The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, August 25, 2006

Idlewild (2006)

It is absolutely impossible to discuss the film Idlewild without bringing social context into it, so I will break this review into two parts.  The first deals with what I thought of this film by Outkast’s Andre Benjamen and Antwan Patton.  Then I have to examine the environment in which it was made, released, and the critical reaction to it in the frame of reference we’ve been developing on this blog. 

Idlewild is two stories of two men, friends since childhood, and the destinies that intertwine at a speakeasy tavern called “Church.”  Percival (Andre “3000” Benjamen) is an undertaker by day, and a piano playing composer by night.  Rooster (Antwan “Big Boi” Patton) is a womanizing family man and manager of Church who also performs brilliantly onstage.  Their stories touch but never exactly dovetail, and in my mind do exactly what films are supposed to do: take you someplace you’ve never been, show you things you’ve never seen.  Is it perfect?  No.  But it is exciting and at times filled with genius-level energy.  The music is often great (especially the closing number) the romance is ravishing, and the action sizzles.
I’m giving it a B+.

Stop reading now if you don’t want to hear what I really, really think.
I warned you.  I think it will bomb, and will be delighted to be wrong.  Idlewild sat on the shelf at Universal for two years, because they didn’t know what to do with it.  Why…?

Well, if you’ve been reading this blog, you know where I’m going.  The problem with Idlewild is that the entire cast is black.  That means that the romance—and sexuality—is center stage.  Wow. I can hardly believe that this got made.  And when I read the reviews (which are all divided right down the middle—hate it or love it) they bear what are, to me, tell-tale signs of that dreaded 10% disconnect we’ve talked about: the inability for people (especially males) of one group to fully identify with members of a  visually identifiable “Other.”  Most specifically, and not to beat around the bush, in this instance that means that white males aren’t going to grove to watching black males have sex.  Period.  And because it is absolutely forbidden for people to admit to their own innate racism (which, I maintain, all human beings have to some extent) it pops them out of the reality of the film, and they look at the pieces rather than the whole.

Note—you can criticize any film, any book.  The success—or audience appreciation of a book or movie isn’t like hitting a home run.  It is more accurately compared to “how loudly does the crowd roar when the ball is hit?”  There is virtually no objective standard here.  It’s all in our heads.

So look for the following cop-outs from reviewers, your neighbors, or…even yourself.
1)     “there was no magnetism between the lovers.”  Pure subjectivity.  In other words, you didn’t buy into the illusion.
2)     “The sex scenes were gratuitous.”  In other words, they didn’t turn you on. 
3)     “The fantasy sequences were bizarre.”  There were talking flasks, musical notes that come to life, full-on musical numbers, singing clocks.  Either you buy into the internal world of a character in a fantasy, or you don’t.  If you don’t buy into Gene Kelly’s love-struck actor, his “Singing in the Rain” seems insane.  Let alone dancing with Jerry Mouse. 
4)     “The plot was incoherent”  What?  I followed it just fine.  Somebody was having attention lapses.  I wonder what might have happened onscreen that turned them off and made their minds wander?
5)     Too many clichés.  Interesting.  And there are some truths to this.  But consider: “Brokeback Mountain” was one galloping cliché from beginning to end with the exception of the fact that we had NEVER seen this before—between men.  Idlewild is a miracle—I can’t believe this got made.  I really can’t.  I can’t remember the last time there was a cinematic world populated by black people who had lives and hopes and dreams and loves and pains and triumphs like this.  No, it’s not perfect, but it’s almost unique.
6)     “Two fragmented.”  Oh—as compared to, say, “Moulin Rouge”?  Oh, but there’s a big difference.  In Moulin Rouge, people were looking forward to the young lovers finding each other, kissing, making love.  Yum.  I have watched white males in dozens of film audiences flinch away from the screen when a  black man gets a love scene.  No lie. 

I could go on and on.  And maybe it will make money.  And maybe it won’t and doesn’t deserve to—it’s actually a bad film, and I can’t see that truth.  Fair enough.  But if you see it, and dislike it, I challenge you to ask yourself a  couple of questions:
     1) When was the last time you saw a love scene in a movie and enjoyed it?

2)when was the last time you saw a black man in a movie in a love scene, and   enjoyed it?

1)     When was the last time you even HEARD of a movie where a black man had a love scene, that was a critical and financial success?

If I’m right, and there are some very basic, very powerful perceptual organs in the brain that “flinch” when you see the Other, and flinch HARD when you see the “other” engaging in reproductive behavior, then remember that we have laid down a layer of socialization over that that says “Racism is bad” so often, and so loudly, that we can’t even admit to ourselves that we have a problem.  That we will dislike what we are seeing, and search desperately (and unconsciously) for a reason to justify it.  And there is always a reason to dislike ANYTHING.

So if you don’t like “Idlewild,” and it’s been years since you’ve seen a movie in which a black man had sex, and enjoyed it, you might just wonder if the problem isn’t on the screen. The problem might be in the mirror.

I loved Idlewild.  I can’t imagine the creative and business hurdles it had to overcome to be made.  The frustrations as white executives at Universal hmmed and hawed and tried to justify their discomfort and dismay.  I think that if this same film, modified culturally, had been made by white artists of similar stature, and contained images as culturally unique as what we find here, the filmmakers would be called geniuses.

If a movie plays in the forest, and there is no one to see it, did it make a sound?

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