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Outsiders, not entirely by choice

James Spooner noticed that black punk rockers face unique acceptance issues. He asked around.

July 09, 2006|August Brown | Special to The Times

THERE'S a montage in the middle of James Spooner's documentary "Afro-Punk" in which young, African American punk rockers talk about their hair. Particularly, how hard it is to fashion naturally curly hair into the genre's trademark -- a towering mohawk.

It's one of many unexpected intersections between cultures with similar histories of living outside the stereotype of mainstream America: For the African American musicians who appear in "Afro-Punk," their ethnic identity and their deep attraction to the aesthetics and idealism of punk rock often keep them from being fully accepted as a member of either group.

Sneered at for "acting white" or worse by their black peers, only to be greeted by an often uniformly white audience at punk shows, the musicians wrestle with the consequences of not conforming to either crowd's image.

For instance -- when interracially dating within the punk scene, should African Americans be suspicious that they're just another accessory of the rebellious attitude that punk embraces, like a safety pin shoved through the nose?

For Spooner, who is African American, mohawk problems were metaphors for these issues. "I had straightened my hair and tried to justify it by saying, 'It's not white hair, it's punk hair,' but that's still going by a white standard of beauty. If I was comfortable with myself, I would have just had a curly mohawk."

Spooner's documentary is largely based on the director's years as a hard-core devotee, when he grappled with his own confusing identity as a black punk rocker in suburban Riverside County and New York City. Spooner's low-fi and deeply personal look at life on the cultural fringes is particular to his experience and strangely universal in its portrayal of only half-fitting into any culture.

The 2003 film, which debuts Tuesday on DVD, revolves around four black punk rock musicians, including the constantly touring soul-punk songwriter Tamar-kali and Moe Mitchell, singer for the otherwise all-white hard-core group Cipher, a favorite of underground hard rock magazines like Amp and Decibel. Some are incredibly insightful and articulate about the impulses and consequences of being a minority within a minority culture. Tamar-kali, for example, explains how she derived her own style of punk dress (a thick nose ring, mostly shaved head) from images of traditional African body art.

But many of the interview subjects seem hesitant, or even a bit scared, to talk about these admittedly difficult issues of identity. For many subjects, Spooner's interviews were the first time they'd been asked point-blank about issues of race within the punk scene.

"I asked questions they had never been asked before," Spooner said. "Some were excited, but some ... didn't know what to say and felt very awkward."

Even the interviews with members of popular and well-respected punk groups such as the Dead Kennedys and Fishbone prove that the volatile questions of racial identity are problems some African American punk rockers would rather forget about.

Those band members "are in their 40s, they weren't ready to be challenged," Spooner said. "Like the interracial dating question, many of them had never not dated a white girl, and they weren't looking to defend themselves."

Spooner balances an obviously homemade aesthetic with vivid interviewing savvy. In true do-it-yourself spirit, he made "Afro-Punk" without the slightest industry contact or technical know-how, just a maxed-out credit card and a home copy of Final Cut Pro.

"I had never touched a camera," he said.

Hitting the festival circuit

AFTER completing the film, he promoted it the only way he knew how -- taking it on the road.

In the same way that a band that plays six nights a week to tiny audiences eventually earns a fan base, Spooner screened his film more than 300 times in venues from college auditoriums to beer-soaked dives to middle-class black community centers. Though most of his early press came from hipster glossies and punk 'zines, Spooner estimates that half of his screenings have had a majority black audience, and "Afro-Punk" earned an (admittedly, said Spooner, unexpected) four-star review from, which said "Spooner ... understands the natural one-to-one relationship between the American Black experience and the tragic-outsider pose of punk rock."

"I've screened it for dirty white punk kids and for mainstream black churchgoers," said Spooner. "I spent six years as a party promoter, so I would ask, Who's my target market? People at the black film festivals would be interested in it for its own sake." Many identified with the film's themes of isolation. "A lot of times they'd see it and say, 'Hey, I'm the only black person on the floor in my office.' "

He attacked the festival scene with the same confidence.

"I'd never been to a film festival. I didn't even really know what one was. I just wrote them letters and said, 'Hi, I don't have any money, but I made this film, and I think you'll enjoy it.' "

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