August 11, 2008

‘Black Moses’ Became Pop Culture Monument — Strong-but-Smooth Persona Never Lost Its Cool on Screen

By John Beifuss

When Isaac Hayes performed his Oscar-winning "Theme from Shaft" at the 1972 Academy Awards ceremony, a great songwriter, musician and "urban" hero became something bigger: a mainstream pop culture icon.

The Oscar telecast showed America that Hayes' bald, bearded appearance was as distinctive as his sound. Whether performing his "bad mother" of a song or picking up his Academy Award (the first for an African-American in a non-acting category), Hayes was proudly resplendent and unapologetically masculine: a true "Black Moses."

He was monumental - the epitome of the then-popular phrase black is beautiful.

Hayes became instantly recognizable, even to people with no interest in Stax or soul music. Producers and directors took note, and cast the singer in roles in films and television programs that made use of his iconic status.

One of Hayes' personal favorites was "Truck Turner" (1974), a so- called "blaxploitation" film that cast Hayes as Mack "Truck" Turner, a bounty hunter caught in a "pimp civil war." (When Turner visits a posh brothel, one girl purrs: "Check out that big piece of chocolate cake!") When Hayes received the Memphis Film Forum's "Memphian in Film Excellence" award at the Memphis International Film Festival in March, 2007, he asked that "Truck Turner" be screened after the ceremony.

But Hayes' greatest role was as himself. In the 1973 concert documentary "Wattstax," Hayes throws off his coat to reveal a "vest" made of linked gold chains. The symbolism was obvious and apt: When he raised his strong arms in the air, the pose demonstrated that chains and the legacy of slavery could not hold back Hayes - or black America.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Hayes would make the transition to movies. His epic arrangements of such originally simple pop numbers as "Never Can Say Goodbye" were cinematic in scope - they transformed anecdotes into narratives. As recorded by Dionne Warwick, "Walk on By" is a short; as reimagined by Isaac Hayes, it's a feature film.

Eventually, Hayes began to spoof his own smooth persona, in the "blaxploitation" parody "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" and as the voice of Chef on TV's animated "South Park," which made the singer famous with a post-"Shaft" generation of young people. But whatever the part, Hayes never lost his ber-cool urban credibility.

One later role paid homage to Hayes in a more respectful context. The singer was cast as a bar owner named Arnel in Craig Brewer's made-in-Memphis "Hustle & Flow" - a movie that allowed Three 6 Mafia to follow in Hayes' footsteps by bringing another Best Original Song Oscar back home to Memphis.

The casting was "nod of respect to the attitude of Isaac Hayes' cinema," said Brewer, who said he and "Hustle" producer John Singleton - who directed a remake of "Shaft" - are big fans of "Truck Turner."

"When I first talked to Isaac on the phone about the character, I said, 'You gotta imagine that Truck Turner moved to Memphis, put up his guns, and opened a bar. And Isaac liked that.

"I said, 'I hope you're OK with this, but in the movie, I'd like you to say 'm.f.,' the whole word. I know they bleep you on 'South Park,' but I'd like you to say the real thing. And in that deep, slow voice of his he said: 'I think I can handle that.'"

Hayes will be seen in at least one more film: He shot a cameo for "Soul Men," a comedy named for the famous Hayes-David Porter hit, "Soul Man." The movie concerns two aging soul singers on a road trip that takes them to Memphis, among other cities. (Scenes for the film were shot here in April.)

In one scene, the two men, backed by Memphis' Bo-Keys, perform Hayes' "Do Your Thing" to an audience that includes Hayes himself. The soul men are played by Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac, who died the day before Hayes, at the age of 50.

- John Beifuss: 529-2394

Originally published by John Beifuss [email protected] .

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