Back in 1994, after the success of Straight Out of Brooklyn, Matty Rich chose as his second directorial effort, a coming-of-age comedy-drama called The Inkwell, named for a real-life popular summer destination of the so-called Talented Tenth since the 1890s. The Inkwell is a sobriquet for a strip of beach located in the town of Oak Bluffs, which is itself one of the six towns that make up the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. Originally inhabited by the Wampanoag tribe, Martha’s Vineyard has long been a haven for the rich and the well-connected looking to rest, recharge and get a reprieve from the frenzied pace of normal life. Though the town of Oak Bluffs was not segregated per se, the beach for all intents and purposes, was. Hence, it is said the clever writers of the Harlem Renaissance christened the “colored” section of the beach “The Inkwell.” Others believe the island’s white denizens first coined the term as a pejorative the same way they did for other beaches that came to be frequented by black people across the country. Another famous “Inkwell” was a beach in Santa Monica, California. In any case, whites increasingly abandoned that part of the beach as more and more black people used it. The Inkwell at Oak Bluffs is an important part of African-American history and culture, so much so that the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History honors the town in a permanent exhibition, Power of Place.
For many members of marginalized communities, consuming art and entertainment is tricky. It’s more than just about how much enjoyment they get from consuming it or if it meets long ago established artistic standards. Aware that since the dawn of mass communications, media has been used to manipulate society’s ideas about the worth and value of women as a whole, women of color, people of color in general, the disabled, non-Christians, etc. — many have sharpened their powers of perception, extrapolating any harmful signaling. There’s just an added dimension to looking at a painting, listening to a song, or watching a series or a film. Does this unfairly make my community look bad? Does it shed any light on its positive aspects? Does it at least do no harm?
The Inkwell arrived at the dawn of the modern black filmmaking, Its bright sets and smart period costumes reflect not just the scenic beaches and gingerbread cottages Oak Bluffs is known for, but also the hope of a post-Civil Rights Act, black community of 1976, the year in which the film is set. Spike Lee and the Hudlin brothers notwithstanding, films with mainly African-American casts that had done particularly well at that time were crime-centered films set in gritty urban landscapes such as Juice, Boyz n The Hood, New Jack City, and Menace to Society. The latter film also starred Larenz Tate, the lead actor in The Inkwell. Black audiences were thrilled just to see black people on screen but also yearned for a broader depiction of black life where family was central and crime and poverty an afterthought. The Inkwell brought that to the big screen and did it with bountiful levity, great warmth, good storytelling and polite social commentary.
On the surface, The Inkwell is about an eccentric teen Drew (Tate) and his loving but beleaguered parents Brenda (Suzzanne Douglas) and Kenny (Joe Morton). The trio leave their working-class, upstate New York home to summer with Brenda’s sister Francis (Vanessa Bell Calloway), her “bougie” husband Spencer (Glynn Turman), their gregarious teen son Junior (Duane Martin), and Brenda and Francis’ mother, Evelyn (Mary Alice) at their beach home in Oak Bluffs. Brenda hopes sun and sand, through a sort of wishful alchemy, will transform Drew and repair the tiny cracks in her and Kenny’s marriage. Social worker Kenny, though no longer a Black Panther, still sometimes dons a black beret and black leather jacket. He dreads the two-week stay. Drew isn’t much more thrilled about going to what his father describes as “an island of bourgeois jungle bunnies,” but his unhappiness is leavened since, against the strident admonishments of his father, he brings along his best friend Iago, which is a wooden doll given to him by his grandmother when he was a youngster. Then, there is also Drew’s strange fascination with fire that led to their garage being burned down not long ago. Brenda and Kenny are unsettled by the thought that perhaps Drew purposely caused the fire.
Technicolor sand, sea and swimsuits disguise a delicately subversive film. Challenging conventional notions of a cultural monolith, The Inkwell is an examination of the class dynamics embedded in the black community, arguably most famously documented by scholars W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903’s The Negro Problem and E. Franklin Frazier in his seminal 1955 book, The Black Bourgeoisie. Suzzanne Douglas, who played Brenda in the film spoke to Shadow and Act for this article. “It really shows the diversity within the culture of African-American upper middle class families.” She says, “Not only was that image important for our children but it was important for American children [in general].” The film also bucks up against traditional assumptions about how to address black adolescent delinquency or rebellion. Black women in The Inkwell are shown in ways still not often seen on screen. Black teen life in The Inkwell was also a huge departure from the ways in which black young adults were normally shown on screen.
Class distinctions are historically a great jumping off point for film, and it works in The Inkwell. Though Glynn Thurman, who played conservative Spencer, was sometimes a bit overwrought, the conflict between he and Joe Morton’s Kenny made for effective on-screen drama. There were some great slapstick comedic moments such as the fight on the tennis court between Spencer and Kenny. Spencer’s character got his behind handed to him by Kenny after assuming that a “militant” working class ruffian wouldn’t know the first thing about tennis, let alone be able to beat him. Kenny himself who couldn’t hide his disdain for Oak Bluffs’ “bougie n*ggas as far as the eye can see” eventually came to respect Spencer to a certain degree for his concern for Drew and for standing up for his beliefs. The family also took Spencer’s advice to go visit their therapist friend, Dr. Wade, played by Phyllis Stickney.
Although the menagerie of cuckoo clocks at Dr. Wade’s office didn’t do much to disabuse Kenny of his notion of therapy as a ridiculous, useless “bougie” indulgence, she turned out to be one of the keys to Drew’s eventual acceptance of himself and the audience’s understanding of his behavior. The viewer must suspend a whole lotta belief at the scarce number of sessions it took to “cure” Drew, as well as the thought he would go back to someone who believed it a good idea to use a cacophony of cuckoo clocks to signal the end of therapy sessions. However, the powerful image of Drew being treated as the child he basically still was, and the use of therapy as a tool to address seeming delinquency for a young black adolescent as opposed to the more popular lock’em up and scare ‘em straight techniques that seemed to have the public enthralled and sadly still do, was a revelation in 1994.
Watching The Inkwell more than twenty years on, you realize that to a degree, the black community has moved backward in some uncomfortable ways. The main actresses in the film are Suzzanne Douglas, Vanessa Bell Calloway, AJ Johnson, Phyllis Stickney, and Jada Pinkett-Smith. Of the five women, only Pinkett-Smith is light skinned. It is arguable that if the film were being made today, the casting would have been noticeably different with light-skinned women getting most, if not all of these roles. With the exception of the therapist, all of the other characters were women with husbands or boyfriends, and it is doubtful that in today’s social atmosphere, that casting directors would conceptualize dark-skinned actresses as being beautiful, well-adjusted objects of affection, or even level-headed dispassionate therapists. When asked about this, Douglas replied, “I don’t want this to sound sexist but if a woman had been directing the film today, perhaps it would be cast in the same manner.” The point being that colorism seems to have gotten worse with time and appears to be more of an issue with male filmmakers. Recent casting calls for actresses reveal a belief that darker-skinned black women are poorer, less healthy, less educated, more prone to commit crime or be part of a criminal environment, hypersexual, overly emotional and single. Today, the casting of light-skinned and multiracial actresses would be much more likely and that applies to filmmakers across the racial continuum.
In addition to merely being represented on-screen, the female characters are also full human beings as capable of being vulnerable as they are of being strong. They are competent mothers and wives who are also beautiful, healthy, vibrant and attractive without being hypersexualized nor stripped of their sexuality. It is often overlooked that in the same way that young, virile, attractive black men threaten racist white men, images of black women who are attractive and intelligent elicit the same types of fears and insecurities in racist white women. To position them the way Rich did in 1994 was indeed radical. The only misstep in this respect was a brief scene at a party attended by Drew and his cousin. The camera glances over to a group of four young women sitting on the sidelines and it is clear that they are considered undesirable. Without exception, they are all dark-skinned and short-haired. So although both light and dark-skinned women are among those that are possible mates, we get the message that it is unthinkable that a light-skinned woman would be outright undesirable.
If the character of Drew represented what in the 21st century is known as a “blerd,” Duane Martin who played his cousin Junior, gave an inspired performance of a character brimming with “black boy joy.” Junior and his squad are the picture of pampered carefree male adolescence where a summer full of parties, girls and a nice car to get to and from them are their only concern. Even now more than twenty years later, possibly the only other film with a majority black cast we can look to for this iteration of exuberant, merry black teen life on the big screen is Hudlin’s House Party.
As great a film as The Inkwell is, it has received an overwhelming amount of criticism that I believe is unwarranted. One possibility is that in 1994 many, even on a subconscious level, were still uncomfortable with the image of successful black folks. The Inkwell It isn’t a perfect film but few are and perfection shouldn’t be the standard. It is a film rich in pure entertainment value while The mere attempt to deconstruct real familial and community issues indicates it is also one of substance. It’s a movie that dares to tackle some very uncomfortable issues that, to our detriment are too often swept under the rug. 23 years later, The Inkwell is still an eminently watchable film that should be revisited.
The Inkwell is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Black Intimacy film series being held through October 22nd.