In late October, Japan's DJ Muro, whom I remember from the Super Disco Friends mix he assembled with Dimitri from Paris in 2005, put together for Stussy Clothing a mostly terrific Curtis Mayfield mix that includes frequently sampled selections from the soundtracks Mayfield produced and performed for the '70s films Superfly and Short Eyes (a few of the Superfly songs can be heard during "AFOS Prime" and "Beat Box" on AFOS). It also includes a Mayfield tune I never heard before and have become taken with, "Make Me Believe in You" from 1974's Sweet Exorcist album (it starts at 1:01:19 in the mix). That song knocks.
I've listened to Muro's Mayfield holiday 2014 mix repeatedly after Stussy released it, and it's a delicious mix--up until the last seven minutes. Those last seven minutes, where the mix segues into 1980's "Love Me, Love Me Now" and then closes out with 1978's "You Are, You Are," are pretty fucking dire. Let's just say disco and Mayfield were not a good combination.
I would replace those last seven minutes with the seven-minute "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go." How can anyone ignore that classic 1970 Mayfield tune, especially when--"Nixon talking about don't worry" lyric aside--it's so relevant in this period of Michael Brown and Eric Garner not getting justice? There are two pieces of music that have been on my mind as people across the country peacefully protest the treatment of Brown and Garner (and are now getting cruelly subjected to counter-protests--really?): "Fuck the Police" by the late J Dilla ("On the count of three, say...") and "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go."
I always hear complaints about how R&B or hip-hop has gotten too mindless and it isn't as thoughtful as it used to be. But there are a few artists out there who are making thoughtful music. Like I've said before, you just have to know where to look. So who in R&B today is the modern-day equivalent of the type of insightful and socially conscious (but not-so-preachy) songwriting Mayfield in his prime was known for? It's most definitely either any of these artists The FADER's Aimee Cliff praises in her essay about the inanity of the "alternative R&B" tag, The Roots or D'Angelo, whose first album in 14 years, Black Messiah, which was occasionally co-produced by Roots member Questlove, finally dropped last week and lived up to everyone's high expectations, including my own.
And who this year has been the cinematic equivalent of the modern-day R&B equivalent of Mayfield--in other words, they're bringing complicated points of view to their work that aren't just either "the Tyler Perry black movie" or "ooh, it's the more incendiary Spike Lee black movie"? That would be directors like British filmmaker Amma Asante, who came up with an intriguing hybrid of legal drama involving the abolitionist movement and Jane Austen-esque corset drama, last summer's sleeper hit Belle, and Justin Simien, the writer/director of the Sundance hit Dear White People, a more nuanced movie about campus racial tensions than John Singleton's unintentionally funny Higher Learning.
Simien's indie comedy is about four black university kids trying to figure out their identities in fictional Winchester University, a predominantly white Ivy League school, as well as how they deal with both microaggressions and more overt forms of racism from their white classmates ("Dear white people, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two; sorry, but your weed man Tyrone does not count"). It's like nothing else on the big screen in 2014, both material-wise and aesthetics-wise. Simien clearly admires Spike Lee's earlier work, but he's also a fan of Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson and Robert Altman, so he emulates the camera movements of Kubrick, Anderson and Altman. At one point, sci-fi nerd and undeclared major Lionel (Tyler James Williams), the openly gay outcast who's clearly a stand-in for Simien, even mentions his love for Altman movies, but he doesn't specify which ones. (Is Lionel a fan of only popular Altman movies like the original M*A*S*H and The Player or is he so hardcore that he's into deep cuts like Quintet, the unwatchable 1979 Altman sci-fi flick starring Paul Newman? That's what I want to know). As for the Kubrick-ian aspects of Dear White People, they're most hugely reflected in composer Kathryn Bostic's solid original score, which sometimes evokes the classical music-quoting scores in A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon. You can hear for yourself how Bostic channels the music in Kubrick movies either below or during "AFOS Prime" and "The Whitest Block Ever" on AFOS.
Early on in Dear White People, I thought, "Okay, whattup again, racial identity conflict trope, how I have so not missed you." However, Simien takes that "Who am I?" trope that us Asian American moviegoers find to be tiresome in our various subcommunities' indie movies (there's a great scene at the start of Adrian Tomine's graphic novel Shortcomings that makes fun of some of those Asian American indie flicks about generational differences within immigrant families), and he somehow makes it work for black millennials. Meanwhile, I'm a bit wary about the trope resurfacing on screen in Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 creator Nahnatchka Khan's upcoming adaptation of restaurateur Eddie Huang's autobiography Fresh Off the Boat, even though the show will be relatable for me because it's about a '90s Asian American kid who grew up on hip-hop, much like "Rich Homie" Huang himself, as well as myself. But Huang's material is in very good hands. Khan's Don't Trust the B---- was an often hilarious show.
I wouldn't say Dear White People is the best movie of 2014, but it's the movie with the strongest original score/existing song combo in 2014--outside of Inherent Vice and maybe Guardians of the Galaxy, that is. It's also one of the year's strongest debuts by a first-time feature film director. Even though I'm not black, I identified with a lot of the Simien movie. In predominantly Asian San Francisco, the line from the African American student union's sole Asian American member (Naomi Ko) about why she's part of the union--"You have better snacks"--received one of the biggest laughs from the diverse audience I saw Dear White People with. Some Asian American viewers have criticized Dear White People for reinforcing the mass media's emphasis on racial tensions as being just an African American-vs.-Caucasian thing while they overlook and underreport the plight of other people of color. But I thought Ko's one great line nicely hinted at how the film's black characters--especially self-hating, weave-wearing Coco (Teyonah Parris), who doesn't care for black radical politics and is only concerned with becoming a reality TV star--aren't the only students of color in Winchester University who are experimenting with or trying to figure out their racial identities.
There's this whole other story about Ko's side character that's waiting to be told on film, and hopefully by another Asian American filmmaker besides Rod Pulido, whose forgotten 2001 indie comedy The Flip Side was about a Pinoy kid who thinks he's black. I've been around Asian folks who are similar to that girl who prefers the black student union's snacks. But those folks are mostly respectful about adopting bits and pieces of African American culture, unlike certain cultural appropriators who have helped ruin 2014 and the racist white kids during Dear White People's climactic (and sadly, ripped-from-the-headlines) blackface party, which is both emceed by Coco and organized by privileged asshole Kurt (former Veronica Mars villain Kyle Gallner), an aspiring comedy writer who's the most hateable fictional comedy writer since Paulie G from HBO's The Comeback.
Dear White People's key art spoils some of the comedic impact of one of the film's most memorable visual jokes--Lionel's Afro gets touched by a white girl who works at the bizarrely underpopulated campus newspaper he's joined--but that moment where Lionel's hair gets petted is quite familiar to me. I've been there, man. I wasn't exactly a tall guy growing up, and I'm still not exactly a tall guy. So when you're a short Asian kid in school, that means really fucked-up white kids like to infantilize you and touch your "exotic" hair and hug you and pet you and name you George, or even worse, lift you up and toss you around like you're some chinky rag doll. I like to think some exasperated Asian kid's physical response to a bigger white kid lifting him off the ground somewhere was how the nutshot was born.
Why is it the most ignorant fucking white kids don't understand the concept of personal space? That's mostly why I don't acknowledge or even identify where I went to high school in social media or anywhere else. I hated being there so much. I even frequently ditched classes after lunch for about half a school year (and managed to never get caught). I don't like looking back on those years, although one aspect of senior year was alright, and that would be acting in the theater department's fall play that year. But the rest of senior year can be ignored in my continuity and retconned out of existence, and the same goes for the rest of high school and also junior high before that. I attended one high school reunion and will never attend another one. I don't like going back to the past.
I like to imagine that after the events in Dear White People, Lionel--10 years later--will look back on those Winchester University years for about a millisecond and cringe just like I do whenever I reluctantly go back to my past. He'd probably think, "Oh God, man, those Winchester years? That editor-in-chief guy I made out with who kept fetishizing me, and that managing editor girl who kept fetishizing me too? I should have been more outraged about all those types of behavior at Winchester and more assertive back then. Retcon!" Because Williams is such a likable and skilled actor who made us Everybody Hates Chris viewers really relate to and feel for his character on that show, the long-suffering kid version of Chris Rock, he does the same with Lionel in Dear White People (in a world where the makers of the Spider-Man movies aren't so goddamn conservative and cowardly, Williams would make a great live-action Miles Morales). So I really rooted for Lionel to grow a backbone and get the hell away from those creepy white editors at the newspaper. And when the blackface party appalls Lionel so much that he finally does something about the exasperating behavior of white students at Winchester, and he talks the black radicals who previously excluded him (for both his homosexuality and not being "black" enough) into helping him stop the party, it made me quietly go "Yeah!" and do a mini-fist pump.
You know you've made a resonant and provocative movie when it elicits reactions like mine (and no, I'm not going to be a 15-year-old and say that the movie "gave me the feels," an idiotic phrase that makes me want to punch a wall in frustration whenever I see or hear it) or the reactions of one middle-aged black guy in the audience I saw Dear White People with. He would applaud Sam (Tessa Thompson, who, like Gallner, is another Veronica Mars alum, and she's another standout in the cast), the host of the film's titular campus radio show, whenever she'd verbally smack down Kurt or poke holes in the myth of a post-racial society. The guy was as awed by Sam and her outspokenness as the gasping Colbert Report studio audience was after Stephen Colbert, while interviewing Simien, rolled the clip of Sam's "You can't eat here" scene in the dining hall.
So when I got back to the world outside the theater where I saw Dear White People, I was a bit surprised by how divided black writers' reactions have been to Simien's film. They've ranged from thrilled by the film's ambitions but critical of its cursory treatment of class issues (The New Inquiry's Lavelle Porter) to appreciative of the film's subject matter but irritated by how didactic and one-note they found the screenplay to be (Slate's Aisha Harris). But I'm glad to see all these varied reactions and impassioned critiques because it feels like it's been a minute since people have been passionate or talkative about a grown-up piece of American cinema that's actually about grown-up things, especially in this age of what Matt Zoller Seitz amusingly calls "a superhero-based economy."
Slate likes to joke that 2014 is the Year of the Outrage because every day, some group of people was fired up about something on Twitter, whether it was liberals, conservatives, feminist gamers, misogynist gamers, people of color who are angry about Serial or white people who are angry about people of color who are angry about Serial. But it's also been a year of sharp humor from comedic minds of color--eh, not so fast, Suey Park, you can sit this one out because while bizarrely trying to ether The Colbert Report and attack stereotypes, you ended up reinforcing an old stereotype, that of the humorless Asian--who have done something way better and more constructive than simply tweeting and retweeting shrill outrage about white privilege. They've demonstrated that the best way to both cope with and attack white privilege (and various other race-related injustices) is to make us laugh about the stupidity of the privileged, whether it's Hari Kondabolu and his excellent Waiting for 2042 comedy album; Andrew Ti and his Yo, Is This Racist? Tumblr and podcast; Kristina Wong and her brilliant mockery of a racist app; Desus Nice and his wonderful Twitter feed (as well as his Complex podcast with The Kid Mero); or Simien taking a flamethrower to that inane word "post-racial" for 108 entertaining minutes.
Selections from Kathryn Bostic's Dear White People score can be heard during the AFOS blocks "AFOS Prime," "The Whitest Block Ever" and "New Cue Revue."
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