“It’s independent thinking without the protection of an ‘indie’ label.”
While hosting the Academy Awards in 2005, Chris Rock made the following claim: black films don’t have real names. “Barbershop? That’s not a name. That’s just a location. Barbershop, Cookout, Car Wash… you know ‘Laundromat’ is coming soon, and after that, ‘Check-Cashing Place.'” Catch Me If You Can and Saving Private Ryan, he maintained, were real titles: “real movies, with plots, with actors, not rappers,” made for “white people to enjoy.” Never mind that Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), a film with a “real” plot and a black lead, could easily have been called “Check-Cashing Place” — or maybe more aptly, “Bail Bonds Site,” or “Car Radio.” As someone who loved both Barbershop (2002) and Beauty Shop (2005), I have high hopes for the upcoming The Salon (2005) — and these expectations stem from the fact that the title is not a “movie” name as such, but a place in which interesting episodes occur, day to day. Whether or not it contains rappers (any strong-voiced actor will do), the location and mood-driven film has become an event to look forward to. And it may be that “black” movies are one of the few places where we can discover the pleasures of a setting: slowly, and without the pressures of a high-concept script. At first glance, the name Barbershop fires up more images than a strictly pulp title like Collateral (2004) or Cellular (2004), where the tense mood is indicated right off the bat. And for me, a film called Barbershop presents a more appealing prospect than either Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Catch Me If You Can(2002). Rather than a clear line of conflict or pursuit, what the film suggests (and delivers) is a story where interest arises from moments of difference, humor, and digression.
Perhaps it’s the absence of “real plot” that’s the drawcard: Barbershop doesn’t have an obvious through-line, or trajectory — its energy comes from a series of encounters in one space, and the clash of its performance styles. Actors seem free to go as far out as they want: they can do small, detailed work, or they can turn their lines into a routine, as long as they stay relaxed and connected to everyone else. In many African-American films today, a passionate but laid-back attitude is the key to exploring a variety of moods. A comedy that appears good-natured and level-headed may be prepared to adopt a character’s hardcore point of view, although whether it does so out of curiosity or respect is unclear. Dramas can take a turn into the lowbrow without signaling their changes in advance. Even a Christian melodrama like Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) features a “realistic” and authoritative grandmother, who happens to be the male screenwriter in drag — ensuring that the film’s “message” is too delirious to be taken seriously. The sermon may be heavy-handed, but this preacher appears to have been distracted throughout. So the only defining rule I can think of is: prepare to be surprised. At the very least, I’ve found that these films are less likely to commit themselves to formulas than most Hollywood pictures, or to schemes they can’t dispose of easily. Even when a film follows a three-act structure, there’s always time to be diverted by idiosyncrasy, pursue unexpected links, or play out the consequences of radical humor. Yet all this is done under the banner of commercial entertainment — none of the films I discuss are conspicuously arthouse or renegade productions. What a film like Barbershop promises is a dip into a leisurely and consistent atmosphere: it’s happy to be heading nowhere, without particularly advertising the fact. Its calmness is simply implicit — unlike, say, Before Sunset(2004), in which the focus on place, lack of dramatic shaping, and overlapping or mumbled dialogue are all too clearly the signs of a controlled art film.
Over the past decade, there’s a particular quality I’ve come to treasure about mainstream black films (for want of a better term), although at first it was difficult to pinpoint what that was, given their range of influences. (What constitutes a black film anyway? Does Save the Last Dance, 2001, count? Or Pootie Tang, 2001?) There is something reminiscent of early Hollywood in black cinema, with its flexible scripts and small pantheon of interesting stars: Sanaa Lathan, Aunjanue Ellis, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kerry Washington, LL Cool J, Vivica A Fox. The films seem to regard the appearance of each of their actors as a coup: the happiness in announcing their presence is evident — unlike most credit sequences today, which appear to be the result of agents’ negotiations rather than star power. In fact, black films tend to take time over their openings in general: matching some arresting bit of music to a walking or skating pace, and lingering over the anticipation generated by a name. But as enjoyable as it is to watch the equivalent of a ‘40s B-picture, there’s something else about black movies which is unique: an exhilaration which springs from a discovery of the incidental, whether it’s the flashes of perversity in a monologue, a scene which could only have been devised on set, or the way a strange comment becomes absorbed into the group dynamic. Films like Barbershop make a virtue of not being weighed down by huge budgets, or locked into tight schedules: these movies are clearly re-edited and re-played in response to improvisation. Therefore the films are in the position of seeming knowing and alert, rather than indifferent to their own wit. So many studio comedies fail to take advantage of their own gifts; when unforeseen chemistry pops up during filming, there appears to have been no desire to go back and flesh out those scenes, or develop new plots along those lines.
This sense of a film being slightly loose and off-balance — and thus retaining its liveliness — is also evident in drama. One of the first films I was fascinated by is the underrated Set It Off (1996). It’s a fairly rough production, the second feature from F Gary Gray, and while it’s certainly intense, it also has its odd segments: for instance, a romantic subplot which resembles a music video, trailing alongside the action. Like the recent Dark Blue (2002), it’s a wildly ambitious but edgy film, which takes on more issues than it can handle — although that seems to match the attitude of its characters, who are all committed yet helplessly out of control. The four women, who rob a series of banks, are caught in very real predicaments, yet they are also driven by the vague notion of a center beyond their grasp. The film sets up their stories like a diagram — a killing by a cop, an unfair dismissal based on racial profiling, a child removed by a social worker — so as to draw out all the implications of their histories, and place them head to head with “the system”: the country’s media and police force. In a sense, it doesn’t matter that the events are unlikely, since the movie tends to dispense with formalities; it takes on the energy and urgency of its protagonists. Gray simply installs his women at the center of the media’s attention, and allows them to deal directly with sources of power. Is there a better way to have the city and the rebels face off? This may be Queen Latifah’s best performance, as the lesbian who’s strict with her young girlfriend, while Vivica A Fox is forceful as the group’s leader. The film is powerful, perhaps because its ideas are only partially realized. It connects naiveté with nihilism: the desire to smash may be immature, but it is the inevitable result of being screwed, and this city will have to deal with the consequences of the women’s anger. The scenes of the four leads divided by gunfire, while shots of L.A. wind around them, turn them into convincing icons.
In their direct approach, black films often provide an unexpected point of entry into familiar genres. While they are less angry than “aspirational” these days, they generally remain connected to a logic based on conversation and experience, rather than just previous films. Thus expectations of how people behave are constantly being toppled, or gently laid aside. Even an upscale chick flick like Two Can Play That Game (2001) is totally absorbing because of the “ride” of its lifestyle — we’re looking at the way this woman moves through the city, prepares for meetings, and attends her church, as if navigating a real series of obstacles. Neither her job nor her interests are merely token devices. As glamorous as it is, we’re seeing how a way of life is being put together, day and night, and how time is allocated for relaxation, books, and music. The film is keyed to a particular lifestyle in which leisure, loyalty, sensuality, and business concerns all have their specific place. If anything, black films have gotten even smaller in the past few years — more livable and localized, just as other Hollywood films have become less relatable. Charles Taylor notes that black films have something that “white commercial movies have lost . . . Because they don’t have to worry about recouping inflated budgets, they’re free to relax without fretting about making every moment a whopper . . . entertaining an audience instead of just hyping them to death.”1 Despite Chris Rock’s objections, black movies don’t tend to announce themselves through a tagline, or a killer concept — in fact, a film’s “motor” may not be clear until halfway through. Plots evolve out of small or familiar situations — whether it’s the end of the working week (Friday, 1995), decision time in a relationship (Two Can Play), or a dissatisfaction with mainstream music (Brown Sugar, 2002). All of these suggest a story that could take place anytime — nevertheless, each film picks a point and proceeds from there. From here we get to observe the number of rituals that affect daily life — whether it’s playboys who go to church, or the hour set aside for quiet time and good music. Even a film that claims to have a narrow set of concerns surprises us with its interests. The romance Breakin’ All the Rules (2004) almost deliberately steers clear of innovation, yet its portrait of relaxed workplace interaction, friends kicking back, “freaky” sex, and cousins who socialize lets in more life than most studio comedies. Friday unrolls from the porch of a teenager — and it maintains that view for most of the film, as well as its mood of boredom and arrested adolescence. It’s a film that arises from a wasted afternoon, and is content to stay mainly observational. By the time actual hijinks occur, and a gun makes its appearance, the drama’s almost done — a few more minutes and the show’s over. The film then makes the unusual choice of shuffling off into the neighborhood, without going through the moves of tying up the plot. A clap signals an end to proceedings — when the clock strikes 12, the film’s self-declared period of interest stops, and Friday is officially over. No ending could be less hyped.
Right now, black movies still have the privilege of being regarded as hybrid creatures, so their incongruities are rarely ironed out: their weirdness stays in the cut. These mainstream and often middle-class films have the smoothness of advertising, yet they also introduce moments of rawness and unease, very informally — without a conscious need to subvert the entertainment, or shove their transgressions in your face. There’s a willingness to engage with the sore points of a culture — to riff on Rodney King and Jesse Jackson, and take the low road on race topics, as part of an overall shtick. The films are never totally incendiary, yet there appears to be a conviction that when it comes to politics, they have to “go there” — as if to play it safe would be a cop-out, unacceptable to smart audiences. The writers seem to expect and demand an emotionally sophisticated viewer, who’s prepared to be tweaked repeatedly, and enjoy it. It’s independent thinking without the protection of an “indie” label. The films I’m talking about range from disreputable comedies (Booty Call, 1997) to gentle, talky ensemble pics (Brown Sugar), to an action spoof which makes “crossing over” its subject (Undercover Brother, 2002). What they all have in common is the ability to move across a range of tones — to manage unusual and even loony shifts in direction. Their uneven pacing reflects a looseness, which allows any number of plots or styles to take center stage, often at the same time. A dramatic scene may contain sections of vaudeville: routines that verge on rap or stand-up, which the other players either nudge aside, or subtly acknowledge. When an actor appears to direct his gestures to the camera (Anthony Anderson in Two Can Play, Cedric the Entertainer in Barbershop 2, 2004) before settling back into his role, this reflects more than just the film’s self-consciousness. Despite being cut off from real time, these self-contained acts are seen as normal behavior: part of the everyday spectacle of life. So the screen often seems to be divided into blocks: a man can be reeling off his spiel in one corner, while in another part of the frame, closely observed acting is taking place. Black movies tend to remind me of Hong Kong comedies, in the sense that they are creatures of many minds: they can move from nonsense gags, to intricate verbal humor, to limpid emotion within a single scene. Barbershop 2 is remarkable for the way its editing constantly responds to the mood changes of its players, and their discussion of topical events. None of these films are oppressively tone-controlled; while they are certainly interested in stars, they also gesture towards a world outside cinema. Reality may be intense, defeating, or glamorous, but it is rarely glossed over altogether; all the films have something riding on it.
The three Barbershop films (the original, the sequel, and the spin-off, Beauty Shop) all center on a space which contains the broadest and most finely-drawn of stereotypes, jostling each other throughout the day. As much as the barbershop is an authentic part of African-American culture, what this particular store offers is the prospect of an open door and an open mic. Whoever enters the shop is greeted by a circle of turned heads: the newcomer has the floor for that moment, but given all the hubbub, the challenge is in keeping the audience’s attention. The sign in the window, “Walk-ins Welcome,” says it all: any stranger can come in, asking to be “hooked up.” The shop extends an invitation to anyone to approach the mic, as long as they have the charisma to keep it. The door constantly rings open to introduce someone new — either a guy whose wit can’t cut it, or some passing vaudeville performer, who gives us a minute of their signature act. Some visitors are shot down after a single word — the door literally slams them in and out — while others (traveling salesmen or opportunists) meet with a series of ripostes. Every new entry provokes commentary from the shop’s regulars. There’s no shortage of new material via the front entrance; at the same time, the radio is kept on for most of the day, as a running broadcast and soundtrack for the film’s events. Despite the shop’s owner (Ice Cube) seeming to tone down proceedings (“This ain’t Def Comedy Jam”), this does appear to be an ongoing show, which blends cutting-edge and retro humor. When we first see Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), he walks in the door bluffing a hold-up, as if doing an old burlesque standard — although his act is convincing enough to scare several customers. This man is at the mercy of his irrational impulses — he’ll jab just about anyone — yet it’s that perverse sense of invention which has kept him in demand all these years. Even an old man selling shoes comes up with an arresting little riff (“Fellas, what’s up, what’s up? Shoes, got the shoes! Got shoes, man got the shoes!”) to earn his few seconds on the floor before leaving.
The dialogue in these films is a marvel, especially considering how basic the set-up is. A person walks into a room; everyone looks up from what they’re doing, ready to hear something they haven’t heard before. If he gets a grin or a look of incredulity, the speaker takes his cue and keeps going. Conversation can be a strutting display that no-one takes seriously, or it can cause real offence. This is an arena in which nothing but pride is at stake, yet the ability to perform may determine one’s standing in the shop. Being “right” is no guarantee of success, since the crowd is keen to align themselves with the fastest spinner. Onlookers are prepared to switch sides at a moment’s notice — they may start out on the side of common sense, but they can easily be won by dexterity. Something expressed with finesse is as good as genius, but one has to be careful to read the signs of the crowd correctly. “No!” can mean no, but it can also be a way of urging the speaker on. If repeated several times, “That’s enough!” seems to indicate, “Don’t stop, you’re just getting started.” “Oh!” can be a way to warn someone off personal territory — but it can also be an excited reaction to provocation. In the latter case, the connotation of “Oh!” changes from “Don’t go there” to “He went there!” — a thrill at the line of taste being crossed. The conversation always depends on this level of call-and-response: a speaker being spurred on by the crowd’s desire, which they express through their echoes, their “uhhhs”, and their delighted claps, for emphasis. No sacred cows — not even Rosa Parks — will be spared, if they ruin an opportunity for stand-up. The only protected area is the barbershop itself, although even here privacy can be a conceit; Eddie is fond of treating people to exclusive tidbits by saying, “Now I probably wouldn’t say this in front of white folk, but in front of you I’m gonna speak my mind…” Outrageous points of view are never totally shouted down: bragging tends to be gradually inflated, to the crowd’s delight, until the joke pops. The camera cuts from mouth to mouth and between gestures, as incidents on the radio or in the street offer fresh premises for storytelling. Even a remark like “Do I look like my father?” invites a range of sounds and comments, with people pulling their features and drawing on memories to produce a composite face. As Eddie says, “If we can’t talk straight in a barbershop, then where can we talk straight? We can’t talk straight nowhere else!” We see what happens when people attempt to have barbershop-style conversations elsewhere — when Eddie talks to a commuter on the train, the exchange falls flat, because the other person doesn’t know how to respond to rambling, and is literal-minded enough to suppose that “no” merely means no.
However, in Barbershop, hints of unease or friction are not played down, particularly in regard to race and the interaction of recent African immigrants — for instance, Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze) is subjected to clicks and cries of “supersize Mandela” from outsiders. Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) is fond of using his perfectly articulated sentences to mock the “ghetto” stylings of Jewish barber Isaac (Troy Garity). Yet when the mood threatens to turn ugly, we hear a voice in the background say, “Marvin Gaye,” and a hand (we don’t know whose) turns to the stereo to start the track. This isn’t even a dance-off — people start dancing in between the warring figures, almost as a way of making their bodies silly and susceptible to the rhythm. Terri (Eve) places herself in front of Jimmy — and in a lovely moment, he hesitates at being placated, before letting his body drop, and his face turns to a look of succumbing. When the conversation seems to want heating up or toning down, someone instinctively dials up the volume, or pops in a CD — yet all these actions are performed by unknown hands. It’s almost a reference to the shaping of the film itself — the editing automatically responds to, say, the nostalgic mood of one character, by subtly lengthening the duration of each shot. Real time is cut in with anecdotes: the film regularly checks in on JD (Anthony Anderson) and Billy (Lahmard Tate), who are transporting a large, unlikely object — a stolen ATM. These two are like a bumbling, vintage comedy duo, whose actions are put on hold while the rest of life moves at a relaxed pace. There’s an overall serenity which is needed to contain the individual moments of tension: the frequent time switches, as well as all the low blows, racial ribbing, and slander these characters give each other. Most of the film consists of crosstalk — people hollering to each other from across the room — but nothing undermines the feeling of permanence.
Part of Barbershop‘s stability comes from the acting — in particular, the understatement of Ice Cube, as the shop-owner. As Palmer, he has the manner of a laid-back producer: an authority that is especially subtle given his childlike, teddy-bear face. His influence is felt rather than imposed — we can only just sense him pulling at the reins. In Barbershop 2, his appearance reflects his new role as the film’s executive producer, but that makes him even more subdued: he’s like a distracted dad who wears glasses — someone who seems inattentive but is as quick-tongued as ever. Jimmy is played by the very elegant young actor Sean Patrick Thomas.2 Eve’s Terri is a large, sultry, centered presence. She carries the balance of power in the shop: her raised hand can silence an argument. With her bronze weave and wide, supple mouth, she looks sensual and fierce, but she is meltingly vulnerable, and her insecurities are well-known to the group — people are intimidated by her, while keeping her covered. We somehow sense that she is one of those feisty, unlucky women who can be controlled through self-esteem. Yet the film establishes her command so strongly that all her feelings are important and interesting to us — especially when she receives a Neruda poem from Dinka, and admits that it’s “got me feeling all gentle.”
Our interest in these stars has been pre-arranged by the credit sequence: both Barbershop and Barbershop 2 have absolutely gorgeous, flowing openings, which establish the films as a series of open-ended scenarios. The one for Barbershop Provides a slide-in entry to the film through music: as a track by Fabolous plays, each actor’s name is matched with a beautifully cut, offbeat image. Some of the connections are obvious — loudmouth Anthony Anderson gets a vintage microphone — but the rest of the cast are given intriguing and oddly apt stills. “Eve” is paired with a long shaved head — a gesture towards something stark and suggestive — while “Sean Patrick Thomas” appears next to a tool for measuring distance. There’s a focus on the expertise of cutting, as well as references to events outside the store. The films’ relationships are rooted not only in the tradition of the barbershop, but in the ’69 riots and desegregation. This isn’t just a token inclusion of one’s roots — the movie doesn’t handle history with kid gloves. It’s not a sepia version of the past, but one that’s vivid and alive — an idiosyncratic flash though past times.
This becomes even more apparent in the sequel — in the stunning and delirious opening of Barbershop 2. It features a series of epic images, seemingly triggered by something as minor as Eddie getting a haircut in the ‘60s. As the black locks drop onto the floor, the camera appears transfixed by them — and then the sequence begins. Convex credits wrap around a giant barber sign, and whip away as suddenly. Shots of Ali, Eminem, Martin Luther King and Prince appear — they are iconic images, without any clear linkage, yet the flow of the music suggests that they are calling across to one other in some specific way. According to the beat and the editing, each of them packs a powerful punch, and that’s the connection: vitality. It’s an odd way of reeling through the past: a personal and distinctive version of the city’s history — which is partly a history of hair. While Afros are styled or thick braids are being handled, buildings sprout up, and the skyline shoots over the horizon. It’s as if the film seriously believes in hair moments as tied to history — hence the shout-outs to Bob Marley and even Vanilla Ice are salutes to appearance as much as talent. The movie maintains this incredulous stance throughout. The opening signals the film’s wild dives into the past — it has a very free way with time, and can flash back to the same period through different genres. It can go back to the goofy or heroic ‘70s; it suddenly plunges into an era of political pride, or a moment of hapless style, fuzzily recalled. Despite the masses of talk, all three films are based on reflection and rumination — they have that nostalgic, sunny-day feel, and are particularly excellent in their cruising or sidewalk scenes, whether rolling beside a car, or tracking feet along a pavement. As optimistic as they are, these cheery portraits of a neighborhood are still far from being a formula.
Not that there’s anything wrong with playing a cliché. Two Can Play That Game shows where the formula can take you, when it is keyed to some recognizable aspects of behavior, as well as inventive performances. The film focuses on a 30-ish executive (Vivica A Fox), and her smooth but hard-won career path: she slides into the city, on a comfortable fast track. The crucial thing here is the layout of place: this film explores the city as game — a space for work and play, as well as a base for the matrix of relationships. As the leading man’s confidante, Anthony Anderson can seem annoying, but that is really up to the viewer: one has to decide whether to give oneself to his enthusiasm. This is an actor who always appears to be seeking or addressing an imaginary spectator for confirmation of his views. “Over-the-top” doesn’t begin to describe the special broadness of his style. When he finds merit in an argument, he cries out, “O Preach!”, “Testify…”, or occasionally, “Go to church!” The interesting thing about this romance is that its “rules” of dating actually reveal something about lifestyle — unlike the script for, say,How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), which demonstrates no knowledge of human behavior whatsoever. For Fox, sensuality and professionalism are easily integrated, and we also see the place of family and religion in the life of a “player.” As Anderson reveals, “all the major players go to church…that shit is free!” The treatment of race is also very incidental, though pointed — such as the small tolerant smile Fox gives when her boss compares her to another black executive (“she reminds me a lot of you.”) The cast is dotted with white performers, who come across as strange chalky figures, or high-voiced extras, although they are generally treated respectfully and even regarded as attractive. Fox brings in a handsome stud to one-up her ex-boyfriend — although amusingly the man is called “Calvin”, as if this is the only preppy name that carries currency here.
Brown Sugar is another movie that claims to be more conventional than it really is. It’s an intriguingly duplicitous film, which says it’s about one thing and then does another — and maintains that uncertainty at every level. I tend to love any film that balances two sets of values, and in black cinema they certainly abound ( I also like musicals and erotica for the same reason — you get very straight-faced and often well-acted scenes, that suddenly tail off into something else.) The film starts off by declaring it is purely interested in music — specifically, the evolution of hip-hop, and the way memory is shaped by particular beats. Later, this plot appears to be dropped in favor of a love triangle, yet the musical references keep popping up — in great detail, and at the unlikeliest of times. We’re even told that the female lead is a kind of beat — that extensive musical knowledge underscores all interaction, and in effect, no real relationship can exist without it. So is Brown Sugar a hip-hop film, with a love story tacked on for box office? Or is it the other way around? It’s difficult to say if this is a yuppie romance with an unusual amount of personality, or a documentary which is interesting because of its unresolved character. The opening scenes indicate a film that’s ready to be about anything. When Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) talks about “this personal, regional thing” now available to “anyone with a cable box,” and wants to trace back what happened to hip-hop, she could be talking about the loss of momentum in any movement, as a subculture rises to dominance. As we look at the paths of the two childhood friends — Sidney has become a music journalist, while Dre (Taye Diggs) is a record exec — the film appears to be exploring different relations to passion. Its documentary interest is integrated with the characters’ musical turning points; when Sidney describes Dre, she narrates back through their musical evolution. At this point the film is still bursting with potential, so when the plot gives way to a rather pallid romance, we don’t quite forgive it. Fortunately, the film continues to lose itself at regular intervals — even during a love scene, it’s ready to be sidetracked by a performance. The dramatic line is derailed when the couple ask each other, “Are we still talking about hip-hop?” “That’s all we’ve ever talked about.” To the end we never know if all this film has been interested in is music. Someone on the production clearly loved hip-hop, and wanted to work lyric and beat quotes into the film at every level. Maybe Brown Sugar would be more unified if, instead of Diggs and Lathan, the film had gone with the delicious pairing of the supporting actors (and real-life rappers) Mos Def and Queen Latifah. The film only puts them together during its last moments — but in just a few reaction shots, they establish an irresistible rhythm with each other through their glances and hesitations. This genuinely musical couple have the desirable chemistry the film seems to yearn for.
Another film that deals with the erosion of personality in the mainstream — in a totally different way — is Undercover Brother. This racial superhero spoof is a ridiculously enjoyable celebration of ‘70s black culture; the villain is a personification of The Man, who is determined to wipe out Ebonics and discredit the first serious black contender to the White House. In one sense, it is a pure throwaway comedy — what kind of movie about an authentic black self would feature Dave Chappelle? But on another level, it is prepared to engage with the way the media deals with figures such as John Singleton, and it is full of good jabs. Even at its most over-the-top, the film points out how uncomfortably close conspiracy theories come to realistic paranoia. These concerns are brilliantly encoded within the staples of the superhero genre — such as a device that “allows you to absorb the whole of white culture in seconds, using subliminal imagery”, as well as the convincing argument: “You can only keep an agent undercover for so long before he loses his identity.”
However, there are also a number of black films which devote themselves to unearned nostalgia (Soul Food, 1997, The Wood, 1999), and in which music, food and memories — any memory, no matter how banal — are the key to “remembering where you came from.” Therefore it’s a pleasure to see a major studio picture deal successfully with this theme. The Fighting Temptations (2003) is a lovely and happy film, in which our enjoyment is never at risk — how could it be, with performances from Shirley Caesar and the Blind Boys of Alabama? Although the least of its musical talents, Beyoncé Knowles, is its nominal star, even she seems affected by the joyful mood, and is less robotic than usual, revealing a breathy higher register during the last moments of “Fever.” In this film, rediscovering your true self is played for the conceit that it is in most Hollywood musicals. The film is full of R’n’B legends, disguising themselves as “stock” characters to be redeemed — modest folk unaware of their talent, or even drunks who must be rehabilitated. The great O’Jays appear as a run-of-the-mill barbershop quartet; black cinema often plays these witty masquerades with its stars — pretending not to notice them, while secretly waiting on their presence. The film also has a firm emotional basis, thanks to its specific musical references, strange ellipses in humor, and interest in traveling troupes of players. Particularly striking is the dynamic of the central relationship, constructed by the versatile black screenwriter Elizabeth Hunter. The protagonist (Cuba Gooding Jr) spent much of his childhood with his mother, a singer, as she worked the clubs of a church town, to everyone’s disapproval. When he subsequently encounters a young woman (Knowles) making the circuit, it’s as if he knows this way in: his fascination is tied in with an intimate knowledge of stage life and its difficulties, rather than its mystique.
Finally, at the other end of the studio spectrum is a movie that, thanks to its title, is often regarded as the lowest of the low: Booty Call. This is a wholly unique film which demonstrates the pains of only being interested in one thing: as we see, the major risk of hedonism is not destruction but ennui. The movie pursues a single track without flinching, and has only minor deviations into gross-out territory. In its fidelity to a single mood, the film depicts sexual boredom without the need for euphemism: it doesn’t gloss over the dreariness, insecurity, or general purposelessness of the characters’ search. While it starts off as a mild night downtown, with four friends expecting to enjoy themselves, the atmosphere soon turns to glazed persistence. The editing reflects the gaze of an exhausted voyeur, struggling to keep his or her eyes open for yet another session, and trying to stay on course. We get the sense of a fixation that wears and wastes throughout the night, as eyesight grows bleary and increasingly drab. Often the action fades out, only to have the film cut in again on a close-up, which turns out to be the same scene as before, barely changed. Neither a switch in soundtrack nor a slight adjustment of the camera deliver a reprieve — each fade-in feels like an exhausted sigh. Nevertheless, the men maintain a consistent tunnel vision. The whole film seems like a long corridor — similar to the passage of night in a teen comedy, but without the redemption at the end. Sex becomes less of an urge than a relentless tic — the men can’t remember what started it, but they keep trudging along. Bravado and misogyny are soon lost, giving way to the shortest route ahead. The script doesn’t disguise the awkwardness of arrangements — the fumbling as everyone decides to go back to one girl’s place, where the conversation is stilted and they end up discussing one couple’s celibacy. Jamie Foxx isn’t his usual self, but a rather shabbily horny man — he seems to be all teeth — and he soon finds himself mastered by the pornographic “Lysterine” (Vivica A Fox.) The two men are repeatedly slammed out into the cold — back into the city, which the film establishes as a setting of neon and slicked streets, crawling with potential dangers. But it is also a strangely quiet location, in which the night and street sounds are all too noticeable, with cats scurrying away over garbage bags. All these mood changes exasperate the men, who are constantly forced to reset their course. However, despite their efforts, the joke is that everything leads up to Lysterine being the film’s sexual winner: a cackling devil in S&M gear.
Twenty years ago, a movie like Booty Call or Fighting Temptations might not have been such a rarity — one might have overlooked these small films with perfectly sustained atmospheres. But this is a period when Hollywood has dropped a certain kind of movie from its roster: the mid-range film that was common up to a decade ago, from Twilight (1998) to Steven Kloves’ great The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). Even a crazy potboiler such as Final Analysis (1992) or Single White Female (1992) is no longer found. For those of us missing the mood thriller, the lowbrow farce, the naïve but ambitious social drama, and the sex comedy cast with adults rather than teens, today’s African-American movies may be what we need. Here we can find, amongst other things: the spoof not divorced from the outside world, or limited to parodies of commercials; the one-off gag discovered during filming; the script forced to become ingenious due to a small budget; the decidedly mainstream but passionate film, which waits on its stars and is built around honoring great musical performances. For people with long memories, black films provide a range of paths into familiar locations: the city, the stage, the community. The viewer feels free to stop in and explore, though we can never account for the chemistry from cut to cut.
- Charles Taylor, “Brown Sugar,”Salon, Oct 11 2002. [↩]
- Thomas has already given one great performance, as the glamorous younger brother in Save the Last Dance. Thanks to his underplaying, the character almost seems like a brother out of Austen — the aloof brother of a friend, who attracts the heroine in a new milieu. Save the Last Dance is an unusual film, in its willingness to break in new characters and plotlines without fuss. It’s about Sara, a teenager (Julia Stiles) who moves to a largely black school, and needs some time to adjust. The film doesn’t imply that this is anything particularly radical. In fact, it suggests this is a fairly typical situation — it’s just something this particular character hasn’t experienced, and isn’t generally portrayed onscreen. On the understanding that this is just a “conventional” newness, the film depicts some of the common difficulties that might occur — for instance, the irritation of Chenille (Kerry Washington) at the assumption that her brother Derek (Thomas) is a father, and both parties’ sensitivity about making generalizations. The film also confronts some of the intimidation Sara feels with her new friends, especially when it comes to dancing. In one scene, Derek teaches Sara some basic steps. He’s already very sensual, with his emphasized hands and facial expressions, but dance draws attention to his composure. Derek shows Sara the implications of movement — how to express that she’s noticed a signal, how to make a gesture in return, and how to indicate she’s playing along. As he glides forward and back, Thomas shows us the hidden meaning in each move. [↩]