Culture Rover

#51 - Ms. Dynamite!

Isn't the real story of Napoleon Dynamite that black people and black culture can save white people in the boonies? The secret hero of the film is LaFawnduh, Rip Dynamite's African-American internet chat room girlfriend, who arrives in rural Idaho bringing cool and hope to the Dynamite family.

Napoleon Dynamite is a strange film, emotionally blank and hyper-stylized. But, at its best, the movie captures something of the shocking incongruity and awkwardness of adolescence. At its worst, Napoleon Dynamite becomes a random music-video assortment of images and sounds (it was produced by MTV Films, after all).

A minor, rather unbelievable character, LaFawnduh proves to be a major figure in the turn of the film toward its denouement. She transforms older brother Rip from sad, lonely geek to happy, rapping geek-in-love; and, she passes along a mix tape of "urban" dance music that Napoleon winds up using to shed his loser identity (he also utilizes a video tape about black dance styles that he finds abandoned on the shelves of the local Salvation Army store).

It's all rather clumsy, and, of course, problematic in its portrayal of blackness. But there's something moving about the film's use of race too. In addition to the problems, Napoleon Dynamite hints at the cultural possibilities across lines of race, class, region, and sensibility. There's love in the way the Dynamites relate to LaFawnduh as well as theft. And, for LaFawnduh, as unbelievable and silly a character as she is, there's a dignified, regal notion that, as Dizzy Gillespie once put it, "you can't steal a gift."

9 February 2005

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