Saturday, January 26, 2008

Top 10 Most Memorable (Dead) Characters

The demise of “The Wire’s” dangerously unassuming drug dealer Proposition Joe Stewart (Robert Chew) left me thinking: what other characters’ deaths have merited a moment of silence?’ Here are my Top Ten:

10. Simon Adebisi (“Oz”). He gave a new name to heroin chic with his muscle shirts and trademark knit cap. Adebisi beheaded a cop, ran a gang, had a nervous breakdown, sparked a race riot, sold drugs, and did all sorts of nasty things “Oz style.” Seemingly invincible, few saw it coming when this series’ standout character met his bloody end behind a makeshift curtain at the hands of Kareem Said. Actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje went on to “Lost” (and typecasting) fame, but the heroin dealing Mr. Eko is just no Adebisi.

9. Piano Man (“Lady Sings the Blues”). Why, oh, why didn’t Piano Man go ahead and pawn Billie Holiday’s diamond ring to get the money for their next fix? Instead, he held on to it for her and ripped off some really bad drug dealers. In return for his kindness to Lady Day, the dealers beat Piano Man to death right before our eyes. Richard Pryor stole this movie right from under Diana Ross and Billie Dee Williams.

8. Dick Hallorann (“The Shining”). Kindly Dick is telepathically summoned to save little Danny Torrance from his knife-wielding father Jack. Dick makes his way from Florida to Colorado to render aid—on his own dime, mind you, during a blizzard …but to no avail. A mere seconds after Dick arrives, Jack unceremoniously cuts him down with an ax. Stanley Kubrick must occupy a special place in Hades for not only reinforcing the “magical Negro” stereotype, but for also killing the great song and dance man Scatman Crothers in this horrific way.

7. Sister (“Sparkle”). You saw it coming. Sister’s gangster boyfriend Satin forced her to leave her singing sisters behind so that she could embark on a solo career. Sister lined Satin’s pockets, fell victim to his brutal domestic violence, and sought to ease her pain with drugs. Sister’s sultry wail ‘Giving up is so very hard to do’ couldn’t have been more poetic or fateful. Lonette McKee just doesn’t get enough work for my taste. She was marvelously passionate as Drew in “Jungle Fever.”

6. James Evans (“Goodtimes”). A hard working, doting father, James leaves Chicago and his family behind for a better paying job in Mississippi. Before the family can get packed up to join James, wife Florida finds out, via telegram, that James has been killed in a car accident. The news prompts Florida to famously cry, “damn, damn, damn!” It was a surprisingly mournful moment for a situation comedy. “Damn, damn, damn,” was a sacred saying until comedian Martin Lawrence appropriated it as one of his trademark punch lines. Kudos to actor John Amos for making the ultimate sacrifice and ending his ties with “Goodtimes” rather than be involved with a series that resurrected the buffoon stereotype through co-star J.J.

5. Radio Raheem (“Do The Right Thing”). A broiling, hot summer. A predominately Black neighborhood. An Italian pizza shop owner who profits from the community. Enter Radio Raheem who joins Buggin’ Out in boycotting Sal’s Pizza for not respecting the community’s icons. Radio Raheem hoped to “Fight the Power,” but instead pays for his activism with his life thanks to a NYPD chokehold. Bill Nunn is from my hometown, Pittsburgh. His father was a long-time scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers and has five Super Bowl rings for his efforts. Nunn’s grandfather was news editor of The Pittsburgh Courier. What a saintly family.

4. Stringer Bell (“The Wire”). “Stra-ang” (as corrupt senator Clay Davis called the series’ star) just wanted to bring a little legitimacy to the drug game. He was all about buying property and political influence. When all of this failed, Stringer turned snitch, ratting out his partner-in-crime Avon Barksdale. Avon had the unexpected last laugh by ok’ing a hit on Stringer by Omar and Brother Mouzone. Folks were stunned when the cornered Stringer sighed, “get on with it motherf…” and Omar and Mouzone actually did with guns blazing. Idris Elba was fabulous in the vampire-themed TV series Ultraviolet and in the HBO movie “Sometimes in April,” but he will always be Stringer Bell to me.

3. Ben (“Night of the Living Dead”). Ben (pictured above) is the lone survivor of a horrific night battling cannibalistic zombies. However, he is no match for a posse of White militia who “mistake” Ben for one of the undead. The Bull Connor-esq lynch mob shoot Ben in the head and then burn his corpse. Kudos to George Romero for using such symbolism to remind folks that racism is alive and well. “Night” was set in Pittsburgh, and Romero couldn’t have been more insightful about race relations in and around my city. The ill-fated Ben didn’t die first in this horror film; rather his was one of the most sociopolitically important deaths on celluloid. The late Duane Jones was a professor of English and of Theatre. He continued to make an impact upon the arts as an actor and director of theatre.

2. Cochise (“Cooley High”). Cochise was young, good looking, and off to college on a basketball scholarship. The mundane nature of his life—school, parties, hanging out, girlfriends-- made us identify with him all the more. People aren’t supposed to die in a fistfight with a couple of thugs, especially when your ‘boy is rushing to come to your rescue. Cochise’s death was a bitter reminder that the ‘hood can be terribly arbitrary and unforgiving. Even the hardest of Brothers choke up when the soundtrack plays “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” during the Cochise funeral scene. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs channeled a little Cochise into high schooler/basketball player Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington on Welcome Back, Kotter…but it just wasn’t the same.

1. Annie Johnson (“Imitation of Life”). In the 1959 version of the film, Annie dies (nearly) alone. Only her employer, Ms. Lora, is at her bedside as Annie slips away. Annie’s tragic mulatto daughter Sarah Jane is nowhere to be found, as self-hate has alienated her from her darker-skinned mother. The passing away of Annie is sad. Her funeral, however, is truly heart rending as Mahalia Jackson sings “Trouble of the World” in tribute to the saintly Annie who is “going home to live with God.” The tear factor is heightened even more as we learn that Annie was not just a doting mammy figure to Ms. Lora and her daughter, rather she was an exalted member of the Black community and active in her church. By the time Sarah Jane shows up screaming and weeping for her dead mother who is being carted off in a glorious horse-drawn carriage amid a parade-length funeral procession… well, I’ve got a lump in my throat just thinking about it. Juanita Moore was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for this role.


Walt said...

Great list! I've only seen Imitation of Life once, and it was a looooong time ago, so I've just added it to my netflix queue to rewatch it. You've also inspired me to come up with my own Top 10 list. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I agree, great list. Many of those are also my favorites. My son has often mentioned the death of Ben in The Night of the Living Dead as one of the most disheartening deaths in the movies.