When young whites embrace rap and hip-hop culture, is it an example of America moving toward being a colorblind society, or is it just another case of cultural theft and mockery?
That’s the fundamental question of Robert Clift’s provocative new documentary, Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity, which aired on PBS stations across the country in January 2010. Clift, a filmmaker from Washington, D.C. whose previous film about Cuban baseball played on PBS in 2001, interviewed a number of notable entertainers, historians and cultural critics for Blacking Up.
They included Amiri Baraka, author of Blues People; Russell Simmons, CEO of Def Jam Records; Chuck D of Public Enemy; Power (Oli Grant), manager of the Wu-Tang Clan; rapper Vanilla Ice; and Paul Mooney, a comedian and writer for “The Dave Chapelle Show.”
His documentary travels back and forth between urban, suburban and rural settings, showing whites with very different ways of expressing their relationship to hip-hop along the way. The film’s startling opening scene takes place on the steps of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Indiana University – Bloomington and shows spirited verbal sparring between a white and black rapper.
At the end of the sequence, Clift shows a slow motion close-up of the white rapper and asks, “Is this the face of new racial understanding in white America. Is this transcending racial stereotypes or is it reinforcing an ugly history, mimicking a degraded idea of what it means to be black?”
Clift presents many contrasting examples, offering a set of white participants with very different ways of expressing their relationship to hip-hop. In some cases, participants seem to have found a genuine mode of expression in the music; in other cases, they seem to merge into areas of imitation and even mockery.
In the spirit of Toni Morrison’s view that whiteness should be examined as a race, too, Clift presents an America in which all people are and have been racialized, and seeks to examine the impulses behind cultural borrowing in the context of the country’s broader history. In the process, he presents a history of “white attraction to black” that includes blackface performers such as Al Jolson, the so-called “white negro,” performers Elvis Presley, Eminem and Madonna and even writer Jack Kerouac.
In an interview, Clift said he set out to present a dialogue on racial identity through hip-hop by using historical parallels to illuminate the discussion. “It’s important to see that these issues don’t come out of nowhere. They have a history and that history matters. The more important question is, what’s similar and what’s not?” he said.
“When I tell people who did not grow up with hip-hop about the film, it always amazes me how quickly they can identify with it the second I start discussing it in terms of the music they did grow up with,” said Clift.
In addition to making documentaries, Clift has also taught college-level courses on documentary production and theory at Indiana University – Bloomington, where he completed his master’s degree in 2003 and is now a doctoral candidate.
Praise for Blacking Up:
“There is nothing more essentially American than the blending of cultures — except perhaps the struggle over the blending of cultures. Clift’s film gives arrestingly provocative insights into race and American culture, and the path from fringe to center. “
– Nell Minow, film critic and national columnist
“A much needed antidote to much of the unsophisticated analysis of youth culture that floods our airways and our newspapers… and a wonderfully creative addition to our discourse about race, cultural appreciation, and the culture of young America.”
– Lonnie Bunch (Director, National Museum of African American History & Culture)
“Those who embrace popular notions of today’s young Americans as “colorblind” need to see Robert Clift’s lively and perceptive journey through their complex and sometimes contradictory cultural consciousness.”
– Clarence Page, Nationally Syndicated Columnist and Senior Editor of The Chicago Tribune
“Clift offers a genuine discovery and unique insight into matters of race in American music today.”
– Hedrick Smith (Pulitzer-Prize Winning Reporter and Documentary Filmmaker)
“A smart, absorbing, politically biting look at hip hop’s strange career from the Bronx to the wilds of suburban Indiana, BLACKING UP is provoking and enlightening in equal measure.”
— Eric Lott, author of “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class