Tuesday, January 3, 2012

#11: Jive Turkey

Drive In Movie Classics
Disc 3: Side B

The little-seen blaxploitation flick Jive Turkey is also known by the more colorful title Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes and the less politically-correct Get Nigger Rich on Number 666--which, depending on your point of view, is more confusing than it is offensive. “This Is A True Story,” an opening title informs the viewer. “Only the Names, Places, and Events Have Been Changed To Protect the Innocent.” By these loose, ambiguous, noncommittal standards, pretty much any film could be said to be a true story.

No matter. It’s 1956, or so nearly every character in the film would like us to believe. “This is 1956!” they are often heard to say, a claim that goes unsupported by the 70s era cars we see in the background, the slang, the haircuts and the tie-dyed poncho one guy is seen wearing in an early scene. Still, you have to admire this low-budget movie for even attempting a period setting. The story follows Pasha (played with conviction by Paul Harris), an African-American crime boss who controls the numbers racket in an unidentified Ohio city. His rival is Italian mobster Big Tony (Frank DeVoka).

“The narcotics business is in a slump,” explains Big Tony at an uneasy meeting between the two criminals. He wants the numbers game for himself.

“Numbers is my business,” says Pasha with a confident smirk.

Big Tony thinks for a moment. He needs to negotiate. “You can keep prostitution,” he offers. Pasha isn’t having any of it. Big Tony goes on to say that one of Pasha’s men is secretly working for him and that he--Big Tony--knows Pasha’s every move. Not only that, but there’s a contract out for a hit on Pasha from Big Tony’s bosses in Chicago--pretty forthcoming for a deceitful, nefarious mobster, but still Pasha refuses to give up the numbers. Next we see the mayor and his aides discussing their plan to eradicate Pasha's
gang. As in almost every single movie or television show ever made about organized crime, it’s an election year--1956, to be exact--and the mayor is determined to crack down in order to please his constituents, even if it means bending the rules himself.

It’s a story that’s probably inspired--at least in part--by the exploits of infamous Harlem mob boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, who was portrayed in the 2007 film American Gangster and provided the inspiration for 1997‘s Hoodlum. In other words, it’s pretty ambitious stuff for a b-movie--too ambitious, in the end. Jive Turkey devolves into a standard action movie, complete with back alley shootouts and car chases, as the cops and the Italian mob close in on Pasha’s numbers racket.

It’s standard, that is, except for the character of Serene, Pasha’s female assassin, who is lusted after by Big Tony’s flunkies and who dispatches them in ever more gruesome ways. In one scene, Serene poisons a guy, climbs on top of him and repeatedly slams the heel of her shoe into his eye, laughing maniacally as the camera lens is drenched with blood. It’s genuinely disturbing, something more fitting of a horror movie than a blaxploitation flick. That Serene is actually a man in drag is obvious to no one within the world of Jive Turkey--not even to Pasha, it seems. Are we, the audience, supposed to recognize that Serene is a man? I began to wonder.

Then, with a group of mobsters trailing her, Serene goes into her house, removes her wig, fake eyelashes and makeup, puts on a pair of glasses, a hat, and a suit and tie, and walks back out, transformed. She goes right up to the car where the mobsters are waiting, pulls out a cigar and asks for a light from the man behind the wheel. None of the mobsters recognize her. As she strolls away, we hear her trademark maniacal laugh. It’s a strange, subversive moment in an otherwise conventional film. What does it mean? Who knows?


  1. They should just combine the title of this film into "Jive Nigger Needs a New Pair of Shoes" -- or not.

    Maybe I should start watching these movies and responding over on my blog. No one should be forced to take on the horror of the 50-movie bargain bin set on his or her own.

  2. Thanks for visiting. I checked out your blog and really dug it. I'd love it if someone else attempted the slog through the fifty pack. The upside is, most of these movies are so obscure and so few people have reviewed them that you'll have the critical-territory largely to yourself. The downside? Murky transfers, bad acting and the occasional dud. Not only that, but if you watch this particular movie, you'll have the soundtrack stuck in your head for days. It's catchy, but as politically incorrect as Jive Turkey's alternate title. Oh well.