'Black & Privileged': An Imagining Of A Black Mecca On Chicago's South Side [Review]

August 15th 2019

Earlier this year, during his B-sides anniversary concert, Jay-Z rapped a freestyle that left many debating whether or not his intended message of self-reliance within the Black community would bring about the desired results. The emcee rapped, "Gentrify your own hood before these people do it. / Claim eminent domain and have your people move in." Aside from the theoretical versus the actual definition of what it means to gentrify, many questioned what a community fully owned and ran by the individuals within it would mean for Black people. Black & Privileged: Volume 1 takes a stab at answering the question.

Starring Dawn Halfkenny, Simeon Henderson and Corey Hendrix, Black & Privileged examines the complexities of life in the inner city between the middle to upper-class Black residents of the Englewood community, the new lower-socioeconomic residents that have been displaced to the neighborhood after the demolition of Chicago's housing projects and those outside of the community who would like to see the community destroyed. Though the film is a work of fiction, this exact scenario has played out over the past decade with the closing of many project housing buildings in the city and the people living there being relocated to the surrounding suburbs, where not everyone felt welcomed nor had a desire to be there. In the film, Englewood is a revitalized utopian version of the currently perceived “most dangerous” neighborhood in the city of Chicago, and represents something similar to the more economically advanced Black neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Beverly. With this in mind, the film had a lot to tackle in attempting to not only show the varying emotions of all the residents but also to contextualize the situations within the larger societal conversation of issues plaguing the Black community. Did it succeed? Sometimes. While the film has an overarching message of unity, its major flaw is that it tries to tackle too many topics at once, which undercuts an in-depth exploration of any.

The opening scene explores the contention over the demolishing of the housing projects by grounding it in a conversation between local residents Eldon (Hendrix), a local cafe owner, and Samad (Henderson), one-half of the head neighbors in charge marriage duo.  Though both men appear to be okay with getting rid of the housing projects as they were intended to “keep poor Black folks isolated and controlled,” they are less enthused when it comes to having the residents as new members of their established community. Eldon only semi-jokingly states “crime going up and the property value going down” and that he'll  “probably have to get bars on his doors and windows now.” This moment is presented as comedic relief but becomes serious in tone when it is revealed that many individuals in the community have already started to move away due to the announcement of the incoming residents. This cognitive dissonance of holding conflicting beliefs as equal truths is a recurring theme throughout the film.

After the conversation between the two ends, and right as the viewer begins to construct theories of Black flight and internalized racism present in the film, Eldon breaks the fourth wall and provides the viewer with a definition of white flight and redlining in an attempt to educate the audience on the historical significance and how the same seems to be happening within the confines of the Black community, specifically through the murmurings and embedded presumptions that the new residents will cause the community to deteriorate. So, is the film intended to be satire, drama or after school special? The presence of all three forms muddles the experience and the message of the film.

Dawn (Halfkenny), during a conversation with her husband Samad, explains her position that it’s not a bad thing that the new neighbors are moving in because some people need a helping hand and counters his claim that this is being intentionally done by “the man” to destroy the community by reiterating that destruction can only be done if there is a silly debate over whether or not the newcomers should be allowed to move to the community, and uses the quote from W.E.B. DuBois “to be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships,” to bring the point home. Unmoved by his wife's stance,  the husband proposes vetting who lives in the community. This plays on the larger conversation of the Black bourgeoisie and what it actually means to have self-hate and group-love. As we are all born into a society that teaches Black people we are unworthy from birth, the definition is subjective and is something that is opted out of, redefined and reframed once a deeper level of understanding is acquired, throughout one's life. With this understanding, it becomes apparent in the film that to fight internally is to remain a community divided.

Once this is realized, and the fact that the founding residents are stereotyping and prejudging the new residents by avoiding introductions and projecting that they all have a "poor mentality with no desire to better themselves" is brought to the forefront, the decision is made to hold a community meeting for all residents. During the community meeting, the conversation focuses on the tension and how both groups of people can learn from each other and what each has to offer. During the conversation, the topics of blockbusting and urban farming are discussed and how blockbusting happened to Black people before and the decision was made that the new residents shouldn’t have to deal with it from fellow Black people. Similar to earlier in the film, the fourth wall is broken and Eldon takes a moment to explicitly define blockbusting.

Inspired by the idea of getting to know their new neighbors, a productive conversation between some of the founding members ignites the idea of pooling together the community’s resources to aid the new residents if they have aspirations of opening a business or going back to school. This is a beautiful idea and enforces self-reliance within the community.

During an interview with a local reporter, it is noted that the founding residents have created a thriving Black neighborhood for Black people, which has been statistically proven by the FBI to be the safest neighborhood in America, with its own schools, banks, religious places of worship, etc. and the interviewing reporter wants to know if this is reverse racism and discrimination. The response is that self-control, order and structure within the community will help to prevent division and strife from those in power outside of the community and that Black people deserve that. While the answer highlights the multifaceted approach of breaking down attacks against the community and protecting it from those within who harbor ill intentions and work with and for destructive forces and powers that seek to destroy and dismantle it, it does not leave room for the larger conversation of why the question is even being asked.

It's the Black male characters who broach a conversation about community transformation and what could occur if many of the Black millionaires and billionaires pooled their money together to create change, one neighborhood at a time. While this theory seems logical on the surface, what it does is remove the guilt from the institutions and structures that have created racist and unjust conditions and it also overlooks the fact that many of the wealthy and middle-class communities in the United States did not become that way without government grants and policies. And though I agree with Audre Lorde that, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," I do believe that the maker of each house should be held responsible for its crimes.

Perhaps what is most interesting in the film is that with each attempt by those in power outside of the community to dismantle and destroy Englewood it is the Black women who are killed at the hand of targeted gun violence and murder. There is a larger conversation to be had here about the destruction of a people through those who literally give it life, but that doesn't happen. In the film, we witness three direct murders--two done to Black women and one at the hand of a Black women. It appears that this is intended to show the significance, strength, sacrifice and willingness of Black women to advance the cause by any means necessary, but historically Black women have played a significant role in every aspect of liberation movements, including strategy and planning. We are somewhat exposed to this in the form of the councilwoman who advocates for independence of Englewood, but we are not privy to the private conversations between the women the way we are with the men. While intraracial class struggle is the main focus, intraracial violence against Black women is barely addressed, though there is dialogue about Black men allowing Black women to be disrespected, when one of the women is harassed by an Iraqi restaurant owner. Insight to these types of conversations could have shown the multifaceted roles that women have inhabited throughout history and still still levy to this day.

Though much of the content covered by the film is serious in nature, there are bits of humor throughout that add a lighter tone to the topics being addressed. For instance, the film stops at an interesting point when the Iraqi restaurant owner who was disrespectful to the Black women comes to the cafe and attempts to be “down” after being set straight by those in the community. It would have been interesting to see their response to his appearance. Malcolm X once said Black people need to build our own communities before allowing anyone else in, I wonder if the residents of Englewood had finally reached such a place.

Black & Privileged: Volume 1 is now airing on Netflix.

Porscheoy Brice is an editor at Shadow And Act. She is also the editor-in-chief of msmalcolmhughes.com. She is a Chicago, IL native. In the words of the genius Jay-Z, she is “Pretty, Witty, Girly, Worldly; One who likes to party, but comes home early.” You can follow her on social media @msmalcolmhughes.

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Photo: Push Media Group Production

 

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