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How Hal Ashby’s ‘The Landlord’ Provided an Early Glimpse at a Complicated Modern Brooklyn

Read an excerpt from Brandon Harris' new book, “Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City."

“The Landlord”

In his new memoir, “Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City,” filmmaker, author, and professor Brandon Harris explores his unique coming-of-age in the city — and community — that he loves. Incidentally and not at all accidentally, the book includes a reflections on a number of essential films that shaped Harris’ journey, from Spike Lee joints to underappreciated indies and even Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord.”

In celebration of the book, Harris has also curated a series at Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse under the same title, featuring four films that speak directly to his novel and his experience, including tonight’s screening of “The Landlord.”

READ MORE: How Today’s ‘Nonsensical’ Blockbuster Filmmaking Can Learn a Lesson From American Movies of the ’70s

Check out our exclusive excerpt from “Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City” by Brandon Harris below:

My girlfriend at the time, who was new to Bed-Stuy, had previously lived in the Upper East Side, in a place her mother thought unbecoming — it lacked a doorman. Why her daughter sought out such dangerous place was surely beyond her. Despite her mother’s wishes, she had taken a spare room in a newly renovated first floor apartment, complete with a garden, on Lexington Avenue near Throop. Sometimes I’d imagine, in the worst faith, her navigating a patrician dinner scene not unlike that memorable one about a quarter of the way through Hal Ashby and Bill Gunn’s “The Landlord,” the earliest cinematic document of Brooklyn gentrification.

Having decamped from the opulence of his parents’ leafy mansion for a Park Slope to a walk up full dominated by Negroes he hopes to displace in the years before that type of class warfare became the raison d’être of bourgeois bohemians, Beau Bridges’ Elgar Enders returns for dinner at his parent’s manor in a scene that betrays screenwriter Bill Gunn’s enduring brilliance; it’s nothing like this in Kristen Hunter’s book. While Elgar’s sister and her out of place suitor, a burly Jew played by a young Robert Klein, watch on, Elgar’s older brother William Jr. complains about investment in his younger sibling has made, whispering “that’s a negro neighborhood” when Elgar mentions he has purchased a building in Park Slope. William Sr. laments his younger son’s racialized liberalism en masse, saying “Let me tell you something Mr. Lincoln, if you march into this house with an arm full of pickanninies of yours…” before trailing off into prejudiced oblivion. The scene reaches its apex when Elgar flees , reminding his bigoted family that NAACP can also stand for “Niggers Aren’t Always Colored People” after pouring soup over the head of their black butler, who passively listen to all the ignorance on display in servitude.

Most of those who would have their way with Bed-Stuy’s future, its fading monuments to a past always slipping away, were like Elgar, investing, or like my girlfriend, just passing through in a place only newly accessible. Near film’s end, after Elgar miscegenates his way to a bastard child with a hairdresser played by the great Diana Sands, she lies in the hospital, two years before Sands herself passed away from cancer all too young, and utters one of the single best lines of the 1970s. She runs an illegal shop out of her apartment in the building he owns. She is married, under educated high yellow hairdresser and he’s a white upper class heir, so the pregnancy complicates everything in both of their lives. After her husband, played by a young Lou Gossett Jr., has had a psychotic break following his discovery of the unborn child’s father (“Christ has never known the horror of nappy hair in America,” he says, stricken with clear eyed lunacy), she tells Elgar she wants him to keep the child. He’s demure about the prospect. She presses on. She also wants him to maintain one condition – that the mixed race child grow up white. Elgar asks her why.

“So he can grow up casual,” Sands replies, a knowing and all too sad smile on herremarkable face. “Like his daddy.” Although Elgar gives the building back to the tenants and makes his first steps toward acceptance of his role as the father of a negro by film’s end, in real life, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant of our time, most upper middle class and wealthy whites investing in Bedford-Stuyvesant weren’t impregnating the natives, they were either colonizing or looking to flip and get rich(er).

From “Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City” with permission from Brandon Harris, which is available now.

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