Created by John D.F. Black
“I come up hard baby, but now I’m cool,
I didn’t make it sugar, playin’ by the rules
I come up hard baby, but now I’m fine
I’m checkin’ trouble sugar, movin’ down the line.”
— from Trouble Man by Marvin Gaye
No, I’m not talking about that jewelery-bedecked buffoon with the mohawk from the Rocky films and TV’s The A-Team. We’re talking here about the theoretical hero of Ivan Dixon’s 1972 blaxploitation flick Trouble Man.
This MR. T, as played by Robert Hooks, is a superslick black fixer from LA’s South Central who finds himself caught between two warring gangs. But doncha worry ’bout a thing, because this dude’s about as tough as they come.
The tagline even warned, “Mr. T is cold hard steel! He’ll give you peace of mind…piece by piece!” and that about sums up his character. Less than a year after Shaft rocked the world, T already seems like a parody of the quintessential blaxploitation hero, but there’s no doubt he’s a badass motherfucker complete. with $600 three-piece suits and a snazzy $10,000 Lincoln Continental.
Of course, he was raised in the streets, but we’re assured “he’s been a man since he was a kid!” and that “If you rub him the wrong way, he’ll blow up in your face!” And naturally, there’s plenty of hip lingo and colourful characters with street names like Chalky and Big.
Screenwriter (and executive producer) John D.F. Black’s big claim to fame was that he helped “blacken” Ernest Tidyman’s script for the original blaxploitation flick, Shaft. And that’s more or less what you get here. Gone are many of the nuances and ambiguities (if you look really close they’re there) of that landmark film. Instead, we get action, and plenty of it.
There’s a pretty gruesome (but effective) fight in an elevator, and a few other good scenes, thanks in no small part to director Dixon’s background as an athlete and stunt double–that background also served him well in his work on such action-packed TV shows as Magnum P.I.and The Rockford Files. But the scenes don’t really go anywhere, mostly because the script is essentially just your standard ode to guns, sex and drugs.
There is one other interesting tidbit connected with this film, though. Marvin Gaye (who had a bit part in the film) did the music, working as both a songwriter and score composer. After all, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes were both doing it, so why not Marvin? The result was moody and funky in parts, but the only real highlights were the funky “T Plays It Cool,” the sax-dominated “T Stands For Trouble” and the anguished, overwrought“Trouble Man,” which became a minor hit.
Nothing that would make people forget the themes from Shaft or Superfly, though.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John D. F. Black was the writer/producer on Trouble Man, and had co-penned the Shaft film with Ernest Tidyman. He’d begun his career in television, writing for shows like Johnny Staccato, Surfside Six, The Untouchables, Star Trek, Mannix and Hawaii Five-O. He won an Edgar Award in 1972 for Best Television Feature or Miniseries Teleplay for his script for the TV movie Thief, which starred Richard Crenna and Angie Dickinson.
- “Cliché-ridden script includes about four hundred killings, glorifying underworld life. Well-made but tasteless.”
— Leonard Maltin (TV Movies and Video Guide)
- “I’ve always been a tremendous fan of the Trouble Man soundtrack, believing that it’s one of Marvin’s finer creations, even if we only get glimpses of his voice throughout. The rockin’ 2nd track, “T Plays it Cool,” man, I gotta play ad infinitum.
Anyway, here’s the thing — for years now, I’ve been trying to track down a video version of the flick. I figured AT LEAST in the earliest days of VHS and Beta, someone somewhere had the film to rent. But– I am and have been searching high and low, on all kinds of blaxploitation and film websites (even calling Berkeley’s famed Pacific Archives) for a VHS transfer. Barring that, I’d die just to see a surviving reel of the thing to screen on my own dime down here in L.A. I wish someone at the Cinematheque or another film society would include it in their schedules, but so far, I’ve been out of luck.
Short of a VHS copy or the reel (which I’m sure the original studio has, or knows where it’s archived), I’d dig just finding out if there’s a surviving copy of the screenplay anywhere. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know.”
— Sean Cardinalli in Los Angeles, many years ago…
- TROUBLE MAN | Buy the Blu-Ray
(1972, 20th Century Fox/JDFB Productions)
Screenplay by John D.F. Black
Directed by Ivan Dixon
Produced by Joel Freeman
Executive producer: John D.F. Black
Original music by Marvin Gaye and J.J. Johnson | Buy the soundtrack
Cinematography by Michel Hugo
Starring Robert Hooks as MR. T
Also starring Paul Winfield, Ralph Waite, William Smithers, Paula Kelly, Julius Harris, Bill Henderson, Wayne Storm, Akili Jones, Vince Howard, Stack Pierce, Larry Cook, Virginia Capers, Rick Ferrell, James ‘Texas Blood’ Brown, Marvin Gaye
- Trouble Was His Business: 50 Years Of Trouble Man
Michael Gonzales on how the story of a fixer in South Central LA, with a Marvin Gaye score, changed the game. (November 2022, CrimeReads)
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.