The Wood Reclaims Black Youth Culture

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:25

    Turn Back The Hands of Hiphop Vinyl records are used assouvenirs of childhood in The Wood, linking memories of growing up in the 1980sto contemporary trials of friendship faced by three responsible young men. Readingthe record label logos as they spin on a turntable is enough to make those artifactsnuminous, to recall the time of Eric B and Rakim's "Paid in Full"and Mtume's "Juicy Fruit." Debut director Richard Famuyiwa refersto 80s hiphop the way baby boomer media incessantly refers to 50s and 60s rock'n' roll. It's a refreshing emphasis on the innocence of black youth culture-goodenough to reclaim its virtues from the mainstream's typical, coarse exploitation. While trafficking in commercialtotems, Famuyiwa conveys untrivialized affection for The Wood's characters-somethingthat never happens in American Pie, a movie that reduces hiphop's influenceto booty-smacking pantomime and aggressive sex-talk. Famuyiwa concentrates onthe behavioral dilemmas faced by three teenage boys in the hood, coexistingwith gang-member peers, pretty girls an -most troubling of all-the fantasiesof manhood that exaggerate their daily rituals. North Carolina boy Young Mike(Sean Nelson), newly arrived in California, gets befriended by skirt-chasingYoung Roland (Trent Cameron) and cagey Young Slim (Duane Finley). He's dupedinto pranks, shown local dating customs and supported in familiar adolescentfolly (learning to dance, choosing the right breath mint, getting girls' phonenumbers). The characters' eagerness to grow up seems to be bursting out of theirbodies, which they haven't yet grown into. This is the crucial periodof transition that gets elided by so much of youth pop. It's catered to morethan it's understood or scrutinized. The Wood only barely resolves thisproblem-the vinyl records hook recalls tv's old Happy Days series, whichused a similar pop gimmick as a transitional device-but its aim is grand. Famuyiwatries to reinvestigate the totems of youth for their evidence of natural desireand naive despair (just edging into political limitations and social frustration).Interestingly, his strategy approaches the vaunted experiential reflection foundin Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dallowayrefracting time through hiphop's groovesand breakbeats. Famuyiwa's flashback/DJnarrative structure starts with the trio grown-up. On his wedding day, Roland(Taye Diggs) hides out until Mike (Omar Epps) and Slim (Richard T. Jones) findhim and pull him through his particular bachelor panic. The situation isn'tany more profound than the banal middle-class drama of Soul Food, butto perceive only the similarities in the set-up is as much a mistake as confusingone rap record with another. Famuyiwa takes mundane material to heart (almostthe way Public Enemy penetrates the social inequities of Black American livingthat Wu-Tang Clan exploits). Common anxieties of young adult dating, impendingmarriage and improvised family and friend relations are examined through theirinitial occurrence via 80s hiphop accompaniment. Juxtaposing the present withthe past, Famuyiwa seeks to feel again that special moment when pop cultureseemed to speak expressly to one's personal experience. (And much of hiphop'swonder-up to the early 90s-was that it seemed to be right there in your headas you first went through perceiving the way the world worked. That's why itfelt revolutionary.) Going back in time, recastinghis three fellas in a new set of younger actors, Famuyiwa wants the era as wellas the situations to palpate-through repetition and variation. But primarilyhe tries for something no one else in the brief, torturous, sell-out, frustrated,ever-hopeful history of hiphop movies has dared: He goes for a psychologicalconnection between adulthood's urgency and precocious, impatient youth. Youknow: the privilege that pop media sells to youth as their birthright whetheror not they fully appreciate life's value and consequences. Only maturity canmake a difference in how one rectifies desire with compromise; most times it'sa simple matter of reckoning with reality. And through his back and forth betweenYoung Mike having Isaiah Thomas and De La Soul posters on his bedroom wall tothe adult Roland's reunion with a former girlfriend, Famuyiwa seeks a boys-to-menfrisson, and nearly gets it. No doubt Famuyiwa's Woolfianambition derives from a sincere commitment to hiphop, an instinct-and willingness-toget more out of it than fashion. His pop instincts are better than his filmmakingskill at this point, which may explain why The Wood gets away with beingmore fine-grained than the era's other youth-oriented movies. (It was producedby Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the team also responsible for Election,who have so far been able to slip intelligence and feeling into these initialMTV Films ventures.) It seems as if Famuyiwa shrewdly follows a significantpop-movie model, then backs its story up with a superior (slightly veiled) influence. The Wood respondsto John Singleton's 1991 Boyz N the Hood, showing the experiences ofthree hoodrats in the period after Singleton's battlezone drama. Thelead musical track, Ahmad's "Back in the Day," works as a piece ofsequential nostalgia, recalling adolescence but also pinpointing the less-sensationallife after wartime. (Experiences Hollywood ignored as noncommercial.) Famuyiwareminisces about the plain-faced details of ghetto experience that still holdup in Boyz N the Hood-not the martinet father figure and gangbanger swagger,but the quiet, yearning glances passed between characters. Sean Nelson, whowas badly used as the title character in Fresh, does awkward-age callownesswith perfect pitch here-the way he holds his head as if careful and shy of themany thoughts inside it. His grade-school buddies are also charmingly boyish(though they're saddled with the worst period wigs since Samuel Jackson in MenaceII Society). Their schooldays skits also suggest Famuyiwa's awareness ofCooley High and tv's What's Happenin' series-less resonant culturalarchetypes than Boyz N the Hood, but among the few examples in whichAfrican-American adolescence was viewed with a kind, non-condescending, eye.(David Raynr's breezy, likable Trippin' was almost this good.) When a gang member cottonsto Young Mike and takes him under his wing, the boys' frightened ride in theback of his car-including a police stop-and-frisk-combines danger and surprise.This sequence, sketching gangbanger Stacey's (De'Aundre Bonds) unexpected brotherlyencouragement to Young Mike, feels almost as true as the backseat account ofnighttime adventure in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Smashing Pumpkinsmusic video for "1979." But Famuyiwa doesn't risk emphasizing youthfultransgression; he's wary of the distortions media has made of certain aspectsof black youth-a caution nicely satirized in Stacey's prescience about creatingthe ideal hiphop record: "Imagine making a whole album about smoking weed!Call that The Weed Album!" Clearly parodying Dr. Dre's epochal1992 The Chronic, Famuyiwa cites the moment hiphop culture went bad forgood. Preferring humane blackexperience to blunted ghetto ambition, The Wood suggests Charles Burnett's1983 feature My Brother's Wedding given conventional treatment (there'seven a sequence in a dry cleaner's, the family profession in the Burnett film).Famuyiwa is far from Burnett's subtlety and naturalistic observation, but theproof that he's on a similar track lies in the adult framing device. Mike, Slimand Roland's friendship rises and falls on a roller coaster of tension and mutualrespect. After Roland's friends pull him out of his fear, the friends drivearound the Wood in their black tuxes and gold brocade vests-symbolizing espritde corps and turning each handsome actor into a striking, formal figure of blackmasculinity. Burnett wouldn't need such obvious symbolism-he kept observingricher, even conflicting, neighborhood detail. But Burnett's a visionary humanist,while Famuyiwa's still a self-conscious media brat committed to celebratingand repairing the black male's defamed image. The Wood's bachelorparty is weakened by Famuyiwa's evasive bonhomie. He doesn't pierce brotherlycohesiveness as Burnett dared. Despite the flashbacks, there's little evidenceof how tall, silly Slim became a quick-tempered adult (or, equally likely, ofhow Richard T. Jones, a virile icon, simply falls back on cliches of being aG). Famuyiwa clearly delights in all aspects of the trio's brotherly beauty-aschildren, adults, different physical types and through the years. The film'semotional high point comes just before the wedding vows-Mike's vow of friendship,which Famuyiwa subtly scores to R. Kelly's offhand, sensitive-male anthem "IfI Could Turn Back the Hands of Time." Macho bluffs are plentifulin hiphop culture, yet masculinity remains a large question for most Americanmales. The Wood-with its interesting title making a double entendre ofhabitat (Inglewood, CA) and a state of masculine strength-concentrates on theway boys become men by peeking behind their bluster. (One inspired moment featuresa gang tough humbled by his angry girlfriend; Famuyiwa vouchsafes a view ofhis gun stuck in a bedspring.) Famuyiwa risks commercial success by downplayingthe thing that makes young black men such magnetic figures for mainstream culture(that includes the black audience, but especially duplicitous white males whocomplement their unacknowledged racism with the delusional admiration of blackmacho stereotypes). The film distinguishes itself by not endorsing male crudenessabout violence or sex. Mike's romance with Alicia (Malinda Williams in a memorablesweet performance) shows that adolescent sex-on-the-brain is connected to emotionalneed, recovering a fact lost in today's pervasive American Pie burlesque.As Mike and Alicia look horizontally face-to-face (while listening to CherylLynn and Luther Vandross sing "If This World Were Mine"), The Woodachieves the first intimate love scene in a teen movie-ever. Famuyiwa's story is toofragmented for that remembered moment to fully resonate in the adult present.The Wood's ambitious structure is sometimes clumsily executed (and it'svery poorly photographed, keeping the actors too dark and shiny). Famuyiwa'sview of character is more gentle than it is serious, which probably keeps himfrom achieving Burnett's and Woolf's hard insights, their brave confrontationwith grown-up despair. But gentleness in hiphop is the most gratifying of faults. Clipped Sound and Furious Art. Thereare also audacious time shifts in Andre Techine's 1996 masterpiece Les Voleurs,or Thieves. Faulkner is obviously Techine's model (the credit sequenceevokes The Sound and the Fury) and, like Famuyiwa, he concentrates ona young boy-the scion of a family of crooks that includes one black-sheep cop(Daniel Auteuil). Expanding the story of time-affected and love-starved lives,Techine tells the story through several points of view, including that of aphilosophy professor (Catherine Deneuve) who is Auteuil's rival for a youngrogue (Laurence Cote). One of the great films of the 1990s, Les Voleurs takesThe Wood's theme of romantic consciousness to the highest level. LesVoleurs airs Saturday, July 31 on the Sundance Channel at 12:35 a.m.