Film's profanity erodes lofty model for blacks

WILEY A. HALL

May 25, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

"Well, I finally got to see that new movie, 'Posse'," said my friend, Will B. Humble, the other day.

Humble and I were cooling out after work at our favorite tavern, the Old Briarpatch. It was Happy Hour, don't you know, and the peanuts were free.

"Oh yeah," I said, "the new Mario Van Peebles flick about black cowboys. What'd you think?"

"It was OK, I guess," said Humble thoughtfully. "I just wish it was the kind of movie I could take my nephews to see."

"Too violent?"

"Nah, no more than any other western."

"Too sexy?"

"Yeah," he said, "there was that, but I'd almost be willing to take a chance on sex. My nephews don't care about that hugging and kissing stuff anyway. No, my real problem was with the language. There was far too much cursing for my taste. I wouldn't want teen-agers or young adults to get the idea that that kind of language is appropriate."

I thought about the movie for a few seconds.

"Yeah, the language was kind of strong," I agreed. "I guess we're getting prudish in our dotage, Humble."

"We've talked about this before," said Humble sadly. "There may be more black movies, more black actors and actresses, and above all, more black writers, directors and producers than ever before. Yet, for all of that, kids today probably see fewer positive black role models than even you and I got to see. Especially if parents screen out movies for language, violence or sex."

"Maybe the current generation of black directors and writers feel they are in the entertainment business and not the role model business," I suggested.

But Humble protested. "Uh, uh. They understand that their movies ought to have a message," he said. "The problem is language. Even when they're trying to make a positive point about blacks and black culture, they're doing it with the lowest kind of street language imaginable. It's as though Hollywood has decided that profanity and black culture are synonymous."

Well, I had to concede Humble's point.

Mr. Van Peebles, a 36-year-old black filmmaker and actor, clearly had a positive message in mind when he made "Posse." In interviews, he has talked about how he lacked black cinematic heroes while growing up. Though he loved Westerns it always disturbed him that the only blacks in those movies swept out the stables.

In reality, blacks participated in every aspect of the taming of the Wild West. They punched cattle. They robbed banks. They built towns. They patrolled the frontier as cavalrymen.

"Posse," then, corrects the official record. It is a tribute to the "buffalo soldiers" -- the black cavalrymen who have been virtually ignored by both historians and moviemakers. Youngsters and adults alike might have found the movie both instructive and entertaining. Unfortunately, "Posse" deserves its "R" rating, if for no other reason than the excessive profanity it contains.

The same can be said about most, if not all, of the recent slew of movies by and about black people. The profanity in them undercuts any other positive message the director was trying to send.

"Well, Humble," I said, "let's be realistic. I know a lot of people, blacks and whites, who curse. In fact, I've heard you use a couple of four-letter words from time to time. Maybe Hollywood is simply shooting for realism."

"Let me tell you something," said Humble passionately. "I grew up in a home where you could get into a whole heap of trouble if someone heard certain words coming out of your mouth. Even in my neighborhood, let a grown-up hear you cursing, boy, and you might have to eat standing up for a week. That's a part of black culture, too."

"I guess we're still struggling with definitions of blackness," I agreed. "Who is blacker -- street people or church people?"

"Do you know why I started cursing?" said Humble with regret. "It was because when I didn't curse, my friends used to tease me about trying to be 'white.'

"In the 1970s, we used to call that attitude evidence of self-hatred. I wonder how black moviemakers describe themselves today?"

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