Tuesday, February 16, 2010



BLACKING UP is a documentary that will make you think. A shorthand view of what is presented is basically the effect of hip-hop on white American society and a querying of the concept of “white rappers.” There is also an incisive look at the posture of hip-hop within white American culture, and a rather complete takedown of the word, “wigger.” I watched it several weeks ago and wrote up a review of it here: http://mediasaurs.blogspot.com/2010/01/blacking-up-badass-documentary-review.html.

But I still had questions regarding the film and the concepts behind it, so I was fortunate enough to secure BLACKING UP’s director Robert Clift for a follow-up interview. This is a man that has thought the subject all the way through. His responses below are rather fascinating.

What was the inspiration behind tackling this touchy subject?

The idea for the film came after moving to Bloomington, IN to start graduate school at Indiana University. I was living in an on-campus apartment with other graduate students, right next to 3 fraternities. IU is what people call a “dry campus,” which basically means people hide their drinking a bit more than on other campuses. Because of this, most of the frat parties seemed to be indoors. But one day, toward the end of the Spring semester, one of the frats had a party outside that was very, very loud. I looked out my window and there were about 100 people, a podium set up, a dj, some very large speakers, a bunch of kegs, those red drinking cups and banners announcing that it was that particular fraternity’s “annual hip-hop battle.” The scene struck me; it probably wouldn’t today, but it did then. I had never seen a hip-hop event made up almost entirely of white people. Wow, I thought, all these white kids in the middle of Indiana, 30 minutes from the alleged birthplace of the KKK, listening to hip-hop on a sunny spring day. I wanted to know more. . . . . So I grabbed my camera and went over to the battle. When I got through the crowd and to the podium, the finalists were on stage. One was white and one was black. It was like the setting for the ending of “8 Mile,” except the racial dynamics were totally inverted. Instead of a mostly black crowd with a black emcee as the crowd favorite—and with the underdog, Eminem, overcoming the racial obstacles to beat the black emcee—the crowd was mostly white with a white emcee as the crowd favorite and a black emcee that was trying to win over the racial animosity of the white crowd. The results were also the opposite of the movie – not only did the black battler not overcome the racialized sides of the audience as Eminem did but played right into it, almost starting a huge fight and causing the crowd to jeer at him when he accused the white battler of wanting to be black. It got pretty tense. The crowd didn’t think it was fair for the black rapper to bring race into the battle. It was fine to talk about women and mothers and penises, but not about race. So that pretty much ended up being the footage I used to raise money for the film, and it’s also the footage that is at the opening of the film. Through all the editing, that footage—the first footage I shot—stayed there, at the top of the film. It works the same in the film as it did for me, as a way in to the film’s issues.

White kids rapping is by definition subversive to white middle class social conventions and decorum. How much of this concept is explored in your film?

White kids rapping can be subversive, but it’s not inherently so. In many cases, it plays right into race, class, and gender hierarchies. But the question of when it is subversive and when it is not, of what the white hip-hop fan or performer means, politically speaking, is what the whole film is about. It’s central to the film. Is it, as you asked, subversive? If so, when? In what circumstances and why? Those questions are treated throughout the film. And in a way where they can’t be simply dismissed as either-or, yes-or-no. There’s too much happening, I think, for people to easily take a one size fits all position, which is not to say that some cases don’t seem pretty clear. Still, I tried to incorporate a variety of perspectives—people with different motives and completely different relationships to hip-hop—so people had to think about the distinctions between them. They’re not all the same, and I think it’s important, if we are not going to be tone-deaf to how race works in this country, to think about those differences.

How long was your production?

The bulk of the shooting was in 2004–2005. I did most of the editing in 2006. After that the film sat on the shelf for a few years waiting for people’s nerves at PBS to calm a bit after the FCC’s fining rampage following Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2005 Super Bowl. http://www.current.org/fcc/fcc0613indecency.shtml. It seemed like everyone was getting fined. Even Martin Scorcese’s documentary about the blues brought down a fine on one station.

What was your budget?

Much smaller than needed. This is why I ended up, in most circumstances, running camera, doing sound, setting up lighting, and eventually doing most of the editing. When I did have help, it was great. Matthew Nauser did great camera work. Danny Hill was great with organizing shoots. In Bloomington a number of very talented students of mine helped. Also a fellow graduate student, Matthew Guschwan.

What equipment did you use on your production (cams/mikes)?

The main camera was Panasonic’s first version of the DVX100, a Sennheiser wireless lav mic, a boom mic, a tripod, and a scattered mix of cheap, half-functioning, lighting set-ups. I acquired equipment as funding became available so the shooting got better as the production went on. At first, I just had the camera and wireless mic, and no light or boom mic. For most of the interviews, I just put the camera on a tripod and let it run so I could focus on the interviewing.

Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of your other film STEALING HOME: THE CASE OF CUBAN BASEBALL?

Well, Stealing Home played on PBS in 2001. It’s a film that uses baseball to look at politics, both in Cuba and in Cuba’s relationship with the United States. Almost everything we hear about Cuban baseball in the United States focuses on the individual player, how much he could make in the Major Leagues, how little he makes in Cuba, how he has to ride bicycles to practice, how he might compare to other Major League players, how it’s a shame that we (US spectators) can’t see him play on TV (for an American Major League team). It’s all so absurdly one-sided that it seemed impossible not to ask, what happens to baseball in Cuba if all the players are mined for talent? Is there not a league there, with spectators, with announcers, with coaches, with a whole infrastructure, that would be sitting at home watching the US Major Leagues? Is that fair? Would baseball in Cuba then resemble baseball in the Dominican Republic? What is baseball like in the Dominican Republic? It all becomes political very fast, with tensions between the individual and the collective, between American interests and Cuban interests, between Major League Baseball and La Liga Nacional Cubana, all playing out through baseball.

Every production has a crazy story, what was the craziest story in your production of BLACKING UP?

The “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2005 Super Bowl. I never thought something like that would affect me. When it happened, I thought the whole thing was kind of funny. It ended up making it very difficult to even make a documentary about hip-hop and had me sitting on the fence for a long time just waiting for the climate to change. That one event, in the middle of the Super Bowl and with Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson, ended up changing the landscape of television for years. That still amazes me.

Where do you see yourself going in regards to film after BLACKING UP?

I’m writing my dissertation for the Department of Communications and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. I also just finished directing another documentary, with Hillary Demmon, called Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages. It was part of a collaboration with an Anthropology Professor at IU, Susan Seizer, who served as the film’s producer and whose research was the foundation for the film. The film stars three comedians who work the Midwest comedy circuit: Tim Northern, Stewart Huff, and Kristin Key. I’m waiting on news of how the film will be distributed, but I’ll be sure to spread the word when I know more.
BLACKING UP is playing through the next month on PBS. Check your local channel’s schedule for times and dates.

-Mediasaurus Rex

Read the original review of BLACKING UP here

BLACKING UP official website

BLACKING UP broadcast times on PBS stations



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