Monday, August 10, 2009

The Contrast Between

In the original Dirty Harry, there was a scene between Clint Eastwood and a grade school-aged kid. That grade school kid was named Mario Van Peebles.

Melvin Van Peebles made a movie called Watermelon Man that came out around 1970. A white insurance agent wakes up one morning and discovers that he’s black. His wife swiftly goes straight to hell. His neighbors threaten him if he doesn’t move out, he loses his job, his wife leaves him. The message is clear: If you are black in America, you are totally screwed.

A generation later, Melvin’s son Mario got his own television series: Sonny Spoon. He played a private detective and master of disguise. The joke is that it’s a dramedy in which Van Peebles, as Detective Sonny Spoon, would solve cases by repeatedly changing his identity. For example, as a clergyman, a government inspector, a general, or, upon occasion, a woman. I can only imagine that the younger Van Peebles enjoyed hamming it up in so many different roles. The message of Sonny Spoon was 180 degrees from that of Watermelon Man. What can a black man be in America? Anything he damn well pleases.

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