Black After These Messages

Mark H. Harris

Harris wants to clean up TV advertising. So he's offering some advice to Madison Avenue on how it can make its current fixation with African American culture more 'real' for its intended 'peeps'.

I turned on the TV the other day to find Snoop Dogg peddling Chryslers with Lee Iacocca, or "Ike Izzizzle", as he's apparently known in the 'hood. I flipped the channel and heard Sir Mix-A-Lot rapping a kid-friendly rendition of "Baby Got Back" for Target ("I like backpacks and I cannot lie..."). Who knew that he was a value shopper, much less a connoisseur of academic supplies? While I understand that Sir Mix-A-Lot's vocational options are limited ("I see on your resume that you like big butts. Can you expound on that?"), I couldn't help but wonder what the hell was going on. Could Pfizer be scurrying somewhere to dig up Young MC for an anti-depressant ad? Bust a Mood!

I changed the channel again, only to see a Lays ad with the tagline, "Get your smile on." Then a Purell commercial with kids touching dirty objects to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This". A Sprint ad where a white suburban mom exclaims, "It's all good!" A Progressive ad for "player hater insurance". Eric B. and Rakim's "Don't Sweat the Technique" in a Reebok ad. Boost Mobile's inescapable "Where you at?"

I dropped the remote. Was the revolution in fact being televised? I called a friend and asked if we'd overcome. "I dunno," he said. "I still feel oppressed." Indeed, a quick perusal of TV Guide revealed that the only black network shows were still relegated to UPN (WB having expunged the last remnants of its blackness with Michigan J. Frog). Still, I hadn't imagined what I'd seen. If there are no black shows on TV, why are there so many black commercials? Maybe it's some sort of concession, like giving us the shortest month of the year for Black History Month: "We won't give you any primetime shows, but you can have all the 30-second spots you want."

If this is the case, we may as well make the most of it. It's not like Bill Cosby will get another show anytime soon: Black Kids Say the Dumbest Things! The first step is to clean up what's out there now.

They can use all the rap music they want, but it's clear that these commercials aren't aimed at black people. When's the last time you saw an all-black network TV ad that didn't air at 2AM during Soul Train or Showtime at the Apollo? No, these are "blackwashed" ads with the thinnest veneer of black cultural references to convey hipness. The "wassup guys" are no more. They were as fleeting a cultural phenomenon as low-carb diets and Michael Dukakis. There are no more black commercial icons. The Pine-Sol lady be damned!

I have a dream — not a wet dream, mind you, but a moist dream — that Madison Avenue someday might actually put some effort into attracting black consumers. And I'm here to help. Corporate America, don't be shy. I'm here for you. Take these ad pitches as a token of my dedication to the cause*:
(*Cause dedication fee involved. Call me.)

Product: Cars
Slant: Black people love cars, but they love God even more.
Open with scenes of Fords, Chevys, Cadillacs, BMWs, Lexuses, etc. being used in all manner of "ghetto" crimes: drug deals, drive-bys, aggressive jaywalking, and so forth. [Cue music by a rapper who's been to jail and/or shot.] Cut to a good, church-going black family driving to church as sweet gospel music by someone named Shadrach plays in the background. A beam of light from Heaven guides them along their path to righteousness.
Tagline: Chryst-ler: The car God would drive.

Product: Real Estate
Slant: Black people love a deal. And they hate slavery.
Voiceover: Come to the convention center this weekend for the biggest government auction of the year! Cars for $50! High-definition TVs for $25! Playstations for a nickel! And for a limited time, get 40 acres and a mule for only $19.95! That's right, $19.95! Finally get what you deserve! It may not be free, but 140 years worth of inflation adds up.
Tagline: Hey, better late than never.

Product: Computers
Slant: Black people are apprehensive about computers; they don't want to seem too smart.
An uptight white person sits down at his desk in a stuffy office setting. He turns on his computer. As it starts, instead of the Windows start-up chime, we hear, "'Sup, fool?" The lights go out, a disco ball drops down, and people start freak-dancing to an Usher song.
Tagline: Microsoft Word Up: Makin' 'puters cool.

Product: Television
Slant: Black people want to see other black people.
Voiceover: Tonight on "Dateline": the story of a missing woman. She's black, chubby, and not all that cute, but we're telling her story anyway. Screw you.
Tagline: "Dateline": Keeping it real.

Product: Movies
Slant: Black people don't always want to see other black people. We're complicated like that.
Voiceover: This summer, Samuel L. Jackson stars in...nothing. When humanity is on the brink of destruction, he doesn't arrive to help. When a self-righteous, morally indignant speech is called for, he's nowhere to be found. When a ridiculous wig is to be worn, he won't be there.
Tagline: Sam Jackson: showing restraint in the roles he chooses, because no one wants to see Formula 51 Part 2.

Product: Personal Hygiene
Slant: Black people value their personal space.
A black husband and wife are washing up in their bathroom. The husband scratches his head.
Wife: "Honey, what's wrong?"
Husband: "I don't know. Something's itching like crazy!"
Wife: "Let me see." [She parts his dreadlocks.] "Oh, I see the problem: you have white people in your hair!"
Several white people emerge from his hair, muttering things like, "Do you wash it?" and "It's so crunchy!", then dazed by the light, they scatter into the corner.
Voiceover: Black people, are you tired of having curious white hands wandering through your hair? Now there's help. White-Off's patented formula is designed to react with Caucasian skin on contact, driving away unwanted attention. Guaranteed.
Tagline: White-Off: the shampoo that burns!

Product: Medicine
Slant: Black people don't trust doctors, and they take pride in their sexual virility.
A man sits on the edge of the bed, dejected. His wife comforts him: "It's OK, honey. Here, take some Niagra." She hands him a bottle of pills. Fast-forward two hours: the man is sobbing as his wife walks out the door, bags packed, screaming, "What, are you gay or something?"
Voiceover: Niagra is the only erectile dysfunction medication available over the counter. That's because it's a sugar pill. If you can't get it up with a sugar pill, you must be gay.
Tagline: Niagra: What, are you gay or something?

Product: Family Entertainment
Slant: Black people love conspiracies and hate Shakespeare.
Voiceover: At, we've done all we can do with smoking. It's time to move on to a more insidious vice: board games. Reportedly played by Strom Thurman on the eve of his first election to the Senate, Othello was known back then by its original name: Race War. It's black versus white in a battle for racial supremacy. Convert your opponents' pieces to your side, and you win! [No-goodnik actors enact a race war in front of Mattel headquarters.] While the name change was made to downplay the negative racial overtones, the fact that the game is now named after a black Shakespearean character involved in an interracial murder-suicide does not go unnoticed. Now you know the truth. Next up, Jenga: innocent party game or terrorist training device?
Tagline: Speaking the truth that's too true to be true. True dat.

Product: Government-mandated public service announcement
Slant: Black people want white people to treat them right.
Black actor Dennis Haysbert sits on a soundstage. He speaks:
Hi, I'm black actor Dennis Haysbert. You know, the President from 24. I also sell Allstate Insurance, so you can trust me. I'm here to deliver a message from black people to white America: We don't ask for much from you. Just learn a few cultural references, know the difference between Shawn and Marlon Wayans, and don't use the "N" word. To prevent any confusion, you might also want to avoid the phrases:

  • niggardly
  • knickers
  • colored
  • jig
  • raccoon (Try "redneck badger".)
  • Blackie McNegro
Tagline: Because the more you know, the less you get jumped.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled deprogramming.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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