Tuesday, January 16, 2018

VHS Review: 'Our Friend, Martin' (1998)

Revisiting one of the most ubiquitous Black History Month video cassette staples in the annals of American public education (and yes, it does indeed play fast and loose with the historical accuracy, in case you were wonderin'.)

By: Jimbo X

I don't know how you folks spent your Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but if you ask me, there's only one proper way to get our collective Kangs on - and that, of course, is with a screening of the 1998 straight-to-video cartoon Our Friend, Martin.

What, you've never heard of Our Friend, Martin before? Well, if you grew up in elementary school America between the years 1999 and 2005, odds are your local public escuela/indoctrination factory made you watch it at least once a year (if not to commemorate MLK Day, than certainly as filler come Black History Month.) Now, I was in middle school and on the verge of entering high school when the straight-to-video offering was initially released, so I just missed out on this particular early aughties phenomena. But judging from the way the Millennials talk about this 'un on Reddit and 4chan and YouTube, I'd feel pretty comfortable labeling Our Friend, Martin as their generation's The ButterCream Gang - that weird piece of ubiquitous pop cultural ephemera that not only is inextricably tied to one's public education experience, but seems to only exist within the vacuum of elementary school nostalgia.

Even now I'm not sure exactly who bank rolled this thing, or what they're agenda was, or if they even suspected the damn tape would become a VCR staple in every primary school in America for at least half a decade. Whoever it was, though, they had to have had quite a bit of loose change to throw around, considering the staggering number of A-and-B-list celebrities lending their vocal talents to the production. Ed Asner, Angela Bassett, Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones, Ashley Judd, Susan Sarandon, Jon Travolta, OPRAH - hell, they even got Urkel to show up for a day or two in the recording studio to voice a teenaged MLK. It's undoubtedly a star-studded production, and the fact that this thing never made it to TV (or even basic cable, to the best of my knowledge) makes its existence all the more perplexing. I mean, you'd think PBS, if nobody else, would've tried to wrap their mitts around this one, but no - apparently, Our Friend, Martin went straight to video and - for all intents and purposes - just stayed there until YouTube and DailyMotion came along.

And if you've never seen it before, well - consider this in-depth review/analysis either a late MLK, Jr. Day gift or a really early Black History Month present.

The film begins with a title screen for DIC Entertainment, who is best known for producing half of every cartoon made in the 1980s (Nelvana, obviously, did the either half.) Some organization called I.P.M. gets secondary billing, but I have no idea who or what they are. And no, a quick Google search turns up nothing of use, even when you use "Our Friend Martin" as a Boolean assistant. We get this really, really cheesy R&B song as the opening credits rolls, and even better it's called "When We Were Kings" because fuck, sometimes the universe just makes things TOO easy for us.

No, this is the film at its absolute subtlest.

The movie begins proper with these two black kids standing in front of rubble that magically transforms into a fully built house. Oh, and one of them transforms into Martin Luther King, Jr. after entering the Stargate, so there's that.

And because this shit isn't late 1990s enough, we have ourselves a secondary title theme performed by Salt N Pepa, which sounds more like something to bump uglies to than something befitting of a children's animated program. From there, we are introduced to our antagonist, Miles, a precocious black kid who idolizes Hank Aaron, has a nasty ass bedroom and calls his mama "a slave" because she actually wants to work overtime at the office. (Oh, and as an aside, we never see Miles' father in the cartoon. Yeah, that revelation shocked the shit out of me, too.) Then she tells him if he doesn't get his grades up, he won't be able to play baseball and become rich like Barry Bonds and will probably end up slangin' crack down at the Waffle House down by the I-285 interchange. By the way, this kid's house is NICE - we're talking two stories, stairs, a basement, an attic, the fuckin' works. As a matter of fact, one might even call Miles - dare I say it - privileged?

In the next scene Miles is accosted by this fat blond white boy in a purple belly shirt. Eventually the bully, named Kyle, grabs hold of Miles at the bus stop but the old white bus driver almost runs him over and Miles is just barely able to escape. "See you, wouldn't want to be you," Miles says, which, for the record, was an antediluvian phrase even by 1998 standards. So Kyle's dad - voiced by John Travolta of all people - has to drive him to school. Which, fittingly enough, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. From there, we're introduced to the rest of the cast. There's this skateboarding kid with a country accent (voiced by the little kid from Sling Blade, if you can believe it) and this stuck up Hispanic bitch who considers herself "Madame Curie" and the rest of her cohorts "The Three Stooges." Miles' teacher (whose race is a complete mystery - she could be Dominican or she could be Irish) then tells him she's worried about his slipping grades and he blames it on baseball season. Then he says the only way for a black person to make money in this day and age is through sports or entertainment, and then the teacher says something about Colin Powell and tells Miles that if he doesn't do a good job on his book report about Martin Luther King, he's going to be held back a grade. 

So anyway, the kids go on a field trip to MLK's birth home, and Whoopi Goldberg is the tour guide and the country skateboarder kid LITERALLY asks her if MLK had magical powers. Then Miles sees a photo of MLK as a kid playing baseball and Miles says "why the fuck NOT steal a revered civil rights leader'  baseball glove?" But as soon as Miles puts it on, Wish Kid-style, he and that country motherfucker are magically transported back to the 1930s. Sure as sugar, they run into 12-year-old MLK, whom Miles describes as "major magic time," which I have to admit, does roll off the tongue rather smoothly. Oddly enough, even though it's Atlanta in the Great Depression, black kids and white kids are playing baseball together, which, I don't know, seems like a bit of a stretch to me. But then a white woman calls Miles "an uppity colored" and tells the white skateboarder kid that if he doesn't clean up his act he'll get fucking lynched.

Miles slips on the glove again and this time around the kids wind up on a train with a teenage Martin Luther King, Jr. King explains how he spent the summer humbly picking tobacco in Connecticut to pay for college, which - to put it mildly - isn't exactly a 100 percent truthful interpretation of what King's ACTUAL youth was like. Then MLK talks about how "whites and coloreds" couldn't associate with one another in the South, while ominous music plays over stock footage of segregated water fountain signs. Then the kids eat dinner with the rest of the King family, and Daddy King is voiced by James Earl Jones, because of course he would. "Don't you think it's cool he's always doing nice things for everybody else?" Miles comments.

Hey, it was either that, or Wayne Williams Junior High.

The kids time-skip once more. Now they're in Montgomery, Ala. for the bus boycott in 1956. And now MLK is voiced by Levar Burton, and we get the NARRATIVE APPROVED Rosa Parks story (which, of course, never brings up the fact that Samuel B. Fuller was already in the process of BUYING the Montgomery bus system), and then we get stock footage of MLK's house getting firebombed. Then a character voiced by Samuel L. Jackson starts rallying the black community to use violence against the honkeys, but MLK tells them to be more like Gandhi instead ... which, uh, means he wants them to hate Africans and sleep with their naked nieces on top of them?

Well, before we can fully digest that peculiar visual, the kids time hop again, and now it's time to relive the Birmingham riots, complete with a montage contrasting cartoons and real people having Dobermans bite their ball sacks and getting hit in the face with fire hoses. The kids end up getting transported back to the modern day, and the next day they watch ANOTHER video about the sit-ins and "Bull" Connor, who is pretty much depicted here as a cross between Hitler and The Penguin. And that's our cue for even MORE footage of black people getting power washed, complete with the very, very debatable suggestion that MLK and JFK formed a partnership for racial justice.

After school, the kids go back to MLK's birth home and convince Whoopi Goldberg to let 'em go back inside and fuck around with the time-space continuum some more. The fat white kid and that know-it-all Hispanic bitch decide to trail 'em and what do you know, all four of them wind up getting sucked back in time to the March on Washington. Oh, and hilariously, the "I Have A Dream" speech is dubbed over, because the King estate actually TRADEMARKED it and make people pay to use it now. That said, you can still have a lot of fun with the scene subbing in your OWN music. Might I suggest "Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)" by W.A.S.P.? Anyhoo, the kids run into their future teacher at the rally, and she talks about MLK representing the "power of one" and "affecting change in everyone we touch" and a whole bunch of other hippie dippie bullshit. 

Then the kids hop forward in time and find newspaper clippings about King's death and act like it's the first time they ever heard he died before and decide to head back in time and STOP MLK FROM GETTING ASSASSINATED. "Sorry, that's way past my curfew," MLK tells the kids when they ask him to travel with them to 1999. But after name dropping Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall enough times, MLK finally decides to travel to Miles' time alongside the rest of the chirrens. Except when Miles and MLK get there, the King birth home is just rubble on the ground and the two white kids are best friends instead of being antagonistic towards each other and oh shit, black kids aren't allowed to ride the school bus anymore. Cue stock footage of KKK marches and "colored only" park benches and MLK starts asking Miles some serious questions about why he thinks *his* timeline is so great again. Now cue MORE stock footage of burning crosses and masses of black people weeping. And, then when the kids get to the middle school, all of a sudden it's been renamed "Robert E. Lee Middle" and the water fountains are segregated again and the principal keeps telling them to "git out" and chides the teachers for being "stupid women." And, oh, that Hispanic girl from earlier? Now she's a street urchin who doesn't know English and polishes floors for a living and Miles' mama is a MAID and he's all pissed that he don't have a Nintendo 64 no more.

So Miles and MLK have to sleep in bags on the floor and then MLK sees his daddy's ghost in the clouds and right then and there he decides he has to go back in time and DIE and keep the continuity loop a goin' as originally planned. And holy shit, they actually SHOW MLK getting shot in Memphis. Well, you have to give 'em some props for having the cojones to put THAT in a children's cartoon. From there we segue to footage from King's funeral, but again, since it originally used quips from the "I Have a Dream" speech, all we have here is just dead audio. Anyway, with everything corrected in the space-time continuum, Miles is able to come back to the modern day and yep, everything is back to normal. And after Miles gets an "A" on his assignment, the kids decide to go feed some homeless people and join Jimmy Carter's Habitats for Humanity and hug crippled black women in wheelchairs while a cover "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" plays in the background. And that, my multicultural brethren, is all there is to it.

Hooray for government-mandated inclusionary policymaking, which totally can't be subverted into civil liberties-eroding power grabs the same way government-mandated exclusionary policymaking was!

Well, I guess that is what it is, isn't it? I guess you don't need me to tell you the historical accuracy in this one was hit and miss, and you REALLY have to question the cartoon's rosy - if not downright messianic - depiction of the good Rev. Dr. King. I mean, it's not like they were ever going to show the alleged homosexual drunken orgies or bring up the fact that a lot of MLK's mentors were avowed communists or anything like that, but they could have at least tried to make the guy seem a little more relatable. After all, the REAL MLK smoked, packed heat, and boned at least one white woman, didn't he?

I suppose in hindsight one may consider Our Friend, Martin one of the great pioneering texts of the ongoing "white guilt" complex in American society - especially for Millennials. Remember, this was shit children were seeing every single year throughout elementary school and junior high, and let's face it - the big, central message the cartoon gets across (rather intentional or planned) is that a.) MLK was so great that everything he said most be taken as the literal social gospel and b.) left unchecked, white men will enslave you again and call your mama bad names. Even if that wasn't the filmmakers' desire, that's just the way hyper-literal children think, and when you have that pounded into your skull over and over for nine years, without a single adult explaining the movie's takeaways in a more nuanced form it can and will leave an indelible stamp on one's psyche - and no amount of factual evidence is likely to surmount the pure emotional pull one has felt since he or she was in kindergarten. The filmmakers may have thought the key idea children took away from the movie was that you shouldn't treat people unfairly because they're different, but instead the central theme they're walking away with is "holy shit, white people were EVIL as fuck back in the day, and if we don't do everything MLK tells us to they'll start treating minorities like doo doo again." Just read the comments on this YouTube upload - virtually none of the top comments are about racial reconciliation, but various shades of the old "boy howdy, the whites sure were MEAN towards blacks back then, and you know what, the probably still want to enslave us" chestnut. Planned, or unplanned, that's the major takeaway easily impressionable children got out of this movie - don't judge people by the color of their skin, except for the white ones, because goddamn, look at all the evil shit they did back in 1950s.

As a history lesson, it's pretty much just brazen hagiography for the ankle-biter set, leaving out all of M.L.K.'s more regrettable character traits and pretty much attributing the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement to his doing (that there isn't a companion video chronicling the animated exploits of Malcolm X is a rather telling example of omission by design.) As a morality play, it's pretty humdrum as well, but come on - it's pro-diversity propaganda intended for first graders. What did you expect? And taken only on its merits as animation, it's passable, but nothing extraordinary. The entire time I was watching the video I just felt like the character designs seemed hauntingly familiar, and sure enough, the IMDB validated my suspicions: it was co-directed by Vincenzo Trippetti, who as fate would have it, also served as a storyboard supervisor for The Real Ghostbusters, Jem and Mummies Alive! Needless to say, if there was ever a production in dire need of a sudden guest appearance by Apep the Snake God, surely it would be this woefully uninvolving cartoon.

As a piece of nostalgic ephemera, I suppose it has its merits. Shit, I didn't even watch the thing when I was a kid and I still smelled my old elementary school's cafeteria and gym mats while I was reviewing it. But more importantly, it stands as a testament to the power of the media - particularly animated programming - as a major social conditioning engineer. Our Friend, Martin is unquestionably a production with the chief goal of dictating morality to its young audience. It has little to do with entertaining them, or even giving them an educational history lesson. Rather, it's a coordinated effort to instill in young viewers the seeds of an adult ethos, one that neatly contours to a particular political ideology and its pre-established dogma.

Is the intent of Our Friend, Martin to encourage children to rebuke collectivist labels and see individuals as precisely that, individuals, or is it meant to goad children into believing a one-dimensional social policy creation myth that clearly paints one half of the U.S. social dyad as born losers and the other half as lapsed ethno-totalitarians?

And if you can't figure out which one, no worries - just show this flick to an eight-year-old and they'll be able to tell you which is which as soon as it's over.


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