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Classified X: Race & Kings Of Leon's 'Radioactive' Video
John Tatlock , September 9th, 2010 21:31

"Woah-ho! This cross is on fire" Kings Of Leon's new video for 'Radioactive' flirts with dangerous aspects of racial stereotyping, argues John Tatlock

Before Kings of Leon make another video, somebody needs to lock them in a room and not let them out until they have watched actor, director and playwright Melvin Van Peebles’ 1998 documentary Classified X at least a dozen times.

Peebles’ subject is the US film industry’s stereotypical representations of black people over the last century, but much of what he says can readily applied to TV, literature, and of course, the humble pop video.

Taking clips from movies as diverse as the seemingly innocuous Lethal Weapon and the odious 1915 white supremacy flick Birth Of A Nation, Peebles argues that while overt, aggressive racism has all but disappeared from cinema, it has been replaced with something more subtle and also more poisonous : an ongoing normalisation of a notion of black Americans as second-rate, second-fiddle accessories to a world built around the glory of white people. And he argues that this is insidiously perpetrated through patronising white creators’ notions of positive black images.

I’ve watched this documentary with a number of people now, and in every case, the reaction has been – as mine was on first viewing – to start out with a raised eyebrow thinking “well, slow down there, what about this character? What about that movie?” But Peebles goes on to persuasively skewer most examples you could think of, and leaves you utterly convinced of the merits of his case. Why must black characters be wise and old and loveable? What is actually in it for Morgan Freeman, putting up with that crotchety harridan in Driving Miss Daisy? Why does Danny Glover have to take all that shit from Mel Gibson, and still be paternalistic towards him? Is this really heart-warming, watching black people get a load of grief for a couple of hours, while being entirely forgiving about it? Heart-warming for who? What’s the message here?

Peebles’ best known movie, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song deliberately and aggressively subverts the tradition. The central character, Sweetback (played by Peebles) is not remotely sympathetic. He works in a brothel, performing sex shows for the patrons, a job which Peebles gleefully portrays a thorough enjoyment of (not a big acting stretch; reportedly the sex scenes are not simulated). Looking for someone to frame for a murder, the police decide to arrest Sweetback, assuming that picking up some low-level hustler nobody cares about is their path of least resistance.

So far, so ghetto cliché movie plot. What happens next though, is that Sweetback uses his handcuffs to beat his arresting officers unconscious, gets a woman to cut off said handcuffs in exchange for sex, after noting how impressed she is with the size of his penis, and – most importantly for Peebles – escapes over the border and gets away with all of it. No tragic heroism, no redemptive wisdom, no tear-jerking reconciliation with a white lead character. Just a movie about, in Peebles’ words, “a brother getting the Man's foot out of his ass.”

Still, nearly 30 years later, in Classified X Peebles finds himself still bemused by mainstream cinema’s failure to catch on to just how offensive the lazy trope of the adorable, down-home, ever reliable black character is

Which brings us to the laughably, idiotic, fist-in-mouth gaucheness of the visual accompaniment to Kings of Leon’s latest piece of rot.

Let’s agree one basic thing about this video. There are dozens of people in it, and every single one of them, apart from the members of the band and - tellingly - a magician, is black. This is pretty much impossible to achieve by accident. There has been a conscious decision made to make a video where the white members of the band are surrounded by black people. Happy smiling joyous black people, dancing with earthy natural rhythm, gambolling gaily through the fields of the old homestead. It’s hard to know whether Peebles would laugh or cry; probably both.

What makes it all truly disagreeable is where they’ve gone with the concept “what do the Kings of Leon look like when surrounded by black people?” The answer – horrifyingly – is that they are made to look positively messianic. In one hideous shot, one of the Kings, Bubba or whatever he’s called (ho, ho, they all look the same to me, ho ho) actually throws out his arms in a crucifix pose to welcome two ecstatically approaching black children. This comes fast on the heels of a shot of Bucky or Jeb or whatever striding purposefully in the beating sun leading a throng of other black children, like a pot-bellied charity shop Moses.

All of this is interspersed with telling shots of the Kings doing their thing – ie: playing middle of the road sub-Coldplay stadium stodge – and the black people doing their thing – ie: singing the gospel-styled choruses that are the only sonically agreeable thing about this wretched scoop of pabulum. The filming and editing of this is frankly unbelievable, a montage of shots where the Kings look increasingly angsty, intense, and, you know, deep while all them black folk jus’ keep a clappin' anna shufflin' they feets, yessir. If there’s a meaningful difference between this crap and the old Stepin Fetchit movies, where a black actor (actually the deeply gifted actor and writer Lincoln Perry) had to bow and scrape for the amusement of a white audience, then somebody please tell me what it is.

Do I think Kings of Leon are your actual hard-line racists? No, of course not. But do they have an absurdly patronising view of black people, and does their video sail way over the line of crass and into exploitation territory? Well, watch it for yourself and decide.

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