By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Watch PSTOLA’s shorts in chronological order and you witness the evolution of its skills; you also get the visual equivalent of a rap CD. The autobiographical Guerrilla Tactics clips, wherein the guys illustrate their frustrations about and solutions to everything from raising funds to getting into film festivals, serve as between-song skits. The truly sublime What You Drinkin’ Mank, and Double Barrel Gangstaz BBQ, which both star Gerald “Slink Capone” Johnson as a hardcore, Jheri-curled thug with a jones for Starbucks and gourmet food, are your raw, underground tracks. J.R. and Quest To Refare the heavyweight guest-star appearances. The crossover pop track is Aaron Willows, probably the most accessible work for bougie Negroes and film-festival programmers; it also contains a far-too-brief but crackling cameo by Jason and Deon (PSTOLA’s Meth and Redman) as porn stars. (Aaron Willows is scheduled in this year’s Pan African Film Festival.)
Then there’s the out-of-the-box classic, Profile of a Jank, narrated by Maverick (Jason), a bespectacled quasi-nerd who grew up with the shady title character. It’s worth noting that Maverick, who’d be a quivering punk or the butt of endless jokes in a typical ’hood flick, is neither in Jank. He’s based on real-life types whose nuanced blackness and maleness defy the conventional boxes of modern urban film. He’s from the ’hood, knows it intimately and is a natural part of the landscape; he’s respected precisely because he calls bullshit when he sees it. ‰
“In any other film,” says Jason, “Maverick would be depicted as a buster. And that’s exactly why he had to be put out there for the public, to show this type of cat in a more complex way. It’s like, we need this representation; it hasn’t been shown. These guys exist and they’re interesting. More interesting than the bullshit Hollywood is feeding you. It’s the same with Corporate Negro. We just haven’t seen these guys.”
In Jank, Deon stars as Demetrius Cole, a generically angry, illiterate high-school basketball prodigy who’s pissing away his true gift because he wants to be the next Tupac. Picking fights with strangers on the street (pounding them while keeping a toothpick frozen in the corner of his mouth), attacking teachers and other students, selling bad weed, and hanging out with his equally janky girlfriend, he’s a densely drawn character. As presented by PSTOLA, Demetrius is neither the product of fetishized ’hood dysfunction, nor is he the object of NAACP nose-in-the-air disdain. You have to look to F. Gary Gray’s Friday to find another such modern ’hood character sketched with similar finesse — recipient of both strained affection and bitch-slap comeuppance. The humor doesn’t come only from punch lines and sight gags, but from subtlety of observation.
One of the best moments in the short is so deceptively simple that it’s easy to miss all that it conveys. Demetrius is on a pay phone, trying to convince his girl to let him come over for a blowjob. She’s not having it, and his desire seems only halfhearted in the first place. The camera catches him absentmindedly bombing the phone booth as he tells her, “Hey, when I come over there, don’t be actin’ stupid like last time either.” Forget the tumultuous nature of their relationship that’s captured in the line, or the distraction bordering on indifference that’s suggested by his body language. (Blowjob, Xbox, whatever.) Deon’s line reading bounces from Baltimore to Detroit to Philly to Compton. It’s pitch perfect in its capture of Every Thug Wannabe. Deon trumps Ja Rule, DMX and the slew of record industry thugs-turned-actors who are allegedly bringing street authenticity to the big screen. The naturalness of his delivery shames their contrived performances of blackness, and simply is. He’s tapped the reality that has, ironically, been smothered by hip-hop’s moronic mandate of “keepin’ it real.”
Hip-hop is many things, of course, but it’s now very much a jigaboo parade. It’s no longer for or about black people, but about Negroes cooning to a beat and video camera because that’s what gets suburban white kids (and record company CEOs) off. It’s perfectly, if accidentally, summarized in a comment made by Toni Morrison in a recent issue of the literary magazine Black Issues when she observes that so many staples in the canon of Negro literature have actually looked right through black people and been pointedly addressed to white folk. (She asks of the classic, Invisible Man, “Invisible to whom?”) In popular culture, the ubiquity of blackness that’s been achieved primarily through rap and hip-hop is often trumpeted as proof of cultural and political triumph, as if visibility is all that matters, regardless of the terms. In truth, Negroes are being served up, but rarely served.
Hollywood has been infected by the stupidity of mainstream hip-hop and its latter-day pandering to hoary white preconceptions and fantasies of blackness. (Think of Queen Latifah’s caricaturish, ’hood-rat shuffling — “Who dat? Who dat?” — for Steve Martin in the noxious Bringing Down the House.) The guys in PSTOLA, even while working in the amped realm of racial satire, never become grotesque and never skimp on detail. They also never devolve into mere metaphor. They’re nimbler, smarter and wittier than that. As with hip-hop before it went pop, they’re not concerned with whether or not Suzy Suburb (be she black, white or anything else) gets their references or humor. They don’t look through black people in order to reach a white audience.