Ain’t I a werewolf?

Pub date May 20, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

AFRO-SURREAL Stylistic rigor and as full an embrace of progressive technologies as budgets allow have made Underworld Trilogy (Sony Pictures DVD, $93.95) a pleasurable extension of epics from fang-face past. Yet perhaps the most significant aspect of Len Wiseman’s cycle about immortals warring for supremacy is an updated recognition of the post-1960s liberation strides of blacks and women in our society. It is reflected in the power and intellect of the first film’s heroine Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and her fellow vampiric rebels (like Robbie Gee’s tech-wizard Kahn) and lycan foes ("Razahir/Raze," played by Underworld concept engineer Kevin Grievoux). The last and best installment, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, is a virtual remix of my generation’s seminal televisual event, Roots. If that ain’t Afro-Surreal, then what is?

It was 30 years ago — not long after the historic airing of the adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots fundamentally changed public perceptions of America’s "peculiar institution" — that I moved to the Sahel and immediately became obsessed with Dogon lore about the Sirius star system and a family of deities including the trickster Pale Fox. Blood debates about antiquity and provenance continue to rage between disdainful classicists, denizens of the moribund field of Egyptology, and independent scholars of varying stripes devoted to Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987). My view supports linkages between the overlapping subcultures of the Dogon, Amazigh, "Egyptians," Zulu, and others, resulting in a kozmic fusion wherein the primordial werewolf (some would prefer jackal or werehyena) is a key deity from the dawn of civilization in the Motherland.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans finds the great Irish actor Michael Sheen’s "lycan" leader character Lucian subbing for Kunta Kinte. In the stark, nightmarish Eastern European fiefdom of vampire lord Viktor (Bill Nighy), the decadent, pale vampires are pampered aristocrats guarded and served by their dark, subhuman lycan slaves (hybrids of humans and wolves). Lucian changes from pet house nigger fettered by shackles of the flesh and mind — condescendingly deemed "a credit to his race" by Viktor — into an enlightened, empowered rebel leader who brings deliverance to lycan-kind by forging an alliance with despised animal spawn of William Corvinus in the wooded wilds.

Yet all is not Molotovs and roses — there are sadistic spectacles of whipping at the hands of cruel overseer Kosta, Nubian ally Razahir is forced to submit to lycanthropy, and Lucian suffers the ultimate price for miscegenation with Viktor’s daughter Sonja (the underrated Rhona Mitra). Rise of the Lycans may not be Blacula, but it is often a winking mash-up of Roots and the even more hardcore, honest Mandingo (1975). In a time when America has just elected its first (official) black president but open dialogues on slavery — and reparations for same — remain muted at best, it’s heartening to witness product straight out of Hollyweird somehow serving as an optic Trojan horse for the oft-forgotten and misrepresented radicalism of antebellum culture heroes like Nat Turner, Cinque, and the O.G. Black Moses herself, Harriet Tubman.

Rise of the Lycans has been roundly panned by fanboys and critics alike, which is hardly shocking considering America’s unwillingness to face the major episodes of its bloody past — the enslavement of Africans via the Triangular Trade, and the genocide of the First Nations. Yet to these eyes and ears, the film’s a first sign in the Age of Obama that a willingness to finally address the West’s hateful legacies can emanate from "low" culture, despite the will to bliss out in the opiated mass of post-racial utopia.