We like Ike, and Big Mac, too

Gregory Clay
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

Let's drop the Isaac; instead, we'll, simply, call him Ike.

When you think of Isaac Hayes, the first image is that of "Shaft." Ike's theme song, which begins with that trademark scratchy and searing guitar vibe, still ranks as GOAT (Greatest of All Time) for a movie score. We don't need Denzel Washington and "The Great Debaters" to tell us that.

I remember the only time I saw John Shaft's alter-ego, Richard Roundtree. That sighting was at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention in 1998 at the old convention center in Washington, 27 years after the release of the movie. We noticed Roundtree aged well.

Roundtree attended the convention as part of a panel discussion focusing on the then ground-breaking genre of movies featuring black stars in the 1970s. Fred "The Hammer" Williamson (remember him in "Black Caesar"), Pam Grier (remember "Friday Foster") and Antonio Fargas (remember Huggy Bear from "Starsky and Hutch" on TV) also appeared.

That's right, Shaft, the private detective, was milling around the convention. Can you dig it?

Memories abound from that hot week in August.

I recall Williamson, during a one-on-one chat with him, complimenting the NABJ convention on the abundance of beautiful women in our organization. I told the former pro football player-turned-actor, "That's the norm, man."

Those movies showed a new norm, too. Ike was instrumental in conveying a new-age idea that black folk could be beautiful and sexy and heroic and confident, too. This new era was on the heels of 1960s de facto segregation, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, when many black folk entered the new decade of the '70s aiming to establish a base of dignified standing in U.S. society while trying, with uncommon effort, to shake the throes of inferiority complexes and second-class citizenship.

One could argue that "Shaft" was the first black super hero on the silver screen. Yes, Sidney Poitier played police detective Virgil Tibbs in the 1967 classic, "In the Heat of the Night," but John Shaft was cooler than cool. He had a suave side, too, just ask most women.

Shaft also taught us - especially young cats in the black community - how to wear mid-calf-length leather trenchcoats in the '70s. No, it wasn't Michael Jordan.

Ike, who died unexpectedly of a stroke on Sunday, helped bring that new style and swagger to the mainstream.

As Ike influenced the 1970s, comedian Bernie Mac - we'll call him "Big Mac" - brought us laughter during our present decade.

Big Mac, formerly known as Bernard Jeffrey McCullough, died Saturday of complications of pneumonia; he also had been afflicted with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory lung disease. Two stunning deaths within a 24-hour span.

Perhaps actor George Clooney, in a statement aired on CNN, said it best, when he offered this tribute to "Big Mac": "The world just got a little less funny. He will be dearly missed."

Clooney starred in the movie "Ocean's Eleven" with Big Mac, along with Brad Pitt, who also said in a CNN statement, "I lament the loss of a ferociously funny and hardcore family man. My thoughts are with his wife, Rhonda, and their family. Bernie Mac, you are already missed."

CNN's "Larry King Live" even offered a special tribute to Big Mac on Tuesday night.

Both Ike and Big Mac morphed from their core base of chosen endeavors; they were able to successfully cross over into other forms of entertainment, mainly becoming actors of note.

But there is a larger lesson that emanates from the duo, especially for today's black youth.

Though Ike and Big Mac were 15 years apart in age, they rose from difficult circumstances to lead productive lives.

Ike grew up in a tin shack in rural Tennessee and later worked as a shoeshine boy.

Big Mac was more urban, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and once wrote of eating bologna as a staple for dinner.

Both were raised by their grandparents after their mothers died.

They showed that you can grow up in poverty and dire circumstances, but poverty doesn't have to grow up in you.

They found their wheel of fortune, without Pat Sajak and Vanna White.

Another amazing coincidence is that both were set to appear in the new movie, "Soul Men," along with Samuel L. Jackson.

The release date was planned for Nov. 14, 2008.

According to the Internet previews, the genre of "Soul Men" is billed, appropriately enough, as "comedy and music."

As Ike would blurt in song, of course, "Can you dig it?"

Damn right.

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