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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