us against the world


Proenza Schouler called up Harmony Korine to direct a film for their new ad campaign. Korine is best known for writing Kids (1995) and writing and directing Gummo (1997). He brings his usual surrealist and nihilistic aesthetic to Act Da Fool, a short shot in the Nashville projects, featuring a crew of black girls.

The film is shot beautifully. The juxtaposition of fashion and the detritus of the projects is provocative enough to make viewers think critically about consumerism, if we weren’t being encouraged to go out and buy Proenza Schouler’s hip gear. There are also parts of the voice-over narrative that I think adds brilliantly to the setting: “I believe that the earth is a big ball of shit. That’s why the dinosaur died out.” “Sometimes I can spend up to an hour staring at a bird in a tree. I wish I was that bird and could just fly away.” I couldn’t help but think of similar lines Richard Wright penned for the iconic Bigger Thomas who would stand and watch airplanes and dream of flight.

The narration supports scenes of the girls lingering near trash heaps and old tires and downing 40s. In one uncomfortable scene, the girls’s lips form a tight seal around the bottles and they drink the malt liquor like babies taking in milk. Korine is clearly trying to critique poverty, but what, if anything, does all of this have to do with fashion?

Or maybe it’s just that black poverty seems to be in fashion as of late. Echoing some of the responses to Lee Daniels’s controversial film Precious, critics are weighing the artistic merit of Korine’s short film against the exploitative nature of it. Sharon Toomer at BBN encourages readers to call retailers who sell PS and express their anger about the ad’s debasement of black girls. Geneva Thomas at Clutch reads the film very differently, describing it as “a deeply honest, strong and undisguised narrative about an underclass of obscured urban Black girls in America.” Nsenga Burton agrees with Toomer that the film is exploitation posing as art and argues that the girls are objects of a colonizing gaze. A spot-on critique by Minh-ha Pham over at Threadbared discusses the film as a kind of cultural tourism. The largely white fashion industry as well as PS’s target consumers (preppy and wealthy white girls) get to fetishize exotically classed and racialized “others” from a position of comfort and privilege.

I find the film both artistic and exploitative, problematic and provocative. My brows furrowed when the girl narrating the short says she and her friends are a “gang of fools” who can “act like wild animals.” To be sure, all kids kinda act like wild animals, but when the subjects of a cultural product are black, a line like that carries with it racist insinuations.

Also, in a fashion industry in which the underrepresentation of black women sparked a silent protest at the beginning of this year’s fashion week, it is important to think about when and where images of black women enter the fashion world’s imaginary. There are as few, or perhaps fewer, black women in powerful creative and editorial positions as there are on magazine covers and runways. Is there a connection between the aestheticization of black poverty in the Proenza Schouler ad and the lack of black influence in the fashion industry at large?

I’m not certain, but what I do know is that excess tends to draw attention to absence and Korine’s exaggerated displays of youth cultures highlight stuff we’d prefer to pretend doesn’t exist. Couple these displays with the promotion of a fashion collection, however, and we are forced to reckon with what exactly is being marketed and to whom.

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About jennifer williams

Jennifer D. Williams is a writer and professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies. She has published in academic journals and online at Ms.blog, PopMatters, among other sites. Jennifer is currently working on a book that looks at black women's urban literature between the Depression and the civil rights era.

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