Something Weird Video // 1959 // 171 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 16th, 2006
Black & White, Love & Hate...
While we like to think of Paris as a city of perfumed progressive lights, where love and culture conquer all, it turns out that the one-time Nazi doormats don't necessarily like students with skin the color of beef bourguignon. Daniel is a pre-med man who wishes to follow in his African father's footsteps. Frances is hoping to get her degree in both couture and coquettishness. They meet at the University's prison-style cafeteria and exchange glances so gratuitous that their usually amorous classmates begin blushing out of carnal embarrassment. It's not long before the couple is expressing their devout emotions in physical falderal and arcane couplets that sound like excerpts from Shakespeare's junior high-school journal. As their personal passion grows, social sexual stigmas start stinking up the place. Frances learns that her Hitler-honoring parents hate all kinds of (racial expletive deleted) and many of her fellow countrymen believe Daniel is nothing more than a dirty, animalistic (racial expletive deleted). Naturally, a full-fledged mixed-race croissant starts warming in Frannie's personal oven and when she delivers the decidedly dark bundle of joy, the attending physicians are flummoxed. Frances welcomes the pre-tanned tot. But the medical team is far more used to hearing expectant mothers in similar situations shout My Baby is Black!
That's mild compared to the brazen, ballsy bewilderment that interracial romance created in the mythical American Southwest. Seems that in the middle of Nowhere, just a few miles from Bumf*ck, Egypt, and half the distance to Satan's Armpit, Wyoming, is the small town of Cicada. Thanks to an unfortunate bit of geographic gerryrigging, the backward burg is completely isolated and this has lead to a kind of communal anti-Dark ages. All the black people have been corralled off in a small, slum-like corner of the city, where they are mandated to stay "behind the pole" and never wear shirts or shoes. On the almighty white side of things, the citizens sin like they are on a Sodom and Gomorrah holiday. They frequent the local brothel and booze it up like there's no luxury tax. When returning war vet Bob starts taking a fancy to Bessie, a decidedly beige beauty, his prejudiced pals are not pleased. They beat the snot out of him and then blame it on the local micromanaged minorities. Naturally, a lynch mob is formed and it's not long before torches and pitchforks are piercing the night sky. It will take another act of heroism by this jaundiced G.I. to prevent his Checkerboard town from going up in flames.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the overriding Gallic gall of the mulatto masterpiece known as My Baby is Black! Originally titled Les laches vivent d'espoir (don't bother to translate -- it's as meaninglessly esoteric as the rest of the movie) and filmed in the center of Continental intolerance, otherwise known as France, this is a love story larded with some of the most God-awful dialogue, overdramatic plot points, and artsy-fartsy filming ever to see a swatch of celluloid. While our lead Daniel avoids most of the ethnic epithets, director Claude Bernard-Aubert never misses an opportunity to paint Parisians as the most biased bunch since a group of Germans decided that there was only one "solution" to their Hebrew problem. Not that femme fatale Frances cares. She is so caught up in the wounded world of oatmeal puppy love that you can practically smell the Love's Baby Soft through the TV screen. When she's not silently shifting her emotional sands for this Moorish man of action, she's speaking to him in conversations so poetic and flowery that depressed high school girls are suing for plagiarism. Indeed, these two can connect adoration to anything and make it sound like a Hallmark hairball. By the time the real world wanders in -- Fran's parents disown her and Daniel is arrested for defending a dark-skinned street urchin -- you've almost given up on the title tot. However, when the little amber nipper makes his appearance, suddenly all is right with the world. Proving that even in the realm of prejudice, the biological ability to create a child cures all, My Baby is Black! defies description as it belabors emotion with actual literary overkill.
Made two years before My Baby is Black!, but still mired in Bernard-Aubert's mind-bogglingly misguided mannerisms, Checkerboard has the single strangest setup of any film SWV has distributed on DVD. As a rundown wino of a guide takes tourists around his virtual ghost town of a city, we see shots of some of the most surreal local color ever to escape a David Lynch storyboard. A young child kicks a human skull down the street. Young toughs shoot at a saucepan attached to a dog's tale. The postmaster is viewed sitting, zombified, as he listens to the voice of the long distance operator. The highlight is a stopover at the local Milk Bar, where men (only) can sip fermented spirits and everyone else can watch the hookers practice their prowess from easy access viewing windows. This is just the beginning. We get a judge who metes out fairness based on his own odd interpretations of the law, a sheriff who sleeps through most mob justice, and a single, startling sequence of a faucet fashioned out of a cow's head. While Bob's black babe issues are supposed to be front and center to the story, they take a blatant backseat to all the awkward allegorical anarchy. The film has several sensational false endings (Bob thwarts a hanging with his wooden leg -- no joke) and is filled with more nods to the incredibly negative "N" word than a rap CD. The undercurrent of discrimination is so ripe you can actually see it radiating off the actors like stink lines. Checkerboard so frequently smacks up your gray matter from the inside out that you barely have time to get your cinematic bearings.
Something Weird outdoes itself again by releasing these delectably dark and discomforting treats. While their attempted remastering and preservation of the movie's amazing monochrome elements is decent, there are a few defects. Both films are presented in 1.33:1 full-frame images (though they were obviously filmed in widescreen -- the tell tale black bars and letterboxing are a dead giveaway) and the black and white is clear and highly contrasted. There is occasional dirt, some less than significant scratches, and a couple of instances of source wear and tear. Still, along with the standard Dolby Digital Mono with its flat, graceless aspects and shrill lack of sonic subtlety, we have acceptable DVD dimensions. It is interesting to note that the English dubbing doesn't even bother to match up with mouths. Instead, a lot of the conversations in both My Baby is Black! and Checkerboard appear like strange interludes between telepathic twits.
Staying with the French-fried theme, SWV provides a few bountiful baguettes of bonus features that flesh out the disc nicely. First up is a series of trailers, all of them for revamped Parisian pictures. Of special note is the babelicious Bridget Bardot in Manina, the guy rape ridiculousness of Nude in a White Car, and the white slavery salaciousness of the appropriately named Seller of Girls. There are also two accompanying featurettes, each one offering their own mini-movie Moulin Rogue of offbeat delights. In the documentary excerpt "Mondo Oscentia," a narrator explains how dwindling ticket sales and the growing influence of TV helped foster the exploitation movement (complete with scenes from My Baby is Black!). In Paris After Hours, jazz is gigantic as a crack combo serenades stylish disaffected youth -- and a few noted celebrities -- during a dreamy travelogue of the European cultural capital.
The ridiculous reality of racism, with all its illogical logistics and personal prejudices, just doesn't seem to be the kind of forceful fodder the raincoat crowd would cotton to. Still, there was no more contentious a subject in pre-Civil Rights Movement America than the promise of taboo-busting love between individuals of ethnic discrepancies. While the skin is minimal and the loving is left to a sensual embrace or two (and a sequence of suggestive toe wrestling), My Baby is Black! and Checkerboard are reminders of a time when segregation set the social agenda and Caucasians would rather lynch than switch. Forget glimpses of gratuity or the possibilities of poontang, director Claude Bernard-Aubert had more up his strange sleeve than just a diatribe against discrimination.
Review content copyright © 2006 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Something Weird Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 171 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* French Short Subject "Paris After Hours"
* Cinematic Sin and Censorship Documentary "Mondo Oscentia"
* Gallery of Sexploitation Art with Exploitation Audio
* IMDb: My Baby is Black!
* IMDb: Checkerboard