Thursday, October 9, 2008

Chauncey Devega's World of Ghetto Nerds: Black and Brown and All Into Red Dawn

Oh, the glories of being a child of the 1980s. We had pleasures too numerous to mention: the Cold War, G.I. Joe, the Transformers, Robotech, Nintendo, Voltron, etc. etc. etc.

I am always struck by the inclusiveness of our memories for that era. Black and brown folk were omnipresent by virtue of our invisibility. Sure, we were in hip hop movies, we could get shot by Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, were the athlete or cool friend a la Forest Whitaker in Sixteen Candles, the black fraternity members who save the geeks in Revenge of the Nerds, or Clubber Lang or Apollo in Rocky, but we never really got to shine as central characters.

Ironically, we ghetto nerds always found a way to make ourselves central to the narrative when we were recreating scenes from popular movies and television shows. If we were playing Rambo we could either imagine ourselves as Rambo (in our version of the movie we would get to make love to the beautiful Asian sister who is Rambo's compatriot)--a post-racial colorblind move before such concepts entered the public imagination. If we were acting out the Terminator we could be the second terminator sent back to kill John Connor--a sequel never to be made. Vietnam War movies provided a different challenge. Black and brown folks were too numerous in these movies and almost always type cast (has anything changed really?). But again, this did present the opportunity to imagine ourselves as Lee Arney's assistant in Full Metal Jacket, or as one of the more central characters in Hamburger Hill or the Siege of Firebase Gloria:

The other Cold War era, the Russians are coming, hysteria driven popcorn movies wrote us out of the script entirely. As a qualifier, the Day After and the British nuclear holocaust docudrama Threads were more diverse, but they were so horrifying that we did not feature them in our lunch break/after school play rotation. And the movie a Boy and his Dog was simply to surreal and bizarre for our simple preteen/early teen minds to get a handle on:

Question: am I the only 1980s ghetto nerd who prayed the world wouldn't end in a nuclear holocaust? Or tried to figure out how close they were to likely targets so they could come up with a possible "escape" plan? Second Question: Am I the only person still traumatized by Threads and consider it one of the most frightening movies ever made?

By contrast, Red Dawn was pornographic in its mixture of violence, sadism, and overwrought, jingoistic patriotism. In total, it was a two hour advertisement of the NRA and the "right" to bear arms as one never knows when you will need an assault rifle to fight off a Soviet tank or a helicopter gunship.

Here is the dilemma: there aren't many brown and black folk in the flyover states featured in the movie. And if I recall, the Russians nuke most of the population centers leaving good ol' white folk, the "real" Americans, to fight the Reds. Maybe the Russians and their Cuban allies were afraid to set up shop in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or D.C.? Or maybe Red Dawn is implying that the big city, latte drinking liberals and their masses of colored supplicants would collaborate with the Soviet invaders?

Nevertheless, the forced whiteness of Red Dawn didn't stop me from hypothesizing about how urban and semi-urban communities would resist. Would the former gang bangers get organized and fight the Russians? If Patrick Swayze could lead a bunch of High School kids against the Soviet and Cuban war machines, I can only imagine what the brothers on the block would have done, especially if the NOI or the Zulu Nation had their back. Would the kind people of the Bronx and Brooklyn snipe at them from their windows? Would they wage an urban insurgency? What would we ghetto nerds do to resist? Ohh the dreams of teenage ghetto nerds. Ironically, Red Dawn was so historically inaccurate, the Soviet and Cuban strategies so ill conceived, and the action so unbelievable that it would inevitably become a cornerstone of ghetto nerd culture.

The undeniable power of Red Dawn is explored by Slate magazine in the following piece:

Its portrait of Russia is dated. Its portrait of America is timely—and terrifying.

The middle Reagan years—the fingernail-gnawing, doomsday-clock-watching, pre-perestroika finale of the Cold War—were a dreadful time for movies in general, but they were the heyday of the Armageddon film. The mid-'80s gave us War Games, The Day After, Invasion USA, Testament, Amerika, and The Terminator, and they gave me nightmares. For much of my teens, I had a dream in which I was standing alone, minding my own business, when a huge helicopter gunship would appear from behind a building or a tree or a cliff and start shooting at me. This nightmare was, of course, a tribute to the feverish power of the World War III movie Red Dawn, whose most famous scene involved a Soviet Hind helicopter sneaking up on our American heroes, the "Wolverines," and unleashing a hellfire of bullets against them.

Except for The Terminator, none of the mid-'80s Armageddon movies has had as much enduring influence as 1984's Red Dawn. The film is beloved of American military types. In 2003, the Army named its operation to capture Saddam Hussein "Red Dawn" and dubbed the two Saddam safe houses it was raiding "Wolverine 1" and "Wolverine 2." Recognizing that we're again living in an age of existential dread, MGM recently announced plans to remake Red Dawn. With the Russian army having run rampant over Georgia and the Kremlin hissing over American plans to base a missile defense system in Poland, this seemed the right moment to revisit Red Dawn. I could think of no better way to recall the anxieties of the Cold War than to cheer on the Wolverines again. But Red Dawn did not conjure up the chest-swelling patriotism I felt as a 14-year-old. Instead, it turned out to be disturbing in an entirely unexpected way.

the story continue here.


Here is a clip from another classic, the movie Damnation Alley--a cinematic achievement that deserves critical attention if only because of its creative depiction of radioactive, man eating, cockroaches!

How would you have resisted the Soviet invasion? What were the movies in your play rotation? And lest I gender the conversation too much, what were you ghetto nerd girls and teenagers up to during the waning years of the Cold War?

1 comment:

Tiffany Gholar said...

"I can only imagine what the brothers on the block would have done, especially if the NOI or the Zulu Nation had their back."

Uh-oh... I think I see a great Respectable Negroes screenplay in the works. That could make a great movie!