In the spirit of full disclosure, as well as my burgeoning dating career, I would like to go on the record in saying that I am an equal opportunity establishment when it comes to the fairer sex. Think of me as the United Nations of relationships.
With that said, I’ve always been attracted to Black Star’s “Brown Skin Lady.” Politics aside, it’s simply a well-executed record. Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and Talib Kweli trade verses with the ease of two old friends. Their extolling of cultural aesthetics range from the playful (“…make love to you like long interview…”) to the introspective (“We’re not dealing with the European standard of beauty tonight…”), all the while providing a thematic framework for something that is not completely self-aggrandizing, but naturally uplifting. It’s a beautiful discourse in cultural nationalism.
I would be remiss if I did not make mention of the song’s incredibly underrated composer, J. Rawls. His production style has been tenured in classic source material and this is no exception. For the record’s soulful backdrop, Rawls borrows from the Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson catalogue with the 1977 gem, “We Almost Lost Detroit.”
But, this is not the sample I want to explore today. Instead, I want to take a look at the portion of “Brown Skin Lady” that offers life beyond the musical pursuits of its architects. The contentious dialogue positioned at the record’s outset serves as the perfect introduction to our keynote speaker(s). The conversation is funny, lighthearted, but structurally sound in its analysis. Above all, it’s tragically real. As a connoisseur of fine racial ideology, I was intrigued. This, like many samples before it, was quite unfamiliar.
In my search, I fell upon the film, Chameleon Street. The independent work, seeing its American release turn exactly twelve years old today, satirically portrays the tr
ue story of black con artist William Douglas Street, Jr., an individual whose nearly improbable tale has been mired in the same sort of obscurity as the film, itself. The events that take place within Street's life are nothing short of mythical. Amongst myriad other personalities, Street successfully portrayed a surgeon, a lawyer, and most comically, a reporter. This man’s genius was seemingly limitless even if criminal and/or certifiably insane.
I had finally found what I was searching for, buried underneath a treasure previously unknown.
What I had stumbled upon was an intoxicating piece of overlooked art, layered in complexities. Like a Black Star record, the film's most alluring feature can be found in its wordplay. I've ventured well within the realm of film and I can honestly say I've never met a film as rich in dialogue as this. From angle, it oozes with clever banter and unforgettable quips, leaving me to rewind every five seconds in order to transcribe the purposefully loquacious screenplay. The satirical diatribes of actor (and writer/director) Wendell B. Harris are delivered with a sardonic intensity that captures the nobility of Sidney Poitier and the keen wit of a Max Julien. And if you think that comparing the star of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to that of the The Mack nears absurdity, than you're starting to understand the brilliance of his performance.
In reality, Black Star and Chameleon Street occupy much of the same space. Neither maintains a significant mainstream presence. And yet, the art is both superficially entertaining, as well as critically engaging, a duality not often found. As a social construct, race is difficult by trade. Through a mastery of language, these artists disentangle the mess. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, both are worth a much closer look.
Written By: Paul Pennington