HI MOM, 1970
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jennifer Salt, Bruce Price, Ricky Parker, Lara Parker, Charles Durning
Vietnam vet John Rubin returns to New York and rents a rundown flat in Greenwhich Village. It is in this flat that he begins to film, 'Peeping Tom' style, the people in the apartment across the street. His obsession with making films leads him to fall in with a radical 'Black Power' group, which in turn leads him to carry out a bizarre act of urban terrorism!
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One of De Niroís earliest films and certainly one of his strangest, if not, the strangest out of the wide array of films this renowned actor has paved for himself. Robert reprises his role Jon Rubin from Greetings, now in his own film that follows the former vet as he tries to assimilate back into society, no longer the mentally stable person he was prior to going off to war.
Jon has an interest in making movies. However his methods are more than questionable, theyíre bizarre and intrusive. From his apartment window, he watches and films people getting undressed or having sex. He tries to sell the footage, but these are movies with no real stories, just a bunch of images of naked women who are unaware their being filmed.
A theater group of African American actors interview a group of white on the streets, asking them simple questions about if they know what it is like to be black in America. Later the white audience is brought inside where they take part, somewhat unwillingly, in wearing shoe polish on their faces, a reference to an old trick used in old Hollywood for white actors to look black. While the African American actors sport whiteface and terrorize the people in blackface.
Frightened, the white group members then try to escape but are ambushed in the elevator by the troupe. As two of the black actors rape one of the white audience members, Robert De Niro arrives as an actor playing an NYPD policeman, arresting members of the white audience under the pretense that they are black. Itís without a doubt a controversial sequence but it is engaging to watch.
The sequence, although shocking, is meant to question your understanding of racism, stereotypes and prejudice. Itís an intense at time uncomfortable to watch as the actors to a great job conveying their horror as they take part in something theyíre not entirely sure about performing. Even after the performance, when the white group discovers it was simply an act by the Black Power group, they suddenly laugh it off and talk about what they learned about being black, while most of them continue to wear the black paint.
Thereís certainly black humor here that at times you guilty about laughing at. The name of the sequence is Be Black, Baby. It remains one of the most challenging and intriguing sequences from its era, and its use of an audience's willingness to become emotional accomplices sheds light on De Palma's subsequent career. While Hi Mom may not be a great and one thatís a little hard to watch, the Be Black Baby is the reason to check it out.