Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mama Black Widow, by Iceberg Slim

(pb; 1969)

From the back cover:

"Mama Black Widow tells the story of Otis Tilson, a comely and tragic homosexual queen adrift with his brothers and sisters in the dark, labyrinthine world of pimping, tricking, violence, and petty crime. Written in the jagged, vivid, and always authentic language of the homosexual underworld and the black ghetto, Mama Black Widow is a tour of a predatory urban hell. . ."


Alternately harsh, heartbreaking, explicitly violent and sexual, tender, and occasionally hyperbolic, Mama Black Widow is one of Slim's best books. It has a cohesive storyline and solid emotional base: the reader sees the unfolding dramas through the eyes of a forty-year old homosexual cross-dresser, Otis Tilson, who's trying to rein in what he feels is his perverse alter-ego, "that bitch Sally," while keep his sh*t together, which is damn near impossible with what's going on around him.

As the novel transpires, one of Otis's brothers (Junior) and one of sisters (Bessie) succumb to the corrupting, fast-cash draw of the streets by turning to crime and prostitution; Otis's clean-cut sister, Carol, courting an adoring white boy, suffers greatly at the hands of their manipulative, cold-hearted mother (Sedalia Tilson, aka "Mama"), who's trying to sell Carol (as a wife) to a hideously-scarred, wealthy thug, Lockjaw Hudson.

Frank Tilson (aka, "Papa"), good-hearted, hard-working father of Otis, Junior, Bessie, and Carol, fares no better than his children: Sedalia's public belittlement of him, coupled with other situational factors, eventually turns him into a pathetic drunk.

The above descriptions may read like spoilers to the book, but they're not. The characters, consistent and fated, are the main draw here -- along with the coarse, sometimes tender, intensity of Slim's writing.

Minor nit: a couple of his characters -- usually male -- speechify about Black politics and society in a forced, uncharacteristic manner. Their outlooks are consistent with their barely-reined-in rants, but their word choices are too educated, or "high-fallutin'," for these characters, who, for the most part, possess little book learning.

That nit aside, this is a wow-worthy read. The ending's not happy, but then, given what precedes it, any reasonable reader wouldn't expect it to be.

Check it out.

The resulting film is scheduled to be released stateside in 2011. Will De Los Santos scripts; Darren Grant is set to co-produce and direct.

Brian J. White is rumored to be playing Otis Tilson. Mos Def is scheduled to play Papa Tilson. Anthony Anderson is scheduled to play Lockjaw Hudson. Rihana is rumored to be playing Carol Tilson. Macy Gray is scheduled to play Jonnie Mae Hudson.

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