Monday, August 21, 2017

The Rachel Dolezal Double Feature

by Odienator

Happy 85th Birthday, Melvin van Peebles!

A few weeks ago, New York's Quad Cinema did me a solid and showed Mr. van Peebles' first (and last) studio film, Watermelon Man in their newly-renovated theaters. It played on the same day as my favorite romantic comedy of all time, Diahann Carroll's Claudine. Unlike that film, I had never seen Watermelon Man on a big screen. Until I'd seen it on VHS, my experience with van Peebles' 1970 satire had been relegated to its appearances on TV. I always found it fascinating that, while edited for language, the TV censor did not edit out a crucial piece of comic nudity. Watermelon Man may be the only time a big, Black ass was beamed across 70's era airwaves in New York City. The Quad returned that ass, in all its big, Black glory, to the big screen where it belonged. 

While we're on the subject of Black people showing their ass, I'm here to show mine by talking about two movies about White people, trans-racial. One goes against his will, the other goes on purpose. Since I have no tact, and even less common sense, Big Media Vandalism's latest double feature is named after that pioneer of "put my race down, flip it and reverse it," the White woman formerly known as Rachel Dolezal (unpronouncable symbol pending). Ms. Dolezal has changed her name to something that would get her resume shredded by 95% of human resource departments, so technically my title refers to someone who no longer exists. You know what else I wish ceased to exist? The part of my memory that contains the first time I read about muthafuckas being trans-racial.

But I digress.

Watermelon Man, the first film in our double feature, has a great tagline. The poster referred to the film as "The Uppity Movie." Now, uppity belongs to a special class of word, namely words that most often precede and modify a specific other word. Uppity's significant other of a word is nigger. I'm sure the folks at Columbia Pictures knew this, though I suspect van Peebles had something to do with the marketing. I don't recall if anyone says the word uppity in Herman Raucher's screenplay, but you'll certainly hear its partner in crime word more than once in Watermelon Man. The film's White protagonist, Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge), would certainly use it if given the chance.

Gerber is a racist, sexist asshole. He's a fitness freak in love with exercise and the daily use of his tanning bed. Gerber's daily commute to work involves successfully outrunning the bus for several stops before boarding it in triumph. As the Black bus driver tries to outpace him, his primarily White passengers cheer him on. But traffic and the fact he has to pick up passengers at other stops prevents the bus driver from besting Gerber. "Oh shit!" the passengers say collectively as Gerber wins the race yet again.

"Arrogant! Arrogant! They're all arrogant!" mutters Gerber when the bus driver angrily asks for his fare. From the back of the bus (an odd place for Gerber to sit), he yells "in the good old days, you'd have to drive from back here!" 

Gerber works in a lily-White office selling insurance. He makes sexist comments to the women there and constantly works the room with a racist joke or anecdote. None of his co-workers seem to like him, but he manages to be a hit with his customers, many of whom are presumably the same type of privileged prick Gerber is. 

At home, Gerber puts up with his extremely liberal wife, Althea (Estelle Parsons) and his precocious son and daughter, the latter of which is played by a pre-Happy Days Erin Moran. Althea is constantly on her husband's back about not caring about the "Negro problem." Althea's radio and TV are always tuned to some liberal news program that drives Gerber crazy. He spouts the typical Archie Bunker-ish things while holding court at the dinner table.

Though he's a horrible bigot, Althea puts up with her husband's nonsense, chastising him but never once considering finding herself a more enlightened partner. She seems perfectly content with the status quo of a suburban home and scheduled sex once a week. When Gerber presses her for some good lovin', she reminds him that it's Tuesday and that he'll just have to wait until tomorrow. In the Gerber home, Wednesday is Hump Day in more than one respect.

 It's here that I should point out that, a few paragraphs ago, I said Jeff Gerber was played by Godfrey Cambridge. Not only is Cambridge a Black actor, he's a dark-skinned Black actor. In his natural state, he couldn't visually pass for White even if the entire viewing audience was blind. So, in an unprecedented move, Cambridge plays Jeff Gerber in whiteface for the first act of the film. This is 19 years before Rick Baker's stunning work changing Eddie Murphy into a White Jewish man in Coming to America, so a grain of salt is required to buy Cambridge as a White man. No matter--the subversiveness of the act far outweighs any visual hiccups. Since I first saw this film back in the 70's, I was able to accept Cambridge as Beckworth With The Good Hair.

It would seem that only an act of God would cause Althea to leave her boorish husband. Watermelon Man provides a catalyst, though whether it's God's work or Satan's we'll never know. But one night, while making a middle of the night bathroom visit, Gerber catches a glimpse of his ass in the bathroom mirror. We get to see it too--van Peebles fills the entire screen with it. Gerber screams in panic, because he realizes he's turned Black as hell. 

The way van Peebles films this scene is hilarious and masterful. The soundtrack pulsates with heartbeats and strange musical instruments before the big ass reveal. Gerber then reacts with intense panic as the screeen turns colors and the editing becomes jagged. "This is all a dream!" Gerber keeps telling himself. He splashes water on his face, trying to wash that Black right out of his hair. But no amount of scrubbing will cleanse his new pigmentation. Eventually, he wakes up Althea and drags her into the bathroom to see his transformation. Of course, she freaks out, screaming about "that strange Negro in the bathroom!"

 "I'm that strange Negro in the bathroom!" yells Gerber.

"You can't go to work like that!" says Althea before calmly introducing their kids to their colorized Daddy. They don't care, but their father's terrified concern picks up the slack in the caring department.

Grasping for any logical excuse, Gerber blames the tanning bed he's been using. This would be credible if Gerber were the color of John Boehner instead of Wesley Snipes, and even more credible if Gerber's straight blond hair hasn't pulled a reverse UltraPerm and gone native. After unsuccessfully complaining to the tanning bed company (they offer to send him a new bed; presumably this one would turn him Asian), he takes the day off to soak in a bathtub full of milk. It doesn't work.

Gerber's next step is to "go to their neighborhood" to get skin bleachers. Gerber buys enough to turn the Harlem Globetrotters into the Boston Bruins. "Tell me it's coming off, Althea!" Gerber begs while covered with an obscene amount of bleacing product. It's not coming off.

Eventually, Gerber has to go to work. Now, his skin color may have changed, but he's still a White asshole underneath because he thinks its temporary. He'll still say boorish things and expect to get away with his everyday routine. Unfortunately for him, the universe has other ideas. Gerber's race for the bus turns sour mid-run when a White woman wrongly accuses him of theft. Her rationale is that he was Black and running, so he must have done something. As an angry mob surrounds him and the cops try to take him in, the Black bus driver comes to his aid. Welcome to Negritude, Mr. Gerber!

"I didn't realize you were..." begins the bus driver, but Gerber's not having it. He says it's a tanning accident, the same excuse he uses at work. Gerber tries to get through his day by purposefully ignoring his color, but that privilege doesn't come with brown skin. He's not only noticable at the ritzy club where he's supposed to meet his biggest client, he's not welcome. Gerber's angry protests are met by, you guessed it, the cops. 

After two unfair run-ins with the cops, you'd think Gerber would have some empathy for "the Negro problem." But no! He still thinks we're shiftless and lazy. He also thinks his doctor will find a medical cause for his condition. Meanwhile, Althea thinks of a more genetic cause for it. "My mother always thought you looked a little Negro," she says, which insults Gerber to the core. Althea makes it worse by pointing out that her husband's Black-sounding full name, Jefferson Washington Gerber, might have been his parents' subtle way of revealing the results of his DNA test. "I'm not Negro!!" Gerber persists.

No matter! It's Wednesday, which means sexytime with the Mrs. Unfortunately for Gerber, Althea finds a way to forget her liberalism. "I can't!" she tells him, resisting his advances. Althea may have problems, but Gerber's buxom, Nordic secretary finds Black Gerber a turn-on even if he is the same sexist pig he was when he was White. Gerber's boss also sees him in a different light--here's a chance to corner the untapped Negro market! "We've never had a Negro salesman before," he tells Gerber. Ever the company man, Gerber goes along with selling to Black customers while awaiting deliverance from his doctor.

Alas, the doc finds nothing wrong with Gerber. Not only does he tell him he's really Black, he suggests Gerber finds a Black doctor. Gerber's neighbors also have a suggestion for him, which they convey in a series of phone calls that say "move out, nigger!" Althea can no longer stand the threats. She sends the kids to her mother's, then joins them after the neighbors make an absurd bid to buy the Gerbers' home. Her problem isn't that the neighbors are forcing them out, it's that Gerber uses their racist panic to get a ridiculously high amount of money for the house. She bitches that Gerber "took advantage of those nice people!" 

With Gerber's marriage gone, he hops on his eager, willing secretary. But her fetishism for Negro flesh gives way to extreme racism once Gerber calls her out for bigotry. The secretary is so mad, she screams rape, sending Gerber running off into the night.

Watermelon Man ends with Jeff Gerber moving to the "colored part of town" and opening up a practice to corner that untapped Negro insurance market. The last scene finds him joining the revolution, so to speak, finally accepting his Blackness and planning to do the one thing Althea used to pester him about--pay attention to the plight of his Black brethren.

That's how Watermelon Man ends, but it's not how Columbia nor Raucher wanted it to finish. Both wanted Jeff Gerber to wake up from his nightmare a new and improved White man, sort ot like how John Howard Griffith turned back White in Black Like Me. van Peebles wasn't having it, citing that "Blackness is not a disease to be cured." Shockingly, this wasn't the dumbest idea Columbia had for this movie: They wanted Jack Lemmon to play Gerber in both incarnations. Can you imagine Black Jack Lemmon married to the Oscar winning actress from Bonnie and Clyde? This film wouldn't have made a dime!

The most unusual thing about Watermelon Man, besides the funky, very strange score van Peebles composed (it includes Love, That's America, which was commandeered by Occupy Wall Street), is van Peebles' casting of Mantan Moreland. van Peebles was once asked what types of studio system Black characters he had problems with, and his response was "every damn last one of them." So seeing Moreland, a contemporary of Stepin Fetchit, onscreen in a van Peebles production was certainly jarring. Moreland doesn't do anything offensive--he's actually pretty funny responding to racist White Gerber and his newly Black alter ego--but his presence here is still a surprise.

The attitudes presented in this satire still have the power to sting today, for nothing has changed. Watermelon Man's skewering of White beliefs and actions, liberal or not, remain fresh, sharp and biting. And Cambridge, who died way too soon, creates a role as memorable as Gitlow, the hilarious character he played in Ossie Davis' Purlie Victorious

Watermelon Man probably couldn't be made today, but the next film on our roster certainly has a shot. 16 years after Godfrey Cambridge put on whiteface, C. Thomas Howell put on blackface to star in Soul Man. Soul Man is an embarrassing fiasco that doesn't deserve mention in the same post as Watermelon Man, because any similarities between the two are easily overshadowed by the hideous amount of misguided racism contained in this 1986 disaster. But I have to go here, if only to show how fucked up '80's movies were about race before The Black New Wave ushered in a slew of Black directors to tell our stories. Lest you think I'm trying to push some form of 2017 "wokeness" on a 30-year old movie, keep in mind I haven't seen this thing since 1986. it was so offensive it stuck with me all these years.

How the fuck did this film get made, and why the fuck would I say it could be remade? Simple: Affirmative Action complaints. This is a film about a rich White boy who gets into Harvard Law School but can't afford to pay for it because his Dad (James Sikking) cuts off the pursestrings. Rather than get a job (or blackmail his neurotic Dad), Howell decides to apply for a scholarship specifically earmarked for Black students. He dyes himself black with tanning pills, buys a nappy wig and wins over the scholarship people. If you thought Godfrey Cambridge made an unconvincing White boy, feast your eyes on the reverse:

Not only does Howell not look Black, he looks like a cross between a faded Willie Tyler and Lester ventriloquist dummy and Chris Rock's evil White twin.

Now, if the film really wanted to be honest about who benefits most from affirmative action, Howell would have stayed White, slapped on a blonde wig and some tits, and played Christina Thomasina Howellina instead of "Mark Watson." But no, he's gotta be Black. So let's play along for a minute. 

Unlike Cambridge's condition, Howell's is easily reversible. He can go back to being White anytime he wants. Additionally, despite all the stereotypes Howell must endure, from the White girl who complains that his fake Black dick is too small, to the White kids who think he's good at basketball,  to the parents who see him as Prince or a pimp in cringe-worthy fantasy sequences, none of these transgressions are treated with the response or repercussions a person of color would have, thereby negating any satirical power the film thinks it has. 

Howell is teamed up with Rae Dawn Chong, who plays the original recipient of the scholarship. She has a daughter and a working class job, so she's certainly less privileged than Howell. But the film doesn't treat Howell's fraud with the life-changing seriousness it deserves. Chong falls in love with him, and even after she discovers he's not only White but the reason she's busting her ass to get through Harvard Law, she still takes him back. Howell gives up the scholarship, which he must now pay back to Chong. He also gives up his "color," but gets to keep the chocolate fantasy. 

James Earl Jones, who got an Oscar nomination the same year Watermelon Man came out, is on hand as Negro John Houseman. His job is to scare Howell's character, who thinks he's got an in because both he and Jones have brown skin. Jones has certainly been in more embarrassing roles (here's looking at you, BloodTide), but he's tasked with employing a level of gravitas that this film does not deserve. Jones gets to make speeches about how great it is to be a Harvard Law graduate ("a Harrrvard Lawwww GRADUATE!" he repeatedly says) and gets to play the bad guy while Howell's buddy Arye Gross tries to defend his actions in a court-like setting. Jones is the best thing in Soul Man, but that's saying very little.

At the end of Soul Man, we're supposed to believe that Howell has a better understanding of what it means to be Black, and of his own privilege. But, as Melvin van Peebles said, "Blackness is not a disease to be cured." We know Jeff Gerber fully understands Blackness, because he's stuck with it and he'll learn the full-immersion way. In Soul Man, the main character is let off the hook with no punishment outside of a financial one. Viewers today may see Howell's actions as a "blow" to "unfair" practices for minorities, but in actuality, it's all about the joys of cultural appropriation without consequence. If being Black were as easy as Soul Man makes it, everbody would be a disciple of Dolezal.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Causing Trouble With Odienator: I Got Some Alt-History Shows Too!

by Odienator

(Ed. Note: Using his awesome foot massaging skills, Big Media Vandalism blog runner Odienator has managed to secure a meeting with the bigwigs at HBO. He is currently on-site trying to get a show-running gig at the network responsible for such classics as The Wire, Oz, Deadwood and The Sopranos.

We here at BMV have wired Odie, because we heard there are dragons and shit over there at HBO. Considering they rarely get to eat dark meat, we feared that Odie might look like a three-piece from Popeye's to these fire-breathing creatures. Big Media Vandalism's creator and spiritual lifeforce, Steven Boone stands ready to intervene should any shit go down. Let's listen in to Odie's meeting.)

Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Big. Seriously, I can't believe that's your actual name. Is your last name short for anything?

No, that's my full name. I'm a member of the New Haven Bigs. Our surname goes back to the Mayflower.

Cool! The Mayflower Bigs! That's real cool! I appreciate your time today, sir. I promise you won't regret it!

Time is money, kid. Grab those matches and light my cigar, will you? (Puff puff) Good. Good. Now, pitch me. 

OK. What had happened was: The other day, somebody in my Twitter feed tweeted a press release about your new show, Song of the South...

You mean Confederate?

Yeah, yeah, my bad! Confederate! Anyway, the showrunners' defense was that they were into "world creating" and that this new genre y'all got called "alt-history" was the hottest thing in TV.

Indeed, we want to do something like The Man in the High Castle. We were rather pissed Netflix beat us to the punch in the alt-history game. And this sounds perfect--what if the South won the Civil War?

Didn't that brother who co-wrote Chi-Raq already do this plot?

There is nothing new under the Sun, Odie. Your Sunday School teacher taught you that, I am sure. 

She was too busy telling us that frankincense and myrrh were what the New Testament called weed. I guess she was dealing in Alt-history, right?

The clock's ticking kid. Can't you hear the Hans Zimmer Dunkirk score playing on the PA system here? 

Tick-tick-tick-tick. BRAAAAAAHHHHHM!!

Sorry. OK, I'll be quick! So I got an idea for a new show that'll be as edgy and gritty as the shows HBO is known for. And it's a costume show with fierce creatures like Game of Thrones. Check this out. It's called Lions.

What? Is this a spinoff of Empire?

Not Cookie Lyon! Lions! You know, like the thing in the MGM logo?

I see. Continue.

OK, so we're in an alternate history where the Roman Empire never fell. 

Great! We won't have to cast any minorities in this.
It's not gonna matter, you'll see! So you know how, back in Roman times, the emperor would have Colisseum events where he fed people to the lions?

Yeah, I saw Gladiator

(Few notes of Gladiator score plays, then) BRAAAAAAHHHHNMMM!

Your Muzak is fuckin' lit, Mr. Big. But anyway! Anyway! We're going to tell this story from the lions' point of view. 

Wait, what?

An example! Just hear me out. You mentioned the Bible a minute ago--well, remember when Daniel was in the Lions' Den? Well, we recreate that shit as a flashback because our main human is a descendant of Daniel's. And when God delivers Daniel from the Lions' Den, we'll have a lion saying "Ain't this a bitch? That mu'fucka looked delicious!" 

This is absurd, Odie. Lions don't talk, for starters, and we haven't done animation at HBO since Happily Ever After.

No no! This will be live-action. We got some CGI lions voiced by famous actors. Anthony Hopkins can be a lion. Al Pacino--he's done like 40 movies for you guys already--he can be a lion. Oh, James Earl Jones! He can bring that Mufasa shit! And Patrick Stewart too!

You really think Patrick Stewart would play a talking lion, kiddo?

Hey, he's playing a talking piece of shit in that Emoji movie. A chatty lion with a nappy-ass mane would be a step up for him!

I've heard enough. Security!! Get this fool out of my office!

Wait! Wait! Security, please! Before you drag me outta here, I got one more idea. Please, Mr. Big. You know you need more minority show runners up in here when the shit truly hits the fan over this slave fan fiction show you're doing. You need me, dude! Give me one more pitch!

All right. But this better not have any talking ferrets or tubas and shit in it.

No. No. Just real people! OK, this time, it's an alt-history look at the last 8 years. Remember how some folks were scared that, if Obama got elected, he'd enslave all of White America? Well, I'm pitching that this shit ACTUALLY HAPPENS.  Every White person's a slave! We can get Margot Robbie as a runaway slave doing illegal TV transmissions on a network called Br'er Fox News and...

Security!! Drag his dumb, country ass outta here!



(End transmission)

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Black Man Talk: Get Out: Never Trust A Tea Cup and a Smile

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson and Steven Boone
(The following is a conversation between Big Media Vandalism founder Steven Boone and Big Media Vandalism's proprietor Odie Henderson. It is the latest in the Black Man Talk series. Other installments include American Gangsters, Tyler Perry, Django Unchained, 42, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Dear White People and 12 Years a Slave)


Post #1: Odie

Brother Boone, I was hoping our next Black Man Talk would be about the vengeance-filled tell-all book President Obama wrote once he got out of office. Alas, he only signed the book deal for that last week. So unless he's as quick as Stephen King and can turn out that book by the end of this sentence, we're going to have to choose another subject. 

Don't rush me, goddammit!

I propose we look at Jordan Peele's social horror hit, Get Out. This is the story of a brother whose dalliance with a White woman yields terrifying though hilarious results. It's a cautionary tale that will immediately evoke memories of conversations between Black men and their parents. Finally, we've got a movie that will do what millions of warnings from Black Mamas couldn't: It puts the symptom of chills back into Jungle Fever!

I admit I was skeptical about this movie. First of all, I am not fan of Key & Peele, the Comedy Central show that Get Out's writer-director Jordan Peele did with his old MadTV colleague, Keegan-Michael Key. I just didn't find them funny, and I was hard-pressed to find another Black person who did. Couple that with the absolutely rapturous reception by film critics, and all I could see were red flags. You and I both know the film critic world is as White as a blank sheet of paper, but outside of Armond White, there were no critic howls of outrage. Immediately, I was suspicious. "This shit is probably toothless!" I thought.

I was happy to be wrong. This thing bites and breaks the skin. How on Earth did this movie get made?

Let's talk about not only the movie but the recent outpouring of White Tears against it! And let's comment on OUR boy, Get Out co-star Lakeith Stanfield's tweet about YOUR boy, Armond White's review. And let's talk about the cinematic precedents of this film's race-tinged horror movie plot. The film that immediately sticks out for me is Three the Hard Way, whose poisoning of the Black neighborhood's water supply plot was adapted by the GOP for Flint, Michigan.

But first, I'd like to present a skit detailing what would have happened had I brought a White woman home.

Me: Mom, Pops, this is my girlfriend, Heather Kardashian Winthrop. We're in love!

Heather: HIIIIII! It's so nice to meet Odie's parents! (to my mother) Odie tells me you like Turtles candies so I brought you a huge box!

Odie's Mom: Oh thank you, dear! That's very nice of you.

(Takes box, hands it to my Pops)

Odie's Mom: Put those in the refrigerator, please. (to me) Odell, can I see you in the other room for a minute?

Me: Sure, Ma. Be right back, honey! (We leave)

(Cut to the outside of my parents' house. Suddenly, the roof flies off the house in a huge explosion. The blast sends me flying straight into the sky. The roof falls back on the house crooked.)

(Cut to back inside the house)

Odie's Mom (re-enters room, smoothing down her blouse and skirt before opening her arms to hug Heather) Welcome to the family, girl!

I exaggerate. Slightly. My mother always thought I was gay. She once told me that, if I ever brought home a White man, he better not be broke. When I brought home the Black woman I eventually married, my mother said "OK, so you like girls too. Whatever. Still, don't bring home no White woman."  It never ceases to amuse me that the roof would have stayed on the house in the above skit had I brought home a White man.

But I digress. There's a great throwaway bit in Malcolm Lee's Undercover Brother where Chi McBride reacts to Eddie Griffin bringing Denise Richards' White She Devil character to Undercover Brother HQ. McBride says something like "he did NOT just bring that White woman up in here!" The line isn't as funny as his delivery of it; he sounded exactly the way my mother--and a lot of Black parents--would have sounded. Because, unless you come from a biracial union like Peele and his parter in crime, Key, there's a parental expectation attached to future children-in-law. Sometimes it's unspoken, and other times it's blatant as hell. But the expectation is there. Society has hammered into our heads a series of givens: everybody's straight and everybody's gonna bring home someone that looks like them.

Of course, these givens are quite often disproven, and there's usually more fallout than people acknowledge. Peele hints at this in the first scene between lovers Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Girls' Allison Williams, perfectly cast). Chris asks a very valid question: "Do your parents know I'm Black?" Rose responds with an answer that immediately infuriated me. "Should they?" she asks. "Hell yes!" the loud, talk back to the screen Black kid inside of me yelled in his head. "This is your cue to RUN, Chris!!"

Rose's response is the first of many microagressions Get Out blatantly explores and exploits, though, as we find out later, her response is of a bigger, more sinister piece; it's pure aggression rather than microaggression. I fucking hate the word "microaggressions," because they damn sure don't feel micro when you're subjected to them every day. But I guess it's the word I'm stuck with here, and the way Peele works these microaggressions into the horror fabric of his film is the movie's best asset. You and I both know what it feels like to be the only person of color in a room, and how much more worrisome it can be, whether that worry is justified or not, when we're the center of attention in that room. Let's talk about that great party scene where Chris meets the way too friendly denizens of Rose's small hometown. Without the overambitious pleasantries, it could have been a scene from a slavery epic.

Before I get too deeply into the delicious minutiae of Peele's mise-en-scene (and also tell the watermelon-centric story of the time I met a White girlfriend's parents), I'll turn the floor over to you. What did you think of the film overall? How was your moviegoing experience? (My audience was VERY vocal--more on that later.) What was the deal with Rose's creepy ass brother?! Do you think Catherine Keener's character was Peele's less than subtle commentary on the stigma that often accompanies Black folks who seek therapy? And what woulda happened if you'd brought home a White woman?

Take me to the Sunken Place, my brother.

Post #2: Boone

I saw the movie with our buddy Simon Abrams and a diverse, very game and vocal New York crowd. It was the loudest, funnest time I've had at a horror movie since seeing Drag Me to Hell at the Court Street multiplex in downtown Brooklyn some years ago. This film has a comedian's sense of the crowd.

I hadn't any high hopes for this flick, either. Key & Peele are clever but somewhat generic comedy writers, and lackluster as performers. Plus I couldn't tell from the trailer whether we were in for an eccentric horror or just an extended K&P skit. So Peele's really rich writing and subtle, visually astute direction in Get Out were a nice surprise.

It's bursting, roiling with ideas, but at the center of the maelstrom is a question: What do white people want from us? Now, bruvas of the world like you and I definitely have white friends with whom this question never comes up. That's why they're our friends. But all my life I've had unsettling encounters similar to those played for horror-comedy in Get Out: being placed, out of the blue, on a kind of impromptu stage, under a spotlight at work or in a social setting where I am the only dark person in the room. And then holding, essentially, a press conference on my race.

The focus of the symposium varies, but I'd say the top three subjects are

  • The size of my Johnson 
  • Whether I agree or disagree with some controversial statement a black celebrity has recently made
  • Am I as pissed off as they (the questioner) about some recent political or social justice outrage affecting my people (if the questioner is essentially liberal) OR
  • Am I as pissed off as they about some racial double standard that has resulted in an injustice against an innocent white person (if the questioner is essentially conservative and has assessed that I am fair-minded enough to hear them out).
These kinds of encounters are awkward, amusing and maybe a little irritating... but how do you get a horror movie out of 'em? Easy. Give the people asking the questions a vast, unknown amount of power. Make them friendly and ingratiating on the surface. Like kindly old corporate rep Will Geer in Seconds or Ruth Gordon in Rosemary's Baby.

But in so-called black life, friendly faces that could determine your fate are a daily reality. There is no sweeter, more inviting face than Catherine Keener's, and look how it masks her affluent white character's power--until she's good and ready to use it. Her husband and creepy ass son, being restless alpha males, have a harder time hiding that they don't mean entirely well. It's Chris, their black house guest, who has to stay fully on his toes in their presence. If any of the tension boils over into something physical, he is the one who will have the most explaining to do, and fast, if the police arrive.

Yes, Peele plays a lot of black folks' hangups and internalized oppression like a fiddle. This includes the psychology stigma.The Sunken Place is all that suppressed shit that paralyzes us. It's also a handy metaphor for being "woke" yet powerless to act.

You know, I have no idea how my parents, who grew up in the South during the Emmett Till years, would have reacted if I brought home a white girl. No roof explosions, for sure, but definitely a Fred Sandford chest-clutch or two.

I  want to hear more on the micro stuff, the subtle messages and flourishes you spied on Peele's work here. Abrams told me of Richard Brody's observation that with this film Peele has become America's Bunuel. That sounds so right.

Post #3: Odie

The experiences you've described mirror both my own experiences and the ones Get Out puts Chris through. Except Peele throws them at Chris all at once, which makes things more terrifying. Surely we can handle a few of these aggravations, but every single one in succession would make even the strongest person start doubting their sanity. Like Ira Levin, a master of the social thriller subgenre Get Out belongs to, Jordan Peele's screenplay keeps us off-balance. As in real life, we question whether our perception of events is being altered by our innate paranoia. Because to be Black in America, or, in Levin's character Rosemary's case, to be female in America, is to have an almost deer-like awareness of potential danger: Sometimes it's just a harmless noise in nature, but sometimes it's really a hunter with a gun. We just aren't sure until we have a moment to reflect, and such moments tend to be scarce. We need to ACT accordingly and immediately.

It's no coincidence Bradley Whitford's character, Dean, brings up his hatred of deer during his initial meeting with Chris. His speech is the first indication something may be awry. Chris is lulled into a false sense of security by Dean's wife Missy (Keener) and Rose's embarrassment at Dean's Dad jokes and his attempts to be Negro hip. Whose parents don't seem tragically out of date to their kids?

Chris' introduction, and Dean's use of "thang" and "brother" reminded me of the time I went to my first (and thus far only) White girlfriend's house for a barbecue (notice I didn't say cookout. YOU KNOW WHY!!) I was young--15 in fact--and stupid, but smart enough to know you do not eat the potato salad at a barbecue! Her dad seemed normal enough, and so did her Mom, though the Dad did call me "brother" and used jive phrases I swear he got from Barbara Billingsley in Airplane!.

 I love that June Cleaver says "Whitey" in this clip about her jive fluency

The only time it got uncomfortable was, after eating hot dogs and burgers (I purposely avoided the ribs--optics, y'know!), the Mom came outside with this HUGE tray of sliced watermelon.

She went around offering it to the guests, and when she got to me, the only Black person there, she froze. I could read her face: THIS LOOKS BAD! Optics, y'know! She was about to offer me (sarcastic tone) the dreaded fruit of racism, WATERMELON!!! 

Evil is only 19 cents a pound!

Now, had she offered everybody else strawberries and came to me with a big ass Petey Greene slice of watermelon, THAT would have been racist. But she was offering everybody the same thing. So it was fine. But it was the first time I'd seen that sense of social paranoia I normally felt being reflected back at me on a White person's face.

"It's OK," I told her, "really it is." She offered, and I politely declined. Because I HATE watermelon. Hate it! Hate it! Hate it!

Again, I am digressing. You said:

"It's bursting, roiling with ideas, but at the center of the maelstrom is a question: What do white people want from us?"

Peele's answer to this question is the film's most subversive touch--the one that made me say "shit, they let him make this?!"

This is a movie about Black victims of theft. The body-snatcher angle makes it blatant, but it's more than just about the theft of Black bodies, a clear slavery metaphor that this great Esquire article explores better than I could. It's also about the theft of achievement, the theft of culture and the theft of myths that were originally conjured up by the same folks now trying to commandeer the hype. The only way they can do this is by stealing the bodies of their victims, controlling them like marionettes while--and this is the most sadistic part--keeping just enough of the original host's psyche alive so that, in rare moments of clarity, they know what's happening to them.

Peele runs with these thefts, bending them into horror elements.

The myth theft: Lakeith Stanfield is literally stolen in the film's creepy opening sequence, presumably because he'd make a believable Black buck for the horny middle-aged White woman practically glued to him at the big party. Sure, he'll sling the long john! To quote Lethal Weapon 2: It's "because he's BLACK!!!" Why else would he be chosen, without prior carnal knowledge, by this woman? Plus, he's her personal Umfufu, the African lady Eddie Murphy married in Raw. In that movie, Murphy jokes that he has the perfect person to exploit, but the second Umfufu talks to "American woman" her brainwashed spell is broken and she has an important moment of clarity that fucks up Eddie's game. Look at how that woman tries to keep Stanfield from Chris! But the second he takes that picture, Stanfield is self-aware long enough to issue his ominous warning: "GET OUT! GET OUT!"

The achievement/culture theft: Creativity and achievements have no color, but legitimacy is usually White, especially in the arts. You put in all this work to make something your own, but there's a possibility that you will get jacked for it. This is something we've seen over the years, from Elvis on down to Macklemore. Pat Boone could sing Tutti Fruitti and make it a #1 song, but Little Richard had to settle for it being race music when he released it.

Here's where Chris comes in handy. He's an artist, a photographer of urban scenes. Jim Hudson (Stephen Root from Office Space), the blind art gallery owner, is able to visualize whatever pictures are in his gallery courtesy of someone describing them to him. Granted, the person describing the art must be a wordsmith on par with Cyrano de Bergerac, but Hudson isn't without his own talent despite his blindness. Hell, Stevie Wonder can describe a sunset better than somebody with 20/15 eyesight, so I could buy Hudson's genius. And yet, Hudson wants to see the world through Chris' eyes. Chris' harsh and joyful experiences as a Black man have shaped his photographer's eye, and now Hudson wants to steal it without having to do any of the work.

Had Chris been more muscular and in shape, his body might have gone to Rose's creepy brother, Jeremy, whose fetishistic drooling indicated he would love to have all that perceived skill without doing any of the work.

Or, as Peele's fellow comedian Paul Mooney used to say:

  "Everybody wanna be a nigga, nobody wanna be a nigga."

What did you think of LilRel Howery, Peele's stand-in and the film's conspiracy theory-heavy Black id, and the two scary House Negroes responsible for many of those goose-inducing jump scares?

Post #4: Boone

Just last night I had an encounter that made me think of Get Out's first act. I was delivering some groceries to an apartment on West 57th Street but my scanning device suddenly died. I hadn't memorized the customer's apartment number, and without my device I couldn't determine which of the mountain of sealed blank packages I was carrying belonged to this customer. So I took some time to sort everything out, with the help of my dispatcher over the phone. 

After I got it together, I loaded only the packages I needed onto the elevator, just as a woman somewhere past 60--who happened to be white--entered the building. "You've got quite a lot of packages there!" she said brightly. I barely acknowledged her--this was a rush delivery, two hour window closing soon--but must have managed to mutter something between short breaths.

Was this the old lady in question? Oh wait, the Dakota's not on W. 57th...

She went on down the ground floor hall, saying, "..but you really can't hold the elevator like that." I said, "...for 20 seconds?" She went into her apartment.

After I delivered the stuff upstairs, I organized the rest of my bags before heading out. I was almost at the front door when a man--who happened to be white and about six foot seven--got in front of me. He asked me what I was doing. It took me a moment. He wasn't wearing any uniform or badge. I told him I'd just made a delivery. He said I had a lot of bags, was I sure I was delivering? I said these bags are for other drops. 

He asked if he could see some ID, that "we" had "been watching" me "on the camera" in the lobby for "some time." I hadn't even thought about a camera but now I could see it up there in a corner behind him. " I'm just investigating." Investigating? Odie, this dude looked like Steve Wilkos.

(this is from

I felt like one of the rapists on his show. But I played it cool, searched my bag for my work ID, couldn't find it. He then asked what apartment had I delivered to, arms folded, eyes narrow. When I told him, he called the tenant to vouch for me.
Anyway, I'm writing this from jail.

Not the real Steven Boone.

Just kidding! But as I walked down 57th Street after Wannabe Wilkos set me free with a lame apology, I had a slight sickly feeling. A clammy sensation similar to that I've had when in handcuffs, in police custody. This guy was doing his job, I supposed: looking after the tenants in a city where push-in robberies and assaults still happen on occasion. But I'd delivered to this building before. They get deliveries of all kinds all the time. What had he--or they, whoever they were--seen on the camera aside from a harried courier scrambling to get his shit together? A black hoodie I had forgotten to pull down, five o' clock shadow, a slender frame (crackhead? perc-popper?), maybe too much frantic motion and cell phone action. Maybe they'd had an incident in the past. Maybe the perp had been a courier or delivery man. Maybe their caution had absolutely nothing to do with my color. Wait, had the woman who complained about my holding the elevator called security? Is that why....?

I imagined if Wannabe Wilkos had been of a more George Zimmerman temperament. I imagined if this non-incident had taken place in suburban Florida, or Giuliani-era New York. Or present-day Long Island.

So there's my digression. I guess it has to do with the microaggressions that accrued early on in Get Out (from a highway patrolman; from Chris' girflfriend's dad and brother). They are ancillary to the central theme you've identified: theft.

It's the way Peele weaves this theme into the tight-knit fabric of his story that really grooves. It's in the art direction (the pictures on the walls, Chris' photographs, White Dad's hunting trophies, girlfriend's mementos) and the sound design (a miscegeny of sounds from an aristocrat's Victrola and an especially woke Spotify playlist). Spike was up to similar cultural/historical survey in his Ganja and Hess remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which has more black art on the walls than the Schomburg Library. That film, like its predecessor, was more about the spiritual costs of assimilation, upward mobility, lost ties to "our" heritage. And unlike Get Out, it's a mess. A fascinating, sensual mess, rich with vision. If I have any criticism of Get Out, it's that it could've done with a bit more mess and sensuality and, well, ig'nance, for all its crowd-pleasing propulsiveness. Imagine the fun Spike, a Certified Freakazoid (TM), would've had with the Jungle Fever/Mandingo aspects of this story. (Or, CF (TM) Lee Daniels or neo-blaxploiter Craig Brewer, for that matter.)

Nah, I instantly withdraw that too-many-notes critique. LilRel Howery was enough glorious mess and ig'nance for three movies. As Chris' keep-it-one-hunned homeboy, he kept this heady movie on solid ground. Peele brings him on at the perfect moments to shake up the horror conventions--even though he himself is the latest in a long line of Real Brothers to track mud on a tidy genre carpet, going back to Eddie in The Golden Child, Kadeem Hardison and Bill Nunn in Def by Temptation, Richard Pryor's Wino vs. Dracula...

As for those skeery House Negroes: I just wish I could screen this film with Dr. Ben Carson, and watch his nose bleed.

Not the real Ben Carson

And oh, deer:

I was thrilled, though not surprised, that the deer became such an important metaphor for genocide and plunder. One dead deer's antlers-turned-weapon provided the most charged moment of catharsis. We've been apes in pop culture parables for so long, from Planet of the Apes to Da Lench Mob's one great song Guerillas in da Mist to Harambe memes. But, really, almost all of the "gorillas" are long gone. Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Tupac, etc. The surviving rank and file citizens are generally agreeable foragers whose most revolutionary act is to insist that our Lives Matter.

It's the artists who are stepping up most strikingly. 2016 was the post-Kendrick Year of the Woke. Black artists and allies were finally filtering history and far-flung influences into stunning popular art, guided by a vogue of music videos and short films that began coloring the Internet late last decade. (One of those allies being Japanese-American Hiro Murai, the genius behind the Flying Lotus/Kendrick video masterpiece Never Catch Me and co-genius of Donald Glover's Atlanta series.) We had Beyoncé and her sis turning into audiovisual Nina Simone Sun Ras, FKA Badus. It all seemed to culminate in the triumph of Moonlight and extend into this year with films like Get Out. There have been many films "for us, by us" that express deep consciousness, but few that float like a butterfly, in a singular voice rather than the blunt, roaring voice of "the community." It's the nimble grace that's new. These children of Spike and Kanye and the Criterion Collection have a fine touch that I take as evidence of unprecedented freedom. Freedom not granted but seized.

You said: "Creativity and achievements have no color, but legitimacy is usually White, especially in the arts." 

Goddamn, that's it right there. The irony is that we're discussing a film that would not have made it to the front of our Talk slate if the mostly-white critical establishment and Universal Pictures had not put it on the legitimacy radar. Nah, you know what? Fuck that. Good is good. It's enough that Peele traded on his television celebrity to make some art that scans as disquietingly aware of our connection to history as this year's Oscar ghost, August Wilson.

Speaking of da dead, what did you make of Get Out's ending? It felt like a missed opportunity to go fever-dream bananas. A police chase into the night, like the end of Lost Highway. As it is, you know these dudes ain't riding off scot-free with a trail of dead rich white folks behind them.

Bring on the TSA Cavalry, Odie!

The Final Chapter: Odie

That ending showed just how conditioned we are vis-à-vis the cops and brown folks. I've talked to friends of all races, including a few who went to lily-White theaters to see Get Out, and the audience response to those flashing police car lights illuminating Chris has been consistent! People were like:


At my theater, a voice yelled out from the darkness the exact sentiment that had popped into my head at that moment:

"Oh shit! He is so fucking dead!!!"

Knowing Jordan Peele had cited Night of the Living Dead as one of his inspirations, I immediately assumed Chris would be shot dead. Here's this bruva surrounded by a bunch of dead pillars of the community, with his hands around a shot White woman's neck. You couldn't tell me his ass wasn't getting shot up like Bonnie and Clyde.

But Peele lets us breathe easily. This final jolt is his most shocking one, and not for any horror movie reason. I thought back to that Melvin van Peebles story about how shocked Black audience members were when Sweet Sweetback got away at the end. We're so used to the trope of the Black guy getting killed first (or eventually) in horror movies that Peele jovially puts a twist on our expectations. That he made Chris' savior the audience's stand-in, LilRel's TSA agent, was just the icing on this surprisingly delectable cake of a movie.

This movie has a serious following, with near-unanimous praise. But of course, there are detractors. Let's start with the folks who think this film is misogynistic. The argument I've heard, and ONLY from White viewers, is that the film is too hard on Allison Williams' character. Her demise, as well as Keener's, is too brutal; therefore it's misogynistic. This reminds me of the similar outrage leveled at Tarantino for having Django shoot the mistress of CandieLand. "What did she do?!!" people asked, faces awash in White tears. We talked about that particular scene in our Black Man Talk on Django Unchained, so I'm not beating that ignorant dead horse today.

As for the dead females in Get Out argument, I'd like to point out that:

a. Williams doesn't even get the most brutal demise--that's reserved for her brother.

b. She is responsible for the deaths of numerous former Black lovers, male and female (that box with the pictures in it is almost as gasp-inducingly hilarious as Williams' search criteria for her next victims) and she's the most villainous character in the film.

c. This actress acted her ass off, as did Keener, to create a palpable source of terrifying menace. She deserved a major-league exit. The one thing I hated most about Street Smart was that it didn't give Morgan Freeman's complicated, yet evil pimp an exit worthy of the Oscar-nominated work the actor put into that role.

Truth be told, I thought Williams got off easy compared to the character who got the Ryan Gosling/Drive elevator treatment. She still got a great exit, one she milks for maximum effect.

All this chatter over White woman deaths in a horror movie (a genre where violent death always befalls good Black and female characters by default) is a red herring. It has the same tinge of eye-rolling faux-outrage that accompanied Mookie's trash can through Sal's Pizzeria's window in Do the Right Thing: "But all that property damage!" instead of "someone died just before that scene!"

And then there's this:

This is how OUR dude, Lakeith Stanfield, responded to YOUR dude, Armond White's expected pan of Get Out. This ruined the film's perfect rating on the reprehensible yet extremely well-visited website, Rotten Tomatoes. Readers can go find White's review on their own, as I ain't linking to it. My favorite part of the review, however, is the comment on the dark-skinned features of Daniel Kaluuya, a comment written by a man who ain't passin' no Paper Bag Test either. Seek it out, if you dare!

I wonder if Peele had to fight to cast an actor with Kaluuya's skin tone, even in a film that cost so little money to make. Regardless of how Kaluuya got into this movie, I'm glad he's there. Every frame he's in resonates with a familiarity I felt deeply in my bones. The way he brushes off comments with an uneasy smile, the way he lights up with temporary relief when he sees potential running buddy* Stanfield for the first time. The way he wears his horrific childhood trauma on his stunned, tear-stricken face when Keener hypnotizes him. This is a performance worth remembering. In fact, everyone here is impeccably cast and brings not only their A-game but a sense of fun to the proceedings.

* a "running buddy" is that one other person who looks like you at an event. If shit goes down, you'll know you have at least ONE person to run with as you're being chased.

One final thought: I wonder if the little sliver of the body-snatched person that's intentionally left is there to teach them a lesson about how to behave around their "superiors". What made me think of this is Dr. Ben Carson's comments today about slaves. Addressing a room full of GOP White Folk, Carson said “[t]here were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder, for less.” 

Immigrants, Boone. Not property. Immigrants. Sam Jackson went batshit on Twitter about this, calling Carson a "dick headed Tom!"  But Carson's words are exactly what his audience wanted to hear--how the slaves were "treated well" and "came here" rather than "were fucking kidnapped, sold and brought here against their motherfucking will." It's so weird how, in order to be a brown person down with this party, you've got to completely obliterate anything about Black reality that may upset them, even if it's an awful truth whose denial would violate the common sense God gave you. You see it in so many KNEE-GROW celebrities cheering for this team. It makes me wonder if these folks, some of whom were once revered or respected by Black folks, are trapped in the Sunken Place. Maybe Get Out 2 can be about their rescue.

I'm out! Let's do this again soon!

Another Black Man Talk?!! Oh no! No no no no no no noooo!