Saint Jack or Street Smart?

Positive Caution (Read this only if you have seen the films or prefer reading their plot rather than wanting to watch them)

Saint Jack and Street Smart are among my favourite movies due to their focus on pimps and their operations. Both films, consciously or unconsciously, glorify the pimp world but caution against getting involved in it. Street Smart introduced me to this world and is often overlooked despite earning Morgan Freeman his first Oscar nomination for his role as a violent pimp Fast Black, a violent pimp. Saint Jack, another pimp movie about a pimp of that name is set in Singapore (one of my five favourite countries in the world) and also captivated me, especially knowing it was based on a book by someone as passionate and knowledgeable about the country as I am. While I enjoy both films, I am more familiar with Street Smart, which is ironic considering my preference for Singaporean subjects over American ones. Despite the differences in characters and plots, both movies provide unique insights into the world of pimps in different parts of the world.





Saint Jack (April 27th 1979)
Jack Flowers is an American pimp trying to make his fortune in Singapore with small-time pimping. His motive for leaving his homeland is because he thinks Singapore is better than the United States in terms of hustling. He dreams of building a fortune by running a brothel himself and still plans to return to the American States to lead a life of luxury when he retires. Savvy but not unsavoury, he strikes up a friendship with William Leigh, a genial and decent auditor who travels to Singapore every year. Ultimately the background of the Vietnam war comes into the picture as Jack is offered an opportunity by the CIA to run a brothel for the R&R activities of American soldiers who are on leave in Singapore.


Street Smart (March 20th 1987)
Jonathan Fisher, a reporter for the New York times is at a difficult time in his career since none of his stories are doing well and his ideas are repeatedly turned down by his editor Ted Avery as a result. Fortunately, Jonathan proposes an idea of getting an interview with a Times Square pimp which hopefully can provide him a good story that he can give to Ted which fortunately Ted agrees to. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to interview pimps, Jonathan has no choice but to write his own story about a pimp whom he names ‘Tyrone’. The story is a success and his career is back on track. Unfortunately authorities believe that the story depicts a real pimp, Leo Smalls Jr. also known as Fast Black who is on trial for the murder of a patron who tried to assault one of Fast’s call girls and start to pressure Jonathan for where and how he got the information that created his story. Fast Black himself despite denial also believes that the story is about him and starts to chase Jonathan for further information which puts not just Jonathan at risk but also his girlfriend Alison in addition to Jonathan getting involved with one of the pimp’s call girls, Punchy.


    1. Saint Jack, which is based on a novel, and Street Smart which is an original story, were released in different years. The former is older and was set in Singapore, while the latter took place in New York. Morgan Freeman’s preparation for the role of Fast Black involved observing real pimps. Interestingly, both directors, Jerry Schatzberg and Peter Bogdanovic, had connections to New York but pursued different careers outside of filmmaking. Peter Bogdanovic passed away in Los Angeles at 83 due to Parkinson’s disease.


    2. Ben Gazzara and Morgan Freeman, who portrayed Saint Jack and Fast Black respectively, are both veteran actors born in the 1930s. Ben was born in 1930, while Morgan was born seven years later in 1937. Interestingly, Morgan’s work includes his association and friendship with frequent collaborator Clint Eastwood, who is also Ben’s age (and worked with Morgan on three films).As mentioned above, Ben passed away at the age of 82 due to complications from a stroke and pancreatic-related cancers. It is ironic that he was born and died in New York, the setting of the movie “Street Smart.” Despite being older than Morgan in the film industry, both actors began their careers in plays and on television before transitioning to the big screen.

      Remarkably, neither of them initially considered acting during their school years. However, Morgan got involved with acting outside of his profession after turning down an offer to attend acting college. He chose acting over the air force, where he was initially involved with planes. On the other hand, Ben, while studying electrical engineering at a New York college, almost got involved in street crimes but decided to pursue his love for acting instead.

    3. Many pimps use different names rather than their real name when operating. However, while Saint Jack’s real name is indeed Jack (Flowers) Fast Black’s real name is Leo Smalls. Jr though he claims that only his mother called him that while everyone calls him ‘Fast Black’ (except his lawyer Joe Davis who simply refers to him as ‘Mr Smalls’ like a few others do).

    4. Saint Jack refrains from physical aggression and, although he threatens to beat opposition, he rarely acts upon it. Conversely, Fast Black readily turns violent when faced with defiance or opposition. However, both can exhibit gentleness and affability when not seemingly hostile. Unlike most pimps, they both avoid dressing too fancily to avoid unnecessary attention, though Fast Black occasionally wears a hat, unlike Saint Jack. 

    5. Unlike Saint Jack, there are no rivals to Fast Black in Street Smart in terms of taking over a business since that is what Saint Jack wishes to do, running a business not Fast Black although there are references to those involved in prostitution going into business for themselves which both pimps will do anything to stop. Fast Black is never seen with more than one call girl while Saint Jack is seen with a whole group of girls whom he provides for.


    6. Saint Jack shows a lot more nudity (in both men and women) than what Street Smart did and also depicted men watching call girls dancing completely naked. Until March 2006, due to this controversy, the film was banned in Singapore for such a reason as well as on the grounds of showing the country as dangerous and untrustworthy with an addition of corruption but Street Smart did no such thing and was never banned at all thanks to showing no similar elements.


    7. Both films have little to no music. Saint Jack does not have a single score while Street Smart’s score composed by Robert Irving III shows up when least expected (at very few scenes in the film).

    8. Saint Jack smokes cigars while Fast Black smokes nothing.

    9. Jack Flowers and Fast Black both have drinks that they enjoy very much although Jack Flowers enjoys alcoholic beverages like beer and the local Singapore Sling, whereas Fast Black is fond of root beer as well as chocolate drinks such as chocolate milk or chocolate soda (though he is never shown drinking the latter). Additionally, while Jack rarely eats, Fast Black loves chicken, bread, and pie (and occasionally takes rice).

    10. While Fast Black has a counterpart named Reggie, Saint Jack prefers to work on his own.

    11. Street Smarts main character is reporter Jonathan Fisher, while Fast Black is a supporting character. In Saint Jack, the chemistry between the title character Jack and his friend William Leigh, a businessman is similar to that between Jonathan and Fast Black. Fast Black offers Jonathan his hospitality twice, once violently, compared to Jack, who is always welcoming to William. Jack owns clubs and takes William to them, while Fast Black runs a restaurant where he invites Jonathan. In Saint Jack, the roles are switched, with William (Jonathan) as the lead and Saint Jack (Fast Black) as the supporting character opposites of their roles in Street Smart. Fast Black attempts to kill Jonathan but changes his mind when the reporter agrees to be his alibi witness for murder that Fast Black was accused of only that Reggie accidently kills his own counterpart due to being set up for it. On the other hand, William dies of a sickness during one of his visits to Jack despite Jack’s efforts to save him. Additionally, Jack and William are close friends, whereas Fast Black and Jonathan are not. Unlike Fast Black, Saint Jack never encounters trouble with the authorities.

    12. In both Saint Jack and Street Smart, major murders occur – in the latter, Fast Black unintentionally commits the murder, while in the former, the perpetrator remains unknown. Despite witnessing the murder in Saint Jack, the protagonist is not involved. However, the two films share a similarity: Fast Black’s victim is killed for assaulting a pimp’s call girl while Saint Jack saves one of his call girls from a violent client, with other clients and prostitutes intervening before his arrival.

    13. Both pimps, Saint Jack and Fast Black, attend parties for different reasons: Saint Jack is present at a Raffles Hotel Party, arranging romantic services for male customers, while Fast Black is invited to a party by Jonathan Fisher under pressure from his editor, Ted Avery, who mistakenly believes Jonathan’s recent success story is about Fast Black as Ted is keen on meeting whom he believes to be Jonathan’s newspaper character Tyrone. Saint Jack introduces William to the party and shows him around Singapore, similar to how Fast Black shows Jonathan the local streets, giving him insight into the life of a real pimp (which is not the case in Street Smart). Unrelated to the party, the CIA also wants to meet Jack Flowers to arrange his ownership of a brothel for American soldiers on leave in Singapore.

    14. Numerous pimps are depicted in Street Smart, whereas Saint Jack implies that the title character is the only pimp. Singapore is unfairly portrayed as corrupt and dangerous, while New York’s streets are seen as dangerous, but the reality is the opposite. Prostitution is mostly illegal in Singapore and considered a felony, while in a few parts of the United States, including New York, it is legal, but there are ongoing debates about legalization which fortunately continues to fail and viewing prostitution as a crime is upheld to this day. 

    15. In Saint Jack, the title character is affectionate to many women, including a new prostitute named Monika, whom he jokingly or seriously asks to marry. In Street Smart, the only romantic aspect is the relationship between Jonathan and his girlfriend Alison, which breaks up due to his association with agents of prostitution and his fabricated story. They eventually reconcile when Alison’s life is in danger from Fast Black and Reggie. Fast Black is married to a woman called Harriet, but their relationship seems strained (since it is unknown what her reaction to his death at the end of the film is), and he is affectionate to at least one other woman despite threatening her for trying to start her own business.

    16. Saint Jack given its setting was filmed only in Singapore while Street Smart despite being set in New York also had filming done in Montreal, Quebec in Canada apart from New York. However due to development hell, building Street Smart in terms of scripting and finding the right director took place from 1981 (when the script was finished) to 1986, the latter of when filming started while the rights to the novel Saint Jack were purchased in 1977 four years after the novel was published (in 1973) before filming started a year after thanks to which the film was not in development hell following its release in 1979.

    17. Saint Jack received two accolades: a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Denholm Elliot and the Pasinetti Award for Best at the Cannes Film Festival for Peter Bogdanovic. However, Ben Gazzara did not receive any nominations or awards for his portrayal of Saint Jack. On the other hand, Morgan Freeman’s performance as Fast Black in Street Smart earned him multiple award wins and nominations, including his first Oscar nomination and Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor. He also won the National Society of Film Critics Award, the New York Film Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, the Film Independent Spirits Award, and the Boston Society of Film Critics Award. Unfortunately, Jerry Schatzberg, Christopher Reeve, and Mimi Rogers received no awards or nominations for their roles in the film. On a positive note, Kathy Baker, who played one of Fast Black’s call girls named Punchy in the film, was nominated for a Film Independent Spirits Award and won the Boston Society of Film Critics award.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.