Idlewild: Act Like You Know

big boi and terrence howard in idlewild
Antwan "Big Boi" Patton (left) of OutKast with Terrence Howard in Idlewild

Throw your hands in the air if you expect a musical feature film starring the “Dirty South’s” premiere hip-hop duo and directed by an erstwhile music video helmer to be set in the 1930’s. Keep ‘em up. Actually, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in Idlewild, OutKast (i.e., André "André 3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton) and long-time visual collaborator Bryan Barber refuse to limit their sampling archives to the blues and ragtime that characterized black cultural production during the period. Indeed it is not the first time-traveling feat that the group has accomplished. Not only have Barber and OutKast chosen to appropriate exclusively Anglo sites of popular cultural memory in the recent past (remember the "Hey Ya" video’s reversal of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show), but their 2003 hit G.H.E.T.T.O.M.U.S.I.C.K. from the Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below album also hinged on what it means to inhabit “the place to be and not to be at the same time,” pointing out the predicament of those surveilled and commodified and yet abandoned hamlets of American poverty. Trust OutKast to steal the familiarity out of a passage that has long-since been deemed cliché and to grant it new meaning.

It is ironically predictable that these ever-changing entertainment icons would harp on the cliché that “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” and focus on the connections between death and the status of the black performer as the major themes of their first feature film project. Sweetened with the syrup of an all-star cast, and period variations on the hip-hop movie trinity (unlikely friendships, violent gangster economies, and the rise to fame of a talented performer) that have graced hip-hop films from ATL to Get Rich or Die Trying, Idlewild uses everything that visual and sonic technology have to offer in order shake up the viewer and to remind us that now the term “player” has more than one meaning. I, for one, left the film knowing less than I thought I knew about the meaning of a “rags to riches” happy ending.

First, let it be known that contrary to cliché, no one in this movie actually starts out in rags. The film follows Percival (Benjamin), the undertaker’s shy piano playing son, and Rooster (Patton), an apprentice gangster/nightclub performer, as they come of age, moving between two linked public/private spaces: the jook joint/bootleg club (“church”) and the mortuary. As the film makes clear from the outset, these spaces have more in common than not. The film opens at a funeral which Percival, narrating, describes as a “show” that everyone in the town has come out to see. This first scene in the mortuary includes flask passing and panty gazing, while the “church,” already ironically named, reveals itself quickly as a place of death. The most important connection between the two places, however, is exactly what Percival points out. Everyone wants to see a show. Audience participation sustains both of these community-gathering places.

Barber chooses to place the audience on stage through a montage of visual techniques. He opens this discussion with a “camera trick” reserved for the funeral parlor. Neglecting the pristinely made-up centerpiece of the corpse, Barber focuses on the grief, feigned grief, boredom and stifled amusement of the living funeral attendees. He freezes their faces into black and white photographs and then reframes and layers them. During the opening credits, this technique places captured portraits of nameless movie extras next to faceless names of random crew members. From the start, this film is somewhat of an ambivalent immortalization of the cast and crew, witnessed by an audience that consumes incomplete representations of them. These portraits compose imitations of life restricted in their movement by the camera, the morbid funereal setting and their own mortality at once.

At the “church,” as soon as Rooster gets on stage to perform “Rooster”–a track released by the actor on the Speakerboxx album–the audience members push their tables to the corners to create a dance floor. Barber uses the slow-motion techniques that most of us expect to see in Jet Li’s fight scenes to draw out the beauty and virtuosity of the lindy-hopping dancers in the jook joint audience (choreographed by 3 time Tony-winner Hinton Battle), while the scantily clad dancers on stage get no such attention. Suddenly, as the music and the images slow down, freeze and pick back up, we notice that switchblades and guns aren’t the only tools for fighting in the jook joint. Self-expression, reclaiming the body in ecstatic and masterful dance, is also a way to fight back against oppression. The audience shows us what resistance might mean when your body is vulnerable to lynching, discrimination, and is itself a promise of early death. Where is the stage now? Where do we, a second audience by now used to watching hip-hop artists portray transparent versions of themselves through musical performances on film, place our participation? If we are an audience “viewing the bodies” in this film, are we watching and complying with death? To what extent is our learned behavior of sitting and watching this film (though some of us may have transgressed to get up and dance) complicit in turning black bodies from living people into commodities that can be consumed or sacrificed by the public [in violence]?

Along with visual disruptions of the forward movement of the narrative, the film also makes use of the classic hip-hop technique of scratching the record. In several places the sound of the film moves backwards and repeats itself, remixed by some unseen DJ in order to emphasize a point or to exaggerate hesitation. Indeed, the logic of the film project itself insists that time moves in more than one direction, placing hip-hop in the era of the Harlem Renaissance. (Not coincidentally, the official OutKast website is now a time-machine, allowing the web surfer to move back in time through OutKast’s repertoire and forward into the future that their music suggests.) This film extends the hip-hop generic impulse to reinvoke earlier genres of music and asks: if music and performance are understandable because they reference the historical record, where is the evidence of progress?

Chronomentrophobia, a featured song and new word meaning “the fear of clocks or time,” emphasizes the plight of the black performer and the impulse to record as a constant negotiation with death. If the story of race and the statistical situation of black people in America equates blackness with death, and representations of black violence and death through hip-hop have become the number one commodity of white audiences in the US and worldwide, what does it mean to participate as a performer? Remember, in the logic of the film, even the audience “performs” as it watches.

So, it may be true that Idlewild is finally the longest music video ever. The movie features performances of OutKast songs that don’t appear on the film soundtrack, suggesting that we should definitely go back in time and purchase the Speakerboxx/The Love Below album. However, the film is undoubtedly more than this. It is an effectively packaged attempt to reveal the role of the audience in a certain history of black music making. By questioning why black performance and death seem so often to emerge as co-stars in the American popular scene, the film is a provocative challenge to a contemporary audience.

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