Film

Coercive Theater

Brian De Palma, Hi, Mom!, 1970, 35 mm, black-and-white/color, sound, 87 min. Be Black, Baby sequence: 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 18 minutes.

ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH Brian De Palma’s 1970 film Hi, Mom!, a white woman, dazed and recently raped, gives a fuzzy exit interview on camera. “Well, [New York Times theater critic] Clive Barnes was really right,” she says. “It was some experience. I’m gonna tell all my friends that they’ve gotta come.” The experience she’s referring to is Be Black, Baby, an immersive opportunity (and Hi, Mom!’s film-within-a-film centerpiece) for well-heeled white people to, per the title, temporarily “be black.” If this white woman and her kin had predicted correctly that they would be given “soul food” and be made up roughly and inelegantly with black shoe polish, they do not seem to have guessed that they would also be robbed, gaslighted, faced with furious demands to see their IDs, interrogated on the subjects of their livelihoods and personal lives, hypersexualized, beaten and sexually assaulted, and then arrested by a white NYPD cop. The happening’s artist-cum-terrorist showrunners, who are black but wearing whiteface, are as pale as death and do not seem afraid to kill. The fact that the participants, if rattled, see their ritual humiliation as a dazzling work of art is owed to an embarrassing, embarrassingly recognizable strain of privileged white faux-wokeness. The fact that this scene takes place in a film both written and directed by a white man makes it doubly charged, recursive in its condemnation of white tourism in black lives.

Be Black, Baby is the third of five acts in Hi, Mom!, the fourth effort by the Hitchcock-loving, sleaze-artiste auteur. It is the perfect nucleus around which a chaotic story swirls: A Vietnam vet, broke and keen to game the sickest parts of New York’s system, becomes a Peeping Tom pornographer, then an actor, then finally a radical determined to quite literally explode the bourgeoisie. The protagonist, Jon Rubin, is played by Robert De Niro, a fact less significant in 1970 than it is now. The movie’s introduction to a grinning Rubin, yanking down a cloth covering a mirror to reveal himself behind the camera, must have looked then like a broad allusion to the director’s ongoing themes of doubling and observation. In the wake of 1976’s Taxi Driver, it now functions as a meta joke, a “gotcha” shot whose punch line depends on the megawattage of its star. Meta now, too, is the scene where he auditions to appear in Be Black, Baby as the aforementioned white cop, only to be told that he looks too incapable of brutality or insanity to get the part. “I think I can play a cop, you know,” he swaggers. “I know I can. I can do anything.” Like Travis Bickle, Rubin is a firm believer in the cleansing properties of vigilante violence. His first scheme for making money is to buy a camera, hole up in his dive apartment, and film the couples living on the opposite side of the block through the ready-made screens of their front-room windows. Finding that his movies lack the necessary action, he seduces a girl who lives across the street in order to become the lead in his own porno, a conceit that’s more De Palma than De Palma in his invocation of the twin desires to see and be seen, to fuck and watch the action, to be both directing and directed.

Brian De Palma, Hi, Mom!, 1970, 35 mm, black-and-white/color, sound, 87 min. Be Black, Baby sequence: 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 18 minutes.

When the stag film fails, he hawks his camera and procures a television. On that television, he sees the black activist group taunting white New Yorkers in a series of faintly surrealist vox pops, and the next move in his nihilist career presents itself in black-and-white simplicity. De Palma’s love of cinema verité is deployed—both in the broadcast that makes Rubin first seek out the group of radicals and in the Be Black, Baby footage—to invigorating, sick effect: Filmed on a hand-held camera, lit like shit and void of color, both scenes feel less like fictional exercises than like real-life powder kegs. The best thing De Palma does in the electrifying “theater” sequence is show how idiotic and banal the rich, entitled white person’s general idea of blackness is. Asked to examine the black ringleaders from head to toe by touch, the ticketholders sound like children being handed salamanders at a petting zoo. “So this is an afro!” one exclaims. “It’s like a sponge!” “It’s like angel food cake,” says the blonde white woman who ends up getting violated with a broom handle. “I expected it to feel like wire wool.” When she assures the troupe that “You’re the actors, we’re the audience, honey,” it is less a throwaway line than a perfect distillation of the white gaze on black bodies, even if it’s improvised. “It really makes you stop and think,” one audience member beams, his face bloodied as if he had been at war.

In general, white men seem to love to “stop and think,” perhaps because it is the cheapest, lowest-maintenance form of “atonement.” It is difficult to separate De Palma’s love of looking (as he is a voyeur by nature) from his status as an outsider on the particularly thorny subjects of black pain, white exploitation, and police brutality, however excellent the Be Black, Baby sequence is in its inventiveness and execution. He is, in classic De Palma style, within and without, the accuser and the implicated, and his placing of a worthy, right-on bearded white man in the otherwise entirely black activist troupe might be read as barbed self-satire. “The most Hitchcockian riff that De Palma ever examined,” Eric Henderson wrote in a 2004 reconsideration of Hi, Mom!, “is the capacity for the human psyche to harbor intense, complicated divergence.” A divergence necessarily occurs in the minds of the audience members during the Be Black, Baby skit, as they simultaneously believe that they deserved the beatings and the rape by dint of the historic evil of their race, and that their willingness to be debased somehow absolves them of the same historic sin. Jon Rubin, after playing at being a cop in Be Black, Baby, marries and impregnates the girl in the building opposite, then leaves a bomb sequestered in her laundry room. He has not actually destroyed the all-American nuclear family, just as being painted black and brutalized is no real foil for white supremacy. With the imperfect and exhilarating Hi, Mom!, De Palma plants something unsafe and explosive underneath his audience, and runs.

Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1970) will screen at Film Forum in New York City on February 6.

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