“The Boondocks,” “Atlanta,” “black-ish,” “Dear White People,” “Sorry to Bother You” — there are a few reveals and films which have dared to make use of comedy to deal with the grim state of Black individuals in America. But currently, I’ve been occupied with a film I hadn’t seen in additional than 20 years: “Bébé’s Kids.” 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 Kids,” directed by Bruce W. Smith (who would later turn out to be referred to as the creator of the Black cartoon sequence “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. Based on a stand-up bit by the comic Robin Harris, “Bébé’s Kids” 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. But after they meet, he shortly finds himself saddled with three extra youngsters, an ornery, misbehaved lot belonging to the lady’s good friend, Bébé.
At first look, the film seems to be a playful “Rugrats”-style comedy, with children partaking 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 immediately, I not discover in it the identical harmless delight; there’s simply the horrific realization that it’s presenting points which might be nonetheless related immediately.
Before the crew even arrive on the amusement park, the generically named Funworld, they’re accosted by a policeman as their automobile involves an abrupt cease. “Carrying any illegal substances?” the white officer asks Robin, frisking him earlier than leering at his date, Jamika, who snaps, “Don’t even try it.” The interplay doesn’t do a lot to serve the plot, and as a little one, I discovered it innocuous, forgettable. But it does serve a operate within the movie: It units up the recurring theme of Black characters being focused by legislation enforcement. Even Jamika’s dismissal serves as a reminder that to be a Black girl is to know your physique is a goal.
But 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. Though drawn years earlier than the capturing 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 arms 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 Men in Black. “Well, look what we have here. Are you starting trouble?” one asks. “He’s a 415 in progress,” one other pronounces. They admonish him for his “hostile attitude” and examine his hat, deciding that “it looks like some sort of gang insignia.” It’s clear, although, that Kahlil’s antagonists usually are not simply nameless males in fits however the bigger system they symbolize.
One tells him, “You just remember: we’ll be watching you,” as cameras skilled on Kahlil pop up throughout him. To assume: “Bébé’s Kids” stylized the amusement park because the panopticon. Kahlil is said a miscreant and surveyed, although he’s solely a little one. 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. (As 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.
He sits between two figures representing the highest office in the land: Nixon, who played to the George Wallace faithful down South, and Lincoln, who pushed for the abolition of slavery.
And yet, just as the real Lincoln failed to end slavery despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the movie’s Honest Abe is only one man up against a system that isn’t easily broken by legislation and good intentions. At the end of Lincoln’s defense speech, the crowd calls for Kahlil’s life — until Jamika’s son, Leon, performs a rap song in a final plea for Kahlil’s release.
“Kahlil is a rebel without a pause/He’s a victim of your unjust laws,” Leon raps, pointing to the larger hypocrisy of a society that sets up its Black citizens for failure and then punishes them for being victims of circumstance. “Give Kahlil the tools he needs,” Leon demands, before breaking into a chorus of “Freedom,” with the people in the crowd suddenly pumping their fists.
Kahlil is set free, and Bébé’s kids wreak some more havoc before jumping in the car with Robin, who is all too happy to dump them back home. Though he wilts when he gets there: an empty apartment in an old building in the ghetto.
The film’s comedy rests on the disaster that’s wrought by three poor Black kids with an unnamed father and absent mother and how they are demonized, even criminalized, by those around them. The joke is their disciplinary issues and rebellion, which nearly earns one of them the death sentence.
As a child, I laughed. I was too young to know about King and how my Blackness would read in America. But the movie’s implications aren’t funny, and today the laughs seem especially cruel, shadowed as they are by the killings of Black boys and men who look like the real-life versions of Kahlil.
Though the movie ends happily for Robin, Jamika, Leon and Bébé’s brood, I can’t help but wonder what will happen after the credits roll — whether the kids will suddenly cease to be poor and harassed by figures of authority, or whether their fates will be bleaker. At one point, Bébé’s youngest — a gravel-voiced baby with a chronically stinky diaper — punchily declares, “We don’t die, we multiply.” If only, for the real-life Bébé’s kids — everyone born Black in America — that were truly the case.
Rent or buy “Bébé’s Kids” on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play or iTunes.