Friday, April 1, 2011

Movie Find of the Week: Book of Numbers at Belcourt

Posted By on Fri, Apr 1, 2011 at 8:47 AM

In this week's Scene, film critic Craig D. Lindsey has an overview of four movies in The Belcourt's "Visions of the South" series that view Southern life through the eyes of African-Americans. The most obscure film in the bunch — and the one that may connect most strongly with audiences — is actor-director Raymond St. Jacques' 1973 comedy-drama Book of Numbers (whose vintage radio spot you need to hear right this moment):

[A] forgotten film that will turn heads is the long-lost Depression-era period piece Book of Numbers (April 1 & 4) — a Belcourt find that ranks up there with the psychedelic cult sensation House. Released in 1973 and based on a novel by African-American writer Robert Deane Pharr, Numbers is an indie film produced, directed and financed by actor Raymond St. Jacques, who also plays the protagonist, suave old-school hustler Blueboy Harris. He and his buddy Dave (a pre-Miami Vice Philip Michael Thomas) head to El Dorado, Arkansas to open up a numbers bank in the black neighborhood. As their racket prospers, making them big-time, well-respected numbers runners, they eventually have to go toe-to-toe with their "peckerwood" rivals.

Folksy, high-spirited and genuinely sincere, Book of Numbers is one of the rare blaxploitation movies that respected itself too much to be all garish and outrageous. In perhaps the most amazing sequence, Blueboy and his crew put on a courtroom minstrel show in order to beat a rap — something that pisses off prideful Dave to no end. As if he were the director explaining why he took demeaning roles as an actor — so one day he could find the freedom to make this movie — Blueboy soberly reasons why he had to perpetuate a stereotype in order to stay free and keep the good fight going for future generations. He's teaching Dave how to play a crooked game with rigged rules, and it isn't the numbers.

On one level, it's a revelatory moment that shows how black people survived in the early 20th century South. But as the seasoned St. Jacques schools the wet-behind-the-ears Thomas in this scene, it shows how black actors and filmmakers got along in early 20th century Hollywood. How this movie has been overlooked in the annals of black cinema is beyond me.

We've heard some hardcore exploitation-movie fans are planning to see this, Monte Hellman's Cockfighter, and Herschell Gordon Lewis' insane Dixie-fried splatter movie Two Thousand Maniacs! all in a row starting at 8 p.m. tonight in one eyeball-sizzling triple feature. Save us a seat down front.

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