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Ant Farm

The Landlord

Plot Overview

“The Landlord” opens on a flash of a happy hippie wedding—can we say gay wedding 1970 style?—followed by a flash­back of a school­room where a teacher patiently questions her pupils, “Now, children, how do we live?” Present day (1970) twenty-nine-year-old Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) is taking his ease on a chaise lounge on his (rich) parents' lawn—he lives with them—and is served a glass of iced tea by their black butler. “Thank you, Heywood,” (Stanley Greene) he says. This is cut back and forth with a scene of a black man trying to hail a taxi with no success, they won't accept his fare. Sharing alternate cuts is a racquets game on a dazzlingly white court imposing a bouncing rhythm on the picture.

Elgar addresses the camera: “We're all like a bunch of ants whose strongest drive is to gain territory.” He has launched a little real estate venture buying him­self a slum tenement that he plans to gut and furnish as a home (he's a ‘cancerian’ to whom “home is very important”) of his own. He visits his new property to see about getting its current occupants to vacate it. They have other ideas. His dad (Walter Brooke) remarks, “That's a colored neighbor­hood.” His mom (Lee Grant) wonders about “your sudden interest in those kind of people.” And his sister Susan (Susan Anspach) thinks, “Some­body's got to begin to integrate.”

He connects with a “high yeller heifer” Lanie (Marki Bey). Her mother's Irish, her father's black, they divorced ten years ago when she was 16, and she spent winters as a black with her father and summers as a white with her mother. She's flexible. He thinks he's in love. The times they are a changing.


Approaches to race relations in America (“how do we live?”) were historic­ally divided into two schools of thought: gradualism and revolution. Black educator Booker T. Washington (1856–1015) felt that Negroes should be content with what­ever (mostly) physical labor allotted to them, and over time their condition would improve. That seems to be the camp of the Enders family. Lounging Elgar has all the time in the world for the lot of his black butler to improve, and indeed it is better now than in olden days. The revo­lution­ary school of thought had been represented by black educator William Du Bois (1868–1963) who espoused more draconian means of change of the very laws of the land. The frustrated black trying in vain to hail a taxi is probably short on patience by now. This film strikes a nice balance between these two camps.

There was in fact an unlicensed school in the tenement building under the tutelage of Prof. Duboise (Mel Stewart). On a tenement wall was a framed picture of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) who'd preached "THE FIERCE URGENCY OF NOW!" Also there was a picture of actor Sidney Poitier, as much black as white America could relate to in the 1960s. Mrs. Enders pointed out to Elgar that they'd seen “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner” together (starring Poitier). They were doing their gradual part.

One resident Fanny (Diana Sands) said of her husband Copee (Lou Gossett), “He thinks the Lord put white people on this earth as punish­ment. 'Course I don't hold with no sac­rilegious talk like that.” God did in fact once punish the world with a great Flood but spared Noah and his family. Noah had three sons (Gen. 6:10), Shem, Ham, and Japheth. From Shem descended, among others, the white Europeans of whom the white Enders are the stock, witness their tea drinking and game playing (croquet and racquets) for their European roots. Of course, the African Americans were blacks descended from Ham.

After the Flood there was an incident, Gen. 9:20-22, where Noah got drunk on wine and was exposed in all his glory to his son Ham who brazenly viewed him so. Noah's other two sons, Shem and Japheth, covered him up, Gen. 9:23. Ham had violated him in some way, Gen. 9:24. Noah's curse puts Ham's youngest son Canaan in a position of servitude, Gen. 9:25. Noah's other two sons Shem, Gen. 9:26, and Japheth, Gen. 9:27, were blessed by Noah. Writer Bodie Hodge (134) quotes “Bible Questions and Answers,” The Golden Age (July 24, 1929): p. 702.

     Question: Is there anything in the Bible that reveals the origin of the Negro?

     Answer: It is generally believed that the curse which Noah pronounced upon Canaan was the origin of the Black race. Certain it is that when Noah said, “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren,” he pictured the future of the Colored race.

This movie develops imagery right along the lines of that Bible story. The uncovering of whitey: Elgar's hub­caps are removed right off the bat as soon as he parks next to his ghetto property, and eventually the (cloth) top of his convertible was filched as well. At the rent party they have for him, black hands remove his tie, coat, and then shirt. Fanny removes the color barrier later on in her apart­ment with her red light (leading to thrashing beneath the sheets.) And when his mom visits resident sooth­sayer Marge (Pearl Bailey), she gets drunk (“Sit down and drink your wine”), removes her gloves, and lets Marge have her Master Charge Card to use for redecorating, exposing her­self to abuse. This is counter­balanced by the opening wedding scene where every­one was dressed his best, and such customs as kissing the bride (even with hippies and their equality of the sexes) were acceptable.

The image of the tent under which Japheth is to be integrated, Gen. 9:27, but not Ham, is evoked by Elgar's plan to open up the inside of the building all the way to the sky­light ceiling, i.e. tents admitting light from above, and by the cloth material his mom brings for drapes, i.e. sides of the "tent." And son Canaan carrying the curse on behalf of his father Ham is evoked by Fanny adopting out her mulatto illegit. child as white thus imposing whiteness on its adoptive parents.

This movie strikes an interesting balance between a real effort at integration in the nuts-and-bolts endeavors of the land­lord to fix the plumbing, the water, and the door­bell, as opposed to an over­arching whole fabric of society harking back to the days of Noah, which won't be so easily changed.

Production Values

“The Landlord” (1970) was directed by Hal Ashby. He was the editor of the movie “In the Heat of the Night” starring Sidney Poitier whose photo­graph shows up in this movie. Hal Ashby appears here in cameo as the bearded hippie/groom in the opening shot. “The Landlord” was written by Bill Gunn, based on the novel The Landlord by Kristin Hunter. It stars Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, and Diana Sands. Every­one gave a credible per­formance. Pearl Bailey had a strong presence.

Cameraman Gordon Willis did exemplary cinematography. Its style was of a color film noir. This film evoked a bygone era that I'd lived through. Music by Al Kooper (co-founder of white R&B group, Blood, Sweat & Tears) kept it lively. The Staple Singers' music started and ended the movie.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

The Landlord” was nostalgic and bitter­sweet as it evoked a time of ideals that in retrospect seem to have been beyond our grasp. But that's not the movie's fault, which was well made, and it's a bit late to blame my parents' generation by now. It is what it is, and I don't regret seeing it, but I'm not in any hurry to go see it again. It had a limited run of one week in America when it came out. Maybe we can handle it better now.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Decent action scenes. Suitability For Children: Not Suitable for Children of Any Age. Special effects: Average special effects. Video Occasion: Good for Groups. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: Four stars.

Works Cited

Hodge, Bodie. Tower of Babel: The Cultural History of Our Ancestors. Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Pub., 2013. Print.