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Notes from the Urban Guerilla Network

31 Aug, 2004 By: Holly J. Wagner

Many of you may not care, and that may be a problem.

I'm talking about urban film. And I am coming to understand why you don't seem to care, and that's a problem, too.

First of all, urban film is fundamentally misdefined as black and hip-hop. I'm a white girl (see that picture up there?), and I'm not much on hip-hop. My favorite bands these days are Train, Bad Religion and Sister Hazel.

But lately I have been watching a lot of what is defined as urban movies and a lot of what is not.

Let me point out that my colleague and northbound driver Erik Gruenwedel and I have recently traded gigs — really subgigs. For at least the near future, he will cover foreign and arthouse product, and I will cover the urban genre.

So I set out to learn about this stuff, and did I get an education! There is so much more to the urban film genre than it gets credit for.

Let's go back to that misdefinition. Urban film is not all about black people. It is about underclasses and, yes, African-Americans are often among them. But in this country any group — not necessarily individuals — that is not white and male is still an underclass, economically and socially — even by this presidential administration's statistics. It's one of the reasons Dave Chappelle is such a hit: His comedy is black, but the situations are so much more.

All the way back to Melvin Van Peebles, urban film is about underclasses going to the window, like in Paddy Chayevsky's Network, and yelling, on film, “I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!” It's fundamentally about bucking the power structure and making something different that expresses an otherwise overlooked — or shunned — point of view.

And therein lies the rub: Urban film at its best makes us uncomfortable. Not with gangstas and drug dealers and terrorist cadres and things that are so far from many of our lives, but with the gritty reality of “There but for the grace of God ...”

There's a new person on the beat, so expect me to keep exploring the definition of what is urban. I'll look at the stuff that PR people pass off for urban film — the gangstas and watermelon comedy. But don't expect that to be the end of it.

No wonder you don't care. I'm out to change that.

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