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Become a MemberCulture Sugar & Spade: How Choppers Became Their Great Equalizer

For African-American residents of New York City in 1967, the Summer of Love had different connotations than it did in the rest of America. Free love and psychedelia took a backseat to civil unrest, as anti-police and race riots roiled East Harlem. Despite city-wide tensions, Austin Johnson and George Bennett’s motorcycles cut through the social turmoil of late 1960s Brooklyn. In a time when racism and political views divided the nation, a properly raked-out Panhead or Shovel could serve as a great equalizer, and Austin “Brown Sugar” Johnson and “Spade” George Bennett proved it.

The film Sugar & Spade chronicles a lifelong friendship separated by 30 years and 3,000 miles, culminating in a reunion made possible by friends and filmmakers who sought to tell the story of two legendary characters in American motorcycling. Director Mark MacInnis and producers James Ken Blackmon and Wil Thomas III developed and shot the film in only a few days.

“We had been looking for something really special to do together,” says MacInnis. “Putting your heart and soul into a project, you really have to get behind it and believe in it. And when we were talking with Wil about ideas, he said, ‘Guys, I’ve got a great story and it’s pretty special, but we have to put it together in a matter of three days.’ So, you can imagine what that was like.”

 

(2) “Spade” George Bennett, California, circa 1970s.

In 1969, Spade Bennett left Brooklyn and planted new roots in San Francisco, but he and Brown Sugar Johnson kept in touch almost every day in the decades that followed. “They were drawn to the type of motorcycles they were riding and the culture that existed around choppers in particular,” says Thomas. “That’s a huge piece of how friendships are formed. That’s a huge piece of why we’re all sitting at this table — the unspoken rule or association that we make when we start talking about these bikes.”

In 2015, Johnson started posting images to his Instagram account, recounting the days when he and Bennett ruled the streets in upper Manhattan. “He had 30,000 followers and was posting all these photos that he had taken over the years,” says MacInnis. “These photos rivaled Danny Lyon and should have been in a museum somewhere.” Johnson’s followers banded together and bought a ticket for Bennett to fly back to New York City to reunite with his best friend during the annual Brooklyn Invitational.

The film follows the journey and reunion, is scored with original music by Rocco DeLuca, and features interviews with friends, family, and the motorcycle community. “As much as motorcycles are a part of the content, it was hyper-important to us that the friendship piece really be the highlight of the film,” says Thomas. “We wanted the motorcycle in and of itself to kind of take a backseat to the grand nature of what they were spreading — love.”

(3) Austin “Brown Sugar” Johnson, New York, circa 1970s.

(4) “Spade” George Bennett, San Francisco, circa 1970s.

(6) Austin “Brown Sugar” Johnson, New York, circa 1970s.

(7) “Spade” George Bennett, California, circa 1970s.

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Johnson‘s followers banded together and bought a ticket for Bennett to fly back to New York City to reunite with his best friend during the annual Brooklyn Invitational.

(9) "Spade" George Bennett, left, and Austin “Brown Sugar” Johnson, right, 2016.

While Brown Sugar and Spade were counter-cultural figures in an era when racial tensions ran high, the film doesn’t focus on race or intolerance. “I wanted to tell a story with two people — two friends — that happened to be black, and they happened to ride motorcycles,” explains Thomas. “Obviously at that time there was the Civil Rights Movement. America was going through a tumultuous time, and certainly that carried down into all the subcultures.” Blackmon adds, “They speak about the negative things that happened, but they never let it bother them. They just kept being themselves. They’re naturally positive people. And being black and riding choppers, they were changing history and they just didn’t know it.”

Postscript: In January 2022, Austin “Brown Sugar” Johnson passed away due to complications from COVID-19. We appreciated the opportunity to share his story in Iron & Air and his unending positivity that he brought into the world every day. 

(10) Clockwise from top left: Austin “Brown Sugar” Johnson, producer Wil Thomas III, “Spade” George Bennett, director Mark MacInnis, and producer James Ken Blackmon.

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