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Through a Lens, Blackly

While I haven’t seen Selma yet, I intend to. Though given I’ll probably see it at the movie theater multiplex in the Crenshaw mall for $4.50, the senior matinee price, I’m afraid I won’t be adding much to the regrettably modest box office the film has generated so far – though the film has garnered attention and reactions. Two other recent films with an African American focus have also been the subject of discussion in various broadcast and social media from the blackaratti to other pundits and press Distinct from Selma which can be viewed in a historical context, Dear White People and Top Five are contemporary comedy-dramas with satirical edges that seek to portray the dimensionality of modern black life.

Dear White People by writer-director Justin Simien is set on the Ivy League campus of Winchester University. This is where the firebrand Samantha White hosts a radio program of that name. We see scenes of her talking into the mike in her deceptively pleasant voice saying things like, “Dear white people, the minimum requirement for black friends has just been raised to two people for you not to seem racist…and sorry but your weed man Tyrone does not count.” Or, “Stop touching my hair, it’s not a petting zoo.”

As one character opines, Samantha is like “Oprah and Spike Lee having one pissed off baby.” Another character in the film played by Tyler James Williams (who played a hapless teen in Chris Rock’s originated TV show Everybody Hates Chris), is an afro wearing gay young man who digs Mumford and Sons and the movies of Robert Altman.

There’s a lot going on at Winchester from a reality show producer looking for candidate for his Black Face/White Place TV show, a blonde-wig wearing dark-skinned video vlogger seeking stardom to Samantha coming to terms with her biracial heritage. Matters culminate when a white fraternity throws a black face party. Tellingly, Simien put that over-the-top bit in only after the incident happened in real life on a college campus. The main characters whose lives intertwine in the film are fully realized onscreen and are presented with their flaws and moments of ascendency even as the film riffs on perceptions whites have of blacks as well as what blacks think other blacks should be about.

Dear White People would seem to be the sort of film black audiences have been asking for yet its domestic box office didn’t crack five million. Earning more but not gangbusters was Top Five. The title refers to a question asked of various characters in the film, “Who are your top five rappers?” as a barometer of what that says about your cultural tastes. Upping young Mister Williams who played an ersatz young Rock, writer-director-star Rock plays a version of himself as middle-aged man at a crossroad.

As Scott Foundas, chief film critic of Variety succinctly put it in his review, “…“Top Five” bears the conspicuous influence of classic-era Woody Allen in its ever-present scenes of characters walking and kvetching on the streets of Manhattan and its jaundiced depiction (shades of “Stardust Memories”) of a once-successful comic actor whose fans clamor for him to get back to his “earlier, funnier” self.”

Not for nothing is Rock’s character named Andre Allen, who is in recovery, and who desperately wants to be taken seriously as an actor. He’s made millions in a series of action films as Hammy, a talking, anthropomorphic bear plainclothes detective (and yes there’s a scene of this), and is betting it all psychologically on a film called “Uprize,” wherein he plays a Haitian revolutionary leader in the Toussaint L’Ouverture mold.

Throughout the day, Allen pontificates on his past, the strangeness of being a black celebrity, on the phone a lot as he prepares for his reality show wedding to reality show star Erica Long, and sees old friend in the old neighborhood – including a rugged scene with his ne’er-do-well pops. This while accompanied by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (played effectively by Rosario Dawson) who looks to do a profile piece on him; a rigorously honest one as they say in certain meetings for she too is a recovering addict.

In a reflective look at a movie like Dear White People failing to captivate a large black audience; Allen’s “Uprize” flops at the premiere, easily out-grossed by the opening of the latest Tyler Perry as Madea offering. A twist too is in the offering and a battered Allen goes off the wagon in a public way when he encounters a Hammy the Beer sign in a grocery store.

It’s hard to outrun perceptions even as these two films sought to subvert such. In the backlash to the protests in Ferguson after the Michael Brown shooting and the choke hold death of Eric Garner in New York, police supporters and the right resurrected their comfortable totems in which to view black males to rationalize an unarmed man being gunned down. This was no better personified when the self-righteous, self-aggrandizing Sean Hannity on Fox News (or as Jon Stewart of the Daily Show often opines, “Bullshit Mountain”) repeated over a period of days Witness Number 40’s assertions. She was one of the supposed eye witnesses who testified to the grand jury in the aftermath of the brown killing. Hannity repeatedly quoted her as saying Brown charged Officer Darren Wilson, “Like a football player, head down.” It turned out the woman was a self-admitted racist, has a history of fabricating a kidnap incident, and was determined unlikely to have been in the vicinity at the time of the shooting.

As Chris Rock noted in an interview on his Top Five press tour, ““Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.”

 

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