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.