One of the great contributions of nineties popular culture has been the revival of the debate about selling out. What is selling out? Have I sold out? Why did so and so sell out? These questions were first asked by the underground hippie scene of the sixties and then faded away during the seventies and eighties. (Since most of the people asking the questions had sold out.) With the onslaught of the alternative and mainstream punk culture of the nineties, the questions arise again, being asked in popular music or magazines such as Rolling Stone or Maximum Rock and Roll.
However, most of the time these questions are asked about the semantics of selling out in white culture (cutting your hair, getting a suit and tie job.) Seldom does a voice appear on the mainstream horizon attempting to jump start that discussion for black culture. The movie Drop Squad (1994), a labor of love from director David Johnson and guided by executive producer Spike Lee, provides this voice.
The plot is straight faced, but absurdist. It centers around a group of vigilante Black militants called the Drop Squad, whose goal is to deprogram fellow African Americans whom they believe are hurting (or at least hindering) the rest of Black society. An assortment of their victims include a bribe taking City Councilman, a street corner drug hustler, a church Reverend bilking his flock and a Madison Ave. ad man (Eriq La Salle) who is creating ad campaigns that degrade and belittle Black culture (Including an advert featuring Drop Squad producer Spike Lee doing a hilarious send up of himself.) Like I said, the film is absurdist, at times seeming like a head on collision between Shaft and Richard E. Grantís performance piece How to Get Ahead in Advertising, but director Johnson is clearly sacrificing reality to make a point. Or more so, to ask questions, primarily by examining the life of Eriq LaSalleís upper middle class professional. How does one assimilate without forgetting where they came from? Should they assimilate? Can you be successful and not sell out?
Drop Squad doesnít purport to have the answers, indeed it would be pompous for Johnson to make that assertion. But it does stir the pot, and keep the debate from stagnating. And Drop Squad has the moral weight to point fingers at aspects of Black culture no white film would dare.
As a footnote, I should mention the instance in which I saw the film. UPN (arguably the real Black Entertainment Channel) runs a weekly feature show spotlighting Black films and Drop Squad was one of these features. Obviously this show is a prime spot to run television ads aimed at Black viewers. As such, after every fifteen minutes or so Drop Squad would be interrupted by some of the same sort of crass, Black-centric advertising the film was rallying against. (Indeed, one of Eriq LaSalleís alleged "crimes" in the film was marketing a brand of alcohol towards blacks, yet Heineken was the main sponsor of this particular presentation of Drop Squad.) This is not to say that all advertising aimed at African Americans is irresponsible, but certainly some of the ads I saw flicker across the television screen contained the same moral weightlessness of the fictitious ads featured in the film. The contrast between the film and its advertisers made Drop Squad all the more compelling and the viewing all the more absurd.