REPRINTED FROM BLACK GROVES
Title: White Lies, Black Sheep
Artist: James Spooner (director)
Label: Renew Media
Catalog No.: N/A (no commercial DVD release)
White Lies, Black Sheep is the work of James Spooner, a modern day Renaissance man. In addition to being an independent filmmaker and producer, Spooner has sculpted, promoted records, built custom-made bicycles, danced in an iPod commercial, founded the Afro-Punk Festival in Brooklyn, and co-founded the Freedom Rides-an organized bicycle ride supporting black community building in Los Angeles. His most recent projects include tattoo art and fatherhood.
Spooner’s own experiences with alienation and negotiating multiple identities have served as the motivation behind both of his films. Although Spooner has spent most of his post-toddler days living on the West and East Coasts of America, he was born in the Caribbean nation of Saint Lucia to a black father and a white mother. In an interview with Konstantin from Defkon City Presents, Spooner describes how he had always thought of Saint Lucia as home until he returned there for a visit. Initially immune to the exclusionary forces he faced as one of the only black people in a predominantly white punk scene, Spooner found this visit to be a life-altering experience. He quickly discovered that he knew little about life and culture in Saint Lucia and that there his biracial identity caused people to label him as a white outsider.
Spooner’s desire to fit in caused him not only to re-evaluate his racial identity, but to question how he could be so involved and politically active in a predominantly white punk world without addressing its glaring racial issues. This new racial consciousness inspired his creation of the film Afro-Punk, which Spooner used to open communication among black members of the punk community. The film soon developed a cult following and served as the driving force behind the first Afro-Punk Festival in 2005.
After the success of his documentary film Afro-Punk, Spooner has released his first narrative film. Promoted as a semi-autobiographical tale or a pseudo-documentary, White Lies, Black Sheep closely parallels Spooner’s own experiences. The main character, Ajamu “AJ” Talib, is a concert promoter for the underground rock scene in Brooklyn, New York. Much like Spooner, the seed for AJ’s awakening is planted by a visit home-although in this case the visit is to his father’s apartment as opposed to his home country. During his train trip to the apartment, AJ is clearly uncomfortable as he tries to blend in with other black community members. He even goes so far as to hide his punk hairstyle when the other passengers heckle his appearance and accuse him of thinking that he’s white. Once at the apartment, AJ’s father confronts him over his involvement in the punk scene and his need to educate himself about black issues.
Throughout the film, AJ receives pressure from both his white friends and members of various black communities to conform to black social norms. People criticize his clothing and hair (when he doesn’t hide it) and his best friend encourages him to adopt an afro hairstyle, listen to R&B, read Malcolm X, and date black women.
After two failed attempts to start a relationship, AJ’s internal crisis goes into overdrive and he gradually begins to give in under social pressure to conform. He starts to explore black social venues and to study the lives and works of Fela Kuti and Malcolm X. When AJ starts getting too close to his best friend’s black girlfriend and attempts to incorporate black dancers into the shows he promotes, the racist backlash from his friends and the club owner severely shakes his devotion to the rock scene.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the film is the integration of Spooner himself into the film. Playing the role of a documentary cameraman, Spooner refuses to remain a detached observer. He almost plays the role of the film’s antagonist as he forcibly documents the darkest moments of AJ’s downward spiral of self-destruction. By not allowing him to turn away from his own inner turmoil, the camera serves as a catalyst for AJs final crisis. Whether Spooner is ultimately a demon tearing AJ’s life away or an angel facilitating his rebirth by forcing him to recognize and let go of the things that are hurting him, however, is a matter of perspective.
Unfortunately, White Lies, Black Sheep doesn’t appear to be available to the general consumer market as of yet (although you can purchase educational copies through the Afro-Punk website for around $300-extremely reasonable as far as educational sales go). If you’re local to Bloomington, however, you can catch the film for free at 7:00 PM on Friday, 6 Nov. 2009 as part of the City Lights & Underground film series. More details on the screening are available on the City Lights & Underground website.
As part of the Reclaiming the Right to Rock conference on Friday, 13 Nov. 2009, Spooner will participate in a Q&A session following a free screening of Afro-Punk. See the official conference website for details.