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Idlewild South

OutKast brings high-tech minstrel show to the silver screen

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ATLien American hip-hop duo OutKast, alongside assorted Dungeon Family members such as once-and-future Goodie Mobsters Cee-Lo and Big Gipp (and the latter's ex Joi), have become standard bearers for the Southeast's avant-garde -- if not the nation's. All of their extraordinary Afrofuturistic foment since breakthrough bombshell Stankonia (2000) has enabled this cultural capital and the release of Bryan Barber's debut feature, the musical Idlewild, and accompanying soundtrack.

Longtime OutKast video director/collaborator Barber has harnessed the artistic personas of Big Boi and André 3000 to his own private aesthetic vision and creative aspirations in Idlewild, a Prohibition-set gangster narrative amplified with a crunk-blues soundtrack including past and present OutKast cuts. Expanding on the potent blues/hip-hop fusion arrived at by father-son team Olu Dara and Nas on the magnificent Street's Disciple, Barber's project reimagines the tropes, mores and bootylicious pastimes of today's ATL in sepiavision. Advantageous parallels between the Jazz Age's gats-spats-n-molls milieu and fin-de-siècle G-Funk -- as well as the truism that blackfolk and their cultural production has been ruthlessly postmodern since Africans' arrival on these shores -- allows the director to both revel in Hollywood African stereotypes and blues archetype while fumbling toward a crunk poetics courtesy of his leads' iconoclasm.

Idlewild's narrative is such a cliché of classical Hollywood gangster pictures and backstage dramas as to be beside the point, but: Yin-yang boyhood friends in the titular Georgia town come of age during the Depression and experience individual crises of faith. Big Boi is Rooster, a playa with a heart of gold, long-suffering wife (Malinda Williams) and many mouths to feed, who abruptly inherits the Church juke joint and its debt, controlled by menacing rival moonshiner Trumpy (the typecast Terrence Howard). André 3000 is Percival, apprentice son to forbidding mortician Ben Vereen and aspiring sensitive musician, whose struggles to gain respect at the Church speakeasy intersect with the oh-so serendipitous arrival of the venue's new featured attraction Angel Davenport (newcomer Paula Patton).

The rote moves of such narratives make it easy for audiences to hazard a guess at the film's conclusion. Idlewild is uneven, yet features such joys as seeing André 3000 interact with Chicken George; the young Bobb'e J. Thompson perfectly nail the sly spirit of Big Boi; a brief cameo from black dramatic doyenne Cicely Tyson -- plus great street vernacular and an animated talking cock sparring with Big Boi from his hip flask (Farnsworth Bentley).

The not-so crunk: lack of exposition and character development -- and, above all, Idlewild's feminine problem. While Big Boi and André are allowed to be genial and almost unrelentingly noble (and both musicians do acquit themselves well in the film, Boi particularly shining), director/scribe Barber reduces all the sistas to stifling myths that plague black America's progress: the greedy club 'ho Rose (the equally typecast Paula Jai Parker); butch, tough-talking blues broad (Macy Gray, channeling Bessie Smith); high-strung harridan (Patti LaBelle in a blink cameo); castrating, anti-fun broodmare (Williams); and high-yalla sultry chanteuse (Patton). Even if feminism don't fly in Hot'lanta, the film's crossover outreach is intentionally far broader than an insider audience. And a post-screening sista survey™ found the Angel Davenport character the most problematic -- there is anger that Barber preserved intraracial light-skin privilege in Paula Patton's casting as Idlewild's object of desire, going so far as to have Percival declare that Angel's arrival "lit up" Church. Percival Sr. (Vereen) also immolated himself on the altar of the light-bright-damn near (shutyomouf). Why is the darker berry unworthy of love and Muse status? It doesn't help matters that Patton's performance was very wooden, the worst in the film -- and she's clearly subbing for Erykah Badu, whose vocals Patton lipsynchs to.

Barber might've also done better to hire a cinematographer with a finer idea of how to film movement, but the dancing -- from Church chorines and crowd alike -- is a delightful admixture of lindy hop and rag-top. All of the proscenium proceedings are augmented by the presence of legendary LA punk-funk pioneers Fishbone as the Syncopated Church Orchestra; frontman Angelo Moore fills in nicely as a Cab Calloway-esque bandleader. Such hot elements make Idlewild a must-see, as well as a complex (if sometimes disappointing) entry into the annals of Afrofuturism.

Idlewild works less as a conventional tragicomedy than as an analysis of desire, carnal and metaphysical. Faith literally rescues Rooster from death and the Devil; Percival overcomes emotional abuse and morbidity to be liberated by sound. These struggles, for blackfolk who perennially hold jook and performative negritude in pride of place, make Idlewild relevant to offstage life.

If OutKast are not in fact retiring, this project is a promising bridge to future artistic endeavors. Hopefully, their creative cabal will learn never to fake the Funk.

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