I’ll admit that when Brown Sugar, the new streaming service with an emphasis on African-American-centric films, launched last fall, I was skeptical. How would a service that relies not on specific studios or genres, but rather a specific demographic, amass a catalog of films from a number of sources diverse enough to appeal to a wide enough audience?
My skepticism, as it turns out, wasn’t warranted. I passed on the service for a few months, but I recently signed up for it (for a mere $3.99 a month) after their app enabled support for the Chromecast, the device on which I do the bulk of my streaming. Their catalog is a mixture of new titles with black stars and vintage Blaxploitation, and among them are some treasures that I’ve never seen on any format anywhere, much less any streaming service.
Among these enigmas is HAMMER, SLAMMER AND SLADE. A pilot to a proposed television series that was never made, HAMMER, SLAMMER AND SLADE uses characters and performers from Keenan Ivory Wayans’ 1989 Blaxploitation parody I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA, a sleeper hit in theaters and on video that brought Wayans the fame he needed to launch his influential Fox series In Living Color. In Living Color debuted in the spring of 1990, and ABC, wanting to get into the Wayans business, quickly commissioned a pilot based on the previous year’s hit. (ABC had just launched TWIN PEAKS to a surprise success, and the out-of-the-box thinking by the network also brought us COP ROCK, along with failed oddball pilots like the sci-fi adventure PLYMOUTH and the Claymation/live-action hybrid DANGER TEAM.) While it never went to series, the pilot aired once, on December 15 of that year (a Saturday night, where television goes to die) before vanishing completely.
Neither Keenan Ivory Wayans nor any of his siblings reprised their roles from SUCKA for the show, though Wayans did write the script for the pilot as well as serving as an executive producer. Taking over the director’s reigns was Michael Schultz, the experienced filmmaker behind COOLEY HIGH, CAR WASH and THE LAST DRAGON. The title members of the cast, Bernie Casey, Isaac Hayes and Jim Brown, all returned to their SUCKA roles, as well as Steve James reprising his Kung Fu Joe character.
That last note should serve as a warning, as Kung Fu Joe notably died towards the finale of SUCKA. HAMMER, SLAMMER AND SLADE serves not as a follow-up to SUCKA, as it turns out, but rather a semi-remake, with slightly different character relationships and a notably more sedate tone. It’s practically T.J. HOOKER with a few comedic characters awkwardly inserted into its molding – heck, the Encyclopedia of Television Pilots, 1937-2012 lists it as a “crime drama” rather than a comedy.
Central SUCKA character Jack Spade, the young man who brings together the group of ‘70s tough guys, is now a rookie cop played by a pre-ER Eriq La Salle. When a retiring cop (played by guest star Ron O’Neal, solidifying the series’ Blaxploitation credentials – I’d imagine Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier would have shown up in future episodes) is framed for burglary, Spade recruits his late father’s former partner Slade (Casey), who, in turn, recruits Kung Fu Joe and grill owners Hammer (Hayes) and Slammer (Brown). Together, the five of them work to prove the cop’s innocence and talk conceptually about working together in the future. (A better title may have been HAMMER, SLAMMER, SLADE, KUNG FU JOE, AND JACK SPADE, but that no doubt would have been a bit much for the TV Guide ads.)
The change of Spade from a wanna-be Blaxploitation hero to a cop is one of the major character changes, but it’s not the only one. Ja’net DuBois returns from SUCKA as well, but this time, she plays Hammer’s nagging wife, rather than Spade’s nagging mother. (This results in one of the few genuinely funny moments of the show, as Hammer is constantly on the phone with her, holding up potential action scenes.) In place of Damon Wayans and Kadeem Hardison, we get Martin Lawrence as Hardison’s squirrelly Willy and Bentley Kyle Evans, who had a minor role in SUCKA, as the Wayans’ Lenny, and while both do a decent job replicating the characters, the script doesn’t give them a lot to do. (Lawrence compensates by doing a lot of high-pitched squealing, which works in the pilot but would probably have been insufferable on a weekly basis.)
The most puzzling thing about HAMMER is how little comedy it actually has. While SUCKA seemed to take place in a Zucker Bros.-like world in which everything was at least a little bit absurd, allowing for a number of quick jokes and visual gags, HAMMER’s locales are a relatively generic city with a cop station you’d find in any other network show. It’s slightly lighter than a drama, more akin to the tone of laugh track free comedy-dramas like HOOPERMAN or THE SLAP MAXWELL STORY than the chaotic nature of SUCKA.
The jokes that are there come only when the leads appear on screen, like a recurring big involving Slade commenting on Spade’s younger days or a bit about how being sexually aggressive to female officers doesn’t really work as a way to get information anymore. Kung Fu Joe’s opening sequence, puzzlingly, is lifted straight from KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, as he addresses his martial arts students to do thing “once more… with feeeewing” in a mock accent. The theme to SHAFT playing occasionally in the background is a nice touch, but it’s repeated to the point where it just feels lazy. When the leads aren’t in the picture, the humor disappears completely, like a jokeless scene involving a store owner getting threatened.
HAMMER, SLAMMER AND SLADE is a strange sidenote to well-regarded psychotronic comedy that brought the Wayans family to fame and while it’s little more than a curiosity, it’s great to finally see five black action stars together again one more time. I’d love to see it included on a Blu-ray release of SUCKA, but in the meantime, it’s great to finally be able to check it out via Brown Sugar.
HAMMER, SLAMMER AND SLADE isn’t the only obscurity unearthed by Brown Sugar – I’ll be delving more into its catalog of treasures in the coming weeks.