AFROPUNK: THE "ROCK N ROLL NIGGER" EXPERIENCE directed by James Sponner, screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival at the Cumberland 3 (159 Cumberland), tonight (Thursday, September 11), 10:15 pm, and Saturday (September 13), 9:15 am. 416-968-FILM, www.afropunk.com Rating: NNNNN
History might beg to differ, but rock and roll is still a pretty white game. Black faces in bands remain a novelty, and audiences, even here in famously multicultural Toronto, are often uniformly white. Even paler is the punk scene. It's something James Spooner is intimately familiar with.
As a black punk rock fan, Spooner never felt entirely comfortable or part of the scene. In his provocative documentary Afropunk: The "Rock N Roll Nigger" Experience, the New York filmmaker explores the subject, tackling the black experience in American punk history, from the Bad Brains and Fishbone to Orange 9mm. He also takes on the issue of race from a fan's perspective, from hair politics and the difficulties of shaping your afro into a Mohawk to what it's like to be a black kid into Hüsker Dü, not Biggie Smalls.
Spooner gets provocative before the film even really begins, taking issue with the classic Patti Smith song title and dedicating the film to "every black kid who's been called a nigger and every white person who thinks they know what that means."
"I've always felt really weird about that Patti Smith song," Spooner admits from Brooklyn. "I thought as a white person she was coming from a place of privilege, and I took exception to her calling herself a nigger. I would never assume what it's like to be a woman or gay or anything I'm not, so I wouldn't go around shouting about being a nigger.
"I never use that word, so even I had a hard time telling people that was the name of my film. I called it The 'Rock N Roll Nigger' Experience because these black punk rock kids feel they're treated as 'niggers' within the scene."
That disconnect is at the heart of Afropunk. Most of the black punk kids in the movie seem shocked that a scene that holds itself apart from the rest of society and promotes freedom, tolerance and anarchy could also be deeply racist.
"All my experiences with race in the punk scene were negative," Spooner insists. "I learned very quickly that punk is no different from regular society.
"Maybe there's more vegetarians, and people are talking about animal rights and sexism, but the community is mostly white, and race was either a non-topic or a very hostile topic. Subcultures are just a reflection of the societies they come from.
"These kids who are involved in the scene come from families whose parents are regular people, and they grow up learning from those people. That's why in punk you have Christian fundamentalists, Nazis and straight-up white folks who don't necessarily know they're racist, but they reflect their surroundings. Part of making the film was to tell those kids, 'Don't think you're any different from the rest of society, because you're not. '"
Afropunk has its holes. Spooner doesn't connect the U.S. scene to the British punk movement, which was steeped in black culture and reverential about roots reggae and old soul, and he doesn't actually get an interview with any of the members of Bad Brains.
Where Spooner is most successful is in simply raising the uncomfortable issue of race, in the film and on the lively discussion board of his www. afropunk.com Web site.
"I wanted to make the movie that I wanted to see when I was 13 and finding out about punk," he says. "The Web site expands the discussion, and now there's this place where black punk rock kids can reach out and talk to each other.
"Suddenly, you go to a show and you're not the only black kid there, and you don't feel like even more of a freak because you've got a crew."