Mayfield’s ghetto imaginary and
Sandra’s “tricks of the trade”
Throughout season one of The Deuce, the character Sandra Washington, a journalist for New York Amsterdam News who brings a particular sociological credence to the show’s investigative impulse within its own world, works to understand the “whole situation,” as C.C. refers to it. The Deuce manifests and performs C. Wright Mills’ notion of the sociological imagination most directly through Sandra. She circulates among the denizens of the Deuce, especially on the street and in the Hi-Hat, interviewing prostitutes and pimps, as well as briefly dating Officer Alston, who works the Deuce beat for NYPD. While exploring the question of motivation and incentive between the pimps and prostitutes, she also works methodically to uncover and report on the larger pay-for-protection racket instituted by police at varying levels of corruption.
However, offered no refuge from systemic pressures, no Archimedean point outside the world on which she reports, in the end, the political exposé she spends the entire season building towards is eventually gutted of its broader economic and social context by her editor for fear of political backlash. Her writing becomes little more than a “human interest story” about violent pimps and exploited prostitutes, one she had all along worked to resist.
A short exchange between Sandra and her editor at the Amsterdam News reveals a wealth of context about Sandra’s character, her work, and her relation to the televisual world of the show. When first proposing the story, her editor dismisses the idea:
“Sandra, all we’re doing is reinforcing the stereotypes, just like those goddamn ghetto flicks out there now. Everybody cheering for the Pusherman.”
After accusing him of wanting “uplift only,” Sandra exclaims, “I’m giving you life as lived.” This reference to the Curtis Mayfield-scored blaxploitation film Super Fly (1972)—which contains the hit song, “Pusherman,” about the film’s hustling protagonist—recognizes a precedent for Sandra’s mode of storytelling deeply rooted in Mayfield’s own music as it relates to “ghetto flicks” and here to the Deuce, and thus Sandra’s proposed piece for the newspaper. By blending the radical sonic innovations of Hendrix with the funk-soul prophecies of Sly Stone, though with a sharper political edge, Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” anticipated both the sound and cultural significance of many blaxploitation films that would come to define the Deuce as much as pornography. Though the song marks the only time we hear Mayfield’s music during season one of The Deuce, it meaningfully gestures towards a larger story that the show’s world-building techniques work to tell through significant peripheral details. By momentarily dwelling on the significance of several references to blaxploitation cinema vis-à-vis Mayfield’s music, I hope to reveal an important through-line in The Deuce’s aesthetic and its narrative.
The recording sessions for Mayfield’s album Curtis also produced an early demo version of the song “Ghetto Child,” which appears as bonus material on the album’s 2000 rerelease, though it would first find its fuller, fleshed out, and ultimately retitled form as “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” in 1972. The song opens Gordon Parks Jr.’s Super Fly. Playing over shots of East Harlem, Mayfield’s song details the destitute conditions common to America’s inner-cities and the hardscrabble lives of African Americans growing up in ghettoized neighborhoods. With lines like, “Broken home / Father gone / Momma tired / So he’s all alone,” and “Where is the mayor / Who’ll make all things fair / He lives outside / Our polluted air,” both the early demo version of the song and its subsequent rendering demonstrate Mayfield’s particular sociological imagination performed through his music. Though singing from the South Side of Chicago, Mayfield’s music, representative of a certain 1970s urban sensibility, connected him directly with the cinematic as well as street-level world of the Deuce during a time when, along with pornography, a related moral panic sprang up regarding another new kind of visibility: black masculinity on screen throughout inner-city second-run grindhouse theaters, as well as these films’ audiences, especially in the Deuce.
David Church, in his analysis of Times Square as both a physical and culturally mediated symbolic space, argues,
“In addition to fears about sexually deviant audiences, fears over urbanism carried a racially charged component, as young African American audiences were often a vital demographic in the 1970s ‘action houses’ that had once been picture palaces now located in increasingly radicalized areas.” [open endnotes in new window]
Analyzing the particular action films commonly exhibited in these locations, Austin Fischer writes how blaxploitation cinema, which “emerged in response to a crisis in cinema audience numbers” as much as “shifts in postwar inner-city demographics,” presented a “direct rejection of integrationism that had characterized postwar [films] featuring the mild-mannered, nonthreatening persona of Sidney Poitier,” in favor of “confrontational separatist messages, articulated and enacted by altogether more assertive black heroes.” Additionally, Ed Guerrero argues that this cycle of early-Seventies blaxploitation films “helped shape a politically self-conscious, critical black audience aware of its commercial power and hungry for new cinematic representations of a diverse range of African American subjects and issues on the big screen.”
Therefore, in the context of blaxploitation’s own history, Poitier represents the message of “uplift only” that Sandra censures her editor for wanting. For her, the inverted racial paradigms, such as those at play in these “ghetto flicks,” speak to what motivates pimps such as Reggie Love, C.C., Larry Brown, and Rodney, things Sandra’s editor fears as damaging to the black community but which Sandra considers a crucial piece of her reporting beyond the simple villain/victim dichotomy.
Though blindspots exist in Curtis Mayfield’s own sociological imagination—his objectification of women is also a major shortcoming shared by Super Fly and many other blaxploitation films—his attempt to tell stories about the disenfranchisement of black people in U.S. inner cities from his own perspective as well as that of pimps and drug dealers marks an early incarnation of the sociological imagination exhibited in The Deuce. As a nod to blaxploitation’s sociocultural legacy, producers of The Deuce reference several of its historically significant films throughout the show, such as C.C.’s aforementioned Cadillac Eldorado that recalls the “pimpmobile” in Super Fly. Additionally, several songs from other blaxploitation films also play in bars and pool halls or are heard from passing cars in a number of scenes.
But the more substantive reference made in Sandra’s argument with her editor—a quintessential example of the “What kind of bad?” problem—reveals two important ways The Deuce intersects with Curtis Mayfield’s music and cultural legacy beyond the show’s opening credits: (1) Not only did a particular sociological imagination performed through a short-lived cycle of morally complex and questionable films come to reflect and reciprocally shape a tumultuous place like the Deuce proper (which, I would argue, we hear at its apotheosis in Mayfield’s music); but (2) this fact in itself also reveals the larger significance of pop cultural production involved in telling the story of race, gender, and exploitation constitutive of the physical space and spatial imaginary represented in the show The Deuce.
Institutional melodrama, cultural production,
and the culture industry
Focusing on the provenance of the 1970s “porn chic” phenomenon by studying both the industries and human actors directly or tangentially involved and affected by the rise of contemporary film pornograpy, The Deuce presents a certain dialectics of hide and seek where one form of sex work, once hidden, emerges as mass spectacle, absorbed into the mainstream, while another form, once out in the open, finds itself systematically pushed indoors, consigned to semi-private spaces. From its investigation of this dialectic, by now we can see how, in many ways, The Deuce constitutes an extension of what Linda Williams, in her extensive study of The Wire, identifies as an “institutional melodrama” that resists “the simplistic vilification” of evil common to classical melodrama, i.e., the exact kind of reductionism Sandra tried to sidestep in her reporting. By utilizing certain modes of counterpoint storytelling particular to serialized television, institutional melodramas, Williams argues, lay bare the myriad networked connections between industry, institution, and human actor as such by embracing the most entertaining aspects of its unique cultural form. Thus, The Deuce works as a sprawling interrogation of pornography and its discontents in large part because the show’s creators understand the value of entertainment as something other than a dirty word.
Moreover, The Deuce represents an institutional melodrama explicitly in the way that it deals with the very culture industry to which the show itself belongs. Not without its ironies, The Deuce follows what Alison Herman describes as
“the evolution of prostitution and the birth of large-scale porn production in a medium—on a specific network, even—that’s been criticized for its gratuitous and sometimes violent sexual content.”
By portraying sex and the culture industry, even through a meta-cinematic lens, The Deuce undoubtedly runs the risk of re-exploiting the bodies made visible on screen. But this issue itself points to something crucial at stake with regard to the potential payoff for such a proposition: The “absolute power of capitalism,” as Adorno and Horkheimer argue, industrializes all aspects of culture and all forms of human behavior in modern societies through its invisibility, where “even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system.” In this regard, then, The Deuce’s act of illuminating the particular industries that are part and parcel of this iron system can itself work to transform these industries by first recognizing and then trying to understand them. In other words, by examining certain particularities of how the industries that mediate sex and culture, and their respective historical processes, intersect with the show’s own mode of cultural production, The Deuce tries to make visible (i.e., recognize) that which too often takes place behind the scenes, so to speak, and in so doing strives to reveal the machinations at work, so that, even if it cannot overcome them, it can at least call them to testify. Or, as Linda Williams again argues, “the defeat of evil by good” may not be essential to melodrama,
“but what is essential…is the dramatic recognition of good and/or evil and in that recognition the utopian hope that justice might be done.”
It means identifying and then taking seriously the show’s own central question: What kind of bad?
Following their momentous claim about the “absolute power of capitalism” vis-à-vis the culture industry, Adorno and Horkheimer proceed to demonstrate how the economic forces of rationalization work in modern cities—full of “decorative industrial management buildings,” “huge gleaming towers,” “slums,” and “city housing projects” designed to reproduce the capitalist system’s dominion over the individual. Because these same forces work over mass entertainment, popular music, and cinema, Adorno and Horkeimer argue for the need to see how modern culture “impresses the same stamp on everything.” However, if “the whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry,” as Adorno and Horkheimer would have it, Michael Denning reminds us that “culture is the product and result of labor, part of the same process.” Such an insight aptly applies to a television show so centrally concerned with institutionalized labor, be it sex work, porn film production, policing, organized crime, public policymaking, and newspaper reporting, or art and mass entertainment.
Here again we see the significance of pop cultural production in The Deuce’s world-building techniques for an institutional melodrama itself about the culture industry at large. Through a particular sociopolitical verisimilitude that, at the very least, identifies the stakes in certain radical acts of cultural production, The Deuce turns pop cultural reference into reverence for the shared cultural project labored into existence by the denizens of 1970s Manhattan (and beyond, e.g. Curtis Mayfield). Because, as I have hopefully demonstrated, as much as The Deuce is about the physical space and the spatial imaginary of 1970s Times Square, it is no less about a cultural imagination historiographically imprinted upon one of the most mythologized and revisited confluences of space and time in pop culture history—a fact the show directly engages through music as much as moving images.
In addition to Mayfield and the music of blaxploitation cinema, we again witness The Deuce’s expressed reverence for radical acts of cultural production through its invocation of NYC’s early ad hoc disco club “the Loft” in a scene where Paul goes to a warehouse in the city’s former manufacturing district for the invite-only dance party Love Saves the Day. This is David Mancuso’s place at 647 Broadway, a spot central to the formation of disco as a recognizable music/dance cultural formation. Dancing to Dorothy Morrison’s rapturous, southern gospel-tinged R&B cut “Rain” and then “Melting Pot” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Paul looks around the room, transfixed, as if momentarily glimpsing an altered future yet unrealized. In a post-Stonewall Inn moment—referenced by multiple characters as a lingering event where the policing of bodies and spaces reached a particular tipping point that led to violence while also signaling the possibility of resistance—perhaps what Paul, a recent target of an illegitimate NYPD sting at a gay porn theater, sees in this moment is the potential for music to create spaces of liberation, even if only temporarily.
Similarly, in one scene during the season finale, Vincent walks into the Hi-Hat, uncharacteristically packed with bohemian-looking youths dancing to a live cover of the proto-punk song “96 Tears.” Caught off guard, Vincent shouts to Abby, “What the fuck is going on?” Abby says she heard the band playing at a rent party down on St. Mark’s Place, the famed East Village strip home to experimental jazz and first-wave punk rock clubs. After Abby explains that she and Paul decided to experiment with bringing live bands into the bar, Vincent asks, “Why’s the singer got all that shit on his face? I thought that went out with Al Jolson?” He soon turns to the Hi-Hat’s de facto bouncer Big Mike, sitting at the bar, and asks him, “What’s it all mean?” To which Big Mike responds, “I don’t know. But I kind of dig it,” and then accompanies a woman onto the makeshift dance floor in front of the band. Vincent looks on with his usual expression of placid skepticism toward the new and unusual. Abby then asks two women at the bar what they think, adding, “Not your usual guitar hero shit, right?” One woman compares the band to a street-hardened Velvet Underground more so than “Ziggy.” The other woman agrees, saying, “Not really glam band,” which Vincent, now sounding a bit nonplussed, mishears as “gang bang.”
He then looks out on his bar with what paradoxically seems a fleeting recognition of the potential transformative significance of that which he professes not to understand: a collapse of history in the form of a three-minute song performed in blackface simultaneously calling up a refracted and shopworn story of early rock music, the racist origins of U.S. sound cinema, and the transubstantiation of NYC punk rock’s historical future in this small semi-underground (both literally and figuratively) bar now bursting with, but also subsumed by, all these inherited signifiers brought to bear on a single moment, a shared utopian impulse as fleeting as Vincent’s curiosity for what it all means. In the crush of dancing bodies, Abby snaps a photograph of the band just before the scene ends.
At the close of this final episode, the Hi-Hat is now empty save for Vincent and Abby—the sound of police presence outside reminding us about Ruby’s murder. Vincent, having just told Abby, “You got me wrong. I love women. But it’s the Deuce,” walks over to the jukebox.
|Abby’s expression of discontent.||The bar now transformed somehow.|
|Gentle Richie requesting some Grateful Dead.||Rudy Pipilo chiding Vincent for the bar’s new record selection|
|Vincent fills the space (between him and Abby) with music.||A restless Larry unable to eat.|
Up to now, this jukebox had been a regular point of (mostly) humorous contention throughout the season. In one scene, Vincent’s brother, Frankie, bashes it with a baseball bat to protest extortion perpetrated by an Irish mob muscle man. In another scene, during the bar’s grand opening, Gentle Richie asks if “there’s any Grateful Dead in the juke,” and there isn’t. Moments later, mob boss Rudy Pipilo expresses his contempt for black music’s popularity at the Hi-Hat (and presumably popular culture at large) and in racist terms asks Vincent, “What’s with all this jigaboo shit? I had six Dean Martins in there.”
And closing out the final episode, Vincent, perhaps to cut the silence between him and Abby, perhaps to avoid talking, or perhaps to drown out the sound of NYPD out front, puts in a quarter, makes his selection, and “Careless Love” by Ray Charles begins to play. The song fills the room. Within seconds, the song’s acoustic quality shifts into a noticeably non-diegetic timbre, transferring us out of the Hi-Hat, and the season’s closing montage begins. We then see and hear the fallout of season one as Ray Charles sings:
“Oh, careless love / Love, please tell me / What have I done / For you to hurt me all in fun.”
In the offices of the Amsterdam News, we watch Sandra open that day’s copy of the paper, her edited-down story “Tricks of the Trade” buried deep inside. During this moment, Ray Charles sings, “Well, you know / That I once was blind / But know I see / I say that I once was blind / But now I see,” repurposing the famous refrain from “Amazing Grace.” This allusion recalls Curtis Mayfield’s own prescient testimony from the show’s opening, his variation on the theme of black spirituals and the long history of African-American musical forms. A few moments later, the season closes on a lingering shot of Bernice working in Vincent’s parlor before she disappears into her room, and we see another jukebox standing at the end of the long hallway. If we think back, Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” having traversed the infernal strip of 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues through the show’s first season, now sounds as much like a coda to the show as it did a prelude.
Perhaps this transformation is best summed up by Reggie Love late in the season’s fifth episode, aptly titled “What Kind of Bad?” In a barber shop, talking about music with Officer Alston and Gentle Richie, Reggie breaks down what he hears as the essential sonic and near-spiritual qualities of the music produced at Motown’s home recording studio. Claiming that Motown singers record their voices through pipes in the walls of the building, he says,
“The voice go through the ducts and pick up the soul of the place on the way.”
|Reggie Love pontificating about sound transformed by the particularities of a space.|