When James Spooner grew up in California's high desert—a young skater kid so light-skinned, he says, he's been mistaken for everything under the sun—he learned that identity politics came spray-painted on the walls. "I remember walking into one kid's house," he says, "and he had huge graffiti: NIGGERS GO BACK TO AFRICA. I was constantly in fear—are these people trying to be my friend? Or are they trying to lure me back to their house to try and kill me?"
But he stuck around—because these were the only people who listened to the punk music he did, he says, and he wasn't going to give up just because some racists were involved. And a long way down the line, that high desert childhood filtered into Spooner's new documentary, Afro-Punk: The Rock & Roll Nigger Experience, a deft, clever, matter-of-fact, unflinching look at the black experience—from back-in-the-day to everyday life—within punk rock and hardcore.
Now 27 and touring the country to support his film, Spooner is after the dialogue he never had himself: as a kid, he remembers, "Black kids weren't trying to feel me because I liked that music. And white people would feel me as long as I didn't rep for black people."
He compares it to the "If you're too brown or too down, there's a problem" scene in ex-Los Crudos singer Martin Sorrondeguy's film, Ms All de los Gritos: punk kids deal with race on a sort of don't-ask-don't-tell basis, functioning perfectly as long as everyone pretends racial identity doesn't exist. Recall, perhaps, a letter once written to e-zine Punk Planet, lamenting racial tension within punk and wishing everyone could be the "same color." That's a monstrous negation of identity—punk's timid engagement of race blanks out culture as it blinkers out color—and put more eloquently, Spooner says, it boils down to "We know you're black, but don't tell us."
"I became vegan when I was 15, and I considered myself a feminist before I considered myself an African, and that was something the punk scene inspired," he says. "But that's where the anger lies—I learned so much [from punk]; I got so much empowerment and learned to do things myself, to challenge the system. But when I applied that to my life as a black man, there was no room for that. If you're just challenging kids on their privilege, they're the first ones to call you racist."
Afro-Punk is as DIY as it gets: no film-school degree, no expensive equipment, no hand-holding and no fat budgets. Instead, Spooner—who wasn't even computer-literate enough to have an e-mail address when he started work on Afro-Punk three years ago—did everything himself, learning to shoot, edit and direct through off-the-shelf how-to books, the Final Cut Pro instruction manual, and watching Dogtown & Z-Boys in slow-mo with the sound off. "Totally that punk rock attitude," he laughs. "Fuck it, let me try!"
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And you'd never believe it to see it. Flat, boring, shallow film drips out of university programs every semester, but Spooner's film—modern, quick and engaging—starts at a low hum with a line on Patti Smith (she of the "rock & roll nigger" line) and then kicks right in. Between interviews with hinge subjects—including several OC/LA locals—contacted through a laborious nationwide search, Spooner sketches out a narrative for the black experience in punk rock history, connecting his film not just to a squirrelly little subculture but also to some of the most basic issues in American society. Afro-Punk buttresses its most telling points with humanity and humor, but Spooner doesn't pull any punches, either.
"I say very prominently that I made this film for black people," says Spooner. He's happy to reach white audiences, but that wasn't his goal—he even offers lower screening prices to organizations that target black audiences, something that's gotten him called a "black separatist" by anonymous onliners. But he didn't put Afro-Punk together as an educational experience for white kids in the scene. Instead, he made it for kids who grew up the same way he did—and for a mainstream black community he says still sometimes looks at punk rockers as something between Nazi skins and druggy devil worshipers. Funny that when you break it down, all these bands are really just playing some mutation on—as plenty of Spooner's subjects point out—Chuck Berry's rock & roll. "Punk rock," says one kid, "is black music."
"[Afro-Punk] doesn't give you answers," says Spooner. "But it raises a lot of questions, which hopefully will cause dialogue. Which in the end is the only way racism can be addressed and quashed. I think that what ultimately I try and say is that nothing can take away your innate Africanism, if you're a descendent of African people. People [in Afro-Punk] say, 'Hey, I am black, you are black—we are black. And it's okay if you have green hair!'"
Afro-Punk: The Rock & Roll Nigger Experience screens withMs All De Los Gritos at Koo's, 540 E. Broadway, Long Beach; www.koos.org. Sat., 8 p.m. $5. All ages.