Desperate Youth

From TV on the Radio to music on film, BAM spotlights black punk culture

Ed Halter

Tuesday, January 22nd 2008 at 09:58am

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Distinct from the typical concert video or band profile, the punk-rock identity doc has emerged in recent years as its own unnamed DIY genre, with numerous productions chronicling various experiences of the pierced 'n' patched set. Google around a bit and you'll find titles devoted to riot grrrl, SoCal skate punk, Long Island hardcore, Montreal crusties, and Portland anti-pop, each exploring these different scenes through a similar low-budget montage of talking heads (occasionally mohawked), bits of live footage, and at least one obligatory shot of a carefully archived show flyer. In their devotional homemade quality and unabashed earnestness, they're like video equivalents of the hand-stapled zine. James Spooner slices through all these diverse micro-worlds to find the interviewees for Afro-Punk, his look at contemporary black punks that goes one better than other ID docs: Since many of its subjects confess to having been the only black kid at the rock show, it's less a portrait of a community than an audiovisual means to conjure one into being.

Ranging from everyday scenesters to emerging punklebrities (Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio), Afro-Punk proves appropriately spiky. "When I was a kid, I was convinced that white people were cool," laughs the first interviewee. Another claims that the music grows out of a "mostly white experience," and many others attest to having been the lone African American students in suburban schools. (Proposed post-screening discussion question: Compare black punks with white B-boys.) But the remainder of the doc complicates these matters, layering alienation within alienation, with shared stories of clueless white-punk ignorance and some reports of uneasy relationships with fellow black punks, not to mention the hip-hop 'hood. "A lot of black people," says one of Spooner's subjects, "have tunnel vision of what black can be," while another confidently states that "black people plus punk rock equals me."

Spooner examines the past in greater detail in his "Afro-Punk Weekend" program for BAM. An early British precursor is honored in a mini-tribute to Don Letts, the dreadlocked DJ and film director who documented the early U.K. moment, but most of the selections are less punk per se than politically volatile revivals that Afro-punks themselves would love. These range from Agnés Varda's Black Panthers (1967), a cinephile treat and illuminating vérité recording of the political party's rally to support Huey P. Newton, to Horace Ové's beautifully rough-hewn rarity Pressure (1975). The first British feature from a black director, Ové's film could be seen as ancestor to both Wild Style's neorealist tactics and Do the Right Thing's explosive agitpop, set to a tight Brixton-Caribbean groove.

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