When is it about race?
That question has been nagging me all summer. Not because of "Crash," Paul Haggis's multi-character, multi-plot melodrama that ambitiously -- and with uneven success -- sought to examine race relations in Los Angeles. That modest art-house hit got the summer off to a promising start in terms of movies that aimed for higher things than thrills and chills.
But ironically, it's two examples of just those kinds of movies that have me thinking harder about the representation of race on-screen than "Crash" did. Neither the neo-blaxploitation drama "Hustle & Flow" nor the horror film "The Skeleton Key" are explicitly about racial politics, but their plots, characters and settings are intrinsically defined and informed by the African American experience. And both raise questions about how far cinema has come in accurately capturing that experience.
"Hustle & Flow," which opened July 22 to virtually universal rave reviews, has nonetheless tanked at the box office, perhaps partly because of the controversy it has stirred up among pundits. The movie, about a pimp who wants to become a rap star (played in an electrifying performance by Terrence Howard, fresh from his equally intense performance in "Crash"), was almost immediately derided by some influential writers when it first came out as yet one more example of Hollywood cashing in on racist and sexist images of black folk.
The author and critic Stanley Crouch called "Hustle & Flow" "the most recent neo-minstrel development in black popular culture," adding that he was even more chagrined that the movie was produced by black filmmaker John Singleton with the support of Spike Lee and Will Smith.
"This is not minor," he wrote, "because all three of these men have previously remained removed from celebrating the sort of scum that this film -- and that the worst of the rap industry -- raises high from the dung heap of popular culture at its most irresponsible and dehumanizing."
I would have agreed with Crouch before I saw "Hustle & Flow." On paper, the movie sounds awful, trafficking in stereotypes and macho poses that usually make me want to gag. But when I finally sat down to watch, I was instantly disarmed by its earnest, almost wholesome optimism and spirit. Yes, Howard's character and the drug dealers, prostitutes and petty thieves who populate his world are far from squeaky-clean role models. But as criminals, they're more akin to the characters of "Guys and Dolls" than "Scarface"; they're not "scum," as Crouch suggests, but sympathetic, if flawed, individuals who try to improve their lives. "Hustle & Flow" is another iteration of a venerable genre, the redemptive song-and-dance myth. What better milieu for a modern-day fantasy of old-fashioned American striving than the Memphis ghetto? And what more compelling musical backdrop than the streetwise poetry and infectious beats of hip-hop?
If the fairy-tale elements of "Hustle & Flow" soften its problematic edges, "The Skeleton Key," a big-budget genre picture, presents interesting conundrums. The southern Gothic horror movie, which stars Kate Hudson, proved to be more popular with audiences last weekend, earning $15.8 million at the box office. Because so much of the plot of the mystery story hinged on two black characters, it was difficult to discuss the movie's racial issues in a review without delivering some unforgivable spoilers. (Readers who plan to see "The Skeleton Key" may want to stop reading now, and save this for later.)
But, just as I have been nagged by the notion that the racial, even racist, implications of "Hustle & Flow" eluded me, I've wondered if I could have found a way to at least hint at some of the more provocative aspects of "The Skeleton Key." In the movie, Hudson's character, a hospice nurse, moves into a house haunted by the spirits of two black servants who were lynched in the 1920s, an event that is portrayed in lurid detail, right down to the gin-swilling white aristos laughingly stringing them up. "The party was over," says the house's current owner, played by Gena Rowlands (at which point I jotted down in my notebook, "And exactly whose party are you talking about, white woman?"). Later, at a pivotal point in the movie, Hudson's character says, "The black ones never stay," referring to the fact that her African American predecessors, sensing the otherworldly presence in the house, had the brains to get out.
So far so bad, right? A lynching uncritically described as "a party" and the tired "magical Negro" stereotype being trotted out yet again, depriving black characters of full personhood, relegating them instead to the story's exotically decorative margins. Except that, as "The Skeleton Key" reaches its whopper of a final twist, those lines wind up not being delivered by white characters, but by black characters being channeled by white characters. (At last Hollywood, which has always had a blind spot when it comes to casting African American actors in non-race-specific roles, seems to have found a way to cast black roles with white actors.)
In what might be the best measure of the effectiveness of a suspense story, once the coup de grace is delivered, viewers find themselves going over every line and every scene, with the result being that the black characters are really the film's leads, their spells and bumps in the night not just colorful examples of New Orleans culture but the ultimate subversive last laugh.
At least that's one argument. One could also argue that in "Hustle & Flow" and "The Skeleton Key," the filmmakers -- the writers and directors of both films are white men -- are having it both ways, perpetuating offensive cliches in the guise of celebrating black resistance and triumph. The fact that such relatively lightweight movies lend themselves to such debate suggests that American film culture can't escape the historical realities and contradictions that still vex the culture at large. Which means the question that opens this essay still has one answer. As one of the key characters in "The Skeleton Key" might put it, "Child, it's always about race."