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'Blacking Up'

Last modified: Monday, February 1, 2010

IU filmmaker's documentary 'Blacking Up' examines racial identity through hip-hop music and culture

Feb. 1, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When young whites embrace rap and hip-hop culture, is it an example of America moving toward being a colorblind society. Or is it just another case of cultural theft and mockery?

Blacking Up

Courtesy of Robert Clift

This performer for the hip-hop "tribute" band Too White Crew is among those featured in the documentary, "Blacking Up: Hip-Hop's Remix of Race and Identity."

That's the fundamental question of a provocative new documentary produced by an Indiana University doctoral candidate, Blacking Up: Hip-Hop's Remix of Race and Identity, which is airing on public television stations nationally through early March.

IU television station WTIU, which supported the production along with the Independent Television Service, will air the program on Feb. 9 at 10 p.m.

Robert A. Clift, a filmmaker from Washington, D.C., who is writing his dissertation for the Department of Communication and Culture at IU Bloomington, interviewed notable entertainers, historians and cultural critics.

They included Amiri Baraka, author of Blues People; Russell Simmons, CEO of Def Jam Records; Chuck D of Public Enemy; Power (Oli Grant), manager of the Wu-Tang Clan; rapper Vanilla Ice; and Paul Mooney, a comedian and writer for "The Dave Chapelle Show."

His documentary travels back and forth from the streets of New York to Bloomington, where he filmed white people's identification with hip-hop culture on and off the IU campus. The film's startling opening scene takes place on the steps of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house and shows spirited verbal sparring between a white and black rapper.

Afterwards, Clift asks viewers, "Is this the face of new racial understanding in white America. Is this transcending racial stereotypes or is it reinforcing an ugly history, mimicking a degraded idea of what it means to be black?"

In an interview, Clift said he set out to present a dialogue on racial identity through hip-hop by using historical parallels to illuminate the discussion. "It was important to see that these issues don't come out of nowhere. It's important to understand our historical legacies and how they do and do not continue to operate," he said.

Blacking Up presents a history of "white attraction to black" that includes blackface performers such as Al Jolson, the so-called "white negro," performers Elvis Presley, Eminem and Madonna and even writer Jack Kerouac.

"Frequently when I talk to people who did not grow up with hip-hop, it always strikes me as interesting when I start describing the film and talk about black face and the white negro and tie it into today, how they're immediately able to understand what's happening with hip-hop culture through the lens of whatever music they grew up with," said Clift, who also earned a masters degree and taught courses on documentary production and theory at IU Bloomington.

The film focuses on the tensions that surround white identification with hip-hop, which include derogatory terms such as "wannabe" or "wigger."

"The film, for me, is a little bit about how people respond to the white person who identifies with hip-hop," Clift said. "It's less about whether that person is or is not authentic or what exactly they are doing, because it's really hard to figure out in some circumstances . . . But what I wanted to do was shift the attention away from the motive of each individual and onto what it says about us culturally on a broader level."

Clift presents many contrasting examples. They include white rappers Aesop Rock, Paul "Sage" Francis and Bloomington's Blazek, as well as Andrea Van Winkle, who as a teen was suspended from North Newton Jr./Sr. High School in Indiana in 1994 for wearing "hip-hop inspired clothing," after encountering harassment from other students who claimed she "wanted to be black."

Also shown in the film are two New York comedians who formed the improv duo "Crack'd Owt" and a touring "tribute" band from Chicago, Too White Crew. Viewers also are taken on the "Hush Hip-Hop Tour" in New York, as presented by Grandmaster Caz, where the first stop is a funeral home where services were held for Notorious B.I.G. People on the tour have the option of putting on bling and apparel provided by the tour company.

"It's important to think about the similarities and differences, but it's also important to see that what we're looking at is not simply either good or bad," Clift said. ""There's not one monolithic 'blacking up' . . . There is romanticization and exaggerated admiration -- the two sides of the coin -- of 'wanting to be' or mocking and affirming that one is not . . . In the film, that's what I wanted to bring out."

This is not Clift's first film to air on national television. His earlier film, "Stealing Home: The Case of Cuban Baseball," was shown on PBS in 2001. In addition to being aired in major markets on PBS stations across the country, Blacking Up has received a great deal of attention among bloggers and in the national media.

"I thought that your approach to exploring how white kids are shaped and informed by rap and hip-hop is a much needed antidote to much of the unsophisticated analysis of youth culture that floods our airways and our newspapers," Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, told Clift after seeing the film. "Your documentary wrestles with the ambiguity and the consequence of cultural borrowing.

"There is nothing more essentially American than the blending of cultures -- except perhaps the struggle over the blending of cultures. This film gives arrestingly provocative insights into race and American culture, and the path from fringe to center," wrote Nell Minow, an influential film critic and columnist.

Clarence Page, another columnist and senior editor of the Chicago Tribune, added, "Through the eyes of a rising generation, Clift shows us an America that is less melting pot than mulligan stew. Cultures and subcultures don't easily melt, yet each contributes a rich flavor to the pot."

More information about the film is available online at