Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: To kick off Black History Month, we’re looking back on genre films by unsung or underappreciated Black filmmakers.
When Shaft made a lot of money at the box office back in 1971, it opened the floodgates for studios to come up with more films about bad mofos who take down honky jive turkeys on behalf of the brotherman. Shaft co-writer John D.F. Black was one of the first to capitalize on this demand when he went over to 20th Century Fox to write and produce 1972’s Trouble Man.
You could say Black went about creating a West Coast version of the private dick who is a sex machine with all the chicks. The hero this time around is Mr. T (Robert Hooks), a suave as hell, Los Angeles-based P.I. who mostly does business at a pool hall, where he’s also been known to take hustlers to school. (This is immediately established in an opening scene where he outplays actual pool player James “Texas Blood” Brown.) The plot kicks into gear when a local hood (Paul Winfield) and his white partner (Ralph Waite, best known as the dad on The Waltons) hire T to track down the thugs who keep robbing their dice games. But these guys are actually using him for a scheme where they take over the territory of rival kingpin Big (Julius Harris). Of course, T is sharp enough to know what’s going down, especially when one of Big’s henchmen gets killed after a dice game and he gets accused of pulling the trigger.
Just like Shaft, Trouble is a noirish, pulpy tale that has a Black and proud protagonist front and center. T certainly is one cool-ass man of mystery, the kinda dude who has a beautiful main squeeze (singer/dancer/first woman to show pubic hair in Playboy Paula Kelly), but still has some chicks on the side, ready to help him in getting to the truth. T is also a man of the people, the kind of cat that everyone in the neighborhood knows and comes to for help when no one else will.
Old TV heads may know Trouble Man director Ivan Dixon as Staff Sergeant Kinchloe on Hogan’s Heroes, but he also starred in the 1964 indie drama Nothing But A Man and directed the 1973 adaptation of Sam Greenlee’s incendiary novel The Spook Who Sat By The Door. (He’d go on to direct Waite on The Waltons and the other Mr. T on The A-Team, but it’s a shame Dixon didn’t direct more features about bad brothas who coolly wiped out pale-faced figures who were trying to hold brothas and sistas down.) And, of course, no Blaxploitation movie would be complete without a fly-ass soundtrack by an R&B superstar; Trouble Man had a good one, supplied by none other than Motown golden boy Marvin Gaye. Its tunes have been redone by jazz artists, sampled by countless rappers and even appeared in contemporary films like Four Brothers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Although Trouble Man is a decent, underrated Blaxploitation crime yarn, you won’t be able to find it on any streaming sites. Even Brown Sugar, the platform that was once devoted to keeping all the Blaxploitation classics in one place, doesn’t have Trouble Man in its library. It’s unfortunate how many Blaxploitation films—especially those that were actually directed by Black people—seem to be lost in the shuffle these days. As exploitative as many of these movies were, it would still be nice if films like Trouble Man could easily be found somewhere, just as a reminder that badass, Black movies made by a badass, Black filmmaker starring a badass Black lead, happened once—and could happen again.
Availability: Trouble Man is available on YouTube.