Wednesday, January 27, 2010



BLACKING UP- HIP-HOP’S REMIX OF RACE AND IDENTITY is a hard hitting, hour-long documentary that asks the questions about America and more specifically, hip-hop that need to be asked. What is up with these white kids who think that they are black? Do they really think that they are black? Are rappers like Vanilla Ice and Eminem following the steps of Al Jolson, and deeper still, what the hell was Al Jolson doing anyway?

Robert A. Clift, the narrator/director of this ambitious documentary, successfully takes a serious chunk out of this subject matter and serves it up coherently. The topic is charged with deep emotion and conflict. Clift manages to present multiple aspects of the argument with an historical background, and he doesn’t shy away from the questions immediately at hand.

The documentary starts with a freestyle rap battle in Bloomington Indiana in front of the Alpha Phi Omega house at Indiana University. A young, white rapper named Automattic takes a series of racially inflammatory raps to the face regarding the notion that he shouldn’t be rapping because he is white. Directly after the assault, he nervously looks into the camera and says, “It ain’t nothing man. I forgot I was white.” Automattic then proceeds to deliver his rebuttal, charged with a slightly above average series of profanity-laced, crypto-homophobic rhymes. Clift’s voiceover then asks the question, “is this is the face of new racial understanding in white America, transcending racial stereotypes, or is it reinforcing an ugly history mimicking a degraded idea of what it means to be black?”

This is a question that really can’t be answered in a documentary no matter how long it is. The truth of homage vs. mockery with these white kids rapping boils down to individuals and their individual experiences. Comedian Paul Mooney sums up the idea of white people acting like they are black (or “blacking up”) as something that will go away if he “has a rope and a posse and starts hanging niggers again, and we’ll find out who’s white and who’s black.”

There is truth to Mooney’s stance, but there is also truth to the fact that some of these white rappers do indeed love and respect the music and the culture. Shouldn’t they be allowed such freedom of expression? BLACKING UP interrogates the racial boxes in which we find ourselves deposited.

It looks into how hip-hop has influenced dance routines at a typical white high school dance squad in southern Indiana. The responses of the girls in this troupe to interview questions are interesting and speak to the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture within white society. Their routines are accepted and not considered as something racially specific or even a part of some sort of negritude. The boundaries of hip-hop have broadened to a point where aspects of it are unremarkable within mainstream white society. However, Clift juxtaposes this with the high school experience of Andrea Van Winkle, another Indianan, in which she was referred to as a “nigger-lover” because of her baggy clothes and braided hair.

Potential questions regarding this subject matter are literally endless. Clift pushes hard for the truth. He even zeroes in on all-white rap parody bands like the offensively silly CRACKD OWT and the over-blinged TOO WHITE CREW in attempts to determine the line between minstrel show mockery and imitation as the highest form of flattery.

In regards to minstrelsy, a good portion of the documentary is dedicated to Al Jolson (the white actor who has been immortalized singing, “Mammy” in blackface). Modern white fans of Jolson’s work are interviewed and scrutinized. Are they closet-racists? Or are they people who actually appreciate the music sans its heavy racial overtones? Blackface performance is queried and examined. It is even posited that Jolson loved the black culture and didn’t find his proper voice until he was painted up to look like a black man. But like most of the subjects tackled, Jolson isn’t easily dismissed or completely defined. There are opinions in regards to the subject matter though, and Clift has secured some respectable voices to present their different takes on this social conundrum.

Clift lands screentime with the poet Amiri Baraka, the rapper Chuck D (PUBLIC ENEMY), Russell Simmons (co-founder of Def Jam Records), and Greg Tate (a gifted staff-writer for THE VILLAGE VOICE). In order to completely drive this controversial subject matter home, he even presents a rather ebullient Robert Van Winkle (aka Vanilla Ice) who speaks about his career and what it all meant.

BLACKING UP is more of a musing and meditation than a definitive, absolute answer to a complex question. Should white people “pay your dues” as Paul Mooney suggests? Or should they be free to sample and adopt whatever culture they see because as the dreadlocked white girls from the dancehall flavored rap group EMPIRE ISIS argue, they have the right to self-definition.

A striking note of the complex bassline of BLACKING UP is the use of the word “wigger” which means “white nigger.” The reactions of many people are recorded, and it is fascinating to see how such a word has penetrated our language and the power that it wields.

BLACKING UP is a powerful documentary that will force you to think. It doesn’t present an answer because in truth, there is no absolute answer. This is America, a smorgasbord of cultures interacting with each other daily. This film takes a significant part of the modern American experience and asks it some hard questions. It is some truly bold, must-see viewing.

-Mediasaurus Rex

BLACKING UP broadcast times on PBS Stations



Contact M-Rex Here