Tag Archives: Race

366 UNDERGROUND: DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO (2013)

Destination: Planet Negro!

DIRECTED BY: Kevin Willmott

FEATURING: Kevin Willmott, Tosin Morohunfola, Danielle Cooper, Trai Byers

PLOT: In order to flee early-20th century racism and find a new home for African Americans, physicist Warrington Avery and a crack squad of Black adventurers attempt a trip to Mars, only to have their rocket ship sucked through a worm hole which transports them into the jarring reality of modern-day America.

Still from Destination Planet Negro (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “time-traveling fish-out-of-water” story is a cinematic trope with a long pedigree. That these time-travelers are Black luminaries from the 1930s is something a novelty, but Destination: Planet Negro plays by the rules in an expected, but not unpleasant, manner.

COMMENTS: Having another socially conscientious movie be next on my to-do list could be viewed as a punishment for me by those who may have taken issue with my diatribe about Arabian Nights. However, my dislike of that movie did not stem from its progressive agenda, but from its wanting for anything remotely approaching “entertainment.” It was no small relief that Kevin Willmott’s satirical piece, Destination: Planet Negro (DPN) proved to be quite amusing and watchable, in addition to proffering some salient observations about modern and historical race issues.

My lingering frustration put aside, let me dive into the movie at hand. DPN starts right off with a sense of place: crisp black and white film sets the tone, and after opening-credits over a cosmic montage, we jump to an assemblage of Black luminaries in 1939. These top African-Americans are gathered to discuss, as one describes it, “the Negro problem.” Not finding the United States welcoming, nor being keen on moving to Africa (too much poverty), Europe (risk of exotification), or the U.S.S.R. (these gents are no commies), Dr. Warrington Avery (Kevin Willmott) informs the august crowd that he has a plan to colonize the Red Planet for the Black Man. The skeptics are assuaged by none other than George Washington Carver. However, some of the attendees inform the local police, so Dr. Avery, his astronomer daughter Beneatha (Danielle Cooper), speed-demon Captain “Race” Johnson (Tosin Morohunfola), and a clumsy robot with a cracker personality are forced to take the trip on the fly.

At about the half-hour mark, the movie changes from black and white to color, as the space adventurers crash-land on a far off planet. The joke’s on them, though: it’s the same planet and same country, just 75 years later. And so DPN moves on from historical commentary to  contemporary commentary. A run-in with Hispanic laborers in the back of a van suggests to them that slavery exists here. Observing a young black man making a purchase at a convenience store convinces them he’s a slave: no eye contact, no words from the black man to the white cashier. DPN continues in this vein, ably expounding on the many similarities of treatment, though occasionally veering into the realm of the silly. In particular, the montage involving “Race” Johnson learning how to “walk like a Black guy” shouldn’t have been included, much less gone on for as long as it did.

All told, DPN is a fun diversion for those seeking some observations about race relations. It didn’t surprise me upon researching DPN that Kevin Willmott was the driving force behind 2004’s speculative “documentary” C.S.A.: the Confederate States of America. There, too, he used the powers of humor and satire to make his point, all the while maintaining an appreciably light touch. Willmott seems aware that hitting people over the head with a blunt cinematic object can be counter-productive when making one’s point. While some more pruning could have helped it better maintain its momentum (after the crash-landing scene, the movie itself nearly crashes), that criticism could be laid against most movies. In brief: not weird, but not bad.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…highly recommended, provided you’re in the mood for a campy, low-budget sci-fi whose cheesy special effects are more than offset by a profusion of insightful social statements.”–Kam Williams, Baret News Network (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Arnold Johnson, Robert Downey, Sr. (voice), , Antonio Fargas

PLOT: Putney Swope, the token African American on the board of a Madison Avenue

Still from Putney Swope (1969)

advertising firm, is accidentally elected Chairman of the Board on a secret ballot; he renames the agency “Truth and Soul Advertising,” fires most of the whites and replaces them with Black Panthers, and catapults the firm into a major force in American life.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Putney Swope retains a razor-like satirical focus while simultaneously dealing in jokes that, for the most part, are so nonsensical that Monty Python would have rejected them for being too oblique and absurd.

COMMENTS: After Putney Swope becomes chairman of a major advertising firm, he’s approached by Mark Focus, a freelance photographer looking for work. Focus shows Swope his portfolio; Swope says that he’s the best he’s ever seen and that he has a job for him, and asks how much he costs. Focus responds with a high figure, but Swope keeps talking him down: “it’s going in the New York Times, not an art gallery.” Finally, Focus agrees to do the job for free. “I can get anybody for nothing,” Swope says. “Take a walk.” The exchange is funny, but it’s not at all clear why. Did Putney just negotiate himself out of a deal by convincing himself that anyone willing to work for free was not worth hiring, despite the fact that he knew Focus was immensely talented? Or was the entire dialogue a set-up, a way for a bitter Swope to turn the tables and humiliate a white guy who’s at his mercy? Is Swope a genius, an idiot, or a just a shaggy dog? I’ll go with the last option. Consider the fact that Focus returns to the movie, this time while Swope is in bed with his fiancée, and delivers the exact same pitch; then, he shows up yet again and repeats the same spiel, only this time to the President of the United States (who, we should point out, is a pot-smoking German dwarf)! Neither Putney Swope, the character, or Putney Swope, the movie, ever makes too much sense. The movie makes its point about the absurdities of power structures—whether corporate, political, social or racial–by presenting their players as absolute lunatics out of touch with reality. Swope was a giant leap forward for Downey in terms of technical quality, but when it was released, critics panned it, expecting to see a conventional satire and nonplussed by Downey’s bizarre sense of humor. Still, Downey could do straightforward comedy when he wanted to: the ad parodies, the only parts of the film that are in color, are often classic, especially the ad for “Face Off” pimple cream. An interracial couple sing a sweet and slightly obscene love song as they stroll hand and hand through a park in autumn; they gaze into each others eyes and croon touching lines like “A pimple is simple, if you treat it right; my man uses Face Off, he’s really out of sight—and so are his pimples.” There is a vague plot, as the power Swope inherits threatens to corrupt him (he begins his career by promising not to pimp cigarettes, liquor or war toys, but he agrees to use a rhythm and blues singer to sell window cleaner as a soft drink in the ghetto). There’s also a Muslim brother who dresses like a sheik and plans to betray Swope, a President pressuring Putney to drop all his ad campaigns and push defective cars instead, and an assassination attempt, but none of these storylines are treated with much seriousness; the movie prefers to move from punchline to punchline rather than from plot point to plot point. Besides the unapologetically stereotyped racial humor, the one potentially divisive point is Downey’s decision to dub all of Arnold Johnson’s dialogue himself, so that Putney Swope speaks like a Brooklyn Jew while everyone around him is talking in Harlem soul brother jive. The effect is surreal, but I found it more distracting than funny. Although Downey claims he did it because Johnson couldn’t read his lines properly, the dubbing comes off as a narcissistic stunt (couldn’t a black actor who wasn’t also the director have dubbed Johnson?) Still, Putney Swope hits the funny bone more often than it misses—it may not be Downey’s weirdest movie, but it is his funniest and most beloved.

Perhaps the most interesting footnote to Putney Swope concerns the curious case of Pepi Hermine, the German dwarf actor who plays the President here. The First Lady is played by Ruth Hermine, Pepi’s sister, which gives their bedroom scenes together a little bit of incestuous spice. Pepi’s only other movie credit came the very next year, when he played the Director in Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small. By retiring after making Swope and Dwarfs back to back, Hermine managed to keep his brief résumé 100% weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Robert Downey’s sense of the ridiculous is employed in a spotty, punchline kind of comic usage… less revealingly witty then merely clever.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND – RACE WAR: THE REMAKE (2011)

366 Underground is an occasional feature that looks at the weird world of contemporary low- and micro-budget cinema, the underbelly of independent film.

DIRECTED BY: Tom Martino

FEATURING: Howard Calvert, Jamelle Kent, Matt Rogers, Kerryn Ledet, Danny McCarty, Joe Grisaffi

PLOT: Baking Soda & G.E.D., a pair of misguided drug dealers, find themselves out of

Still from Race War: The Remake (2011)

customers when a new group of traffickers invade their hood with an alien form of smack. With only their friend “Kreech Da Black Kreecha from a Lagoon” at their side, the two crack heads—armed and ready—must fight their way back to the top.

COMMENTS: When I first saw the poster for Race War: The Remake, my first thought was that it was probably going to be the best part of the movie… your opinion may well vary.  But, if your taste runs towards Tromaesque spectacle and you have an ample supply of beer and bongloads to get you through the running time, then this will definitely make your weekend!

There’s some talent floating around in this bowl: Calvert and Kent make a decent pair of stoner badass heroes (with Calvert radiating a Rudy Ray Moore vibe), and the effects are decent.  Most of the other cast members hide under masks or disguises so embarrassment is not an issue here. What works against the film is mostly the past 30 years or so of Troma-type grossout humor and movies that a good portion of the audience has been exposed to.  There’s nothing new here. Which, if you’re calling your film Race War, means that a good opportunity has largely been wasted.  There’s still room for some biting racial comedy with no limits to step up and become the modern day equivalent of a Blazing Saddles or even a Darktown Strutters.

But this ain’t it.  At best, this is a group of friends screwing around on several weekends to make a party film… which, for some, ain’t bad, if there’s enough alcohol and weed around.  For others, it’s more like, ‘been there, done that”.

DWN Productions – Official site