Gilbert Moses

I feel like I'm a popularist. I take social conventions and turn them into art, popularize culture, give it a sense of proportion.33 Gilbert Moses

A successful stage and television director who died too early at the age of fifty-two, Gilbert Moses etched his name in the collection of respected black directors who could carry a project successfully through to fruition. Born in 1943, Moses grew up in a Cleveland ghetto, but he began acting at the age of nine, which perhaps ignited his love for artistic expression. Winning a scholarship to Oberlin College,34 he studied German and French, though he saw himself as a sixties radical. He cofounded the Free Southern Theater, which toured the South in the 1960s for about nine years performing plays, such as In White America and Waiting for Godot. By the latter part of the decade, Moses was directing in New York, winning the Off-Broadway Obie Award for his 1969 production of Slave Ship by Amiri Baraka. He went on to direct Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death by Melvin Van Peebles and Taking of Miss Janie by Ed Bullins, with the latter winning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best new American play in 1975. From

Roscoe Orman
Title character in Willie Dynamite (Roscoe Orman) wears his pimp regalia when talking business with a social worker, Cora (Diana Sands).

the 1970s to the 1990s, he also directed a number of television shows, such as two episodes of Roots, which gained him an Emmy Award nomination; Benson; and Law and Order.35 For the big screen, Moses worked on two features of different tone, both set in urban environments: Willie Dynamite (1973) and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979).

Willie Dynamite is a film that is typical for its day in regard to the focus on black male characters negotiating the streets of an American city. Specifically, the film looks at the lifestyle of a successful pimp, named Willie Dynamite (Roscoe Orman), who refuses to give up his individuality or to join forces with his competitors to fight off the cops. But Willie is not only a proud man, he is a man who loves and respects his mother. When his mother discovers that Willie has earned his money as a pimp, she dies of a heart attack, an event that forces Willie to reform and go straight. Along the way Willie is also pressured to change his ways by the IRS, rival pimps, and Cora (Diana Sands), an ex-hooker turned social worker who struggles to get women off the streets and pimps out of their lives.

Although the film found an audience, strong criticism pierced at its images. A rather harsh assessment came from critic Ed Eckstine, who dismissed the movie pronouncing: ''It is demeaning to me as a Black man to see such a statement of life and manhood as is projected in the film.''36 From another perspective, in his recent cult study of ''blaxploitation'' films, author Darius James looks back on Willie Dynamite with more praise: "Willie Dynamite is the hands-down winner of the all-out best blaxploitation movie of the seventies. With a metaphor not unlike the one found in Barry Michael Cooper's script for New Jack City, Willie Dynamite is a sly satire in the toast made on the impulses that drive corporate America.''37

Not many critics, in the 1970s or 1990s, appear to support James' reverence for the symbolic value of Willie Dynamite. And though a younger, contemporary audience has rediscovered the film on video format, the movie's popularity comes from the humor found in its outdated styles and attitudes, and not from any breakthrough insight into society's economic structure.

Six years after Willie Dynamite, with The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, Moses worked to bring a different kind of film to the screen, as by the late 1970s the super black urban images, along with trademark language and trendy styles, had become passé. Fish, instead, is a feel-good sports comedy that angles at entertaining with images of blacks that are more representative of the average guy sitting in the audience.

The movie's plot is simple and uncomplicated. It ''is the story of a last-to-first place basketball team organized under the astrological sign of Pisces and helped along by coach Flip Wilson and real basketballer Meadow-lark Lemon.''38 The movie also includes performances by Jonathan Winters, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Stockard Channing, as director Moses confesses that ''[t]here is a social statement in Fish and that is, if you believe in yourself you don't need any crutches and you can win; but it's very subtle and integrated in the piece.''39

Although The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh fails to be memorable among the ranks of outstanding films, and though Willie Dynamite exists as a video novelty, the significance of Gilbert Moses as a director must be noted. As a stage, television, and film director, he added his remarkable talents to the widening of opportunity for black film directors.

Sadly, Gilbert Moses died in Manhattan in 1995 of bone marrow cancer.

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