Two things happened recently that inspired me to revisit a favourite sequence (or really, a film-within-a-film) from an underseen but vital American movie that turns fifty this year. The first incident was after a screening I curated, where the conversation touched on the problematic tradition of “brown-facing” an actor – or, more generally, using someone from a privileged background to play an unprivileged character (especially when the film is centred on themes like social injustice).
The second was the experience of visiting Shaheen Bagh, the hub of the Delhi protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). It was especially invigorating to be here on New Year’s Eve: to see the quiet resilience of the women leading the protest, listen to the poetry being read, the displays of subversive humour, the many little ways in which underdogs can use wit and satire to target the powerful. And yet, throughout, I was aware of my position as someone who was showing a modicum of support (for a few hours) without having much directly at stake – and with no real understanding of what it’s like to be from a class or community or demographic that is under immediate threat.
And I thought again of the virtuous white New Yorkers in “Be Black, Baby”.
This is a segment – three segments, to be exact – within Hi, Mom!, a funny, uneven, savagely political 1970 film made by Brian De Palma. The main narrative involves a deviant amateur filmmaker (played by a pre-stardom Robert De Niro) videotaping people without their knowledge, but woven into this story are the “Be Black, Baby” interludes, shot in grainy black-and-white with a handheld camera – to resemble a low-budget documentary – and scored with a catchy title track by Eric Kaz.
Here is the basic premise of “Be Black Baby”: a troupe of African-American theatre performers go around asking white people if they know what it is like to be black, and offering them firsthand experience. “You can’t intellectualize it,” a black interviewer tells his WASP respondent, “you have to live it.” What follows is a hilariously, deliberately reductive version of this “living it”.
When eager wannabe liberals show up for the participative theatre experience they were promised, they are made to edge closer and closer to the lives of those whom they claim to feel empathy for – and it’s more discomfiting than they expected. Roles are reversed: the black performers, made up in whiteface, smear soot on the faces of the white audience. (“It’s going to ruin my makeup,” squeals a woman who was clearly not expecting to be so inconvenienced) and force-feed them soul food (“To be black and to feel black, you have to eat black”).
Things quickly escalate, from a purse being taken away, to the threat of violence and rape. Just as the audience members are being assaulted by the black performers (who are now thoroughly in character as white oppressors), the De Niro character Jon shows up as a policeman. And then – this might sound familiar to anyone who has followed recent developments in Indian universities like JNU – instead of protecting the victims, the cop starts haranguing them, demanding ID, and siding with the assaulters.
Both familiar and audacious as all this is, what follows is side-splitting: once their ordeal is over and they know they are safe, the traumatized audience starts gushing about the experience. “Great theatre! I’m going to tell all my friends to come for this […] It really made you feel what it’s like to be a negro…uh, to be black.” In the end, that’s what it was for them – great theatre, to be intellectualized from a distance. The sequence is a lacerating commentary on the delusions of the well-intentioned, how someone else’s reality can be too much to handle up close no matter how righteous you are feeling – and how, once you’re confident about the status quo being restored, you easily revert to the same homilies as before.
There has been much talk about the debt that Todd Phillips’s Joker owes to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver – both films being about anarchist violence as a response to a hopelessly unjust world. But six years before De Niro’s iconic role as Travis Bickle (and half a century before his supporting part in Joker), Hi Mom! dealt with this theme too, especially in its (literally) explosive finale. And neither of those other films, for all their virtues, contain anything as formally experimental and as unnerving as the “Be Black Baby!” scenes.
[Earlier Hindu columns are here]