Part of the mess that Barack Obama left in the wake of his two presidential terms is the utter confusion that has descended upon black Americans who still feel stressed despite the media-promoted privilege of witnessing “the first African-American president.” That delusion deserves a lengthy, in-depth essay, but a movie column must provide a portion of it through this week’s contrasting releases: Hollywood’s black feminist comedy Girls Trip and the independent art film Bronx Gothic.
Black female self-confidence is examined in Girls Trip’s story of four black girlfriends who attend an Essence Festival (staged by the magazine of that name) in New Orleans. Bestselling author Regina Hall, Internet entrepreneur Queen Latifah, nurse and single mother Jada Pinkett, and tough-talking office worker Tiffany Haddish mix business and partying (they “trip”) as they clear away the conflicts and changes that separated them in their transition from youth to maturity.
Bronx Gothic is more obviously political, translating the subject of black femininity into the now fashionable project known in academia as “the black body,” explored here in a performance-art piece by Okwui Okpokwasili.
These two films illustrate the crisis of black consciousness post-Obama. Girls Trip looks at the class aspirations of upwardly mobile blacks while Bronx Gothic replaces aspiration with grievance. Putting the two side by side gives us the Obama conundrum. Do Americans still believe in personal satisfaction as a reward for work and struggle, or have they given it up for progressive activism? In these movies, the issue comes down to cinematic pleasure and its discontents.
Girls Trip isn’t original; it belongs to the Animal House genre that celebrates licentious liberties (a genre made popular by such films as The Hangover and Bridesmaids). Girls Trip’s black female quartet confirms the all-American commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
There’s no happiness in Okpokwasili’s worldview. The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other liberal fronts have celebrated her for showcasing black American life as miserable, a cause for complaint and protest — the social activities that make left-wing politicians feel electable and journalists feel powerful. Bronx Gothic is part documentary and part psychodrama. Okpokwasili, a tall, thin dancer-singer, jerks herself in sweaty, hebephrenic outbursts. She physically proclaims her psychic pain before audiences to “scare them, to wake them up.”
This art-world pretense of “activism” seems designed specifically for those white culture mavens who don’t want to live or compete with black folks yet expiate their racism through pity and condescending applause. At least the women in Girls Trip provide ribaldry — emphasizing the search for immediate physical pleasure as their own personal due and as a relief from the tension of sustaining their livelihoods. (“I plan on getting white-girl wasted,” one says, simultaneously contemplating bacchanal and sizing up others’ sense of freedom.)
Bronx Gothic director Andrew Rossi, who previously made Page One: Inside the New York Times, follows Okpokwasili on tour and shows art-house audiences relishing her self-flagellating routine: the blacks in shock, the whites in tears. Rossi and Okpokwasili reduce black cultural affectation to a mode that whites can easily comprehend by denying the sustenance of humor and catharsis that is the entire raison d’être of Girls Trip.
Okpokwasili turns herself into an African pain fetish. Meanwhile, the Girls Trip gang of four are just raunchy and combative entertainers.
(If there is any fairness in the newly politicized Motion Picture Academy, Tiffany Haddish’s friendly, obstreperous Dina will be an Oscar front-runner.)
When Okpokwasili’s parents, Nigerian immigrants, appear late in the film, they watch a video of their daughter’s act. The mother’s response is priceless: “You know dancing is different. There’s [usually] some pleasure there.” Girls Trip is all about pleasure, but Bronx Gothic, as its title suggests, is about the opposite. It follows the usual pattern of Hollywood’s imprisoning blacks within the limits of white liberal imagination. The same complex of fascination, guilt, and self-aggrandizement explains Obama’s triumph, just as it accounts for the current disappointment and shock that his triumph didn’t last and has left other blacks badly off and, in some cases, speciously “politicized.”
Okpokwasili refuses pleasure and release in dance. Instead, she builds her own prison — based on the template of white racism — in order to win approval from the mainstream media, the art world, and — who knows? — the National Endowment for the Humanities. (“She seems eternally on a war path,” says choreographer Ralph Lemon.) One of this performance-art documentary’s low points occurs when Rossi intercuts news video — predictable, button-pushing montages of the Walter Scott and Eric Garner deaths. Rossi’s liberalism — his whitesplaining — intrudes on his star’s storytelling. A good expressive performance piece like Edith Clever’s in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s six-hour monologue Die Nacht (1985) might have made a more powerful art statement.
Even after Obama, mainstream media still cannot countenance black American experience any way except through sociological catastrophe. That’s why Girls Trip is more enjoyable than it ought to be; scenes of zip-line urination and sexual pantomimes with fruit are a relief after Okpokwasili’s grim negativity.
Most of Bronx Gothic’s sadness comes from Okpokwasili’s own class-based stereotyping. She shows off academic cant about “the black body” (eccentrically preferring to say “brown body”) when referring to historic victimization. Her rant peaks when she dissects the vernacular phrase “I’ll slap the black off of you!” Okpokwasili defines this expression through academic jargon: “de-couple you from your genetic code.” But the best popular culture is more provocative: In Dave Meyers’s jokey 2002 Missy Elliott music video Work It, a Founding Father gets his pretense slapped off and winds up in black face, updating the good-natured race parody of Broadway’s Finian’s Rainbow (1947).
Contrast Okpokwasili’s smugness to the dance scene in Girls Trip when the quartet competes with a group of hussies. Director Malcolm D. Lee misframes the choreography, but the song we hear is overwhelming — it’s Missy Elliott’s 1999 “She’s a Bitch,” in which the pejorative turns into a defiant boast. (See Hype Williams’s “She’s a Bitch” music video to get the full pop-art magnificence.) That pre-Obama song doesn’t resort to blame, accusation, or protest. Missy Elliott owns her pride and daring and fun.
Before Obama, Missy Elliott and her directors knew how to visualize black imaginative freedom. Now we’re left with post-Obama anxiety that makes Bronx Gothic alienating, nihilistic, and self-loathing while the women of Girls Trip use music and humor to access freedom.
False Confessions, Luc Bondy’s modern interpretation of Marivaux’s 1737 farce, offers two kinds of cultural heritage: Isabelle Huppert portrays Countess Araminte in Bondy’s deconstructed theatrical artifice, and Ella Fitzgerald, in her rendition of Cole Porter’s 1934 “All through the Night,” closes it with private whimsy. These performances are dedicated to a woman’s romantic imagination and demonstrate the psychological power to be found in classical traditions. Girls Trip derives from a lively culture while Bronx Gothic is in desperate search for cultural expression that’s been lost amid academic and political confusion. Bondy’s gimmicky film isn’t as beautifully tricky as Clare Peploe’s Marivaux adaptation, The Triumph of Love (2001), but through Huppert and Fitzgerald’s artistry, he personalizes Western tradition sweetly.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.