“The Boondocks,” “Atlanta,” “black-ish,” “Expensive White Individuals,” “Sorry to Trouble You” — there are a couple of exhibits and films which have dared to make use of comedy to handle the grim state of Black individuals in America. However these days, I’ve been fascinated with a film I hadn’t seen in additional than 20 years: “Bébé’s Children.” This animated Black comedy explicitly spoke about police brutality and our damaged judicial system years earlier than the primary utterance of “Black Lives Matter.”
“Bébé’s Children,” directed by Bruce W. Smith (who would later turn out to be referred to as the creator of the Black cartoon collection “The Proud Family”), was launched in 1992, simply months after the Los Angeles riots over the not-guilty verdicts within the police beating of Rodney King. Primarily based on a stand-up bit by the comic Robin Harris, “Bébé’s Children” depicts an animated model of Robin (voiced by Faizon Love) making an attempt to impress a girl by taking her and her son on a date to a theme park. However once they meet, he rapidly finds himself saddled with three extra youngsters, an ornery, misbehaved lot belonging to the girl’s buddy, Bébé.
At first look, the film seems to be a playful “Rugrats”-style comedy, with kids participating in excessive jinks whereas our protagonist runs after them in exasperation. I watched it repeatedly as a child, amused by the troop’s misbehavior, not understanding on the time that among the many PG-13 laughs are hints of the disturbing actuality of Blackness in America. Rewatching it in the present day, I not discover in it the identical harmless delight; there’s simply the horrific realization that it’s presenting points which are nonetheless related in the present day.
Earlier than the crew even arrive on the amusement park, the generically named Funworld, they’re accosted by a policeman as their automotive involves an abrupt cease. “Carrying any unlawful substances?” the white officer asks Robin, frisking him earlier than leering at his date, Jamika, who snaps, “Don’t even attempt it.” The interplay doesn’t do a lot to serve the plot, and as a toddler, I discovered it innocuous, forgettable. However it does serve a operate within the movie: It units up the recurring theme of Black characters being focused by regulation enforcement. Even Jamika’s dismissal serves as a reminder that to be a Black girl is to know your physique is a goal.
However it’s Bébé’s oldest son, the grade-school-age Kahlil (voiced by Marques Houston), who faces probably the most unnerving antagonism all through the film. Although drawn years earlier than the taking pictures of Trayvon Martin, Kahlil might have been created with him in thoughts — or any younger, harmless Black boy, for that matter. He wears saggy pants over sneakers with untied laces, the tongues popped. On his head is a baseball cap with a cranium, and over that the hood of a zip-up. His physique language is defensive: arms crossed or palms dug into pockets.
When the group enters the park, Kahlil is straight away harassed by park officers wearing fits and sun shades just like the Males in Black. “Effectively, look what we now have right here. Are you beginning hassle?” one asks. “He’s a 415 in progress,” one other pronounces. They admonish him for his “hostile perspective” and examine his hat, deciding that “it appears to be like like some form of gang insignia.” It’s clear, although, that Kahlil’s antagonists will not be simply nameless males in fits however the bigger system they characterize.
One tells him, “You simply bear in mind: we’ll be watching you,” as cameras educated on Kahlil pop up throughout him. To suppose: “Bébé’s Children” stylized the amusement park because the panopticon. Kahlil is said a miscreant and surveyed, although he’s solely a toddler. We see this typically: younger boys sized as much as the stature of males to allow them to be held absolutely accountable for the racist imaginations of these round them. (Because the poet Claudia Rankine wrote, “because white men can’t/police their imagination/black men are dying.”)
The film goes even farther in its depiction of racial injustice when Kahlil is kidnapped by a giant Terminator-esque robot, who aims to electrocute him for an earlier infraction. An animatronic Abraham Lincoln stops the death sentence, reminding him that “every man has a right to a fair trial.”
And so the movie delivers its most bizarre scene: a Black boy put on trial with Lincoln as his defense attorney and an animatronic Richard Nixon prosecuting. The whole time Kahlil wears a helmet that will electrocute him if he’s found guilty.
And but, simply as the actual Lincoln failed to finish slavery regardless of the Emancipation Proclamation, the film’s Trustworthy Abe is just one man up in opposition to a system that isn’t simply damaged by laws and good intentions. On the finish of Lincoln’s protection speech, the group requires Kahlil’s life — till Jamika’s son, Leon, performs a rap tune in a last plea for Kahlil’s launch.
“Kahlil is a insurgent and not using a pause/He’s a sufferer of your unjust legal guidelines,” Leon raps, pointing to the bigger hypocrisy of a society that units up its Black residents for failure after which punishes them for being victims of circumstance. “Give Kahlil the instruments he wants,” Leon calls for, earlier than breaking right into a refrain of “Freedom,” with the individuals within the crowd abruptly pumping their fists.
Kahlil is about free, and Bébé’s youngsters wreak some extra havoc earlier than leaping within the automotive with Robin, who’s all too blissful to dump them again dwelling. Although he wilts when he will get there: an empty condo in an previous constructing within the ghetto.
The movie’s comedy rests on the catastrophe that’s wrought by three poor Black youngsters with an unnamed father and absent mom and the way they’re demonized, even criminalized, by these round them. The joke is their disciplinary points and revolt, which practically earns considered one of them the loss of life sentence.
As a toddler, I laughed. I used to be too younger to learn about King and the way my Blackness would learn in America. However the film’s implications aren’t humorous, and in the present day the laughs appear particularly merciless, shadowed as they’re by the killings of Black boys and males who seem like the real-life variations of Kahlil.
Although the film ends fortunately for Robin, Jamika, Leon and Bébé’s brood, I can’t assist however surprise what is going to occur after the credit roll — whether or not the children will abruptly stop to be poor and harassed by figures of authority, or whether or not their fates will likely be bleaker. At one level, Bébé’s youngest — a gravel-voiced child with a chronically pungent diaper — punchily declares, “We don’t die, we multiply.” If solely, for the real-life Bébé’s youngsters — everybody born Black in America — that had been actually the case.