Funny Fez

Here's something you don't see every day: black artists exploiting white culture for financial gain. I suppose you could make a case that talk shows were a predominantly white domain until Oprah and Arsenio marched on Phil and Johnny, and after a couple of joints you might be able to convince one of your more impressionable friends that Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was a forerunner of rap. But in reality it's nearly always the other way around. Just ask Elvis.

Rusty Cundieff's feisty but uneven Fear of a Black Hat takes a step toward evening up the score. The movie makes no attempt to conceal its desire to be a hip-hop version of This Is Spinal Tap. Cundieff assumes viewers will have a more-than-passing acquaintance with vintage hip-hop culture. N.W.A. (the Spinal Tap stand-ins call themselves N.W.H. A Niggaz With Hats), Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Hammer, Run-DMC, Vanilla Ice, and just about all the other notable rappers take their lumps at some point in the flick.

Fear of a Black Hat eschews Spinal Tap's subtle sniper rifle in favor of an all-out frontal assault, spraying gags like machine-gun fire at a broad range of targets; this suggests Cundieff has seen his share of Zucker-Abrahams productions, not to mention Madonna's Truth or Dare. The film has mixed success with slapstick and sight gags, but includes some dead-on parodies of rap videos, especially "Granny Said Kick Yo Ass," which, with its grainy, high-contrast texture, perfectly mimics LL Cool J's "Momma Said Knock You Out."

Artists' names and song titles are a frequent Black Hat target. Occasionally Cundieff's wordplay is clever ("Guerrillas in the Midst") but more typical are cheap shots (acts with names like MC Slammer, Vanilla Sherbet, Ice Tray, Ice Box, Ice Coffee, et cetera). Cundieff skewers both hypocritical white music-biz types and the gangsta subculture fairly evenly. But if you're hypersensitive to racist stereotyping, try on another Hat.

Cundieff doesn't stray very far from Tap's basic premise: A documentary filmmaker (in this case an attractive female sociologist doing her doctoral thesis about the seamy underbelly of rap culture) goes on the road with a band. Along the way her camera records every conceivable hip-hop convention -- rampant misogyny ("A ho is a woman who fucks everybody; a bitch is a woman who fucks everybody but you," and "It's our civic duty to bang the booty"), guns, violence, groupies, obsequious managers (doomed as the drummers in Spinal Tap), racist cops, outsize egos and macho posturing among bands and performers, and half-baked double talk passed off as hard-won wisdom: "We're Niggaz With Hats. If we don't have our hats, we're just Niggaz Without Hats. That's a whole 'nother group of Niggaz. It harks back to the plantations. Blacks didn't have hats in the fields to protect them from the sun. Yo -- now we got some hats."

Speaking of hats, Cundieff sets some kind of record here for wearing a variety of them (literally and figuratively). The onetime standup comic and screenwriter for House Party II not only wrote, directed, and starred in Fear of a Black Hat, he also penned the lyrics to all of the original songs and song parodies. While Cundieff admits to being a huge fan of Spinal Tap, and was clearly shooting for a satiric masterpiece of that magnitude, his failure to hit that lofty target is nothing to be ashamed of. The film holds its own against the Hot Shot!s and Naked Guns of the world. And by making it he managed to turn the tables on all the white artists who have cannibalized black culture over the years.



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