Hollywood Reclaimed: The Old Studios Left Blacks out of Their Gangster Films, Musicals, and Myths. Now, Black Filmmakers Are Appropriating Those Myths as Their Own

By Taylor, Charles | The American Prospect, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Hollywood Reclaimed: The Old Studios Left Blacks out of Their Gangster Films, Musicals, and Myths. Now, Black Filmmakers Are Appropriating Those Myths as Their Own


Taylor, Charles, The American Prospect


THE TITLE OF GAYLE PEMBERTON'S essay "Do He Have Your Number, Mr. Jeffrey?" comes from an off-screen line in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. The speaker was a babysitter, but the character's infantile drawl--the old stereotype of black people as dawdling, servile simpletons--makes her sound as if she could use a babysitter herself. The 1991 essay is, among other things, about what it means to be a black fan of classic Hollywood movies. Pemberton isn't a breathless, gushing movie buff. Hers is a canny love, beneath which lies the needling reminder of a history that stereotyped and demeaned black characters more often than it treated them straight, and that mostly just plain ignored black performers.

That's the history Bryan Barber's extraordinary musical, Idlewild, sets out to rewrite. Starring Andre "Andre 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton (who make up the hip-hop duo OutKast), the picture, set in Depression-era Georgia, pulls as much classic American movie iconography as it can manage into its generous, loving grasp and sends it back to us with a black face. In its messy, eager fashion, Idlewild wants to create the black Hollywood glamour that never was, the first-class black musicals and gangster films and love stories no one ever made--all in one picture. No American movie last year conveyed more joy, more life, more affection for its characters.

It's a terrible irony that a movie standing in delirious opposition to a history of ill-use should suffer the same fate. Kept on the shelf for two years by Universal, which had no idea how to sell it--a real failure of imagination, since OutKast was becoming ever-more popular in that time--Idlewild was finally tossed into theaters during the dead days of late August 2006, traditionally a dumping ground for the films that fall between the summer blockbusters and the autumn prestige releases. It played for a few weeks (it's now available on DVD) and garnered some of the most clueless reviews in recent memory, the worst example of the obtuseness with which American film critics have greeted the African American movies that have emerged in the last few years.

Idlewild pulls a conscious racial switcheroo, populating its medley of familiar film genres with an all-black cast. The racial switch in the other recent black movies, far less fanciful than Idlewild, is only partly about race. At root, these films are a reminder of the primary pleasures of story, character, and acting. They are also an implicit rejection of the smartass knowingness that is our current armor against emotion, and of the reduction of mainstream movies to spectacle and merchandising opportunities.

To say that even the best of these movies--Barbershop, Drumline, Mr. 3000, Something New, and the hugely enjoyable teen-romance Save the Last Dance--are a big deal would be to inflate their pleasures. But there's nothing cynical or jaded or embarrassed in their desire to connect with an audience. At root, these movies are something we've all seen: stories of the little guy overcoming adversity, or of people who've been looked down on fighting their way to self-respect. Often, as in Tim Story's Barbershop, a film about a South Side Chicago family man torn between trying to make his own way and honoring his family heritage and his community, these pictures mix up-by-the-bootstraps traditionalism with old-fashioned liberalism that acknowledges the social forces and human ignorance that impede people.

What's new about these movies is that they may be the first time black audiences have gotten to see familiar Hollywood scenes and stories acted out by anyone who looks like them. Some of these films have gotten good reviews. But with more and more releases churning through the theaters faster and faster, critics sometimes seem to be reviewing the hype (or lack of it) instead of the movie itself. And as the number of jobs for critics declines, the pressure on critics not to ruffle the notions already formed by prerelease publicity increases. …

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