October 2001
Blackpopgo : A Weekly Discussion Of Art, Politics, & Pop Culture And How It Affects The Black Diaspora...Or At Least One Member Of It

Written by Vincent Williams

Blackpopgo : A Weekly Discussion Of Art, Politics, & Pop Culture And How It Affects The Black Diaspora...Or At Least One Member Of It

In a way, it's Haile Gerima's fault. I went and saw the acclaimed writer/director of the film, “Sankofa” about six years ago and it changed my life. He was giving a lecture and an impromptu debate started about Black art and it's responsibility to the public. Someone wheeled out the old school adage about supporting Black art, regardless of content, because we should be happy that we're represented at all. Haile Gerima countered with the argument that it was our responsibility as "Patrons of the Arts" to critically engage and challenge anything with our faces in it. According to Gerima, not only shouldn't we let folks off the hook because they look like us but we should hold them to a higher standard. In a couple of sentences, Haile Gerima had articulated and crystallized a philosophy that I had been battling with since Spike Lee introduced me to a modern Black aesthetic with “School Daze” (I wasn't a hip enough cat and Baltimore wasn't a hip enough city for me to catch “She's Gotta Have It” when it first came out.)

See, it's the old argument-would you rather have no Black images or harmful Black images? Does representation mean so much to you that you will take “Amos & Andy” over nothing? That is the crux of every Black popular culture debate of the last fifty years. Once you go back as far as “Amos & Andy” then, yes, it probably was a big deal to just see Black faces on television. But who decides when pure representation's not a big deal anymore? In Nichelle Nichols biography (Yeah, I read it....), she talks about how Martin Luther King told her she had to stay on “Star Trek” because the presence of Uhura was so important to Black people. And even though, in retrospect, she pretty much was just the fine sister in the miniskirt (And Lord knows she would rock that red miniskirt and don't even get me started on the boots...) with a stick hanging out of her ear, no less than Dr. Mae Jamison has gone on record as saying Uhura was one of her inspirations for becoming an astronaut. That was just 25 years ago. But, to continue in Star Trek world, Avery Brooks said he took the role of Capt. Sisko on “Deep Space Nine” because his wife pointed out how important the image of a Black captain would be. That was less than ten years ago. The argument of representation will probably always have some teeth in it.

Then there's the issue of who's defining what a "bad" image is. Some ugly truth that no one likes acknowledge-Masses and masses of Black people loved “Amos & Andy.” Oh, sure the NAACP was pissed but talk to your parents or your grandparents about it. If the vast majority of people who support your “Parkers” and your “Martin's” are Black then are they really bad and non-representative images? Why? One of the weaknesses of Spike Lee's “Bamboozled” is that he never addresses how Black people are some of the biggest supporters of the images in question. Like most subjects that have to do with interracial debates, there are some icky class issues floating just below the surface that no one likes to talk about.

On top of all of that, need I mention what we folks say to each other about airing dirty laundry? I thought not.

So, all of this was rattling around in my head circa 1994. Black film had turned into Gangsta Paradise, MC's had forgotten how to rap, Martin Lawrence was shuckin' and jivin' his monkey ass all across Fox and, as a nascent cultural critic and writer, I had no real idea of how or even should I address what I viewed as an alarming lack of vision or merit in our art forms. Haile Gerima telling me it was my duty to critically engage and challenge our art was like a revelation.

I became militant. I called crap, "crap" and, as soon as someone hired me to write, I wrote about crap being crap. I was a one-man crusader. My sword was sharp and my justice was shift. I've honed my critical senses and I call 'em like I see 'em. I've even developed a certain short hand over the years so I can avoid a lot of the foolishness. But mistakes have been made.

Over the years, I have called stuff crap simply because of the ingredients and, later, discovered that I was dead wrong. This isn't a case of “Ready To Die” or “Blowout Comb,” which were albums I heard and didn't like and later changed my mind. This is stuff I didn't even see where I passed judgment based on earlier works. It doesn't happen that often but here are a few:

Why Do Fools Fall In Love - I have a hard and fast No Vivica Fox rule.
Her voice is like nails on a chalkboard and the "sassy Black woman" thing offends me because I am sired by & married, siblinged (It's a word. Put that dictionary down.) and befriended to Black women. None are sassy. The "sassy Black woman" is just a variation of the “Amos & Andy” Sapphire character. So, ol' Viv is a deal breaker. Add in Lela "Sunshine" Rochon, an actress whose career I just don't understand existing and this was a no-brainer. Saw this on HBO. Surprisingly good movie. Larenz Tate is very good as Frankie Avalon, Vivica tones it down a little, Lela holds up her end of the deal and the script is fairly tight. I was wrong to berate that one.

In Too Deep - Another rule I have: No Acting Rappers.
While there is the Will Smith Clause, no one has ever exercised it but Tupac Shakur. L.L. Cool J.? Puh-lease. Plus, it's an "undercover cop get's too close to the organization" riff. I really enjoyed that the first time I saw it as “Deep Cover” and that had Laurence Fishburne in it. Again, caught it on cable. Really surprisingly good movie. I mean, it's not “Clockers” but the performances are very strong. This was actually the impetus for my Omar Epps appreciation. Hill Harper has a nice little supporting role as a shifty, serpentine criminal that you can look and see the beginnings of his role in “The Visit.” And L.L. has the over-the-top scary drug lord thing down-which, you know, comes in handy I guess. I wouldn't necessarily say go buy this on DVD but, again, much better than I thought it would be.

The Wood
The shame I feel over this. It seemed like a bad idea. MTV Films. Taye "non-descript" Diggs. Yet another post- “The Best Man” movie with brothers in tuxes. The sassy girl from the WB. The math just doesn't add up for this being as good as it was. First of all, the ads lied. It's not about a wedding at all. Taye Diggs has maybe six lines. The movie really belongs to Sean Nelson as he recounts his younger days in "The Wood." It is a heartwarming Coming Of Age film that has more in common with Gordon Park's masterpiece, “The Learning Tree” than anything else. I don't know how well “The Wood” did at the box office but I'm ashamed I didn't help it. In my dreams, this gets a first class DVD treatment.

So those are three bad calls I've made. What's the point? Well, due to schedule and money and everything, we all make fairly quick decisions about what we're going to support. There simply isn't enough time in the day and movies cost too much to just go willy-nilly to everything with some Black faces in it. While I don't think that should change (Spike Lee, bell hooks and Cornel West couldn't have gotten me to see “Kingdom Come.” Jada Pinkett-Smith, Vivica Fox, Whoopi Goldberg, Loretta Devine, based on a gospel stage play; it's like my own personal Hell) but, if you get a chance, try and check something out the second time around. The only support that really counts is financial so, even if you miss something the first time, you can look for additional projects from the artists involved or, with the advent of DVDs, you can help out on the back end. After all, we're Patrons of the Arts and we have a responsibility.


Bits & Pieces-Jill Scott. Live. Double CD. November 20th. How lovely is that? Between that and the Nov. 17th premiere of the “Justice League” cartoon that I've been waiting for since I was five years old, watching “The Superfriends” and thinking, "this is pretty weak", my birthday month is shaping up quite nicely. Woooooo...if you ain't checked “Training Day,” boy doggie, you need to! Denzel be actin' when he want to! King Kong don't got nothin' on him!

Next week-Women of the South and my vendetta against J. California Cooper, Margaret Mitchell and every film made about the South. Ever. Seeya in 7.

Vincent Williams is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. His writing has appeared in many publications, including the Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly, Orlando Weekly and the Texas Black & White. His novel, temples was published in 1999 by La Caille Nous Books. He thinks Set It Off is an awful film but, like Soul Food, he always watches to the part where Vivica Fox says, "you ma sista, gurl" because that line makes him laugh.