The Spoiled Brats of Ganja and Hess
Rebooting the Black stoner comedy in Newlyweeds
Harvey Weinstein may call 2013 "a great moment" for "great black filmmakers" just because he happens to be releasing three high-profile films with Black subjects, but the first real sign of new life and energy in movies about Black Americans is the low-budget Newlyweeds, written and directed by Shaka King, a recent New York University graduate who has either the audacity or naivete to make a Black stoner flick as his debut feature (now showing at Film Forum).
Unlike Method Man and Redman in How High (2001), the two young lovers, Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris), who blaze their time away in Newlyweeds, are not pop icons--so they ought to be explained as characters. It isn't enough that King imagines an audience of young Black stoners who might identify with his Brooklyn-based couple; he needs to go deeper than Mumblecore and examine Lyle and Nina's decision to constantly escape reality.
King begins promisingly with lazy macho Lyle's pillow talk response to Nina's description of her dream about Busta Rhymes: "I don't dream. That's why I burn." In her own private haze, Nina retorts "That's why you don't remember your dreams." Serious alienation. These Black youths' dreams are not sociologically deferred as in the Langston Hughes poem; they're consciously delayed. Newlyweeds (which drops the premise of Lyle and Nina's impending marriage and their Galapagos Islands honeymoon in the manner of stoner forgetfulness) uses the vague state of dreaming to show Lyle and Nina's idle hopes.
Lyle's an itinerant repo man and Nina's a guide at Brooklyn's Childrens Museum. These unambitious weed-smokers, of the post-Civil Rights and post-hip-hop generation, could only be conceived by a college student privileged enough to escape the social deprivations of the past. Film-brat King, like his characters, is one of the unencumbered children of Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess--unburdened because unaware of social responsibility or personal heritage. Their failures are their own which at least signals King's honesty. (A puzzling shot from inside Nina's Balinese death mask jest presents the idea that this generation enjoys a new spoiled-brat solipsism; it contrasts the milestone of Bill Gunn's desperate fascination with Black cultural heritage in the 1973 Ganja and Hess.)
That Lyle can slip so easily off the social grid indicates a harsh alternative for the pessimistic stoner (he actually dreams about being in the '70s Blaxploitation film Tough Guys) but it's not mysterious that Nina is attracted to him. Cheatom has bad dude sex appeal, more street than Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station--and witty, as when, doning a bearded Melvin Van Peebles guise to catch a deadbeat old lady, he grumbles "Nothin' slick to a can of oil" or tells an unhelpful pot dealer "Stay in school, Shorty!"
Movies rarely depict Black recklessness without judgment and that's King's comic approach; his bemused view of stoner habit has a freewheeling quality, indifferent to old-time fear of how drugs effect the Black community--the do-gooder impulse that often turns Black stories into sociological lessons. But King is unafraid of local color or literal color; clothes and décor and wacky situations sometimes make Newlyweeds bloom into very amusing anecdotes (in a tenement, a playground and a memorable jail cell scene).
Imagine a rebirth of the Fauve-like palette Spike Lee got with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson yet without Lee's polemical harangues. King's comic vision is derived from Method Man and Redman's impudence--with an assist from Snoop Dogg's popular tree-smoking habits. But King's narrative also has an inevitable fecklessness. He drops the tension of Lyle and Nina's relationship. The hazards of their tandem laziness ("She smoke like a dude!") are ignored for sentimental indulgence of Lyle's self-pity--as in a "family" scene where a street-running brother sets him straight. Nina's bourgie background is revealed in the superficial manner of TV class critique (what's King got against the Huxtables?) rather than the complex depth of Bill Gunn's script for The Landlord or Benny Boom's Next Day Air, that great drug comedy of August Wilson richness. Newlyweeds displays promising talent but King won't signify a rebirth of Black filmmaking until he satisfies his cinematic heritage.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair
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