In the past two weeks I’ve had the pleasure of watching two remarkable films, both of which have gotten deserved acclaim: “Fences” and “Moonlight”.
I won’t be spoiling anything so don’t worry if you haven’t seen these films. I’m not into film critique. This post is related more to the thoughts and feelings, memories and experiences, that watching these films, particularly from here in Japan, have inspired.
So bear with me if you will.
Remember when the story broke a few years back regarding the SONY emails that got hacked / leaked? No? Well, here’s the gist:
“I believe that the international motion picture audience is racist — in general pictures with an African-American lead don’t play well overseas. When Sony made Equalizer they had to know that Denzel opens pics domestically, however the international gross would be somewhat limited.”
This was from the email of an unnamed producer.
That producer however was referring primarily to Hollywood films. Denzel’s film, “The Equalizer” was the film in question (which ironically had garnered 49% of its gross from the international box office).
How much truth there is to the statement in that email is, well, neither here nor there. I know racism exists in other markets besides the American marketplace. That’s a nonstarter. And I know that living here in Japan, amid what that producer might call a racist international motion picture audience, if it ain’t Will Smith or another black actor with a name as recognizable as his as the lead, it’s unlikely to get much play. I bear witness to that. Hell, some white leads be lucky if they get significant play up in this piece. But I have my doubts about that effect having as its cause the racism of the Japanese audience. I think it’s just as likely that Hollywood has perhaps gotten so used to serving up mediocrity and having an international marketplace lap it up to the tune of billions of dollars, that any time that figure dips below a ridiculously unwarranted return on their investment, they start looking for scapegoats.
But, I don’t want to focus on the quality or lack of quality coming out of Hollywood. It is what it is and it’ll improve when we, the consumers, demand, with our wallets, that it does. until then, we deserve what we get, be that Kevin Spacey or Kevin Hart.
Instead, I want to share the train of thought watching these films took me on, my ruminations on the power of media, its impact on the mindset of that above mentioned international marketplace, particularly as it pertains to black people. So, please, bear with me.
Loco in Cap-Haitien 2002
Back in Feb 2002, I actually got my first passport stamp, taking my first extended trip abroad. I was visiting a friend in Haiti, and stayed for 3-weeks in what, previous to my trip, I estimated might be the most dangerous island in the Caribbean, turned out to be the most awesome of all the islands I would eventually visit in the West Indies. I won’t dwell too much on this trip for the purposes of this piece, but suffice it to say Haiti is NOT what Americans have been lead to believe she is. She’s much, MUCH more.
The Haitians sent me back to the States with some mental and spiritual お土産 omiyage, souvenirs that I’ve taken with me wherever I’ve gone since then. I’ll only touch on one of these in this piece though.
The friend I was staying with, an American, was down there working in microfinancing and had a château in a relatively well to do area of Port au Prince. She had been living there for several years at the time and spoke both French and Kreyol, the Haitian patois. This trip, as per her clever planning, was during the carnival season there, so basically Haiti was in celebratory mode. Imagine an entire country having a two-week long damn near bacchanal. Like Mardi Gras without a white face in sight, and no one throwing beads and shit at you.
At the time, Haiti was also kinda pre-celebrating its bicentennial, two hundred years since it became the first black republic in the west, a feat accomplished in arms by the ancestors of these people, slaves at the time, who revolted against Napoleon’s France and took their independence. Imagine the pride derived from that! Imagine the party that celebrates that! That’s what it means to be Haitian. And as an African-American, descendent of a people who weren’t as fortunate, who rebelled and failed numerous times, this shit was totally alien to my sensibilities. But it provoked an overwhelming admiration in me that persists til this day.
At one point during my stay there, we made our way up north to Cap Haitien (ya’ll can google the fascinating history of this part of the island) and stayed in a hotel thereabouts. Fancy joint, devoid of tourists, and while my friend took care of business, I was alone, chilling in their open air lounge with sofas and mounted TVs and whatnot, catching the breeze off the beach nearby. There were a number of staff people around of course. All Haitian, some of whom had probably never really seen a young black American man in real life, particularly one who had disposable income enough for leisure travel and could stay in such luxury (though it was cheaply priced comparatively), judging from their openly bewildered looks. They’d been warned by management not to disturb the guests, but they found me too fascinating to ignore. They couldn’t speak a lick of English, so communication was hit-and-miss, but they managed to make their queries understood in a number of creative ways, and in this manner we had conversations where they could establish where I was from, what I did for a living, etc…
Now, while some of these maids and waiters might have had TVs at home (and that’s a big effin’ might), very few if any had satellite TV which beamed in channels like CNN, MTV and BET. However this hotel did, for guest, and the staff took full advantage of this perk on their break times. Everyone knew what time Rap City came on, I noticed, because it seemed waiters came out of the woodwork then. Even changed the channel from the news show I was watching on CNN unapologetically. This was their time! And they probably suspected that this young black man, from NYC no less, would MUCH rather watch some black folk performing the art form we perfected than some old white guys flapping their gums. Presumptuous of them, I thought, but I said fuck it, they’ve got me outnumbered, and I wasn’t about to make a fuss with people who cook my food.
During the entire program not a peep was heard. Pure concentration, mesmerization really. Short musical movies, starring guns and drugs, blood and guts, sirens and cuffs, tits and ass, dancing and fucking, bling-bling and bang-bang… Like video poems, some so juvenile a child could grasp it, some so complex they’ve yet to be grasped. Image after image after image I watched with these people, torn between dignity and disgrace.
Their silence was ominous. But as soon as the credits rolled, cheers and high fives and what not all around. Then something happened that has left an indelible impression on me.
The guys, they kinda code-switched right before my eyes. Their postures, their mannerisms, even their facial expressions changed, transforming these quaint upright island laborers into entities I knew intimately a thousand miles north of there in NYC!!
Then, THEN, they started rappin’! IN ENGLISH!!
Their accents were strong as fuck so it was difficult to make out all the words…but some of the lyrics literally leaped off their lips:
MONEY-MAKIN’. DOUGH TAKING. GUCCI-ROCKING. BOOT-KNOCKIN’. BITCH-BAGGING. ASS-TAPPING. HOE-PIMPING. BRAIN-GETTING. MAD BITCH-SCRAPING. BABY MAMA MAKIN’. CHRONIC-SMOKIN’. ROCK-SLINGING. GAT-PACKING. TOOL TOTIN’. CAP BUSTIN’. 9-MILLIE DRIVE-BY. UZI-SPRAYING NIGGAS!!!
I just sat there, astounded by this litany of slang and profanity. Like Eddie Murphy said in one of his routines about “The Fuck You Man.” I thought Eddie was joking. He wasn’t.
A sort of cipher ensued, and evidently I’d been elected judge of this Cap-Haitien open mic. No doubt, in their minds, my point of origin over-qualified me for this honor. They kept grinning in my direction, checking if my reaction to their skills would reveal how impressed, or not, I was by their individual ability to spit slurs. Though they were just running off Tupac, Biggie and some other choice rappers’ lyrics, a couple of them were actually quite gifted at it — particularly for people who had little idea what they were saying. If I were Russell Simmons or Puff Daddy, I would have been thinking how to pimp and brand this tropical hip hop: Haiti Hop? Cap-Trap?
But –being me– I was thinking, “Geezus, what the fuck?!”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I ain’t no prude or anything. I spit slurs and admire many a slur-spitter. I drop profanity at a drop of a hat. It’s just that living in the states most of my life, it’s hard to get a feel for how our products, our representations, translates in minds abroad, and the ramifications of that translation.
And it’s not like I hadn’t had similar thoughts when I first realized that hip hop had gone suburban, that black Americans were no longer the sole consumers of our product, and that white kids were trying to figure out how to recite NWA without dropping “nigga” every other sentence. I did. I just didn’t pay it
much enough mind, then. I didn’t think it through. I didn’t have to.
But, as I sat having my first face-to-face encounter with the international reach of my hometown creation’s growing global cultural influence, knowing these Cap-Haitien hip hop video connoisseurs were accrediting hip-hop to me as acting representative of the lives they’d just consumed on-screen, I seriously wondered: is this how the whole world views us? And should I care if they do?
Two years later I moved to Japan…
Part 2 coming soon…