As happens so frequently in life, things began to break down during the screening of 1973’s blaxploitation-themed imprisoned-women film Black Mama, White Mama. It is very nearly a truism of the modern condition that things will begin to break down when this point of human interaction is reached.
It wasn’t as though “people chained to other people” was a particularly safe topic for the little impromptu film festival in the first place. There were in fact two very large elephants in the room that had to be dealt with; the first was the uncomfortable, vaguely erotic overtones of any movie involving two actors attached to one another with chains, and the second was the fact that the film festival’s organizers and sole attendees had actually lived through the experience themselves.
But, as it happened, Tip owned a DVD of The Specialists and Tigerlily owned a vintage 8mm copy of The Defiant Ones for her sea-green Argus Showmaster 500, and things just sort of happened from there. They had made their way flawlessly through these two initial titles, had mutually agreed to turn off O Brother, Where Art Thou once the chains came off, and were cruising fairly smoothly through Black Mama, White Mama (which they had located on VHS) when Tip made the mistake of opening his damn mouth.
“You know,” he said, beginning to err terribly, “admittedly speaking as a white male, I do find myself enjoying this for entirely non-sexual reasons.”
In his mind, Tigerlily Jones turned to him and said, “Huh. That’s interesting. Thank you for sharing your opinion on Black Mama, White Mama. I find it very refreshing to hear that you can look beyond the fact of Pam Grier’s naked bosom and appreciate the artistic and cultural merits of this film,” which just went to show that Tip’s inner Tigerlily was vastly, impossibly inaccurate and contained more unrealistic wish-fulfillment than the imprisoned-women film they were currently watching.
Real Life Tigerlily Jones, on the other hand, was armed with a portable electric rifle, with which she immediately shot the VCR. The crackle of lightning overloaded the circuits of the machine, and its LEDs blazed a crazed tangle of Cyrillic characters in phosphorescent blue and orange before dying into blackness. The picture on the screen flickered into gray static and was gone.
“Um,” said Tip, blinking. “Why… did you just shoot the VCR?”
“To shut your fool mouth,” said Tigerlily, blasting the aggrieved appliance again. “And before you ask, it didn’t work the first time, so I’m doin’ it twice.”
Tip tented his fingers before his mouth. “Let’s look beyond the direct cause-and-effect and follow the chain of ‘why’s for a moment.”
“You’re wondering why I wanted to shut your fool mouth?”
Tip gave two quick breaths, and then gestured expansively. “I want to provide a safe place for you to express, in words, exactly the feeling that led you to shoot the VCR.”
“Currently, I don’t need to express that feeling, turkey-boy. I expressed that feeling already, and it happened when I shot your modern devil technology so’s I didn’t have to touch the buttons.”
“So you shot the VCR… to avoid having to touch it?”
“Let me put it this way,” said Tigerlily, pointing at the VCR’s control panel. “I understand this here’s the button that stops the thing.”
“And what, pray tell, is the symbol on that button, child?”
“A… a square?”
“Exactly,” said Tigerlily, sitting back like a self-satisfied cat.
There was a pause.
“Okay, correct me if I’m wrong, but—”
“All your life, White boy,” said Tigerlily. “All. Your. Life.”
Tip soldiered on. “You’re telling me you shot the VCR because you didn’t want to touch… a square.”
“It would be a slap in the face to everything I do, am, or represent. Tigerlily wants no business with squares of any description. If The Man wants this Jupiter goddess to stop his damn magnotronic nightmare, he better put a button on there that says, ‘Whoa, there, hold up.'” She twirled the electric rifle on its firing lever and holstered it at her hip.
“I suppose ‘Play’ would be ‘Get a move on’?”
“‘Play’ can be a triangle,” sniffed Tigerlily. “Ain’t got no beef with triangles. Fine shape.”
“So if I’m understanding you right, you shooting the VCR is your way of saying ‘I want to stop the movie now.'”
“Absolutely. Stopping the movie is standard protocol any time there exists a jive turkey in a fifty-meter radius who needs gettin’ informed of how wrong he is, and my readout is goin’ plumb crazy right now.”
“Okay. Talk about that, if you feel comfortable.”
Tigerlily made a strangled grunt of frustration. “Look, Wonder Bread, the whole point of this is that I don’t feel comfortable! I’m sittin’ right here with a card-carrying member of the fellowship of The Man, showering his White praise down on one of the indisputable classics of cinema. Evening edition news flash, Snowshoe: righteous soul sisters don’t need, or want, White praise.”
“I… guess I don’t understand. All this is because I said I liked Black Mama, White Mama?”
“Not on your life, Chicken Jim.”
“But you just said—”
“I said no such thing. Just goes to show you ain’t listening to what either of us is sayin’.”
Tip took in a breath, held up an impeccably French-manicured finger as though to say something, and then let both go. This sequence repeated itself twice more.
“Can I break from the therapist motif for a moment?” Tip asked, eventually, squaring the straps on his wine-colored evening gown.
“Lord in Heaven, the moment I been praying for, arrived at last.”
Tip frowned. “You are an intensely frustrating woman, Tigerlily Jones. At this point, I honestly have no idea why I spent all those years pining. I can’t pass an hour without you trying to insult me, backhandedly or otherwise.”
“I agitate the system. The system hates being agitated.”
“Look at me, Doctor Jones,” said Tip, pointing at his face. “I am not ‘the system.’ I am a man with whom you have graciously agreed to spend the afternoon and evening watching old movies.”
“Tell me you’re not the system. Tell me that one more time. Meanwhile, I’ll be digging up my old friend Recorder Bot.”
“For the last time, I am not—wait, what?”
Tigerlily, her back now turned, was rummaging through an ochre-colored duffel, casting aside an entire tool-chest’s worth of wrenches, springs, and miscellaneous metal parts and eventually emerging with a small sphere of burnished brass and blue enamel. In a flash, she jammed a bright key into its side and began to wind it. As Tip watched, dumbfounded, the little sphere unfolded into a tiny, big-eyed homunculus with a propeller on top of its head. Tigerlily cast it into the air, like a stage magician releasing a white dove; it hovered where she released it, blinking at her placidly.
“Recorder Bot,” said Tigerlily, “Tell Mister System here what he said about Black Mama, White Mama.”
“Certainly, Doctor Jones,” said Recorder Bot. The little robot turned towards Tip, beginning to give off an alarming series of whirs and clicks. After a moment, a tinny recording of Tip’s voice emerged from Recorder Bot’s mouth:
“You know, admittedly speaking as a white male, I do find myself enjoying this—”
“All right, can it, Recorder Bot. Fine work.”
“Thank you, Doctor Jones,” said Recorder Bot, flitting back to Tigerlily’s palm and folding itself back into a little ball, which Tigerlily stowed back in her duffel.
“I believe Recorder Bot has told us all we need to hear,” said Tigerlily, turning back to Tip.
“I feel as though I’m being taken vastly out of context.”
“I don’t know how. You just spoke as a representative of an entire system of white maleness, telling me how much the system enjoyed Black Mama, White Mama. And I’m right here and right now telling you that I absolutely do not care how much that system liked my movie.”
“I wasn’t trying to speak for all white males everywhere,” said Tip, feeling his implacable calm begin to erode. “I was merely admitting that I was probably not this movie’s target audience.”
“No,” said Tigerlily. “You weren’t admitting jack squat. Any damn fool can see you ain’t the target audience for Black Mama, White Mama. Ain’t no need to admit that. You was trying to claim this movie for The Man’s enjoyment, which is reprehensible; or you were apologizing, which is disgusting. Which is it?”
“All right, all right! Maybe I was, broadly, apologizing,” Tip said. “Maybe I’m sitting here, soaking up what could charitably be called constant abuse from you based on my race and gender. Maybe I’m trying to remain congenial about it all. Maybe I’m trying to admit, fully and freely, that I have absolutely no cultural perspective on what it is to be a minority race, and only slightly more perspective on what it is to be a woman, most of that coming from inebriated, nearsighted guys trying to hit on me come closing time or the brain-damaged security guard at our office. Maybe I do not have the richness of experience, the cultural resonance, that allows me to feel all the intricate nuances of a film about two formerly-imprisoned attractive women shooting the absolute crud out of Latin American rebels using automatic weapons. Maybe I am—frankly—afraid of setting you off on a screed about how I can’t possibly appreciate this movie, and so I’m copping to my weakness from the outset.” He waved one hand, helplessly. “In doing so, I seem to have touched off an entirely different screed. Honestly, I feel a bit like I’m traversing a minefield, here.”
“I ain’t never abused you based on your race and gender, White boy.”
“See, there. Right there. Do you even listen to what’s coming out of your mouth? Even you have to admit that that sounds just a little bit like abuse.”
“Oh, I’m sure as heck abusing you. ‘Least the White part of you.”
Tip shook his head. “Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it. You are one of the most profoundly racist people I’ve ever met.”
“This ain’t about race,” said Tigerlily. “Plenty of Caucasian folk are acceptable in my sight, and plenty of my African brothers are White as White can be.”
“You have completely lost me.”
“White ain’t your race, Colonel Sanders. White is how you behave. White is how you walk, how you judge. It’s how you stuff what you feel in a bag, pretending how everything you do is all polite and nice and for the greater good and not gonna hurt no one important. White is a way of life, and you livin’ that life balls-out.”
“Okay. Let’s pretend for a moment I’m willing to learn.”
“You are,” said Tigerlily, with a trace of sullen reproach. “I believe you really are. Ain’t no other reason I’m sticking around, aside from how you stole my Mojo so’s all my robots are as funkless as Listen Bot.”
“I shall endeavor to do better, Madam,” came a muffled voice from inside Tigerlily’s bag.
“Hush, Listen Bot. Ain’t your fault; it’s my own, and this cracker’s.”
“So, let’s rewind the evening a minute or two before things started to go south. Give me some guidance as to what I should have said. Please.”
“It’s real simple, Melba Toast. Here’s what needs to come out of your mouth. I’mo be you for a sec.” Tigerlily cleared her throat, and then spoke in an affectedly deep and right-angled voice. “Hey, I say there, do you know this film, Black Mama, White Mama?”
“I enjoy it!”
Tip nodded, absently, to empty air for a moment. “That’s it?”
“That’s it. Don’t speak for anyone but yourself. Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and let your ‘no’ mean ‘no’ and ain’t nobody can ask you for anything more.”
“You do realize that your natural voice is almost already deeper than mine. You really don’t need to do the funny ‘man voice.'”
“I was just goin’ to the Man Place in my mind.” She gave a deep, all-over shudder. “Terrible lapse in judgment. I need six showers and a full ritual cleanse. I may need to sacrifice a young bullock, free of blemish, and drink its virgin blood.”
“That’s pleasant,” said Tip. “Do you think we could substitute Pink Champale?” He scooted a nearby six-pack across the floor.
“Laws,” said Tigerlily, “you are a gifted student of ritual purification, ain’t you. That’ll do nicely.” She knocked the top off the bottle with the butt of her rifle and drank deeply. Tip actually felt himself sweat, just a little, watching the dance-like perfection of the gesture.
“Hey, I say there,” said Tip, “do you know this film, Black Mama, White Mama?”
“Mm hm?” Tigerlily replied, delicately brushing stray pink foam from her lips.
“I enjoy it!”
Tigerlily thumped him on the back. “You see? He can be taught. All right, let’s settle down again and continue this beast.” She reached out, elegantly, with one sandaled toe, and hit the ‘play’ button.
Then she tried pushing it again, somewhat less elegantly. After about three or four more times, she gathered her rumpled dignity and stabbed at the button with her finger instead, but the gesture had no more effect than it had with her toe.
“Seem to have perhaps done the devil machine more harm than I intended,” Tigerlily muttered.
“Well, you did shoot it,” Tip said, wheeling the VCR away. “Tell you what. Let’s consider the VCR a lost cause and move on to this lovely DVD of Tonight You’re Mine, which features two white musicians chained together by a whimsical black man.”
“Does he exist, fairylike, to solve these white dudes’ problems in a magical fashion, possessing no goals or character development to call his own?”
“Indeed he does, Dr. Jones.”
She smiled, her eyes steely.
“Bring that shit on,” she said.