It’s easy to see why white people embrace hip-hop. As Andrea Van Winkle, a woman from a small town in Indiana, put it, “I was just trying to be cool.” Interviewed for the new PBS documentary Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity, Winkle came from a place so white it had all-white race riots. And yet, through the portal of MTV, she and her friends managed to voyeuristically experience the inner city. They wore baggy jeans, bandannas, and cornrows, endured taunts in the halls, and got suspended for dressing inappropriately — at a school that condoned KKK-inspired paraphernalia, Winkle said. Their case produced an odd moral conundrum: Should we applaud these white chicks for trying to diversify their environment — albeit through caricature? Or were they behaving as reprehensibly as their more conventionally racist peers?
It’s a thorny question, and one that the documentary doesn’t answer to any satisfying degree. Yet it provides a fascinating examination of white people who appropriate African-American culture. Blacking Up begins with a drive along the backroads of suburban Indiana, where much of the film takes place. With a few establishing shots of manicured lawns, picket fences, and identical boxy homes, director Robert A. Clift indicates that this is not a film about hip-hop, or African Americans, or even race, in the larger sense of the word. It’s a film about white people. More specifically, it’s a film about a certain type of white people — wiggas, minstrels, wannabes, afrophiles — who try to act black, usually without leaving their safe white caves.
Thus the film offers us a whole parade of white people, mostly white performers with varying degrees of fame. Among them are rappers like Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, Vanilla Ice, and Edea, a weird girl Rasta duo called Empire Isis, and a hip-hop cover band called “Too White Crew.” (The very concept of “hip-hop covers” is enough to cause cognitive dissonance, since it requires the band to resample already-sampled material.) Some are more sympathetic than others. Aesop Rock is a fairly deft rapper who expresses heartfelt adoration for his African-American peers. He admits, in a particularly telling moment of the film, that he’s often wished he were born in a different body. Others are a little more untoward — Vanilla Ice will never quite recover the shame of going multi-platinum with a fake biography about growing up in the ‘hood. The women in Empire Isis seem the most genuinely psychotic, with their blond dreads and fake Rastafarian accents.
Intercut between these interviews are archival shots of Elvis, Al Jolson, and all the famous minstrels of times past, and the requisite interviews with head-scratching academics — 90 percent of whom are African American. Thus Amiri Baraka, Paul Mooney, Greg Tate, Nelson George, and Chuck D all get to pontificate on this new form of colonialism and wonder why white people won’t just stay in their natural habitat. All of these academics have built whole careers analyzing this very theme, so it’s kind of a no-brainer. There’s even an actual hip-hop tour bus, in which the African-American guides lead their flock on a safari through certain New York City boroughs.
Blacking Up isn’t so much a morality tale as a historical digest, and Clift never goes so far as to condemn any of his subjects. He does have a fairly interesting way of linking current trends back to the whole minstrel lineage, drawing connections between, say, The Jazz Singer and Eminem. His montage sequences are fairly effective, though they’re not the film’s real payoff. It’s Paul Mooney who steals the show, as usual.