The title of Gayle Pemberton's essay "Do He Have Your Number, Mr. Jeffrey?" comes from an offscreen line in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. The speaker was a babysitter, but the character's infantile drawl -- the old stereotype of black people as dawdling, servile simpletons -- makes her sound as if she could use a babysitter herself. The 1991 essay is, among other things, about what it means to be a black fan of classic Hollywood movies. Pemberton isn't a breathless, gushing movie buff. Hers is a canny love, beneath which lies the needling reminder of a history that stereotyped and demeaned black characters more often than it treated them straight, and that mostly just plain ignored black performers.
That's the history Bryan Barber's extraordinary musical, Idlewild, sets out to rewrite. Starring André "André 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton (who make up the hip-hop duo OutKast), the picture, set in Depression-era Georgia, pulls as much classic American movie iconography as it can manage into its generous, loving grasp and sends it back to us with a black face. In its messy, eager fashion, Idlewild wants to create the black Hollywood glamour that never was, the first-class black musicals and gangster films and love stories no one ever made -- all in one picture. No American movie last year conveyed more joy, more life, more affection for its characters.
It's a terrible irony that a movie standing in delirious opposition to a history of ill-use should suffer the same fate. Kept on the shelf for two years by Universal, which had no idea how to sell it -- a real failure of imagination, since OutKast was becoming ever-more popular in that time -- Idlewild was finally tossed into theaters during the dead days of late August 2006, traditionally a dumping ground for the films that fall between the summer blockbusters and the autumn prestige releases. It played for a few weeks (it's now available on DVD) and garnered some of the most clueless reviews in recent memory, the worst example of the obtuseness with which American film critics have greeted the African American movies that have emerged in the last few years.
Idlewild pulls a conscious racial switcheroo, populating its medley of familiar film genres with an all-black cast. The racial switch in the other recent black movies, far less fanciful than Idlewild, is only partly about race. At root, these films are a reminder of the primary pleasures of story, character, and acting. They are also an implicit rejection of the smartass knowingness that is our current armor against emotion, and of the reduction of mainstream movies to spectacle and merchandising opportunities.
To say that even the best of these movies -- Barbershop, Drumline, Mr. 3000, Something New, and the hugely enjoyable teen-romance Save the Last Dance -- are a big deal would be to inflate their pleasures. But there's nothing cynical or jaded or embarrassed in their desire to connect with an audience. At root, these movies are something we've all seen: stories of the little guy overcoming adversity, or of people who've been looked down on fighting their way to self-respect. Often, as in Tim Story's Barbershop, a film about a South Side Chicago family man torn between trying to make his own way and honoring his family heritage and his community, these pictures mix up-by-the-bootstraps traditionalism with old-fashioned liberalism that acknowledges the social forces and human ignorance that impede people.
What's new about these movies is that they may be the first time black audiences have gotten to see familiar Hollywood scenes and stories acted out by anyone who looks like them. Some of these films have gotten good reviews. But with more and more releases churning through the theaters faster and faster, critics sometimes seem to be reviewing the hype (or lack of it) instead of the movie itself. And as the number of jobs for critics declines, the pressure on critics not to ruffle the notions already formed by prerelease publicity increases.
Coach Carter, for instance, with Samuel L. Jackson as a high-school basketball coach who ties his young players' chance to play ball to their academic performance, isn't an important movie, or an original one. But it's not a false one, either. Reading the film's reviews, I couldn't help thinking how the critics failed to take into account what the movie might mean to the audience I saw it with, a school group of black teenagers from the Bronx. The kids were sucked in by the movie's melodrama; they cheered and laughed. That doesn't make Coach Carter a good movie. But if we still believe that movies can be vehicles for the fantasies and aspirations of its audience, then that has to be part of the critical discussion, too.
I'm not arguing that critics who have panned any of the new black movies are racists, or that critics should start reviewing intentions. But we need to show we're at least aware of those intentions. And so far, at least in the overwhelmingly white critical establishment, that hasn't happened.
none of the recent black movies have been treated as uncomprehendingly as Idlewild was. The critical line was that the movie was a mishmash of clichés, veering so wildly from backstage musical to gangster melodrama to love story that it never settled on one genre. I'm embarrassed to have to point out that the movie's confusion of genres is deliberate: Idlewild is the sort of picture in which a Bible carried in a breast pocket stops a bullet; in which a bootlegger leans out of a racing Packard firing a tommy gun; and in which characters say lines like, "You've got songs the whole world needs to hear." Did critics think Barber wasn't aware of the clichés?
In Pemberton's essay, she writes that her mother, from whom she inherited her love of movies, rejected the black imitations of A-list pictures that were made for less than peanuts and played the movie equivalent of the chitlin' circuit. In love with the glamour of Hollywood, Pemberton's mom wanted the best. That's the glamour Barber wants to give audiences here. Few recent movies have looked as ravishing. Cinematographer Pascal Rabaud gives the burnished golds, deep browns, and hothouse reds of Idlewild a deep, inner glow. Barber may hate the way blacks were excluded from Hollywood's golden age, but he loves the movies those years produced. What comes through is the spirit of 1930s movies (particularly pre-code movies), the mixture of toughness and naïveté, the willingness to both crack wise and jerk tears. Idlewild follows the lifelong friendship between Rooster (played by Patton) and Percival (Benjamin). Rooster, the perennial bad boy who inherits a nightclub from his bootlegger uncle and gets in Dutch with the gangster Trumpy (a sleek and scary Terrence Howard), can't stand the thought of losing his wife or his kids, but he can't resist the carnal temptations that nightlife offers him. Percival is the polite mortician's son who dreams of being a composer and plays piano in Rooster's nightclub, falling in love with the club's new singer, Angel (Paula Patton, who has a melting movie-star beauty).
The old movie conventions -- the clinches and the fistfights, the sexy backchat and the melodramatic confrontations, the curvy chorus girls who make men moan and the pinstriped thugs who make men suffer -- are all presented straight, as if we shouldn't have to be embarrassed to admit being entertained by them. And since that movie world is already such a fantasy place, it's entirely believable when the film segues into the fantastic on a dime: Notes on a musical graph turn into stick figures playing cops and robbers; a wall full of cuckoo clocks act as Percival's backing chorus; an embossed rooster struts across Rooster's silver flask, squawking boasts and encouragement like its owner's id.
The movie, however, isn't only fantastical. The details of black middle-class life -- and lowlife -- recall the glimpses we get of black communities from the 1930s and '40s in the photography of Charles "Teenie" Harris and Henry Clay Anderson. Idlewild's strongest link to the real world comes from two of its performers, Ben Vereen (as Percival's stern father) and Cicely Tyson (as a homeless grandmother in a scene that has the emotional intensity of a great silent film). Two great talents who never had the movie careers they should have, Vereen and Tyson serve as a reminder of what Holly-wood's exclusion of blacks has cost.
What makes Idlewild so expansive and joyous isn't just the mashup of genres and conventions but the rejection of the idea that black audiences and performers should turn their backs on a tradition that turned its back on them. That way lies nothing but a morally superior form of segregation. In a movie so in love with movies, it makes perfect sense that Paula Jai Parker, as Rooster's girlfriend Rose, keeps a gelatin silver glossy of Jean Harlow on her mantle. Barber and the cast are saying of our shared movie past, "This is our history, too."
Charles Taylor is a columnist for The (Newark) Star-Ledger. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.