On BAPS, Black Femme Entrepreneurship & Hypersexuality
We all know the stereotype of the ghetto black woman. She’s loud, ignorant, dull and wears bright colors and hairdos. Her nails are long, her tongue is sharp. Her antics are pure buffoonery, often for the benefit of another character. Her sass is a weapon, dulled only by an ever-present authority. First, she’s sour but then she’s sweet. Her sex appeal is the sweetener, often used to make her palatable. She’s someone’s girlfriend, sister or baby momma. A caretaker. It is rare to find a movie where a black woman is just allowed to be. A film in which she is not managed, made palatable or crushed by socioeconomics.
Enter Robert Townsend’s B*A*P*S (1997), a campy comedy about two best friends from Decatur, Georgia, who visit Hollywood in the hopes of landing a starring role in a music video. Mickey and Nisi, portrayed by Natalie Desselle and Academy Award winner Halle Berry, play the roles with pathos and humor. Between the (then) cutting-edge slang like “phat” and ratchet outfits that are copied every Halloween, it's a cult classic.
B*A*P*S begins with a shot of the exterior of Johnson’s Soul Food Heaven (which boasts the “Best Pig Feet in Georgia”), as a DJ, Dr. D, announces via voiceover that he expects his listeners at his club, The Gold Tooth, on Saturday. When we first see Nisi (Halle Berry), she’s sporting a blinged-out grille, a blonde beehive, talon-like acrylics and big hoop earrings. She’s a waitress at Johnson’s, and handling a cranky customer. Her best friend, Mickey, the grill cook, calms Nisi down as she heads behind the counter with a rejected, sent-back meal, “Girl, don’t pay him no mind. He think he Dolemite.”
As an immediate rebuttal to the caretaker/perpetually patient “mammy” stereotype, we see in close-up Nisi scraping the burnt surface of the toast, re-plating it, and giving the meal back to Nate, the customer who had complained about it. As she walks away, MTV VJ Idalis drops in on Dr. D’s radio show to announce that Heavy D is looking for women to dance in his new video. The catch—auditions are in LA. But the prize—not just a role in the video, but $10,000—is enough to get Nisi’s attention. Unfortunately, her boss catches her listening to the radio announcement instead of taking orders and docks $10 off her paycheck, and then rattles some condescending platitudes at her.
After their shift, Nisi and Mickey walk home from the diner, and complain about being “stood […] up again.” But Nisi has other things on her mind:
Nisi: “I ain’t got nothin’ to lose.”
Mickey: “What you mean you ain’t got nothin’ to lose? You talking about using all the money we have to go to some audition in California. Nisi, you ain’t even a dancer.”
Nisi: “Now, if I get this job, Mick, we’re going to have more than enough money for the salon and the restaurant.”
Mickey: “You ain’t using our life savings to go to California on some maybe mission. Your life is right here.”
Nisi and Mickey’s boyfriends eventually show up, but Nisi’s had it. They tell her about their latest scheme (a “luxury cab company”) and she tells them off.
Back in their apartment, Nisi does Mickey’s hair, while on MTV, Idalis gives more details about the Heavy D auditions.
Nisi takes it to be a “sign from God” and persuades Mickey to go to LA. But…before they do, they have one last night out in Decatur at The Gold Tooth. Mickey uses her charm to get free drinks, while two young men hit on and compliment the women.
When it comes time to pay the bill, however, the boys come up short. It’s clear that Nisi and Mickey want and need to expand their playing field. When the women attempt to walk away, the players get aggressive. Nisi’s boyfriend Ali (Pierre Edwards) pulls a “Captain Save-a-Ho” act and punches the guy that grabbed Nisi. When Nisi, Mickey, Ali and his friend return to the bar to order drinks, the situation plays out exactly the same way it did earlier. The men can’t pay. It’s definitely time for the women to get out of Decatur.
After dealing with Ali’s bullshit one final time, Nisi and Mickey fly to LA. On the plane, they read up on Beverly Hills and manners, their hair done up like the princesses they are, or rather, the princesses they aspire to be. As Nisi says, “if I’m going to do good at that audition, we’ve gotta look like stars.” With Nisi’s talent, creativity, ambition, and drive, nothing can hold her back…until Mickey points out some class and socio-economic factors that might set the two women apart from their new environment. As always, Nisi has a quick comeback. It’s clear that she’s an intelligent, strong woman who can adapt to anything life (or Beverly Hills) throws at her.
In their journey to stardom, financial self-sufficiency and black female entrepreneurship, Mickey and Nisi persevere. B*A*P*S celebrates the tenacity, caring, bravado and strength of black women while also highlighting black culture. Not only do we see touching moments like Nisi’s kitchen beauty shop, but we learn of Nisi’s dreams of business ownership, of her desire for better, not just for herself, but for her best friend. This is enhanced by the fact that the women are treated politely by each celebrity they encounter throughout the movie.
Mickey and Nisi fawn over black male celebrities and are treated with grace and respect along the way. The men who don’t treat them well, who call them names like “skeezer” and “heffer” are left beaten and discarded. Even the title, B*A*P*S which stands for “Black American Princesses” denotes the royalty of their looks, grace and personality.
And to be honest, it’s very fun to watch a young Halle Berry geek out over these “famous” men. You know, hindsight and whatnot. Today, most people would be hard pressed to know who any of the celebrities are today outside of LL Cool J or Dennis Rodman, but the ladies’ reactions to them will let you know. The physical comedy in these scenes is where the movie really shines.
But by far, my favorite part of B*A*P*S is the lack of hypersexualization. Every plotpoint is devoid of sexual cunning or seductive scheming by the female leads. Many parts of the screenplay could have easily included sex, but it doesn’t happen (thanks to screenwriter and on-screen lawyer Troy Beyer). Heavy D’s MTV rap video contest could have easily been a twerking contest, but it wasn't. The line was filled with classic dancers with socially normal bodies & looks. This didn’t phase Nisi or Mickey, who were ready to body the competition.
While the two women don’t make the cut for the video, they land in greener pastures, a mansion, to be exact, as a young chauffeur, Antonio (Luigi Amodeo) picks them up and takes them to the estate of his boss, Mr. Donald Blakemore (Martin Landau), a wealthy, but very lonely, elderly resident of Beverly Hills. Nisi’s character could have been made to seduce the old man for money, but instead, she is asked by Blakemore’s nephew Isaac (Jonathan Fried) to play the part of the granddaughter of an old lover, Lily. Mickey could have cuddled up post-coitus with Antonio, but instead she rebuffs his advances, informing him she’s waiting until she gets married to have sex. And in each celebrity encounter, they are not insulted or propositioned for sex. They are treated with dignity and respect.
Throughout the film, Mickey and Nisi are oblivious to all attempts to dull their shine. Strangers are often polite and respectful when in real life, they wouldn’t be. They refuse to acknowledge microaggressions, swatting them away with catty retorts. On the rare occasion they are outright verbally abused, the perpetrator is met with a fist. B*A*P*S, like many other comedies, is a utopia that just happens to work out perfectly for its protagonists. The stars here happen to be Black American Princesses. They gain the respect of those around them just by being themselves.
If you think about any movie featuring a black woman, she’s either a vixen, or a matron, or a cross in-between. Rarely do we get a depiction of a young black woman who has her own vision outside the needs of the men in her life. It is rare to find a film where a black woman is just allowed to be. She is not managed or made palatable; crushed by socioeconomics. In B*A*P*S, Townsend allows his female leads to thrive and succeed beyond their wildest dreams, and in doing so, allows young black women to escape reality in way few other movies can provide.