Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde

“According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind… 

The trouble [with Pride] begins when you pass from thinking, ‘I have pleased [someone]; all is well,’ to thinking, ‘What a fine person I must be to have done it.’ The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom…The real black, diabolical Pride comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you. Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so incomparably more what God thinks. But the Proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says ‘Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were of value…I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals – or my artistic conscience – or the traditions of my family – or, in a word, because I’m That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They’re nothing to me.’…[The] devil loves ‘curing’ a small fault by giving you a great one.” C. S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity

 

“What kind of colored man are you?”

“I’m a soldier, Peterson. The kind of colored man that don’t like lazy, shiftless Negroes…The Nazis call you ‘Schwarze.’ You gonna complain to Hitler that he hurt your feelings?…Because whatever an ignorant, low-class Geechee like you has to say ain’t worth paying attention to…And if it wasn’t for you Southern *******, white folks wouldn’t think we was all fools.”  A Soldier’s Story screenplay by Charles Fuller

 

“I’m the man up in this piece…I run shit around here. You just live here. Yeah, that’s right, you better walk away. Go on and walk away…’cause I’m gonna’ burn this motherfucker down. King Kong ain’t got shit on me. That’s right, that’s right. Shit, I don’t, fuck. I’m winning anyway, I’m winning… I’m winning any motherfucking way. I can’t lose. Yeah, you can shoot me, but you can’t kill me.”  Training Day screenplay by David Ayer

 

From when author Robert Louis Stevenson first learned that a publicly upstanding friend had murdered his wife, to when he drew inspiration from the incident to write a novella about personal and mental dualities, to when playwright Thomas Russell Sullivan in 1887 added characters and a now-familiar structure to that story, and onward with hundreds of variations since then, the saga of how civic minded Dr. Jekyll so easily succumbs to the sociopathic instincts of Mr. Hyde has always had the theme of Pride in its core: of Jekyll thinking himself above reproach to the point that his base desires can be suppressed, and of Hyde’s damn-everyone indulgence in those desires. The minds behind Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde not only followed this template by literally naming their protagonist Henry Pride, they injected an extra-potent element of class rivalry and racial discomfort into the proceedings that has given it a continued (if regrettable) relevance in the present day.

 

 

Dr. Henry Pride certainly has reason to be fancied by others and by himself as a laudable man. He’s a successful prize-winning biochemist, putting in overtime with his research, working alongside his longtime girlfriend Dr. Billie Worth, and living comfortably as a result of his hard-earned rewards. And he frequently gives back to the Black community, working regularly in a Watts free clinic, slipping cash to destitute patients to get needed medicines when they leave the facility. His grateful clients likely look upon his elegant car and regal manner as inspirational. But Linda, a prostitute who regularly visits his clinic to manage her hepatitis, isn’t completely sold on Pride’s benevolence, she senses his behavior is more about virtue signaling; she taunts him by suggesting that as a doctor, he doesn’t just wear a white coat, but likely has a car, home, lifestyle, and value system that is white. He tries to laugh it off, but she’s definitely touched a nerve.

Because under these surface moments, Pride has his own disease. Learning of a dying patient without family, he injects her with his experimental serum believing his science is more important that her last minutes of dignity. He is still harboring fury for the death of his mother, a live-in servant in an upscale brothel, a demise abetted by the refusal of the house prostitutes to offer assistance. He now lives in that converted mansion, determined to prove he’s transcended everyone who looked down on him and her, when in fact, he’s internalized a similar kind of disdain and condescension for the lower classes, particularly of his own race. The poison has been in his system for years, long before a drug could amplify its effects. When Pride fatefully injects himself with his serum, and transforms into a blue-eyed, white-skinned rage monster, he is not taking his revenge upon, say, the kind of affluent call girls who had abandoned his mother, or the rich white men who supply drugs in Watts, but on Linda and other struggling Black sex workers, small-time pimp Silky, and any other knucklehead whose worst crime was just to mouth off to a strange, snarling, out-of-place white man that crossed their path. Much like the character of Sergeant Waters in A Soldier’s Story played by Adolph Caesar (who, before this Academy Award-nominated performance, made a living narrating exploitation trailers, including director William Crain’s Blacula), Pride has mentally determined the “good” and “bad” Black people in his world, and has now given himself a mandate to eliminate the latter.

 

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Jekyll and Hyde easily live in the top pantheon of characters, with Hamlet and Medea and OUR TOWN’s narrator, that every performer relishes the chance to play, and the recently-departed Bernie Casey smoothly occupies this variation on the archetype. As Dr. Pride, he channels his natural charm and warmth in one moment and then injects a potent amount of hubris to undercut it, to alert us that there are often ethical cracks to many of the “nice guys” society have entrusted with power. While the technological and budgetary limitations of the era initially make his unhinged alter-ego look like merely an overly-flour-caked version of the doctor, once Casey taps into his muscular powers that had initially distinguished him as a world-class athlete, any laughs one may have had at his appearance are neutralized by the genuine threat he poses to his victims. While Casey politely rebuffed requests to discuss this role at length during his life, it is an effective and crowd-pleasing performance deserving of as much praise as he received for more respectable roles in Brian’s Song, Big Mo, and The Glass Shield.

Meanwhile, there is another charming, erudite, not quite as well-off but otherwise contented person of color who learns about these violent crimes, and sets to the task of stopping them. That is homicide detective Lt. Jackson, played with scene-stealing cool by Ji-Tu Cumbuka. He knows and understands the distrust his neighborhood has for police and their reluctance to cooperate, and he is able to navigate through that obstacle with much more grace than his basic white partner. Like Dr. Pride, his manner suggests he too has lifted himself out of humbler origins, but rather than fight that past, he openly allows it to imbue his investigative skills. In the film’s most unforgettable dialogue moment, he drops a five-dollar word with an intransigent witness, then indicates he’ll make spare change out of him if he doesn’t cooperate.  If the creatives at Dimension Pictures had more forward vision, they could well have spun him off into his own movie or TV series; he comes across as a forefather to Andre Braugher’s intimidating Frank Pembleton on “Homicide: Life on the Street.”

 

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Director William Crain was a Columbus, Ohio native like Bernie Casey, a former stuntman and actor for the CBC, and a graduate of the UCLA Film School who was included in the august company of Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, Jamaa Fanaka, and others as part of the “L.A. Rebellion,” a collective of Black filmmakers changing who would tell stories about POC and the manner in which they would be told. In contrast to the more personal work of his classmates, Crain would take a more mainstream career path, directing several hours of popular television shows and a few select feature films, but always found a way to apply lessons he’d learned from that period of learning, along with those from his own life. When hired to direct Blacula by AIP, he was not content to just go through the motions as expected by his producers, remarking in an AP wire interview, “What I’m aiming for is sympathy. I remember seeing those Mummy pictures when I was a kid and feeling sorry for Lon Chaney Jr. because he didn’t want to turn into a monster.” When Crain was admitted into the Directors’ Guild of America, Marlon Brando signed for his card. Years later, Crain would have the honor of joining fellow Black producer/director Wendell Franklin in presenting a posthumous DGA Special Directorial Award “for lifetime achievement in direction” for film pioneer Oscar Micheaux in 1986.

All of this background contributes to his good work in helming Dr. Black. His experience in the quick turnover of television and performance of stunts allowed him to join the project almost just before it was scheduled to begin, and execute it efficiently on a less than $800,000 budget. While racial politics were likely already present in the script penned by the possibly pseudonymous Larry LeBron, Crain provided visual punch with elements such as constantly putting Dr. Pride in stark white environments and giving him a grey Rolls Royce to drive; in an interview with historian Justin Bozung, he indicated that the Stan Winston white make-up was meant to suggest Lon Chaney Sr. in London After Midnight.

And in the most-remembered touch, it was Crain’s idea to stage the climax with Casey’s Hyde-self climbing the Watts Tower to inspire direct reference to King Kong, bringing the themes of self-hatred and hubris into an effective meld. We can sympathize with the doctor’s inner turmoil of trying to suppress his ugly race and gender hang-ups through a career of healing, trying not to let these impusles consume him. But similar to Detective Alonzo Harris, who as essayed in the Academy Award-winning performance by Denzel Washington thought himself even mightier than Kong, once he started ingesting his own medicine, getting high on his own supply, and thinking himself above those he deems below him, Pride will be brought down from enormous heights, violently.

 

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Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde enjoyed a very prolonged theatrical life. Dimension initially released it in 1976, with a trailer featuring proto-rap-rhyme narration similar to that employed by Rudy Ray Moore for the studio’s releases of his films Dolemite and The Human Tornado. It remained in frequent resolicitations all the way to 1979, with title changes to Decision for Doom and The Watts Monster. The film ultimately grossed over $10 million on its modest investment. It was one of the earliest films to be given a home video release by maverick independent label VCI, before many studios had even begun to offer their libraries for sale or rent to VCR owners. While never quite possessing the same popularity as Crain’s Blacula or other seventies variations on classic monster stories, it remains a staple entry of that sub-genre. That’s an achievement deserving an acceptable level of pride.

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