Reel Brooklyn is a biweekly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
After years of faking it, Hollywood came east in the 60s and 70s, and discovered New York, landing into neighborhoods like Park Slope—in Hal Ashby’s funky, saber-toothed debut comedy The Landlord (1970)—as though exploring the uncharted interior of Borneo. Raw-boned, ethnic, shot-right-there realism was suddenly movies’ lingua franca; the bikers of Easy Rider (1969) could tell anyone who asked that they were looking for “America,” because that’s what the film itself was doing, from Flagstaff to New Orleans. New York, of course, had its own unique scramble of charismatic megafauna, and it might be perhaps difficult to imagine how moviegoers living elsewhere reacted when the hero of Ashby’s film—Beau Bridges as Elgar Enders, a naive Long Island rich boy taking over a Brooklyn tenement—is met on his first day by Pearl Bailey in a headwrap and a thicket of Caribbean beads poking a shotgun into his face.
Who knew from the shadows of Brooklyn? In every way the audience is on Elgar’s hip, launching chin first into this netherworld inner city where white men are strangers and hubcaps don’t last. At the same time, there isn’t a caricature to be had—including the honky, who never reverts to bigotry even when threatened, and comes to dig his tenants probably more than he should. It’s a fabulously resonant, witty, utterly convincing movie (unavailable as we speak on anything but an on-demand DVD-R), shot largely in and around the brownstone at 51 Prospect Place, a building Bridges told The New York Times in 2007 (when the film had a week’s run at Film Forum) he’s pretty sure was abandoned at the time. Now, of course, it’d go for two mil on a good day.
Gentrification wasn’t a thing yet, not in Park Slope, but the film (adapted from the Kristin Hunter novel by actor-director Bill Gunn) scans like a prophecy of things to come. Bridges’s baby-faced rich kid is a spoiled hipster-to-be with too much money, a tense, neurotic, mansioned family complete with black servants, and Susan Anspach as a stoned sister ready to swallow the roach she’s smoking when her parents get near. His original plan is to literally sweep the tenants out like mice, gut the building and remodel it into a swinging bachelor palace. He never gets far, as you’d expect; though there’s little cant about preserving the old neighborhood flavor, the bustling, savvy life energy of the all-black residents (including Lou Gossett Jr. as a pugnacious street activist with a horny wife, played to the hilt by Diana Sands) is not so easy to shunt aside. To gentrify in 1970 was still a daydream, years ahead of the curve.
As far as Civil Rights Era movies go, Ashby’s is thorny as hell—Elgar assimilates in both good and not so great ways, cheating on his mixed-race girlfriend (Marki Bey) with Sands’ flint-tough seductress, and even knocking her up, producing a baby no one knows what to do with. Almost half a century later, Park Slope today, its white/black ratio coming in at about fifteen to one, is essentially populated entirely by Elgars, with the neighborhood repurposed as their comfort zone.