Saturday, April 29, 2006

Hadjii Is a Rock Star (Somebodies)

The first time I saw Somebodies I was less sure about it than I am now. Co-producer Nate Kohn (and Ebertfest director) sent me a cut last fall, and I did what I always do with screeners: I watched it on the treadmill. Granted, the film messed up my workout — I fell off a few times because I was laughing so hard — but I thought it worked more as a loose series of skits than as a cohesive narrative.

I've seen it a few times since, and I think I missed the boat that first time. (Teach me to watch DVDs while sweating.) It's a story about Scottie, a black student wobbling between temptation and the straight-and-narrow, who's struggling to carve out a middle road in his Southern community that's all about either/or's, religion v. sin being the most obvious dichotomy. If he seems laid-back it's because while sorting out what works out for him, he hears out everyone around him — from an over-earnest Christian fellowship student to his lecherous uncle to his Jesus-loving nympho girlfriend, who turns out to be the sanest one of all of them (played by the up-and-comer Kaira Whitehead). And the film's dynamics takes its cues from its character's journey. Deceptively, nay, deliberately laid-back is a more apt description.

And it really is wickedly funny, a welcome contrast to the movies to slit your wrist by that comprised the bulk of Sundance 2006 fare, where Somebodies was an official dramatics category selection. Take the intervention that Scottie's friends stage for him after he catches a DUI and gets roped into some dodgy community service. While they're waiting for their man to come home, they get antsy and then loaded. By the time Scottie enters the room, the boys are too wrecked to do anything but grab some food.

Hadjii, the film's writer, star and director, is kind of a rock star. He radiates the easy, bemused charisma of the hot guy in school who knows the easiest way to draw others in is to make them do the work. It's a dynamic that he mines in his film: Scottie plays straight man to the host of eccentrics peopling his life — tres Seinfeld, whom the director-hyphenate makes no bones about citing as an inspiration. But these days, comic films tend to get pigeon-holed as merely comic, as if being funny doesn't require a keen, deeply cognizant intelligence in the first place, just like black films tend to get pigeonholed.

Is this a black film? Of course it is: It stars black folk and is directed and written by a black man. If that isn't a black movie, whatever the hell that means, I don't know what is. But does that mean that it automatically should be marketed like the next Friday? Of course not. The fact that yesterday's mostly over-40, overwhelmingly white audience ate the film (and Hadjii) up with a spoon testifies to its universal appeal. And yet, even 20 years after Spike first broke out, any film deemed black still tends to be relegated to a cinematic ghetto of one kind or another. Nate and his co-producer (and wife) Pam Kohn are on a mission to achieve a distribution and marketing campaign that circumvents the normal pigeonholing.

They may very well succeed. If anyone can do it, it's Hadjii, who always says in interviews (as he did in the q and a's yesterday) that real life is all about greys. I have a feeling he's somebody I'll be able to say I knew back when.


Blogger Pat said...

I missed the film, but I just wanted to point out really quickly that the audience eats everyone up. I'm not knocking Hadjii (whom I had dinner with Thursday night - he seems nice), but the fact that the Ebertfest audience ate him up probably doesn't mean a lot. The audience is there to be wowed by the guests and their movies, and will do so no matter who or what is on stage - they even ate up last year's stinker, Map of the Human Heart.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Dan S said...

The reception for Hadjii was genuinely warm, and deserved too I think.

I was at Map of the Human Heart, and agree it was a stinker, but I don't remember the audience reaction being particularly warm (maybe I'm wrong - I really don't remember it being memorable). I do remember Primer receiving a cool reception last year, and Murderball and Badaaaasss receiving well-deserved standing Os.

EbertFest audiences are nothing if not polite (even clapping when the credits appear for anyone who is in the audience). But, they generally can separate the truly inspiring from the merely good and are still polite for the stinkers.

Somebodies got a belated, partial standing O, which is about right for a movie that had everyone rolling in the aisles at times.

5:31 PM  

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