Sunday, July 31, 2005

#4: Kwaanza Reflections: On HONEY & LOVE DON’T COST A THING 12/18/03 As long as we’re talking about the principles of Kwaanza, I want to recommend a couple films made for younger teens that an aunt or a mom won’t mind sitting through either. Both HONEY & LOVE DON’T COST A THING are pleasant surprise gifts for the holiday season. Let me get a couple issues out of the way by saying what are not surprises about these films, factors that might make one overlook their value. First, neither film features Oscar-level acting. The two real stand-outs who give reliable, professional performances are Mekhi Phifer (of TV’s ER) as Honey’s barber boyfriend, Chaz, & Steve Harvey as Alvin’s raunchy dad in LOVE. The rest of the cast in both movies are competent, enthusiastic & likable, & mostly unknown – so far. Jessica Alba as Honey & Christina Milian as Paris is LOVE are actors we’ll look forward to seeing again. And one of the bonuses of HONEY is that hip-hop artists Missy Elliot, Fabulous, Blaque, Ginuwine, Tweet, Jadakiss, Sean Paul & L’il Romeo – while not actors – provide a bonanza of great music. Next, the story lines in these films aren’t great mysteries. In fact, there’s little doubt about what’s going to happen. The plot of HONEY harks back to Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney films from 75 years ago – some talented kids respond to a crisis & put on a show in a vacant building, save the farm (in this case the community center with a leaky roof) & get their big break too. LOVE is actually a re-make of the 1987 CAN’T BUY ME LOVE, about a lame but bright high school student who pays a popular girl to pretend she’s his girlfriend long enough that some of her star power can rub off on him, & both learn some lessons about what’s important & authentic. But we don’t go to Hamlet to see how it ends – we go to see how it gets there. And in the case of any story that serves as a lesson for young people, it may actually help if the plot is familiar & therefore undistracting. Both movies are about the making or production of something – about art (as dancing & music) in HONEY & about artifice (one’s popular public image) in LOVE. And in both the thing that is made also provides a vehicle for exploring the adolescent task of inventing oneself, of choosing what kind of person one will be. I have to say that if I were from the moon – when it comes to hip-hop, I might as well be - HONEY is unusually good at actually showing the creative process. The scenes where Honey, a dancer & choreographer, takes the moves of kids break-dancing in the alley or borrows gestures from teens shooting hoops or jumping rope & works them into her rehearsals, are wonderful - & far superior to many movies that claim to be more “serious” about art, such as the recent SYLVIA about poet Sylvia Plath. Interestingly, Honey knows something beyond her own neighborhood about dance – she’s got an Alvin Ailey poster on her wall & she uses just enough ballet terminology in her rehearsals to suggest she is not solely self-taught. This is precisely what she has to offer the younger dancers - talented though they are - who are still stuck in being too cool to need to learn something new from an outsider. In LOVE DON’T COST, the cheerleader Paris, who remarks that “popularity is a job,” provides Alvin with concrete lessons as she walks him through how to look & act the part. Some of our most powerful lessons are also those that make us say as we watch, “I never want to act that way.” Part of Alvin’s deal with Paris is that their so-called dating is time-limited, so they have to “break up” publicly. And later on there’s a beach scene where her old boyfriend returns & she wants Alvin to tell him about their deal. In both these scenes, Alvin – who’s dropped his tried & true science club buddies along the way -- overdoes it, with the result that other “popular” girls decide he’s attractive. But he’s so mean to Paris in both these scenes that I cringed. This masquerades as humor, but I wonder if 13-year-old girls will come away knowing that being stylishly nasty is really not so attractive after all. HONEY also provides lessons galore about how young women & men relate to one another, in terms again of what’s authentic & what’s got the trappings of cool but is essentially hollow. The white video producer Michael Ellis has the clothes & the slang down, & he can open doors for Honey, but when it comes to the bottom line, he acts like Massa & thinks he’s entitled to have his way with her. There were lots of warnings – he expects her to give up her job at the community center, not show up for her best friend’s birthday party, & he disparages the young people she’s trying to help as “fresh air kids.” In case anyone misses the point, Honey’s contrasted wih the character of Katrina, a dancer who’s both a bully & a slut. In both films too, the young women not only survive male temper tantrums, they flourish. Contrasting characters are a little like predictable plot lines, & Honey has one striking visual contrast regarding male characters. In one scene Honey stands in a crowd, with the white Michael on one side of her & very dark Chaz on the other. This flips the traditional image of white-as-good versus black-as-bad. It’s especially effective because much of the time it’s hard to tell what race many characters are. The director of LOVE DON’T COST, a woman named Troy Beyer, has said that “the whole point behind [LOVE] is that ‘urban’ is colorless now.” Indeed, the casts of both films are so extensively diverse racially - it’s obvious most people’s background in these films is mixed – that some observers are arguing about whether pretending race doesn’t matter in a movie is either naïve or portrays the future’s solution. We can’t answer that here, but young people who see these films will leave them thinking about it hard. And they’ll do that in films where unity, self-determination, collective work, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity & faith clearly matter very much. (1060)