Fear Of A Black Hat

1994, Movie, NR, 83 mins

Review

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Borrowing intelligently from THIS IS SPINAL TAP, writer-director-actor Rusty Cundieff has crafted a mock music documentary that is as irreverent, hilarious, and tough-minded as its model.

FEAR OF A BLACK HAT kicks off with purported director Nina Blackburn (Kasi Lemmons) earnestly discussing her film, a documentary account of a year in the lives of Niggaz With Hats, a rap band with a distinct political voice. Blackburn questions the group's three members--Ice Cold (Cundieff), Tasty-Taste (Larry B. Scott), and Tone Def (Mark Christopher Lawrence)--about their album "Fear of a Black Hat," originally subtitled "Don't Shoot Until You See the Whites." The group's name, members reveal, is intended to mark the difference between slaves who toiled in the fields bareheaded and the strong, contemporary black men the group claims to represent--in the words of Ice Cold, "Yo, we got hats."

Decked out in head gear that seems lifted from the pages of Dr. Seuss, the rappers trumpet their political seriousness, but their actions betray a self-destructive streak of violence, sexism, and stupidity. When the group finds its name missing from a concert hall marquee, they pull guns on the promoters. When a white rapper named Vanilla Sherbet annoys them in front of the camera, they beat him up. Even as they get busted for obscenity and lose their fifth manager to gunfire during a fight with a rival gangsta band, Niggaz With Hats stay atop the charts with hits like "Guerrillas in the Midst" and "Booty Juice." Notoriety brings fame, women, and money, not to mention criticism from conservative preachers and even Clarence Thomas. It also brings jealousy. Spurred on by the meddling of Tasty-Taste's girlfriend--who is bitter about Ice Cold winning a role in a film called "New Mack Village"--the band members eventually pull guns on each other and, when their sixth manager winds up dead, they call it quits. Embarking on solo careers, Ice Cold releases "Come Pet The P.U.S.S.Y."; Tone Def starts a hippy-dippy band called New Human Formatics and insists he's not black; and Tasty-Taste cuts a song called "Granny Said Kick Yo' Ass." Soon, however, the rappers reunite "for the first time in a year" when a big contract allows them to overlook their "artistic differences."

Although the three stars of FEAR OF A BLACK HAT carry their comically dimwitted personas off with perfect, straight-faced sincerity, the real strength of the film lies in Cundieff's dead-eye satirical take on the hypocritical, mutually exploitative relationship between rap, the music business, and corporate news media. As Cundieff knows, the manufactured controversies surrounding rap--e.g., 2 Live Crew's obscenity bust, or the hysteria surrounding gangsta rappers like N.W.A. and Ice T--sell records, even as they heighten racial tensions, mock black masculinity, and trivialize the aspirations of real activists. Cundieff reserves special venom for counterfeit nationalists who exploit the music for money and power--although he's not mentioned by name, one target of Cundieff's wit is quite possibly Nelson George, author of high-minded books on black culture and producer of the worthless, venal rap travesty CB4.

Musically, Cundieff doesn't miss much either. Astute fans of rap can revel in the spoofs of the songs here, from "My Peanuts," which mocks Run-DMC, to "Come Pet the P.U.S.S.Y.", a C & C Music Factory trashing, to "I'm Just a Human Being," a savage parody of P.M. Dawn. The barrage of insider references shouldn't intimidate the uninitiated, however. Briskly edited and consistently funny, Cundieff's fast-moving film is slick enough--and bawdy enough--to earn wide appeal. (Sexual situations, extreme profanity.) leave a comment --Seth Kaufman

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