A Counter-American Tale

Americans are so seduced by the myth of individuality that we unable to escape its thrall, no matter how degraded it becomesin our own age. 'Be Kind Rewind,' starring Mos Def, is a whimsical and welcome rebuttal and a testament to the power of 'We.'

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Mos Def stars in Michel Gondry's powerful 'Be Kind Rewind.'

Here's the wonderful thing about Mos Def's new film, Be Kind Rewind: I can't remember a single triumphant moment—and there are several—when one character drives the scene. Solos are left for the emotional valleys; the peaks come in ensemble. That's the film's organizing idea, that collectivity fosters not just strength, but joy. It's an awfully basic point, but it's fitting that writer/director Michel Gondry uses the disorienting tool of magical realism to make it. We've grown so deeply invested in the first person singular, it just may take a long, strange trip to find our way back to the fundamentals of we.

The American ethos values individual power to the point of fetish. No matter how often it proves illusory, we gaze credulously at the false idol of lone heroism. We gobble up memoirs of personal triumph over impossible odds, and then grimace when they turn out to be fake. We fawn over titans of industry, then rage when they're revealed as crooks. We send an "Army of One" stumbling into the eastern desert like John Wayne riding West. Be Kind Rewind offers a playful and too-rare counter narrative to this depressingly lonely perspective.

The loopy conceit of Gondry's script is that by making home movies, a beaten down neighborhood in Jersey can conquer everything from predatory development to corporate media. And the story is as whimsical as the concept. An aging entrepreneur, Danny Glover's Mr. Fletcher, runs a business that's all about yesterday—a corner video store with a small, quirky stock of VHS tapes. Profitless and facing an eminent domain buyout, Mr. Fletcher leaves the business in the hands of his adopted son, Mos Def's Mike, while he slips away to learn how the competing chain store thrives. But Mike and his bumbling buddy, Jack Black's Jerry, accidentally erase all the tapes. When they try to trick customers by shooting their own remakes, it turns out the locals actually prefer their homespun versions of familiar studio flicks. A new business is born.

Or, is it a movement? The customers are less drawn to the movies themselves than to the way they're made. Everybody gets in on the goofy act, pitching in as supporting actors and camerawomen and sound engineers. They cobble together props and costumes from the neighborhood's blighted landscape—discarded appliances, an abandoned building, trash. And streets that were once empty and bleak eventually bustle with jabbering, romping neighbors. Gondry's protagonists, we discover, aren't peddling merchandise; they're selling connectivity.

But we never learn whether Mr. Fletcher's building actually gets its seemingly inevitable date with city hall's wrecking ball. And by the story's end, I didn't care—or, more precisely, the details of that joust became secondary. I knew Mr. Fletcher and his crew had chosen community redevelopment rather than economic development, and solutions to their other conundrums will flow from there.

Gondry's point isn't novel—he's basically reincarnated It's A Wonderful Life as trippy slapstick. But after last Friday's outpouring of Martin Luther King memorials, I'm struck by how marginal this people-power perspective has become. King's primary contribution to history is having bound together a community in revolutionary struggle against its oppressors. Yet, we remember him as a singular hero. Consider the iconic imagery. Most shots depict King standing elevated and isolated, staring over a podium into nothingness. Oddly, the most famous image of him surrounded by others is when he's sprawled dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. It's all backwards.

And remember this winter's bizarre campaign-trail debate about whether King or Lyndon Johnson was most responsible for ending Jim Crow? Duh. It's neither. How about the scores of people who walked to work for more than a year in order to hold the Montgomery bus boycott together? Or the phalanx after phalanx of grade schoolers who threw their bodies into Bull Connor's hoses? Or the untold number of college kids who sat-in on whites-only public spaces around the country? Why no memorials for these uncountable acts of collective sacrifice? The lyric goes 'WE shall overcome.' Remember?

There's a cost when we turn that plural into a singular. I worry that we've so elevated prophets and preachers and presidential candidates that we're paralyzed without them. Generations after King's death, too many observers still find the question of his successor to be a relevant one. Is it Jesse or Rev. Al? Do we look to the church or the private sector? What an absurdly narrow discussion. Leaders are clearly important, if for no other purpose, then to give collective efforts a focal point around which to rally. But sustainable leadership is a group activity. It's dynamic, with one leader inspiring another who supports another and so on until you have something lasting that no assassin's bullet or developer's wrecking ball can knock down.

That's what's refreshing about Be Kind Rewind's climax: It depicts the powers-that-be as not just impotent, but irrelevant. When the developers and corporate goons show up for a standoff with Mr. Fletcher over the demolition, they're utterly confused to find no one with which to tussle. He and his community have moved past fighting over a building. That's not because they're shrugging off terribly real challenges ahead, but because they're busy building the community they need to actually do something about it.

Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.