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Paul Winfield

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Paul Winfield

Postby medium pizza » Wed Jul 24, 2019 4:10 am


I've been on an extended binge of Paul Winfield's films the last year or so, up to more than 25 now, and continue to be amazed at the wit, tenderness, and unassuming power he was able to bring to an incredible diversity of roles, in even the schlock he was so often saddled with.

His lone Oscar nomination came in '72 for his subtle performance in Martin Ritt's Sounder, right after which he put on his mean face for two of the era's best blaxploitation films, two of the comparative few directed by actual African-Americans: Ivan Dixon's Trouble Man and Gordon's War (pictured above) by the pioneering Ossie Davis. The latter was also perhaps the first entry in the 'Nam-vet-vengeance cycle, Winfield's Gordon coming home to lay waste to the dealers who have destroyed his neighbourhood and fed his wife her fatal overdose. It's an exciting and propulsive effort with enough novelty in its action to satisfy the most jaded genre fan, while also of a piece (with some concessions) with Davis's radical politics. Winfield would go on to play vets of the war in two more very different films, the affecting telemovie Green Eyes and the genuinely subversive, almost completely unseen High Velocity, both of which criticize American imperialism overseas in then-uncommonly explicit terms.

Depressingly but unsurprisingly, there is no formal biography of this gifted and fascinating man who consistently lent his talents to commercially risky projects by Black filmmakers and about/based on the work of important African-American figures. Perhaps the most fascinating fact of all: Winfield was in a long-term relationship with the equally gifted Cicely Tyson, who played his wife in Sounder (also receiving an Oscar nom) and while they broke up in the early '70s as Winfield was coming to accept his homosexuality, they remained close and played husband and wife twice more, in King (as MLK and Coretta Scott King) and A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich as the mother and prospective stepfather of a young heroin addict played by Larry B. Scott, a trio of performances whose collective power stacks up against almost any other film of the decade.

Other highlights:

White Dog (1982): Winfield is an ideal grounding force for Fuller's compellingly hysterical allegory of racism.

Mike's Murder (1984): re-cut to its obvious detriment after test audiences responded poorly to its unconventional structure and salacious content, this coked-up neo-noir still packs a hell of a punch thanks to its performances (I don't think Debra Winger's ever gotten to do anything quite like this again) and the qualities highlighted by jodamico:
Underrated, slow-burn crime film. Beautiful washed-out cinematography and a crushed spirit. Antonioni-esque.
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1985, TV): stagey but powerful adaptation of James Baldwin's great novel; Winfield leads a truly great cast as a Pentecostal preacher modeled after Baldwin's own stepfather.

Presumed Innocent (1990): a paranoid Pakula courtroom thriller marked by inventive and spirited performances that transcend the stock nature of the characters, or at least make a good show of convincing you they are while you're watching. Winfield's Irascible Judge and Raul Julia's Guileful Attorney are the highlights.

Tyson (1995, TV): His note-perfect Don King here is the kind of performance that makes me giddy just thinking about it. And made possible one of the best-ever Simpsons guest performances. "Fustigation aside, Moe..."

Original Gangstas (1996): A blaxploitation homage with an impressive number of genre icons onscreen together for the first time. While the screenplay leaves much to be desired on a plot level, there is an interesting subtext of intergenerational tension in Black cinema and culture that calls for close reading. Some interesting reminiscences from Larry Cohen on the sociological impact of the production and how personal it was to Fred Williamson:
Spoiler: show
Years passed after we did Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem. I always stayed friendly with Fred. The pictures went into profits, so I was constantly sending him checks over the years for his share of the profits. So we got along fine, because I don’t think he ever got any profits from anybody else. People ordinarily don’t get profits from movies, but with this one he did very well. So as time went on, we remained cordial. Then I got a call from Fred out of the blue, saying he wanted to make a picture up in Gary, Indiana about a bunch ex-gang members who return to Gary and find themselves facing the new gangs that have sprung up, which are much more violent and deadly than his gang ever was when he was a kid. So he’d already had a script written on it, he had a screenplay, and he wanted me to direct the picture. So that was how it came about, and the reason why he picked Gary is because that’s the town where he grew up. He came from Gary, and his mother still lived in Gary. He was never able to get her to move out of there. She’d had her house there in Gary, and she’d lived there all her life, and she wasn’t about to move — even though the area was terrible. There was rampant unemployment. There wasn’t even a bank where you could cash a check. You had to go to a check-cashing store and pay an exorbitant fee. And everybody was locked behind glass, and to get into the place you’d have get through a buzzer system. I mean, there were so many burglaries and so many robberies. It was such a crime ridden area, and everything was ruled by gangs. The murder rate was probably the highest in the United States, and maybe it was the highest in the world at that time. That was before Mexico came in and claimed that title. There was a lot of violence down there, and when Fred told me he wanted to shoot the picture in Gary, I had my second thoughts about it. I said, “I don’t mind making a movie like this, but to shoot it in a gang capital — who knows who’s gonna get angry at you? You know, people can lose their temper very easily, and they have very violent reactions out there.” Well, we were gonna use real gang members in the picture playing members of the gang, use real gang people on the crew, and provide some employment for the people down there. So I said, “This is great, let’s go down and have a look at it.” So we went down and checked out Gary, and it was very run down and depressing. But it fit the movie, and Fred was adamant about shooting it there. So I said to him, “Look, I’ll do it.” But I really didn’t think he’d ever come up with the money to make the picture. I didn’t expect it would really happen. Many deals like this are proposed, and very few of them come true. But lo and behold, he showed up with the money, and said he had the funds to make the picture. And I couldn’t back out of it. I didn’t want him to lose the deal, so I just went ahead with it, and we went down there and shot the picture. Unfortunately, we got down there in the summer, and it was extremely hot. I mean, the average temperature was 100 degrees, so it was murder down there, and naturally everything was just desolate. There were a lot of burned-up buildings, and a lot of torn-down structures, and a lot of empty places. And Fred had gotten an entire city block which was abandoned, which had homes on it, and he had gotten permission to blow them all up. So they wanted to get rid of these places anyway, and they were empty, so what we did was we brought in a crew of people to paint them and put curtains in the windows and put little bicycles on the front lawn, and spruce the whole place up so the whole block looked like it was inhabited. And then one night, we just blew the whole place to smithereens. As a matter of fact, when that explosion went off, we were a couple of blocks away and I got a sunburn from the explosion. It was a much bigger explosion than we’d counted on, but it was great. It looked fabulous, and we blew up this whole block. And we had these kids, and they were gang members who came every day to work. They were always on time. They did everything they were asked to do. You know, if you wanted to shoot them and have them fall down, they did falls. They did anything you asked, and they were very friendly to me. They used to come to my trailer and bring me Famous Amos cookies, things like that. They did their best to ingratiate themselves. I was not concerned with the ones we hired, but with the ones that didn’t get hired. I thought, “Well, now one of the ones that didn’t get hired might just drive by one day with a machine gun or something, and polish us all off in one afternoon.” But it never happened. Everything was fine there for the entire shoot of the picture, and they were all very cooperative and pleasant. And then it was all over, and we left. And it was kind of sad, because while we were there they all had jobs, and they had some place to go every day, and they had some focus and some reason for being. Then when we left, we kind of just abandoned everybody. And there’s nothing we could do about it. We couldn’t take them back to Hollywood. That’s where they lived, so there’s nothing we could do. Well, within two weeks after we left, the National Guard had to come in there. There was so much violence. They started killing each other right and left as soon as we were gone. So I felt there was a movie in that. A movie company goes to a gang town, and everything is great. And then they leave everybody behind, and this is what happens. You know, I felt bad about it, but there was really nothing I could do about it. You know, Gary isn’t that far from Chicago, and we have an apartment in Chicago. So I would go back to Chicago maybe on Sunday or something, the day we didn’t shoot. And then I’d come back to Gary, and then shoot the rest of the picture. And then when we left, we went back to Chicago, and that was it. We never went back to Gary again, and I haven’t been back there since. I’ve never heard from anybody in the town.

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Re: Paul Winfield

Postby Malcym » Fri Jul 26, 2019 12:56 am

He's very good in Sounder but my favourite performance is in White Dog. A fine, charismatic actor indeed, taken from us too early.

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