I can remember sitting in the Civic Theatre in Nelson on a Friday night in 1984, eagerly awaiting the Kootenay premier of one of the most anticipated movies of that year–David Lynch’s $45 million Dune. Frank Herbert’s original novel was part of that great Sixties trinity of epic science fiction / fantasy that also included Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Prior to making Dune, director David Lynch had proven himself one of the most original talents working in film (his Eraserhead  was to movies what William Burrough’s Naked Lunch was to contemporary novels). If anyone could bring Herbert’s alien world to life, it should have been Lynch. Wrong. About two minutes into the opening credits, I turned the friend next to me and said that if the rest of the movie lived down to the credits we were in trouble. We were in trouble. Not only was Dune a travesty of Herbert’s awesomely-detailed creation, the movie was so bad it even fails, a quarter century later, as kitsch.
The moral of this story is that one should never underestimate opening credits as portents of good or ill. This lesson was recently called to mind when I rented a very obscure film called Zebrahead (1992) from the Crawford Bay Store. About two minutes into the opening credits, I turned to my cat and said that if the rest of the movie was as cool as the credits we were in for a real treat. And so we were. The fact that I should have made my prediction even though the credits were backed by rap music is an even greater testimonial. My wife, coming home just as I was finishing the film, and thinking I was listening to the stereo rather than the TV, rushed into the living room to check if I was running a fever. I had to admit that I’d spent the last 100 minutes actually enjoying a rap-based soundtrack.
There’s a lot of other fine music in Zebrahead. Not surprising, given the fact that the man in charge of the soundtrack was blues legend Taj Mahal, and that one of the two main characters is a Jewish kid, named Zach, who’s in love with black music. Although I’d never heard it before, “zebrahead” is an ideal, if cutting, slang expression for someone caught between the black and white worlds. Zach’s grandfather had opened up a record store in downtown Detroit, just after the Second World War. Called Saul’s Melody Land, the store had been on the cutting edge of blues, big band, be-bop, r & b, cool, free jazz, and fusion. Between growing up in a record store, to the sounds of Wilson Pickett and James Brown, and hanging out with his best friend Dee from a black neighborhood on the industrial outskirts of the city, Zach “walks the walk and talks the talk” of his black brothers & sisters. Zach’s passion for the music is genuine. He’s not a black brother wannabee. Dee knows the music better than anyone else around him, and even Dee’s father, who knows America is still a society that’ll slap you down and put you in your place, grudgingly accepts Zach as a part of the family.
But this is America, not utopia. For everyone who accepts Zach for what he is, there’s someone else all too eager to play the race card against him. Some Muslim brothers in his high school know that Zach’s just another white devil ripping off black culture. His friend Dee’s another Uncle Tom in the making. The beleaguered white principal of his high school tells Zack, “Always, always, always stick with your tribe! Italians with Italians, Jews with Jews, Blacks with Blacks. It’s how you know who you are.” Things get worse when Zach starts dating Dee’s cousin, Nikki (N’Bushe Wright). Nut, a punk kid who lives in a crack house across the street from Nikki, can’t handle a sister choosing some white guy in a Jeep over her own kind. Nikki’s mom, who’s gotten precious little respect from anyone, particularly men, in her life, greets Zach at the door the first time he comes to take Nikki on a date with, “Let me ask you something–Is this a curiosity thing? You datin’ my daughter. You slummin’ or what?” For the Black Power crew at school, Nikki’s just another white man’s whore. It’s an opinion shared by some of her black female classmates. When Zach and Nikki go out to a preppy, solidly white party, all Zach’s old buddies are interested in is a play-by-play on what it’s like to sleep with a black girl. Romeo and Juliet didn’t face heavier odds.
Zebrahead works as well as it does because we care about and understand the motives of all the main characters in the film. Credit both the intelligent dialogue, and the actors. Rapaport and Wright are perfect as hesitant, vulnerable lovers negotiating the minefield of interracial dating. As Dee, DeShonn Castle conveys the sense of basic human decency that too often becomes a victim in racial crossfires. Candy Anne Brown, playing Nikki’s mom Marlene, uses minimal screen time to create an affecting portrait of what it’s like to live wounded in a world of wolves. Zach’s dad (veteran actor Ray Sharkey) is, as described by his own father, a bit of a schmuck–a womanizer for whom sex substitutes for relationships–but the bond with his son is, if not articulated, nonetheless real (as is Marlene’s love for her daughter). Perhaps the most complex character of all is Nut (Ron Johnson). Nut’s the ultimate sacrifice to society’s need to impose stereotypes on human beings. Buried way down is someone who probably wants to be more than a school dropout, a rebellious punk, a dealer, a woman-dissing gun-loving macho brother. He’s not likely to get that chance.
In a cinema which too often thrives on excess, Zebrahead manages to be a romance without illusions and a tragedy without villains. Its message is both hopeful and despairing: love is sometimes all there is, and not nearly enough. What else did I like about this film? The opening credits, a unique photo-montage which works like an architectural x-ray of Detroit city. The setting in which most of the story plays out, that zone of disintegration on the outskirts of all large cities where the non-middle class live in shotgun homes next to abandoned factories, deserted docks, railroad tracks, and weed-choked lots (most other movies with urban themes lock onto the flash and violence of the inner city). The guy who keeps going out into the yard beside his house and lighting fires in the grass where flammable pollutants from the nearby refinery have leached over onto his land. And Taj Mahal’s spooky blues take on Langston Hughes’s poem, “Crossing”: “….Then I stood out on that prairie / And as far as I could see / Wasn’t nobody on that prairie / Looked like me. / It was that lonely day, folks, / I walked all by myself: / My friends was right there with me / But it was just as if they’d left.”
Sidebar #72e: Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Once again, this is an abbreviated Sidebar due to my being unable to get my hands on a copy of Zebrahead. Or remember anything at all about the film. Stay tuned.