Hal Ashby’s wry, acidic social satire is a potent, deeply observant and only slightly exaggerated portrait of modern race relations in America. Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) is a shiftless 29-year-old man, the son of a wealthy New York family, who is looking for a direction in life. From the guest house behind his parents’ palacial estate, he can just about see opportunity on the horizon, just on the other side of his golden bars. So, Elgar decides to become the landlord for a run-down tenement building in a mostly black neighborhood in New York City. Soon, he’s moving in and meeting the neighbors, who range from a soul food-cooking palm reader (Pearl Bailey) to Miss Sepia 1957 (Diana Sands), a lovely woman who is married to a troubled black militant named Copee (Louis Gossett Jr.). While Copee is in jail, Elgar and Copee’s wife make love and she becomes pregnant. This puts kinks in a burgeoning relationship that Elgar may be forming with the lovely Lanie (Marki Bey), a light-skinned black girl with partial Irish roots who Elgar meets in a black nightclub one night. Meanwhile, Elgar’s mother (Lee Grant), an over-the-top racist who sugarcoats her despicable views in would-be political correctness, disowns him but tries to reason with him about his current lifestyle choices. Hal Ashby, making his directorial debut here, has a keen eye for absurdist humor and sharp satire – from the surrealistic visions of Elgar’s mother, who imagines the absolute worst stereotypes before there’s even a chance to take a breath and think, to the clear-eyed racially-based observations of the screenplay by Bill Gunn, adapted from the novel by Kristin Hunter; notice in particular a great dinner scene where Elgar lays out on the table exactly what thoughts and feelings he’s grown to bottle up over time about his family, and how he expresses them. In Bridges, Ashby finds a sweet, dough-faced and sorta dumb-looking young guy to play the sweet, dough-faced and sorta dumb-looking young jerk at the story’s center; you don’t exactly “like” him, but you’re interested to see how he turns out all the same. This is, above all, a smart and clever polemical that is worthy of serious consideration.
NOTE: Ashby would go on to direct “Harold and Maude” (1971), “The Last Detail” (1973), “Coming Home” (1978) and “Being There” (1979), among others.