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Review: Spike Lee Tackles African American Stereotypes in Film

“Black Folks Passing as Black Folks”

By Todd A. Smith

            What does it mean to be Black?  This question has been asked throughout the African American community for generations. 

            Does it mean that we should all share commonalities such as the music we love or the food we love to eat?  Or are all of these simply African American stereotypes that have been given to us by others and sometimes our own people?

            Spike Lee’s new documentary Passing Strange, based on the musical that earned seven Tony Award nominations is an interesting look at African American stereotypes and how it affects a young African American man named Terry who is trying to find his way in life, and does not necessarily fit into the traditional African American stereotypes.

            Despite not being a film that is entertaining in the traditional sense, Passing Strange does an admirable job in tackling an issue that has been viewed as “dirty laundry” in the African American community for quite some time.

            Though classified as a musical, Passing Strange is definitely unique in that it uses a rock band, headed by the guitar-playing lead singer Stew, as the narrator to the story.  The film focuses on a middle-class African American mother living in South Central Los Angeles in 1976, attempting to inspire her son Terry, an aspiring musician, to want more in life.

            The mother desperately wants her child to attend church, even though she does not go regularly, and the fact that they do not fit in with the Black Baptist congregation, despite sharing a similar skin tone.

            Though the church has typically been a source of strength and inspiration for people of color, according to many African American stereotypes, Terry is initially critical of the church, and the congregation in the film is referred to as a “Baptist fashion show.”  Terry doubts if God is real and says that church “ain’t nothin’ but rock-n-roll,” like the call-and-response structure of blues music, which peaks the interest of the aspiring musician.

            As the story unfolds, Terry starts to find himself more interested in his mother’s church, mainly because of his interest in a young lady in the church.  However, when he attempts to pursue her she tells him he needs to “blacken up a bit.  Not so much where you won’t be hirable, but you need more soul in your stroll,” playing on African American stereotypes of talking and acting White or Black.

            Terry finds inspiration to find himself in Europe like James Baldwin and Josephine Baker, at the urging of church member Franklin, who believes Black folks in America like them are simply, “Black folks passing as Black folks.”  Terry eventually moves to places like Amsterdam and Berlin to find himself as a person and as a musician.

            Although the film does a good job in the entertainment department, it really shines because it addresses serious issues like African American stereotypes in a lively way.  Terry does not like stereotypical Black music and does not seem to fit in at the Black church.  The protagonist simply wants to stop living a “double life” and find himself.  Hopefully audiences will find themselves thinking about African American stereotypes, and how stereotyping one’s own people can negatively affect the lives of so many.

Smith is publisher of Regal Black Men's Magazine.

This article was published on Thursday 17 September, 2009.
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