Wyatt Cenac and Donwill Shop for Blaxploitation Sound

This spring, comedian Wyatt Cenac and rapper Donwill reintroduced “Shouting at the Screen,” their Blaxploitation pop-up movie experience, at Nitehawk Prospect Park. There were technical difficulties. What do comedians and rappers know about AV setups? It turns out that not many. At some point, the screen went blank. “We had to explain that it wasn’t part of the movie,” Cenac said the other day. The movie restarted but cut out again a few minutes later.

“So we sang along,” Donwill said. “I don’t know why, but we sang ‘September.’ ”

Alcohol and food helped appease the crowd. “I have to imagine there were people who were, like, ‘We paid for a babysitter. I don’t care how long it takes, we’re not going back to those kids,'” Cenac said.

Cenac, who is currently working on television and animated film projects for Warner Bros., and Donwill, who recently released a quarantine-inspired album titled “SPACE,” have been friends for twelve years. They were sitting on a mid-century modern couch at the Legacy Dumbo record store, where they were buying music to play on the next episode of “Shouting at the Screen” in late July. “It started over a decade ago, in an event space in Dumbo,” Cenac said of the series of screenings. “But this place was later closed for questionable business practices.” (The owner was convicted of tax evasion and robbery in 2014.) The show moved to a location in Williamsburg, then to the Bell House, in Gowanus; the Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Brooklyn; South by southwest, in Austin; and Sketchfest, in San Francisco, before the pandemic put it on hiatus. For the first film showing since lockdown, Cenac and Donwill chose 1974’s “Willie Dynamite,” which stars an actor named Roscoe Orman.

They usually pair a movie with drinking games; for “Willie Dynamite”, whenever Willie wore brightly colored clothes, audience members would have a drink. “The guy who plays Willie was hired to play Gordon in ‘Sesame Street’ that same year, so looking at a lot of Willie Dynamite outfits, we kept trying to tie them to ‘Sesame Street,'” Cenac said. . Bernard Johnson, the film’s costume designer, who later worked on “New Jack City,” dressed Orman, in one scene, in green pants, a fur coat, and an oversized Cossack hat, making him look a bit like Oscar the Grouch. .

The film follows pimps and prostitutes as they weigh the pros and cons of unionization. “The social worker in this film turns out to be the hero, as she tries to provide alternatives for sex workers,” said Cenac, who wore a Charlie Brown pin-up bucket hat and a vintage Malcolm X t-shirt. The plot sounded like a recent viral Reddit post about female students forming what they called a “hoe union.” (Among other things, the students swore off any party if they couldn’t mix their own drinks, if the hosts were sexual harassers, or if male-to-female ratios were enforced.) Cenac and Donwill chatted.

“The first thing I thought was, is this like something with OnlyFans?” Donwill, who wore a Basquiat t-shirt, said. “But I think the concept is on point.”

They started leafing through the files. They wouldn’t say what movie they’d be playing at the next screening, but they were looking for albums that honored the Blaxploitation era. Cenac gravitates towards a drawer labeled “R. & B. Soul/Funk. He chose a 1989 LP called “Stay with Me” by Regina Belle. “I haven’t seen this album since I was a teenager,” he said, and recalled listening to the requests that came in on the late-night radio. “These always felt like these clunky, tension-filled cliffhangers. Does the crush listen to the radio at night? »

Donwill, perched on a red stool, watched 1970’s “Right On Be Free” by the Voices of East Harlem. He started spinning the stool in circles. “The typography is really cool,” he said. He found a trumpet resting on a Fender Rhodes piano and posed for a photo with it.

The conversation turned to the movies. “Blaxploitation is seen in film as that kind of scandalous period, but it was also really a hotbed of independent cinema, and it’s not credited that way,” Cenac said. The filmmakers made up for meager production budgets with catchy soundtracks and tapping into an untapped talent pool. Cenac referred to “The Two-Headed Thing,” a 1972 film about an experiment in which a white man’s head is surgically attached to a black man’s body. “Rick Baker, who would go on to be an Oscar-winning makeup artist, was the first movie he worked on,” he said. He flipped through a record drawer and stopped in front of an album by Herbie Mann and Bill Evans. “There’s a chase sequence in ‘Cleopatra Jones’ that takes place in the LA river basin,” he said. “Everyone says ‘Bullitt’ is the movie that has the best car chase scene. But maybe there’s an argument to be made for ‘Cleopatra Jones’.”

The duo collected their swag, which included “Wild and Free”, by Dazz Band, and “Joy”, by Teddy Pendergrass. Donwill showed Cenac the cover of another of his picks, “Steamin’ Hot,” from The Reddings. “Look, it’s TLC!” he said. ♦

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