Thursday, February 07, 2008

One Drop of Black CInema: Joel Schumacher

By Odienator

There's that old American rule that goes "one drop of Black blood makes you Black." People were so concerned about percentages of Negro blood that the majority made up words to put in the dictionary to describe how corrupted you were:

Octoroon: 1/8th Black
Quadroon: 1/4th Black
Mulatto (tragic or not): 1/2 Black (Why not "bi-roon?" Did you hear? He's a bifocals-wearing bi-sexual bi-roon! By golly!)

There are no words in the dictionary to describe if you're half Puerto Rican (A puertoroona?) or 1/4th Asian (a Quadchang?). Just Black, which highlights the "shame" people felt in being associated with negritude.

When it came to figuring out if people had any Black in them, my mother always said "if you have to ask, it's true." When Vin Diesel came out, I took one look at him and said "somebody's lying." Same thing with Jennifer Beals. Gay people have gaydar; I have Folkdar.

Personally, I never saw the big deal. You are what you are, and you should embrace it all. I'm 1/8th Cherokee Indian ("an octodian!"). I think this rationale should extend to filmmakers who did tours of duty in Black cinema before moving on to "mainstream cinema." Some of them hide this part of their career from you, so during Black History Mumf, I'm outing them (a certain editor of Spielberg--you're next!! You cut Truck Turner!).

Let's start with a name you'll hear this month an astonishing THREE times: Joel Schumacher.

Folks, look on your shelves right now, and I guarantee you have a Joel Schumacher movie on there. I don't mean Batman and Robin either. Schumacher wrote Sparkle, Car Wash and the movie adaptation of The Wiz. For some reason, he was Hollywood's go-to guy for The Black Experience in Cinema between 1976 and 1978. At the time, Schumacher was a costume designer working on Neil Simon and Woody Allen movies (the weird clothing in Sleeper is his idea), so I've no idea how he lucked into the writing gigs he got. Still, this was a Hollywood that did lots of things that continuously had me scratching my head. Perhaps the guys who assumed Joel Schumacher was the foremost authority on Black culture were the same ones who left the blackface aspect of The Jazz Singer in the 1980 remake. (You haven't lived until you've seen Neil Diamond in blackface. Please rent it--just for me--so you can also hear his hideous R&B number, "You Baby You.")

Schumacher is a hack. Even in his good movies, like Tigerland, The Client and A Time To Kill, his actors have to pull him from the abyss of bad moviemaking. Still, he manages to get work in several genres and, on occasion, his films turn a profit no matter what the critics think of them. I begrudgingly salute your hustle, Mr. Schumacher.

Part of why I'm here this month is to explore the movies Black folks love, regardless of how I personally feel about them. There's a lot of love for Schumacher's trilogy, but whenever the films work, they do so despite Schumacher's writing. Sparkle, for example, is clumsy and clueless in its storytelling, yet the music carries it over. Same thing with The Wiz, whose sins are ultimately bigger than anything Schumacher could pen. I don't even think Car Wash has a screenplay. Yet, I must point out that his characterizations aren't offensive; he tries and for that I must give some credit. There wouldn't be as much love for these movies if they didn't somehow speak to us.

However, it's interesting that after these films, when Blacks appeared in Schumacher's movies, they were almost always stereotypical and negative. D.C. Cab, which he wrote and directed, and despite having Mr. T., has the late comedian Charlie Barnett running around acting like Willie Best with curlers in his hair; St. Elmo's Fire has Thelma from Amen as a hooker (no wonder she kept trying to throw the coochie at Reuben). Falling Down is crazed White male angst in L.A., the pre-Crash.

Where did our love go, Joel?


pico said...

Just curious what you meant by "somebody's lying" in reference to Vin Diesel. He did start his film career by writing and directing a film about the challenges of being a multiethnic actor in a film industry that tries to package people into broader categories ("Multi Facial"). It also comes up in his interviews: was anyone ever actively pushing him as white?

Great series, by the way: I got here via Jim Emerson's blog.

odienator said...

I said "somebody's lying," not "Vin Diesel is lying." As far as I know, Diesel has never pushed himself as anything but multi-ethnic. However, "somebody's lying" was always my Mom's response when she saw an actor or actress who looked White but had an ethnic feature or two. It tied into the prior sentence about my Mom saying "if you have to ask, it's true." I am positive "somebody's lying" wasn't coined by my Mom; it was passed down from somewhere.

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Rhone Fraser said...

Odie thanks for providing a context of Schumacher that I was looking for. I wonder what your opinion of the remake is. -RF.

odienator said...

RF, do you mean the remake of Sparkle? Well, I really pissed off the sistahs with my piece on the original movie! I am afraid to say anything about the remake. :) Still, can anyone mess up "Giving Him Something He Can Feel?"