Hi, Mom!  

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"The high point [inHi, Mom!] comes in the course of a delightful take-off on educational television (a National Intellectual Television Journal series on the blacks and urban revolution), with the staging of "Be Black, Baby," in which white theatregoers are forced to participate in "the black experience." Their reaction to the wild abuse and violence to which the're subjected is an excruciating comment on today's "liberal" theatregoers."--Judith Crist, New York Magazine, May 4, 1970

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Hi, Mom! (1970) is a black comedy by Brian De Palma, and is one of Robert De Niro's first movies. De Niro reprises his role of Jon Rubin from Greetings. In this film, Rubin is a fledgling "adult filmmaker" who has an idea to post cameras at his window and video tape his neighbors, à la Hitchcock's Rear Window. De Niro's character, as well as the movie overall, may be seen as a kind of comic precursor to the later De Niro film, Taxi Driver.



The film follows Jon Rubin as he

  1. is hired by Allen Garfield to shoot peeping tom films from an apartment across the street (he fails because his camera tilts downwards when he has a sex scene with a woman he duped into a computer date) (00-32 and 38-48)
  2. is part of the black revolution, the part known as "Be Black Baby", people handing out "Be Black Baby" leaflets and being told "you want to know what it's like to be black in America. It includes the "Theatre of Revolt" scene. The rest is described in the section below. (32-70)
  3. "carefully plots his strategy while the rest of the troupe impulsively storms the co-op to bring "Be Black Baby" home to the silent majority." The scene starts with Jon reading "a lone saboteur most first assimilate himself into the urban community assuming a lifestyle indistinguishable from the bourgeois members around him" from The Urban Guerrilla (1969). The sequence is then announced as the Black Revolution part 4. He then becomes an ordinary everyman, an insurance salesman but this does not last long because he blows up the building he lives in by throwing dynamite in the washing machine in the basement. People are subsequently interviewed about the blown up building. The commentaries are generally positive. Jon turns up again, this time as Vietnam veteran, he greets the camera saying "Hi Mom." (70-87)

Be Black, Baby

Its most memorable sequence is one where a black radical group invite a group of WASPs to feel what it's like to be black (to live the black experience), in a sequence called Be Black, Baby (which is also the title of the song by Eric Kaz). It is both a satire and an example of the experimental theatre and cinéma vérité movements. Shot in the style of a documentary film, it features a theater group of African American actors interviewing Caucasians on the streets of New York City, asking them if the whites know what it is like to be black in America.

Later, a group of theater patrons attend a performance by the troupe, wherein soul food is served. The white audience is then subjected to wearing shoe polish on their faces, while the African American actors sport whiteface and terrorize the people in blackface. Robert De Niro shows up as an actor playing an NYPD policeman, arresting members of the white audience under the pretense that they are black. The entire sequence plays with natural sound, and is "unrehearsed" and in "real time." De Palma's familiarity and collaboration with experimental theatre informs the sequence and ratchets up the emotional impact of those who view it, simultaneously engaging their personal responses to racism and commenting on the deceptive and manipulative power of cinema. "If truth itself is plastic," the sequence asks, "then filmed truth is deeply flawed."

The sequence concludes with a thoroughly battered and abused audience raving about the show, showering praise on the black actors, crowing "Clive Barnes [New York Times theater critic] was right!"

Be Black, Baby remains one of the most challenging and intriguing sequences from its era, and its use of an audience's willingness to become emotional accomplices sheds light on De Palma's subsequent career.

MPAA Rating Board

According to the book "The Movie Rating Game" by Stephen Farber (Public Affairs Press, 1972), the film was originally given an "X" rating by the MPAA, but after a few minor trims, it was approved for an R. The main cut occurred during the scene where Gerrit Graham paints his entire body for the "Be Black Baby" performance. He hesitated for a moment about painting his penis, and then finally finished the job. The actual painting of the penis was deleted to get the R. (The first film, "Greetings", was released with an X after losing an appeal to change it to an R.)


See also

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