In an early scene, the narrator of Mario Van Peebles’ energetic multicultural musical coming-of-age high school tale, “We The Party,” identifies one of his classroom fears, a fellow African-American teenager, shoulders hunched, cloaked in a dark hoodie, plugged into his music. “A wannabe rapper, ‘cept no one ever hears him rap, straight-up scary,” he says on the soundtrack. While that may be the film’s most timely image, the director of “New Jack City,” “Panther” and “Posse,” doesn’t show himself as a filmmaker in his fifties. Working in a busy style of multiple screens, changing frame rates, freeze frames and other play with the image, he matches the iPads, iPods and laptops of his Los Angeles protagonists with a sense of life lived at the speed of the moment, and an awareness of the clashes of race and class that shape our society every moment of the day. The result is an intriguing if not fully successful hybrid, with elements reminiscent of Reginald Hudlin’s “House Party” (1990) and Theodore Witcher’s “Love Jones” (1997). While “We The Party” slots safely within the teen-movie genre with currents—too obvious to call undercurrents—of unease toward women and gays, there’s a lot more vigor and thought onscreen than I’d expected. It’s good to see Van Peebles still hard at work at play. His teenagers took him to hang with their friends, of which Van Peebles writes, ” I would drive, as long as they and their friends were safe. They could totally be themselves. They could talk like they talk, and party how they party. I would go INCOGNEGRO…. Kids of all colors were using the N-word as a term of endearment. One of the most popular kids was an openly gay black boy who could kick your ass with style. Gangster rap is considered old school now. This is the first generation to come of age during a black presidency, and for them, it’s not historical. It’s just the norm! For this generation, anything seems possible, both good and bad.” And with “We The Party,” Van Peebles hands the generational mantel down, just as his father Melvin had to him. Plus, I would always be partial to a father waking his sleep-too-late son with the stern words, “You take your tickle like a man.” With Van Peebles, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, YG, Orlando Brown, Simone Battle, Michael Jai White, Snoop Dogg, Mandela Van Peebles, Moisés Arias. 104m. (Ray Pride)
“We The Party” opens Friday at River East and Ford City.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.