• Five On The Black Hand Side

    Released by: Olive Films
    Released on:
    Director: Oscar Williams
    Cast: Clarice Taylor, Leonard Jackson, Virginia Capers, Glynn Turman, D’Urville Martin, Godfrey Cambridge
    Year: 1973
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    The Movie:

    Adapted by Charlie L. Russell from his own 1969 off-Broadway production of the same title, Five on the Black Hand Side is often unfairly lumped in with the “blaxploitation” genre simply because it features an all-black cast of actors and was released by a major studio (in this case, United Artists) in the early 1970’s. But you won’t find any violence, vulgarity, or sexual situations in this affable, PG-rated family comedy that has plenty of soul to spare in more ways than one.

    The main characters of Black Hand Side are the Brooks family of Los Angeles. Patriarch John Henry Brooks Jr. (Leonard Jackson) is a proud, self-made man who has long supported his kin as the owner and proprietor of the Black Star Barber Shop, where no women are allowed. His long-suffering wife Gladys (Clarice Taylor) has been patient and forgiving of her husband’s uptight conservatism and cruel tongue, but recently she has come to realize that the time may have come for things to change in their marriage or else she will divorce him.

    Their daughter Gail (Bonnie Banfield) is preparing to marry Marvin (Carl Franklin) in a traditional African wedding ceremony to which John Henry is vehemently opposed. Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, as John Henry rigidly insists he and Gladys refer to each other, also have two sons – Booker T. (D’Urville Martin), whom the father favors above all, and Gideon (Glynn Turman), an angry young militant who spends his days practicing martial arts on the rooftop of their apartment building and avoiding Mr. Brooks’ putdowns and unloving tone.

    Once the Brooks are introduced, the story splinters into a series of subplots destined to mingle in uncomfortably comedic fashion until the big wedding finale. Mr. Brooks seeks support and solace from the employees and customers at his barber shop as his family continues to mostly disappoint him. Gladys embraces feminism and the black power philosophy of Gideon and finds the renewed strength to challenge her husband for equal rights in their relationship lest it come to a merciless conclusion. Booker T. and Gideon engage in heated discussions over their mutual life directions and the responsibilities each has assumed in the family. Gail goes about the business of getting ready for her big day in the hope that Mr. Brooks finds it in his heart to support her marriage to Marvin and their choice of ceremony.

    Five on the Black Hand Side takes place over the course of a single weekend and is a slice-of-life portrayal of a working-class family struggling to find common ground in their evolving relationships before things come crashing down. The primary source of the Brooks’ consternation is John Henry’s stubborn refusal to have his role as the head of the household and his personal politics by the progressivism favored by his wife and children, apart from his number one son Booker T., who would rather tiptoe lightly around his father’s old school ways and not risk rocking the proverbial boat. The various plots come to a rather predictable resolution, but they do so in a manner that feels organic and true to the characters and the chaotic journeys they have taken separately and as a family.

    Oscar Williams, who wrote seminal blaxploitation yarns like Truck Turner (my personal favorite of the genre) and Black Belt Jones, directs Russell’s adaptation with a charming lightness and warm respect for the Brooks family and the various side players who enter and exit their lives when necessary. Having made his directorial debut the year before Black Hand Side with the gritty action flick The Final Comedown (an early showcase for the star talents of Billy Dee Williams), he keeps visual flourishes to a bare minimum and allows the characters to tell the story, though the cinematography by Gene Polito (Westworld) is noteworthy for its nuanced, professional framing that keeps the dialogue-heavy production from feeling too stagy.

    Themes of racial and gender politics and racial identity run deep in Russell’s narrative, and its deep wells of heart and humor combine to create a mood of persuasive optimism that leaves no doubt the Brooks will find their happy ending together. The final moments of the film act as a testament to the love this family has for themselves and the people in their orbit and never hit a false note because nowhere does it say that people who truly care for one another can’t put aside their differences, support each other in their personal growth, and even grow a little themselves.

    Russell’s scripting is sharp and provides the cast plenty of acting meat to chew on. Leonard Jackson of The Color Purple and Basket Case 2 is a droll delight as Mr. Brooks, offering exquisite ham in his funnier moments while carefully exposing the beating heart of a domineering father and husband struggling to resist the changing times. The vulnerability and quiet power Clarice Taylor (Play Misty for Me) brings to her performance as Gladys perfectly compliments the showier turn by Jackson and still leaves room for some standout dramatic moments she owns with complete class.

    Glynn Turman (John Dies at the End) invests youthful intensity and likability in his portrayal of the spirited Gideon. Future Dolemite director and frequent Fred Williamson collaborator D’Urville Martin is excellent as the Brooks’ more responsible and pragmatic son, as is Bonnie Banfield as caring yet carefully defiant daughter Gail. The main players are ably supported by Dick Anthony Williams (The Mack), Ja’net DuBois (Good Times), Sonny Jim Gaines (Malcolm X), actor-turned-filmmaker Carl Franklin (One False Move), and an amusing cameo in the opening scene from Godfrey Cambridge (Cotton Comes to Harlem) as himself.


    Five on the Black Hand Side receives its first Blu-ray release care of Olive Films and is presented in a bright and crisp 1080p high-definition transfer in the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. As the transfer is prefaced by the MGM logo, the source for the HD scan was a remastered print from the studio’s own library prepared for cable broadcast. MGM previously released the film on VHS and DVD as part of their short-lived Soul Cinema line. The picture is alive with bolstered texture, accurate flesh tones, and an improved level of sharpness in fine details present in character faces and background scenery. The color timing is warm and balanced and favors various shades of brown for the interiors, bringing out natural beauty in the cramped sets, and light blues and reds for exterior shots.

    The film’s original mono mix sounds terrific on the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track included with this release. Extensive dialogue scenes, often overlapping and pitched at different volumes, are perfectly audible, clear, and layered in smoothly with the low-fi funky scoring of H.B. Barnum (Emma Mae) and the authentic ambient effects. Two channels are more than enough for the presentation of an exceptionally solid mix that suits its film without any notable flaws. English subtitles have also been provided.

    The only extra feature is the original theatrical trailer (3 minutes).

    The Final Word:

    Five on the Black Hand Side is a pleasant little comedy that favors strong character development and organic storytelling over cheap gags and mugging. The performances are wonderful to watch and benefit from Charlie L. Russell’s crafty, big-hearted script and the unobtrusive direction of Oscar Williams. Although Olive Films’ Blu-ray is frustratingly short on bonus features, the terrific high-definition transfer makes this underrated gem worthy of a purchase if you can find it for the right price.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!