Change You Can Believe In
Shaka Kings Newlyweeds and Neil Drummings Big Words
This is a rough time for dreamers, the late Obama era. Brooklyn is full of them, scuffling along, pretending this is still a city kind to their dying tribe. Bloomberg certainly isn’t, he of the stop-and-frisk and “growth is good for everyone” (even when it isn’t) doctrine, preening on his way out like some gussied-up stork. Of course, waves of politicians sell hopes and dreams wantonly. Bloomie never did that, God bless him. His style was more in the vein of “never admit you’re wrong,” strict technocratic confidence, and “most entitled man in the room” braggadocio. Dreams come cheap anyways. Just ask the dreamer-in-chief. Your fond memories of the promise of the ’08 campaign sell for half a cent on the dollar these days. Perhaps they always have.
The lovers at the center of Shaka King’s wonderful and unfortunately-titled new film Newlyweeds, opening this month at Film Forum, are young, black dreamers of Kings County, just like many of the 90 percent of county residents who came out to vote for Barack Obama in the fall of 2008. The two are flatmates drifting through a romance both chemical and genuine: Amari Cheatom’s Lyle is a repo man for a rent-to-own electronics and appliance store while Trae Harris’s Nina is a museum tour guide; both are frequently stoned. He’s a little angry and she’s not; neither of them, it turns out, is a particularly good listener (she dreamily talks of going to the Galapagos, for instance—Lyle isn’t savvy enough to realize she’s serious). Despite this, they’re funny together and create a blazed-out cocoon where they can mutually blot out the troublesome world around them. There is plenty to blot out.
Class tensions exist on the periphery of the relationship. She’s a member of the Brooklyn Brownstone black bourgeois, he is not, and the unspoken context of much of their interpersonal troubles throughout the picture, especially those pertaining to her Cosby-ready Brooklynite parents, is that his work and class background are somehow beneath her. They proceed with their affairs, undaunted by this possibility until the law’s dark hand descends on both of them for blunders that bespeak not just the consequence of pot on otherwise nimble minds, but also the lot of any two young black people caught in a justice system that now often functions as a revenue generator for the prison industrial complex. The two face a crossroads long prescribed, and not just by her penchant of bringing by seemingly affable scholarly brothers who hit on her, or her inability to keep her fresh baked pot brownies out of the hands of nosy grade-schoolers on a museum tour.
The movie asks the question: do the ties that bind these young potheads, for better and for worse, appear stronger than the forces of increasingly entrenched economic immobility that might otherwise drive them apart? Towards the end, the narrative eventually forces them to ask these questions of themselves in a series of quite beautiful scenes that are simultaneously satisfying and ambiguous. Even if they do remain together, what future do they have? By film’s end, our heroes, like most young black couples in Bed-Stuy, don’t have a definitive answer and neither do we.
What new horizon could possibly await Lyle? He’s not a particularly cunning or deft character, one who’s entire conception of adult happiness revolves around marijuana, but is nevertheless honest and compassionate, someone who tries—often with disastrous results—to give the benefit of the doubt to poor people who’s debt-laden goods its his job to take.
While Nina has the support structure of a traditionally middle-to-upper-middle class black family to lean on, Lyle has none of this, and is subtly looked down upon by Nina’s elders for it. If after watching this film you’re not inclined to ask, “Are black people looking out for each other in Obama’s America, regardless of class and creed, by building institutions that foster our common good?” I won’t hold it against you. But I was.
Fifty years after the March on Washington, the failures of the black bourgeois political class are everywhere—in cities like Detroit, Newark, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, each of which celebrated with great fanfare the election of a black mayoral savior for the aughts. Their various electoral triumphs foreshadowed Obama’s unlikely rise and, less fortunately, his lack of executive savvy, his courageousness, reputation, and image coming at the cost of effective governance. The denizens of said class couldn’t have less to say about it of course, in this politics of symbols and little substance. The height of tokenism was upon us in this age of discontent and those that played the tokens did so happily. Haute black cultural prestige was everywhere, and yet our kids were more embattled, our neighborhoods more indebted, a third of our men in jail for 25 years going. All the President’s Men were following our every move through the night, and out into the virtual space. This was a man you trusted in your bones and at your own peril.
Of course, the failures of said class are not all the President’s fault. In fact, not at all. They’re much larger than him. And the dangers facing the rest of the community stretch back much further and beguile any attempt at simple, Moynihanian explanation, as Ta-Nehisi Coates recently pointed out in an Atlantic blog post titled “More Baguettes and Black Families.” Violent crime, teen pregnancies, and the out of wedlock birthrate have all spiked and declined in black communities over the last half-century, but “one thing has remained stable—the woeful economic status of the African-American community.”
Some things haven’t remained stable though. Such as the black incarceration rate, which has soared since the early ’70s, concurrent of course with the implementation of the drug war. In these dying days of marijuana prohibition, when even John McCain can muse on national TV about the possibility of the war on marijuana being abandoned (he dare not speak of disastrous consequences for large swathes of his fellow citizens directly), Barack Obama, former middle class member of a stoner circle called the “Choom gang,” still believes, at least publicly, that people like Lyle and Nina belong in jail. Of course, a reasonable person must assume in order to retain their sanity that he doesn’t actually believe that. It’s less depressing to assume that he just doesn’t find it politically expedient to claim he doesn’t.
But this might be the least of our disappointments.
You see, it never got better. At least for those of us without stock portfolios. Or those saddled by student loans. And #44 never made us reckon with the sins of the past, be they on Wall Street or Guantanamo Bay or Haditha, Iraq. The most courageous of those who in later years have tried to force us to, like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, have been exiled, tortured, or jailed. As good as he was at allowing us to imagine a better future, at least way back then (way back in 2008!), he was never good at leading us there. Or at taking stands that were the logical and difficult extension of his pretenses toward justice (legal, economic, global) and inclusion and a better world for all. Did he even promise and attempt that, or was it all just obfuscation? It’s easy to forget. I was high for most of it, after all. Now, it’s almost like all of us have forgotten what it was like, him and us, to believe in our ability to effect change for the better in a profound way, to reach for utopia in our time. We also do this, the forgetting, at our great peril.
But not Neil Drumming. He remembers. In his debut feature film Big Words, a dramedy about three ex-rappers which opened in New York and Los Angeles from Sundance darling Ava DuVernay’s African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement in July, the filmmaker grapples with that historic day and night when over a hundred million of us turned out to the polls to defeat a failed status quo and made Barack Obama the first non-white President of the United States. Drumming examines that day by meditating on the lives of three mildly broken-spirited black men of Brooklyn, each of them struggling with or making excuses for ignoring Election Day 2008 in Kings County. This proves a valuable way to frame a narrative about the difficulties of overcoming the past and of forging new identities for yourself when you’re an American black man.
This same spirit of a failed status quo punctuates the drama in Big Words. John, one of Drumming’s three ex-rappers who have grown apart in the 15 years since the dissolution of their critically praised rap group, is an ex-con and gifted lyricist. He’s fired from his tech job when we meet him and told to suck it up by his white employer because, after all, the country is going to elect Barack Obama, black President #1—everything was going to be better. John spends the day navigating a strip club and having a meeting with a very attractive black woman, but he is simultaneously emotionally needy and unavailable, and more damningly, he has a past to suppress, one which is getting in the way of him changing into the person he needs to become to be happy. That he can’t tell her he’s been to jail, that he wants to play down his past as a rapper, for this welcoming but still slightly classier-than-thou girl, throws into stark relief a petite drama of negro status anxiety that the movies rarely capture. And when it isn’t stress, or dementia, or torture, or true poverty, that drives most people slowly out of their minds, it’s status anxiety. It wasn’t for no reason that the late great black crime novelist Chester Himes once opined, “Obviously and unavoidably, the black American is the most neurotic, complicated, schizophrenic, unanalyzed, anthropologically advanced specimen of mankind in the history of the world.”
A difficult past with contemporary consequences, ones we’re shamed into not acknowledging, or forgetting, or at least not being too loud about, is the lot of many black men in Big Words, including John’s cousin James, who is gay and out of the closet, albeit mostly so in the context of his well-heeled publishing industry gig. He spends the day like Mrs. Dalloway, unhappily preparing for his election party, white assistant in tow—one who, surprisingly in the white collar world he’s advanced himself, knows all about his exploits as a hip-hop wunderkind a decade and a half before, seeing as he’s the son of a hip-hop scholar who is indulging in a bit of it himself. Not just any hip-hop wunderkind, mind you. The type who spewed the vitriolic anti-homosexual lyrics that were—and in many quarters still are—a dominate feature of popular rap music. A romance brews just under one of their interactions, as they drive around Brooklyn in suits in the black gay man’s nice car. There is an election party to prepare for, however, and a likely mildly jealous boyfriend, also white, and a number of white lesbians, who will be waiting to celebrate in reverence and tears. So things remain on the platonic tip, especially seeing how this young man might blow the cover off a suppressed past if things heated up.
The other character in Big Words still plies his trade as a barely/non-employed hip-hop artist, burning the candle for a bygone era of the form like some latter-day Brand Nubian, headphones constantly wrapped around his neck. He gets involved in various hijinks during the day: he flirts with a bartender, manages his crumbling relationship with a girlfriend who rightly thinks him no good, and floats amiably throughout Brooklyn, in neighborhoods once more chocolate than Hershey’s, where these days you can’t throw a stone without hitting a gentrifier.
None of them is through with the past, or with each other, and the mutual disaffection they share is palpable, even as the film’s tone hews mostly toward light dramedy. At the film’s end, much like in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, we know these men will never be as close as they were. Ultimately what they’ll reveal to each other is how little difference their solidarity would make, and how the disappointments of the past are all bound up with their present. Surely, Obama will become one of these disappointments. Sadly, they don’t know it yet.
Newlyweeds is playing at the Film Forum 1209 W Houston St New York, NY 10014
More information about Big Words is available at the film's website, www.bigwordsthemovie.com.