The Buzz: Macho Posturing and the Continuation of Black Artistry in "Atlanta" and "Kicks"
When people complained about the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards earlier this year, the sentiment was about diversity of roles for minorities, not necessarily a bemoaning of the fact that talented people of color were not nominated (although true. Michael B. Jordan for life). Without more minority filmmakers, there will be less stories about minorities--and the media that does feature minorities heavily will skew towards more stereotypical depictions.
Just last week, there was the release of two pieces of media made by individual African American voices that are able to be set against a backdrop that evokes lots of misconceptions and subverts ever-present stereotypes, especially the hyper-masculine male persona that persists in African American communities.
In Atlanta, the new show starring and created by Donald Glover, we are placed in the middle of the action in a convenience store parking lot when a confrontation is escalating into a shooting. This shooting involves up-and-coming rapper, Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), whose single off his mixtape has just begun making its rounds on the local Atlanta radio stations. This is a scenario that has been seen in the news countless times. In the context of the show, the shooting was pretty incidental and not a big deal. Sure, Paper Boi and his cousin, Earnest Marks (Donald Glover), are sent to a holding cell where their charges are processed, but what proceeds is like wildfire. Paper Boi’s reputation as a tough-guy rapper skyrockets his fame into local notoriety and profiles by the hip-hop magazine XXL. In the hip hop community, there is nothing that is worth more than street cred: to make people believe that you are a legitimate gangster--which is not what Paper Boi, real name Alfred Marks, is.
Paper Boi is a persona for Alfred Marks just like Childish Gambino is one for Donald Glover. Hip Hop is like pro wrestling, where personalities are ramped up to 100 and the line between what is real and fake begins to blur. Paper Boi’s song that begins to become a hit, also titled “Paper Boi,” is a realistic mix of the southern hip-hop sound that Gucci Mane or Young Jeezy would make. It’s a ridiculous song that is literally all about making money. “Always getting paper boy/ If you ain’t making money/ Then you ain’t a money maker boy.”
But in reality, Alfred Marks likes to hang out on a couch in the middle of a yard with his perpetually high buddy, Darius (Keith Stanfield). In one scene after the shooting begins to gain infamy, Alfred witnesses a child shoot a toy gun proclaiming that he is just like Paper Boi. The child’s mother reprimands him when Alfred, like a giant self-loathing teddy bear, comes to dispense a PSA about the dangers of guns. However, nobody recognizes him, and he is treated as a nobody until he reveals that he is indeed Paper Boi. Then it becomes all about pictures for Instagram where he immediately holds up the chain around his neck in a “gangsta” pose that shrouds the reason for his visit in the first place.
In between all these posturing of “gangsta” machismo, Alfred Marks is like a little kid with his newfound fame. He hates that he has to take pictures with the same cops that arrested him but is joyed when he gets a special rub on his chicken or that he is able to get a phone number from a lady. Don’t think he will ever show it though.
These personal identity politics on the face of expectations radiates throughout the great first two episodes of Atlanta, a show that Glover wanted to make undeniably black. His character, Earnest, is in a crossroads in life. People do not trust him--not because he is inauthentic, but because he had the opportunity to leave by going to Princeton and making a better life for himself before mysteriously dropped out. Now he is a father to a child that he had with his best friend and not able to make rent when he decides to jump aboard the Paper Boi bandwagon and become his manager. Earnest, with his Ivy League smarts and, more importantly, with his experience, knows how to navigate the white world to make the right connections. His identity is one that straddled between his own community and the one that is considered ideal.
The city of Atlanta itself is also in an identity crisis. The metropolis of the south, filled with multi-ethnic communities and a high number of African Americans, is often used to imitate other more well-known cities like Los Angeles or New York City. Rarely does Atlanta play itself.
Communities like the one in Atlanta are rarely shown.
The same can be said about those towns outside of Oakland. It is more rural than you think; concrete suburban areas cast in the shadows of overpasses and highways.
Kicks is the new film by first time filmmaker Justin Tripping, an assuredly confident filmmaker with clear distinctive choices despite this being his first effort. In Kicks, we follow Brandon (Jahking Guillroy), a fifteen-year-old who is smaller than most kids in a neighborhood where you know you have to wear good sneakers in order to run from all the dangers of people robbing and beating you up.
He hangs out with his two best friends: Rico (Christopher Meyers), a smooth talker who is less mature than he shows, and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of Notorious B.I.G.) who is as concerned with getting condoms as he is deflecting any jokes about his weight. The three seem like an unlikely trio but their loyalty and friendship is what carries the film.
In Kicks, the title comes from sneakers, a commodity in the community. In a place where there is not much excess, sneakers become a status symbol. When you have nothing, what is valuable, what has meaning can be the most innocuous thing. Brandon does everything he can to get these retro Air Jordan Ones. He panhandles candy on the street, collects all his birthday money savings and even finds a person selling sneakers out of a van. When he finally gets the shoes, Brandon swaggers down the streets and basketball courts like he was Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever. Sure, maybe he didn't have much, but he has these shoes. That is until he gets beaten up by a group of people led by a low-level thug named Flaco.
The movie being about Brandon trying to retrieve his shoes is like simply saying The Bicycle Thief is simply about a man trying to retrieve his bicycle. Like Atlanta, Kicks is about portraying a neighborhood with the same care and nuances that is not often used. In the early to mid-90’s, in the height of hip-hop culture, there were a series of films derived from the Gangsta Rap era that showcased what it was like to grow up in areas like South Central, LA. But for every nuanced portrayal like Boyz in the Hood, there are condescending PSAs about racial uplift and the dangers of inter-racial violence made by white filmmakers like Fresh.
Tripping knows his community, and that background informs the foreground. The most striking aspect of Kicks is the setting. Houses are dilapidated but never commented upon. Streets are populated with convenience stores where it is easier to get Colt 45 malt liquor than it is to get vegetables. Parents are never seen, with the inference that they are too busy working multiple jobs to sustain a living.
But Tripping never relies on this saccharine commentary; rather, he invites the viewer to deduce it for themselves. In the middle part of the film, Kicks meanders and follows what Flaco, the person who steals Brandon’s shoes, is doing. Like Paper Boi, he is playing up to a macho identity that gives him status. He runs on the violent principle of id, yet he is a dad who cares deeply about his son. The shoes were meant as a gift to his son whose mother could be anyone.
This is a community that the normal rules of law do not apply. Despite moments of violence, police sirens are nowhere to be found. Flaco teaches his son the rules of justice that apply to this world. Our central group of boys also subscribe to this world but questions whether or not they should be a part of it. Brandon is small and thus his manhood is constantly in question. The masculine ideal is more like Rico and even Albert, yet they are the ones who exhibit sensitivity.
Getting these shoes back is about exerting masculinity. It's about not being pushed around. Throughout the film, Brandon is visited by a guardian angel of sorts personified by a faceless astronaut. Brandon is small traversing in the grand unknown. What is ever-present in the film is the threat of violence: no one is safe (there's even a Chekov’s gun that fuels the tension). There is a difference between hyper-masculine posturing and actual action. Kicks smartly balances that area of concern.
More importantly, what Kicks and Atlanta provide is a space for voices. Glover is a filmmaker. Tripping is a filmmaker. And whether or not their work is seen, they showcase a voice for a minority community that goes beyond the usual thinking. And with shows and movies like these and more coming like Queen Sugar and Moonlight, maybe conversations about race and identity will be able to progress.