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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » My Baby is Black!/ Checkerboard
My Baby is Black!/ Checkerboard
Image // Unrated // November 8, 2005
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted November 4, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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When asked to define the exploitation genre, the Mighty Monarch of said format, David F. Friedman, used to argue that grindhouse fare consisted of films that approached and dealt in taboo subjects and hot button issues that the legitimate, mainstream moviemaking machinery would never dare touch. In the "broadest" sense, that meant naked chicks and lots of them. Nudity was a no-no in a Hayes Code weary La-La Land, and no amount of studio stamina was going to breach the teat and tushy tenets any time soon. So it was the independent producer, the ballyhoo huckster with a carnival barker's bravado and eye for sucker shilling that took up the bawdy bandwagon and drove it all the way to the local savings and loan. It was these entrepreneurs of Eros (and every other permutation of perversion) that instantly understood that by giving the people what they clandestinely wanted in their most seedy of secretive wants, they could make a kaboodle of a bundle - production value and professionalism be good and damned. And they were as right as raw, randy rain.

Still, the second you've seen one nudist colony flick, various degrees of sunworshipping shapes avoiding the crotch shot while systematically accenting the chestical area, you realized there wasn't a lot of room for any real vice variations. Softcore sold the subject matter short, while Roughies traded carnality for crime. Eventually, taboos were tamed and controversy stemmed, since no film that pushed the boundaries of brazen bareness and citified sleaze was all that interested in social or political agendas. Yet certain areas of interest simply cried out for consideration, and smart showmen knew that, when placed in the proper format, they could create another grindhouse goldmine all their own. Thus the Roadshow movie was born. Usually using something as sick as live birth footage, or actual medical films showing the ravages of VD and other sexually transmitted diseases, potboiler melodramas were cheaply fashioned and fixed to the inflammatory material, thus guaranteeing audiences would flock to be freaked out.

Sometimes, the movies were manufactured in another part of the world, and then painstakingly dubbed to deliver the ersatz tent show revival message. While it's unclear if the latest release from Something Weird Video ever made the rounds on the erotica evangelism circuit, they are definitely films that scream scandal and histrionic hullabaloo. The titles alone - My Baby is Black!/ Checkerboard - are enough to spawn pro-PC warnings and arcane attitude caveats. Yes indeed, we are dealing with the mixing of the races here, eugenics as only the Europeans can concoct it. Filmed in France by famed part-time pornographer Claude Bernard-Aubert (who usually worked under the name Burd Tranbaree) this duo of dicey issue films are out and out exploitation as art films, attempts at meshing true cinematic strategies with the rock 'em and shock 'em sentiments of the raincoat crowd to create an uncomfortable, yet profitable, meeting of the miscreant minds. The result is an amazing must own DVD for fans of the outsider genre. It is pretty much a certainty that you will not see a pair of more perplexing, pleasing movies than this daring, ditzy double feature.

While we like to think of Paris as a city of perfumed progressive lights, where love and culture conquer all, it turns out that the one time Nazi doormats don't necessarily like students with skin the color of Beef Bourguignon. Daniel is a pre-Med man who wishes to follow in this African father's footsteps. Frances is hoping to get her degree in both couture and coquettishness. They meet at the University's prison-style cafeteria and exchange glances so gratuitous that their usually amorous classmates begin blushing out of carnal embarrassment. It's not long before the couple is expressing their devout emotions in physical falderal and arcane couplets that sound like excerpts from Shakespeare's junior high school journal. As their personal passion grows, social sexual stigmas start stinking up the place. Frances learns that her Hitler honoring parents hate all kinds of (racial expletive deleted) and many of her fellow countrymen believe Daniel is nothing more than a dirty, animalistic (racial expletive deleted). Naturally, a full-fledged mix race croissant starts warming in Frannie's personal oven, and when she delivers the decidedly dark bundle of joy, the attending physicians are flummoxed. Frances welcomes the pre-tanned tot. But this medical team is use to hearing expectant mothers in similar situations shout My Baby is Black!

Nothing can quite prepare you for the overriding Gallic gall of the mulatto masterpiece known as My Baby is Black!. Originally titled Les laches vivent d'espoir (don't bother to translate - it's as meaninglessly esoteric as the rest of the movie) and filmed in the center of Continental intolerance, otherwise known as France, this is a love story larded with some of the most God-awful dialogue, overdramatic plot points, and artsy fartsy filming ever to see a swatch of celluloid. Bernard-Aubert never met a stick of cinematic strangeness he couldn't copy into his misguided mise-en-scene, and he showers this squalid little movie with as many abstract aesthetics as the sprockets can handle. The drama even begins inside a movie, as a sociology professor shows his class an educational film about racist civil servants. The glamour gal stereotyping her poor (and mostly African) charges with a mixture of KKK linguistics and faux Fascist formalism is enough to give David Duke the prejudicial heebie jeebies. While Daniel avoids most of the ethnic epithets, Bernard-Aubert never misses an opportunity to paint Parisians as the most biased bunch since a group of Germans decided that there was only one "solution" to their Hebrew problem.

Not that Frances cares. She is so caught up in the wounded world of oatmeal puppy love that you can practically smell the Love's Baby Soft through the TV screen. She moons. She pines. She waxes, wanes and wallows in her own sickly self-serving love. And when she's not silently shifting her emotional sands for her Moorish man of action, she's speaking to him in conversations so poetic and flowery that depressed high school girls are suing for plagiarism. Indeed, the deranged dialogue is one of the best bad things about My Baby is Black!. When Fran and Dan get going, they use their tongues better and prettier than a $50 whore. Everything is tied to love - the wind, the rain, the sun, the beer served at the local bistro. Indeed, these two can connect adoration to anything and make it sound like a Hallmark hairball. By the time the real world wanders in - Fran's parents disown her, Daniel is arrested for defending a dark-skinned street urchin - you've almost given up on the title tot. But the little amber alien makes his appearance, and suddenly, all is right with the world. Proving that even in the realm of prejudice, the biological ability to create a child cures all, My Baby is Black! defies description as it belabors emotion with actual literary overkill.

While My Back is Black! is downright odd, it's nothing compared to the brazen, ballsy bewilderment of its bravely bizarre co-feature. Seems that in the middle of Nowhere, just a few miles from Bumf*ck, Egypt and half the distance to Satan's Armpit, Wyoming is the small town of Cicada. Thanks to an unfortunate bit of geographic gerryrigging, the backward burg is completely isolated, and this has lead to a kind of communal anti-Dark ages. All the black people have been corralled off in a slum corner of the city, where they are mandated to stay "behind the pole" and never wear shirts or shoes. On the almighty white side of things, the citizens sin like they are on a Hades holiday, frequenting the local brothel and boozing it up like there's no luxury tax. When returning war vet Bob starts taking a fancy to Bessie, a decidedly beige beauty, his prejudiced pals are NOT pleased. They beat the snot out of him and then blame it on the local micromanaged minorities. Naturally, a lynch mob is formed and it's not long before torches and pitchforks and piercing the night sky. It will take another act of heroism by this jaundiced GI to prevent his Checkerboard town from going up in flames.

Made two years before My Baby is Black!, but still mired in Bernard-Aubert's mindbogglingly misguided mannerisms, Checkerboard has the single strangest setup of any film SWV has distributed on DVD. As a rundown wino of a guide takes tourists around his virtual ghost town of a city, we see shots of some of the most surreal local color ever to escape a David Lynch storyboard. A young child kicks a human skull down the street. Young toughs shoot at a saucepan attached to a dog's tale. An obviously Caucasian Chinaman offers up his weird wares from the local "Bazar", including custom made coffins, and the postmaster is viewed sitting, zombified, as he listens to the voice of the long distance operator. The highlight of the journey through this miserable metropolis is a stopover at the local Milk Bar, where men (only) can sip fermented spirits and everyone else can watch the hookers practice their prowess from easy access viewing windows. And this is just the beginning. Aside from the clothing optional aspects of the ebony citizenry, we get a judge who meters out fairness based on his own odd interpretations of the law, a sheriff who sleeps through most mob justice, and a single, startling sequence of a faucet fashioned out of a cow's head.

While Bob's black babe issues are supposed to be front and center to the story, they take a blatant backseat to all the awkward allegorical anarchy. Bernard-Aubert is obviously attempting some manner of social metaphor, using the slave trade traditions of a colonial America meshed with some Wild Wild western wantonness and a smidgen of social satire to provide a contemporary commentary comeuppance. But none of it makes a liberal lick of sense. The film has several sensational false endings (Bob thwarts a hanging with his wooden leg - no joke) and ends up asking you to believe in the communal curative power of a bigot inspired death. The movie is filled with more nods to the incredibly negative "N" word than a rap CD, and the undercurrent of discrimination is so ripe you can actually see it radiating off the actors like stink lines. Checkerboard so frequently smacks up your gray matter from the inside out that you barely have time to get your cinematic bearings. Instead, Bernard-Aubert just keeps making things weirder and weirder until they eventually lap each other and intertwine into one twisted tale of intolerance inside a Southwestern Sodom and Gomorrah.

Something Weird outdoes itself again by releasing these delectably dark and discomforting treats. While their attempted remastering and preservation of the movie's amazing monochrome elements is decent, there are a few defects. Both films are presented in 1.33:1 full frame images (though they were obviously filmed in widescreen - the tell tale black bars and letterboxing are a dead giveaway) and the black and white is clear and highly contrasted. There is occasional dirt, some less than significant scratches, and a couple of instances of source wear and tear. Still, along with the standard Dolby Digital Mono with its flat, graceless aspects and shrill lack of sonic subtlety, we have acceptable DVD dimensions. It is interesting to note that the English dubbing doesn't even bother to match up with mouths. Instead, a lot of the conversations in both My Baby is Black! and Checkerboard appear like strange interludes between telepathic twits.

Staying with the French fried theme, SWV provides a few bountiful baguettes of bonus features that flesh out the disc nicely. First up is a series of trailers, all of them for revamped Parisian pictures. Of special note is the babelicious Bridget Bardot in Manina, the guy rape ridiculousness of Nude in a White Car and the white slavery salaciousness of the appropriately named Seller of Girls. There are also two accompanying featurettes, each one offering their own mini-movie Moulin Rogue of offbeat delights. In the documentary excerpt Mondo Oscentia, a narrator explains how dwindling ticket sales and the growing influence of TV helped foster the exploitation movement (complete with scenes from My Baby is Black!). In Paris After Hours, jazz is gigantic as a crack combo serenades stylish disaffected youth - an a few noted celebrities - during a dreamy travelogue of the European cultural capital.

The ridiculous reality of racism, with all its illogical logistics and personal prejudices just doesn't seem to be the kind of forceful fodder the raincoat crowd would cotton to. But there was no more contentious a subject in pre-Civil Rights Movement America than the promise of taboo busting love between individuals of ethnic discrepancies. While the skin is minimal and the loving is left to a sensual embrace or two (and a sequence of suggestive toe wrestling) My Baby is Black!/ Checkerboard are reminders of a time when segregation set the social agenda and Caucasians would rather lynch than switch. Forget glimpses of gratuity or the possibilities of poontang, director Claude Bernard-Aubert had more up his strange sleeve than just a diatribe against discrimination. Like lurid and atypical life lectures, these movies prove that exploitation sporadically delved into areas not directly associated with butts, boobs and babes. Occasionally, the socially scandalous nature of the subject matter was enough to challenge cinematic morays - and this deranged double feature sure does stir up a shameful shitstorm of horrendously hilarious human hate.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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