company and is actively pursuing a side career in music. Unlike the futures of Antonio Fargas's famous Blaxploitation characters, his is lookin' up!
* Notice the switch back to current tense? Fucking genius!
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at email@example.com
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