Proenza Schouler's Act Da Fool just might make us act a fool. The controversial short film by Harmony Korine takes an unyielding look at young black girls living on the edge of society and life.
In a place that looks like nowhere and everywhere, Korine, who wrote the seminal film Kids, directed by Larry Clark, gives us a glimpse of young black girls trying to find themselves against a backdrop of poverty and urban despair.
People are up in arms over the fact that fashion darlings Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler are presenting the film. What is more disturbing, however, is that people are not critiquing to the same extent the choices that Korine has made in this four-minute film. It seems that some have given him a pass because of the success of Kids, but this short is not Kids by any stretch of the imagination.
Like Proenza Schouler's fashions, it is merely a knockoff of Kids and urban culture that is given cultural capital because of who is empowered to tell the story. The girls are the object of Korine's — and now the world's — gaze, taking 40s to the head and smoking because "we're all going to die anyway."
Pretentious and presumptuous, it reflects the hegemonic model that informs the fashion and entertainment industries: appropriating subcultures and then repackaging and selling them to the world as something new or different. In an interview about the film, McCollough and Hernandez also speak of using urban spaces as inspiration for their fashions, which creates further problems regarding the film and its sponsorship.
The film offers a snapshot of poverty, but quite frankly, it isn't new or different. Upon learning of the film, I immediately thought of the 1975 Diana Ross drama Mahogany. Tracy, the lead character played by Ross, is photographed by storied lensman Sean, played by Anthony Perkins, for a high-fashion shoot against the backdrop of the Chicago projects. While Mahogany is fictional and not a great film, the scene highlights how power is fluid. But in the end, it is the colonizing gaze that wins out.
To my mind, this is the case with Act Da Fool. It is exploitation masquerading as high art; its creators, in order to make themselves cool, misuse the very people — young people of color, girls in this instance — who inform and inspire the fashion industry. The narration, which is supposed to give the girls authority over the film, does not erase what is happening, which is their objectification. I'm wondering what was said in between what is actually heard during the narration in the film.
Nsenga K. Burton is editor-at-large and a regular contributor to The Root. She recently completed the film Four Acts, a documentary on the 2007 public servants' strike in South Africa.
Read a different take on the film at Clutch magazine. Check out the film below.