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Look on the black side

By John Patterson
March 9, 2006

Black History Month is a relatively recent phenomenon here in the US, about as old as the 24-year-old Martin Luther King national public holiday (the one most white bosses refuse to pay you for). And like MLK Day, it falls in February, the least friendly, the coldest and, as more than one African-American comic has noted, the shortest month of the year.

Still, it helps to get the medicine down when Black History Month comes to an end on the six-month mark after Hurricane Katrina - which made it obvious to a hitherto somnolent American public that there was poverty in the US, and it had a mainly black face. Which is depressing but, at the very least, useful.

In terms of movies, however, Black History Month ended with a mini-cornucopia of mainly small and interesting black movies all arriving in Los Angeles around the same time. In this small, ill-funded, always embattled sector of black cultural endeavour, we can still find several reasons to be cheerful. As the Oscars celebrate Paul Haggis's inch-deep Crash (which will be a worthy Black History Month classroom-discussion film by next year, count on it), films by young black film-makers are by turns scrappy, dissident, deeply pessimistic, wised-up and, just occasionally, transcendent.

Dave Chappelle's Block Party, directed by Michel Gondry, comes from the sharpest and most successful black comedian of the moment. It's Chappelle's first new work since walking away from his massively popular TV show last year in mysterious circumstances. He gathered together a dozen of his favourite politically aware hip-hop performers (including the Fugees, who got back together especially for the occasion) for a concert interspersed with comedy, and the result is insanely upbeat, intelligent and enjoyable. It did more than respectable business last weekend, when the box office charts were topped by another black hit, Madea's Family Reunion.

Something of the spirit of Chappelle's television show is alive in writer-director Kevin Wilmott's CSA: Confederate States of America, an aggressively satirical speculation on what a night of American TV might look like a century after a southern victory in the civil war. CSA fills us in on how Lincoln fled to Free Canada and slavery was saved, but Wilmott also inserts slave-insurance adverts, announcements by the government's Office of Racial Quality, clips from the Slave Shopping Network and movie spoofs like "I Married an Abolitionist!"

No less horrifying, in some ways, is Marshall Curry's fly-on-the-wall political documentary Street Fight, about a vicious 2000 election between an incumbent, machine-style black mayor of Newark, appropriately named Sharpe James, and his young challenger, also black, Cory Booker. James is mired in scandal and feels no compunction about loosing the hounds on Booker's team, using police to remove him from public places, city workers to remove his fliers, and bullying supporters' businesses with spurious fines and closures.

Told mainly from Booker's perspective, it's a nailbiter worthy of The Best Man and might make a perfect double bill with Dirty, a low-budget, utterly nightmarish dirty-cop thriller. Cuba Gooding, long Awol in terrible movies, plays a crooked cop who takes on his even worse colleagues in a scandal that reaches from top to bottom of a dirty, dirty town. It's as if someone has remade a despairing old blaxploitation classic like Detroit 9000 or Across 110th Street and relocated it from the crumbling Rust Belt to the sun-beaten flatlands of Los Angeles.

And it's another cause for mild celebration about the state of black and black-centric filmmaking down in certain no-budget pockets of the industry where creativity evidently still thrives.

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