Idlewild (2006)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-5; L-6; S/N-5. Running time: 2 hours

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
but establish the righteous, you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God.
God is my shield, who saves the upright in heart.
Psalm 7:9-10

Idlewild

Bryan Barber, who also directed OutKasts’ videos, directed and wrote this, the musical group’s first feature film. The film is a high-energy amalgamation of Thirties gangster film, smart kicking musical (think Cotton Club and Chicago), fantasy whimsy a la Coen brothers, and star-crossed love story, with never a dull moment. There are two separate, and very different stories, but it is almost thirty minutes into the film before either really begin. The opening sequence shows Percival (Andre Benjamin ), a piano player at a speak easy called The Church so timid that he fails to rise to an opportune moment when one of the acts fails to show up and the impatient audience breaks out into a floor fight. Rooster (Antwan A. Patton), a petty bootlegger, shows up just in time to save the night with his singing-dancing act. Also a newcomer shows up, to the envy of the chorus girls and other singers.

Rooster and Percival, childhood friends, seem destined to follow their fathers’ footsteps, Rooster as a bootlegger, and Percival as a mortician. At night the two exercise their musical talents, with the outgoing Rooster always taking center stage, and Percival, because of his shyness, usually being overlooked or under-rated by the audience. However when a sultry singer from St. Louis strides in billing herself as Angel (Paula Patton), Percival begins to emerge from the shadows when she is impressed by his talent. She also harbors a secret that almost prevents her from singing at her first engagement, but thanks to the encouragement, and a song written by him, she scores a huge success with the audience. Soon the two are taking more than a professional interest in each other, this despite mortician Percy, Sr’s. (Ben Vereen) harsh disapproval.

Rooster’s fortunes takes a dramatic turn when Sunshine Ace (Faizon Love), owner of the Church, meets with Spats (Ving Rhames), controller of most of the illegal hooch, and his assistant Trumpy (Terrence Howard) to discuss a deal in which Spats would sell out his bootleg business to Ace. Their business negotiation is caught short when the long resentful Trumpy guns down the pair. Rooster, unseen by Trumpy, witnesses the killing, having been engaged in sex with one of the singer-dancers in Percival’s hearse parked right outside the club. Rooster inherits the Church, and Trumpy puts the squeeze on him, demanding that he pay the large sum of money that the dead Ace owed Spats, and also that he buy his liquor only from himself at double the old rate. Rooster will have quite a struggle extricating himself from this quagmire, but along the way he will encounter what could be some divine help, including a Bible given him by a grandmother whom he helps while he is fleeing from Trumpy and his minions.

Andre 3000 and Big Boi, aka Andre Benjamin and Antwan A. Patton, follow in the train of a large number of rappers who have made good on the big screen. Much has been written about the disparity between the two long-time friends and their almost break-up in their musical careers—reflected in this film by their separate story lines and their appearing in the same scenes together so briefly—so we can only hope that they and their director Bryan Barber will be able to continue to work together. If so, judging by this film, we will be in for some real treats when they return to the big screen.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) Idlewild is apparently one of those all African American towns that grew up in parts of the South following the Civil War. What functions does the Church serve, other than drinking and carousing? Although there is irony in its name, how in some ways is it similar to a church? Do you believe that the music in a speakeasy also can become a “joyful noise unto the Lord”?

2) What seem to be the life paths that Rooster and Percival have embarked upon?

3) How are Percival and Angel good for one another, that is, what does each provide the other so necessary for their success?

4) What does the fantasy elements add—the talking whiskey flask and the dancing musical notes? The sudden appearance of the needy Grandmother and the children during Rooster’s flight? Is this divine intervention? How does the Bible gift save him, though perhaps not in the traditional way taught by the church?

5) How does the tragedy at the Church propel Rooster toward redemption and Percival toward escape from his father’s domination and the freedom to develop his talent?