Monday, June 4, 2012

Welcome to My Mortuary--

The Teratology of Tales from the Hood

Never take off the shades.

Setting is not a substitute for plot, but it is often used as a substitute for effort. In his multidecade career, Jason Voorhees was sent to Hell, Manhattan and even space, as though he was trapped in an episode of Quantum Leap, hoping each sequel would be his leap home. Not to be outdone, the Leprechaun was sent to space as well. Three years later he traveled to the true final frontier: the Hood. Leprechaun in the Hood (2000) places one absurd cultural stereotype inside another absurd cultural stereotype like some Turducken-style hatemonger metaphor. The filmmakers couldn’t have offended more if they catered a function honoring the Irish ambassador and the leaders of the NAACP with a punch bowl filled with fried chicken and Lucky Charms.

With new, bigotry flavored marshmellows.

Leprachaun in the Hood wasn't the first film to use the Hood as its stage: In 1995, Spike Lee’s studio, Forty Acres & A Mule Filmworks, released Tales from the Hood:

The camera pans across a dull gray surface filled with peaks and valleys. A flash of metal pulls into view—a small caliber hand gun. Cut to a tooth with the numbers "666" etched into it. Pull back to the whole of these parts: a skeleton smoking a massive blunt, holding a gun, its head wrapped in a bandana.

Welcome to Tales from the Hood.

We join three young black men as they walk towards a mortuary in the dead of night hoping to buy drugs. A door opens to reveal an eccentric mortician, played by Clarence Williams III, who channels a mixture of Vincent Price and Cornel West. He’ll lead them to "the shit"—but they must first hear four tales of horror.

Horror stories reflect the fears of the story tellers, and the four stories show there was much to fear if you were black in the mid-'90s. The assault on Rodney King occurred in 1991 and is echoed in "Rogue Cop Revelation," in which a black police officer is forced into collusion to protect three white officers after they beat a prominent community activist to death. The piece bleeds racial tension; one of the cops is named Strom, most likely after anti-segregationist senator Strom Thurmond, while the activist is named Morehouse after the historic black university. Billie Holliday cries out the mournful tune "Strange Fruit" as the cops' batons rise and fall on the bloody Morehouse. In "KKK Comeuppance," a racist ex-Klan politician beats a slave-spirit-possessed doll with an American Flag.

This really says it all, doesn't it?

In "Hard Core Convict," a black gang member is exposed to "behavioral modification," which intercuts sequences of him wearing a white balaclava while he robs and kills other black people with archival photos of hooded Klan members triumphant in front of hanging black corpses. Tales from the Hood offsets these gut twisting scenes with our mortician host, who feasts on the scenery like a vampire at a blood bank.

The pieces are exciting: The prominent car chase in "Rogue Cop Revelation" has police vehicles careening into interstate traffic. The effects dazzle: "Boys Do Get Bruised" features a man being molded like Gumby, this occurring after a painful description of child abuse. Like a balanced album, Tales from the Hood offsets intense sequences with something light.

He puts the "fun" in funerals.

The major difference between Tales and many of its imitators is its portrayal of black professionals. They are police officers, teachers, academics; "Hard Core Convict" has a black female mad scientist, effectively breaking two social barriers for the price of one (honestly, try to think of one other black female mad scientist). Most of the black adults in Snoop Dogg's Hood of Horrors (2006) are gang members or in the music industry, missing the point entirely. Tales from the Hood isn’t written around a physical location of poverty and crime, but a cultural location, a mindscape filled with steep peaks and dangerous valleys, where the real horrors are inequality and injustice. It’s both the genesis and the best of its subgenre, and until other filmmakers stop focusing on its setting instead of its message, it will never be exceeded.

1 comment:

  1. Everything about that first paragraph is composed of pure awesome. Well done.

    I had completely forgotten about this film. It's one of those I saw on HBO when I was 13 and promptly forgot about. I'll have to give it another go around as an adult, now that my sense aren't clouded by teen-angst and hormones.