The Monkey Hu$tle (1976)

I think that Monkey Hustle is a very misunderstood film, mostly because of a misleading ad campaign that tried (and still tries, via the VHS and DVD packaging) to sell it as a plot-driven scam flick, a black version of The Sting. That’s not what this is. Daddy Fox, the con man character is only a character in an ensemble. This film is much more like Car Wash–a group of disparate characters in a common place interacting. Except in this case the common place is a neighborhood instead of a place of business. Although “Monkey Hustle” is a term coined by Daddy Fox in an early scene,it doesn’t only refer to con games–it also refers to the way all the characters are hustling for love, for success, or for respect. The direction is loose and the performances are almost universally winning. Yaphett Kotto is amusingly verbose as Fox and Rudy Ray Moore is hilariously–and purposefully– over the top as numbers runner Goldie.

Now, I’m not saying that this was a great film, but it is a lot better than its rep, and certainly not the total artistic failure it is often represented as. One thing that holds the film back is that it does seem to be lacking a few necessary scenes near the end that would explain how Goldie and the Fox stopped the Freeway expansion. There are scenes that obviously lead up to that missing climax (with lots of knowing winks and secret smiles), and scenes after it is announced that the freeway project has been canceled (characters giving each other the “high sign”)–but nothing about how the heroes made it happen!

However, plot is not a big part of this kind of movie. No, the most important element “Car Wash” had that “Monkey Hustle” lacked was a really great soundtrack of classic tunes to tie things together. “Monkey Hustle” is noticeably music-lite for its genre. There is one decent tune–the title track–and it gets played a lot. But lots of scenes cry out for music, and the ones that get it have to make due with endless variations of this same theme. I predict that if AIP had sprung for a funky soundtrack like the producers of Car Wash did, and the filmmakers had come up with even five or seven more minutes of action to explain the ending, “Monkey Hustle” would be seen as a minor classic of the 70’s black film era. It never would have been a “Cooley High,” but it could have at least been a little brother to “Car Wash” (and it is a HELL of a lot better than “Thank God It’s Friday”).