Omowale Akintunde’s Film ‘Wigger’ Deconstructs What Race Means in a Faux Post-Racial World
UPDATE: Omowale Akintunde’s debut feature film, Wigger, is getting a limited national theatrical release in the spring-summmer of 2011, a rare feat for a small indie project. It is well deserved. As I make clear below I am an enthusiastic advocate of the film and the filmmaker. I saw the pic last year, when it premiered in Omaha, where it was shot and where Akintinde loves and works. If it comes to a theater near you, then check out – it will be well worth your time and the nine bucks or whatever your local cinema charges. Check out my new cover-story about Akintunde and Wigger for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on this blog. The new story is entitled, “Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Milennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice.”
A new filmmaker in Omaha that bears watching is Omowale Akintunde. He is that rare combination, at least in the feature film world, of academic and artist. I first got to know him through his role as chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I was first exposed to his work as a filmmaker on a reporting assignment that embedded me with a group of Omahans who traveled by bus to Barack Obama‘s presidential inauguration (that story is posted on this blog site). Akintunde led the UNO Black Studies sponsored trip and he shot a documentary of the experience. I only recently saw the completed documentary and it is a fine piece of filmmaking that does a good job of capturing the spirit of the trip. NOTE: The documentary recently won a regional Emmy.
Meanwhile, I was aware he had made a short film called Wigger that he was preparing to film as a feature. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com), is my take on his feature version of Wigger, a film that I highly recommend. He hopes that it gets some kind of release later this year. I suspect I will be writing more about Akintunde and his filmmaking as time goes by.
Omowale Akintunde’s Film ‘Wigger” Deconstructa What Race Means in a Faux Post-Racial World
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The Omaha indie feature Wigger, which premiered April 19 at the Great Escape Theatres before an overflow crowd, proves a game-changer by giving Omaha’s African-American community and downtown urban night life some big screen love. It’s not always a flattering portrait, but it’s truthful.
Writer-director Omowale Akintiunde, chair of UNO’s Department of Black Studies, delivered on his promise to make Omaha a major character. Co-star Meshach Taylor said Wigger would show Omaha in a new big city light. It does indeed set-off the city’s ghetto-fabulous charms and familiar rituals of barbershop, cafe, house party, funeral and Native Omaha Days. Montages bring North 24th St. to life. NoDo’s Slowdown is a star venue. The rich images brand Omaha the way films do other cities.
Akintunde is the rare filmmaker who’s a serious academic and a passionate artist. His gritty yet poetic debut feature, shot entirely here last summer, explores a young white man’s (Brandon) emulation of black culture — which in the eyes of some makes him a “wigger.” A hopeful R&B star, Brandon is no wannabe. His intense black identification is genuine and a source of bitter conflict between him and his racist father. There’s even tension between Brandon and his best friend and manager, Antoine, who is black. In a Bryant Center confrontation Antoine tells Brandon “there’s always a line between us.”
“Brandon wants to be accepted but he comes from a background that says, ‘Why would you want to be like them?’ And then his black best friend tells him, ‘You’re not one of us.’ Brandon’s dilemma is how does he make that fit,” said Akintunde. “I thought it would be stunning to use a white character who feels he has transcended whiteness and then by sheer power of his individual will cannot be associated with racism. One of the goals we have in Black Studies is to get people to see this is only the tip of the iceberg. We look through the lens of the black experience as a way of understanding, critiquing, deconstructing and reconfiguring what it means to be Other in this context.”
He said he wanted to dramatize the complex fabric of systemic racism in terms we can all relate to. “I want people to look at that movie and say, I see me, I’ve said that, that’s the way I think of myself.”
The many connotations of the “n” word get vetted. Race-class stereotypes get flipped. African-American bigotry towards gays and black Africans is addressed.
Dramatic, smart, funny, raw, real, Wigger sometimes belies its didactic roots. For Akintunde, the film merges his lives as scholar and artist.
“What I always wanted to do is to meld those two worlds, to use film to teach academics but to do it in a format Joe the Plumber will watch. I thought this story of this young white male living in the Midwest who wants to be an R&B singer and has a black best friend was the perfect premise to get into some real deep stuff. It’s a really big thing for me that I was able to make a feature length film and to use it as a mechanism to talk about all the things that have been important to me my entire scholarly life — issues of race, class, gender, white privilege, institutionalized bias.”
Wigger has some heavy-handed moments. The eubonics of Brandon, Antoine, and their diva ebony love interests, LaVita and Shondra, may be overplayed. However, the visuals (Jean-Paul Bonneau) and music (Andre Miieux) are first-rate, the acting strong. The story’s plea for tolerance, powerful. Wigger stands with Do the Right Thing for its gutsy take on race. Ironically, a city with a history of racial strife has now produced two of cinema’s best works on the subject, as joins 1967’s A Time for Burning.
Besides being what he calls “the fruition of my life’s work,” Akintunde said, “it also offered me the opportunity to give back to a city I have really come to love.” The Alabama native came to UNO in 2008 from the University of Southern Indiana. While there he took a sabbatical to pursue a long-held dream of being a filmmaker.
A short version of Wigger was his thesis project at the New York Film Academy. Taylor (“Designing Women”) co-starred in the Los Angeles shoot as the music producer Mr. Pruitt, the role he reprises in the feature. Taylor helped Akintunde meet veteran television/film actress Anna Maria Horsford (Friday), who plays Antoine’s mother.
The rest of the cast are relative unknowns: David Oakes (Brandon), Eric Harvey (reprising Antoine), Kim Patrick (Shondra), Arkeni (LaVita), Braxton Davis (Brandon’s father).
Akintunde plans entering Wigger at select festivals in hopes of a theatrical release. It could easily find a national audience or fade away. Wherever it does play it’s sure to prompt discussion.
As a first feature, it compares favorably with the inaugural works of two Omahans, Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth and Nik Fackler’s Lovely, Still. Among “black” films, it’s cinematically on par with Spike Lee’s early work, although tonally more like Tyler Perry. Akintunde bears watching.
- Black Studies Programs Lack Support At HBCUs (huffingtonpost.com)
- “Study: Black males graduating at lower rates” and related posts (itismymind.blogspot.com)
- Ta-Nehisi Coates Deconstructs the National “Conversation on Race” (theroot.com)
- The Five Faces of Barack Obama (time.com)
- Are White MCs Not “Black Enough”? [VIDEO] (hellobeautiful.com)
- Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom, The Black Scholar’s Robert Chrisman Looks Back at a Life in the Maelstrom (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Today’s Exploration: Omaha’s History of Racial Tension (theprideofnebraska.blogspot.com)
- Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Race, New PBS Series (newsweek.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)