Minstrels In Baggy Jeans?

Desmond James, 16, and two of his buddies were in the mood for a good laugh. So they decided to catch "Malibu's Most Wanted,'' the new movie in which a superrich white kid (Jamie Kennedy) is so obsessed with hip-hop that his parents have him kidnapped and taken to the 'hood to "scare the black out of him.'' When the friends left the theater, they couldn't tell if they'd been amused, offended--or both. "It was sort of funny,'' says James, a junior at Los Angeles's Dorsey High School, who's writing his own rhymes in hopes of becoming the next Jay-Z. "But then some of it was too over the top, particularly coming from a white boy.''

Hip-hop culture has dominated the music industry for well over a decade, but it's taken all this time for Hollywood to cash in. The solution? Make hip-hop movies about white people. Most African-Americans didn't have a problem with Eminem--who they believe respects their culture--either as a rap-per or as a movie star in "8 Mile." But several new hip-hop-themed films and TV shows are recycling old stereotypes--whether ironically or not--and blacks wonder what's going on. This month it's "Malibu's Most Wanted." Last month "Bringing Down the House," in which Queen Latifah plays an ex-con who gives a street education to a white lawyer (Steve Martin), opened at No. 1. HBO's "Da Ali G Show," in which a white British comedian impersonates a staggeringly ignorant hip-hopper in FUBU jumpsuits, sunglasses and gold chains, has gotten rave reviews and a large cult following. Later this year we'll see "Lil' Pimp," a Sony animated film in which a black pimp and his working girl color up a white kid's boring suburban life. Does all this represent a new cross-cultural openness--or is it blackface minstrelsy in backward caps and baggy jeans?

"Let's be honest," says hip-hop historian Kevin Powell, "all this fascination with hip-hop is just a cultural safari for white people." Todd Boyd, professor of film and television at USC, takes a slightly--but only slightly--more sympathetic view. "This is what happens when a culture becomes as popular as hip-hop culture has. People will interpret it the way they want to and not necessarily the way we intended it to be. They are defining the way they see it--which many times means reducing it to the simplest form they can relate to." That form is often the notion that blacks exist largely to put white people in touch with their deeper, earthier selves. "I liked 'Bringing Down the House' because of Latifah," says film historian Donald Bogle. "But when I took a step back, it was still the typical depiction of blacks as the ones who come in to teach and help whites be all they can be."

But however dubious the film's racial politics may be, it's at least given Latifah the kind of visibility few black actors ever get. "It's tough because you want black actors to work, and this is giving them work,'' says director John Singleton. "If it's a hip-hop film, it has to showcase blacks in some way. We just can't be left out of our culture. And it means jobs one way or the other. That's something.'' Snoop Dogg, who does voice-over--for a talking rat--in "Malibu's Most Wanted,'' agrees that black performers have to go where the work is. "It would be great to always be able to do what Denzel is doing," he says, "but we can't all do that. I speak up when I can about s--t if it's too crazy. But I also have to hope that we as a people know the deal. That we know who we are and what we're really about. No movie is going to tell you that.''

Well, what's too crazy? What about that gag in "Malibu's Most Wanted" when Kennedy's character says he doesn't want to keep calling himself Rodney because it's his "slave name"? "That's not cool," says Damon Dash, president of Roc-A-Fella Films, which he owns with Jay-Z. "Some things aren't funny--some things aren't government-approved. That's why we're financing our own films about hip-hop, with no one else's opinions but the people who live it.'' But Kennedy, who co-wrote "Malibu," says it never occurred to him that anybody would be offended. He's been a hip-hop fan since he was a kid in West Hollywood, and first developed his Rodney character 10 years ago when he was doing a stand-up comedy routine. "He's based on me because I'm a wanna-be," Kennedy says. "I'd be lying if I didn't say that four white guys in Brentwood wrote it with me. But I hoped we were making fun of stereotypes and showing how stupid they are. I sort of felt that we were equal-opportunity offenders.''

But is that really possible when nothing else is equal? "These movies would be harmless if we weren't living in a racist society," says historian Powell. "And if we had movies like 'A Beautiful Mind' or 'The Hours,' then it might be different. But that isn't happening.'' Until it does happen, Desmond James and his friends have every reason to wonder how funny these white boys really are.

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