In retrospect, it’s amazing that the “Be Black, Baby” segment of Brian DePalma’s 1970 film Hi, Mom anticipated the extreme Halloween haunt phenomenon by four decades. Hollywood Gothique had long hoped that some enterprising haunter would learn a lesson or two from this film, in order to craft a more interactive and dramatic haunt experience; we were ecstatic when Delusion: A Haunted Play transformed the haunted house experience into a piece of narrative storytelling, but some haunts have gone a step further, creating something even closer to “Be Black, Baby” than we anticipated.
If you’re unfamiliar with the film, it’s a sequel to DePalma’s earlier Greetings, with Robert DeNiro reprising his role as Jon Rubin, now a Vietnam veteran living in New York and trying to make a career in “Peep Art” (i.e., voyeuristic porn shot cinema verite style). One element running through the episodic film is a television documentary on the black experience in America, which climaxes with “Be Black, Baby” a play intended to convey to white audiences what it is like to be a black person.
You can see what happens in the attached video (Part 2 is posted separately at the link). The white audience is first given some preparation for the play (their faces are painted black and they are forced to eat watermelon). Then on an elevator ride, purportedly up to the theatre, the car stalls; lights flicker; and violence erupts. Eventually, we in the real-life film audience realize (before the on-screen theatre audience) that what’s happening is the play: an in-your-face piece of interactive theatre that borders on sexual abuse.
When I saw Hi, Mom back in the 1970s, the finale of the “Be Black, Baby” segment (with the audience members gushing enthusiastically about much they enjoyed being abused) was greeted with derisive laughter from my fellow film-goers; it looked like an unbelievably over-the-top piece of surreal satire (in keeping with the overall tone of the film, in which Rubin’s turn toward revolutionary terrorism is treated as a joke). Decades later, judging from audience enthusiasm for extreme and interactive Haunts haunts that have appeared in Los Angeles the past few years, the reaction of the “Be Black, Baby” audience seems completely realistic.