One Moment Please | Movies

When white people were made to live out black lives, in 1970 film ‘Hi, Mom!’

Black performers, made up in whiteface, smear soot on the faces of the white audience in the ‘Be Black, Baby’ sequence in the film, ‘Hi, Mom!’

Black performers, made up in whiteface, smear soot on the faces of the white audience in the ‘Be Black, Baby’ sequence in the film, ‘Hi, Mom!’  

The sequence is a lacerating commentary on the delusions of the well-intentioned

Two recent events inspired me to revisit a favourite sequence (or really, a film-within-a-film) from an underseen but vital American movie that turns 50 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 under-privileged character.

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 there 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.

Here is the basic premise of ‘Be Black, Baby’: a troupe of African-American theatre performers goes around asking white people if they know what it is like to be black, and offering them first-hand experience. “You can’t intellectualise it,” a black interviewer tells his WASP respondent, “you have to live it.” What follows is a hilariously, deliberately reductive version of “living it”.

When eager wannabe liberals show up for the participative theatre experience they were promised, they are made to edge 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 make-up,” 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.”).

Role reversal

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 traumatised 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 intellectualised 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 — and neither of those other films, for all their virtues, contains anything as formally experimental and as unnerving as the ‘Be Black, Baby’ scenes.

The Delhi-based writer and film critic finds it easier to concentrate on specific scenes as he grows older.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 7:53:48 PM |

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