Leave it to a Frenchman to have to show whites and African Americans how to play nice together. Michel Gondry’s BE KIND REWIND fuses the multi-racial harmony vibe of his 2005 concert film, DAVID CHAPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY with the raw inventiveness of his previous film, SCIENCE OF SLEEP to tell the story of a dilapidated Passaic, NJ video rental store that’s headed for destruction as a new condominium goes up on its block. When the tapes are all accidentally erased, employees Mos Def and Jack Black put on a show in the form of redoing all the films. What starts out as just off-the-cuff tomfoolery quickly escalates into the equivalent of a neighborhood film home movie festival as Mia Farrow and the whole neighborhood get along together, recreating classic moments from MEN IN BLACK, GHOSTBUSTERS and RUSH HOUR 2 and of course DRIVING MISS DAISY.
While this touching film succeeds on just about every level, it strikes warmest and sweetest at the color lines. We’ve become too cool and ironic to get behind the fearless bravery of artists like Capra and Fred Rogers, but the Gallic Gondry moves right past these barriers. He’s like that French guy that rescues Dexter Gordon in ROUND MIDNIGHT, but he’s rescuing a whole neighborhood. Yet as the kids of the hood come together to make a final epic biography of allegedly local hero Fats Waller, we see how the sweet ignorance of those not born into our checkered culture can still ruffle our feathers.
Jack Black, in blackface with pencil moustache and bowler, is clearly the perfect choice for Waller. It’s not just that he’s fat, but he looks like Waller as well, and could probably sing just like him after studying a few records. Danny Glover has to take Black outside to wordlessly imitate a minstrel softshoe to spell out why despite these assets, even a painted light brown face is too close to the shameful racist past.
One imagines a similar explanation perhaps being needed for Gondry at one point and it’s sad to think of anything standing in the way of his good-hearted vision. Black can’t go nuts as Waller as his showboating nature would permit, but must defer to the much thinner but blacker Def. Now, Waller was very light-skinned. Why couldn’t Black play him instead of Def? The question is rhetorical of course, dating back to antebellum bullshit about one one hundreth of a drop of black blood or whatever. But rhetorical or not, it’s clearly worth asking, and Gondry gives us a safe space in which to ask it. We may not get an answer, but even better is Gondry’s indication that, if our shared culture should one day become our shared property, we may not need one.
In a time when commercialization has come to equal homogenization, where black characters still can’t have white lovers without nervous producers and solemn postures blocking the view. Or how about how old black guys are either the president, or the maid? I would like to see these races play nice together by agreeing to unilateral colorblind casting. Instead are delegated as side-line afterthoughts in each other’s movies. Know what I’m saying, Em? By contrast, Gondry’s all-included cinematic generosity feels positively subversive, an escape back to the SESAME STREET cred of prejudice-free childhood, before the poison of adult corporate divide and conquer consumer strategies made strangers of us all. Thanks to Gondry’s community-uniting efforts, there may be hope for us yet. We just need to be kind and rewind back to analog media, non-pre-fabricated housing, and the liberating power of play-acting. So, thank you, Gondry, you Gandhi of the post-modern age, and while we’re on the subject / while we’re on the subject, thank you also for SCIENCE OF SLEEP, you awkward geek genius of Beyond Rom Com!