In reassessing the cultural and political consciousness of Cundieff’s art, we may be tempted to rename the film’ Tales of the Undead’ because of the narrative intimacy Cundieff uses to reclaim the past — a past that is haunted, as Toni Morrison states elsewhere, by “signs, visitations, and ways of knowing that [encompass] more than concrete reality” (McKay 1983, 414).
The overall approach of Tales reflects this twining of life in the here and hereafter, stressing, in particular, the spiritual and psychic wrangling of spirits who have died unceremoniously and remain restless. Their unsettling appearances throughout the film — some appear as dead men walking the streets of Los Angeles after an unjustifiably brutal murder by corrupt police officers; others manifest themselves as little dolls whose souls have been spirited into archaeological figures painted in a mural at a former plantation — point up Cundieff’s parodic riffing of ancestral reckoning and spiritual retribution.
Cundieff’s film directs attention to a long line of cultural narratives that have considered the impact of death on the African American community. From the imposing photo texts of the deceased by photographer James Van Der Zee to the conjure stories of reincarnation by writer Charles Chesnutt, African American artists have measured the continuous cycle of life, charting with painstaking acuity the imaginative ingenuity African Americans have used to preserve themselves, their families, and their human dignity in the face of overwhelming odds.
Still, the didactic nature of these narratives stresses the iniquitous follies of those in the African American community who, like the flying Africans, lose their wings “owing to their many transgressions…” (All God’s Chillen 2004, 132). Their inability to “find their way back” to a cultural or spiritual centre shapes the tenor of many of the conjurer or trickster stories intended to prick the consciousness of their listeners.
The structure of Tales encourages this interpretation. Through a series of interfacing vignettes and subplots, the film conveys the conundrum of a group of young gang members whose insatiable appetite for a missing drug shipment leads them to the premises of Mr Simms (Clarence Williams III), an eccentric mortician. Simms’s role in the film is evident from the beginning: he is the trickster, the storyteller whose connection with the dead gives him omniscient power. While the three hold a gun to Simms’s head, he weaves his moral tales of revenge and reprisal, using the enchanted objects and twisted corpses in his mortuary.
There is the body of a rookie police officer, Clarence Smith (Anthony Griffith), whose failure to intercede on behalf of Martin Ezekiel Moorehouse (Tom Wright), a promising African American civil-rights activist, results in the beating and death of Moorehouse, who is then framed as a heroin addict by three white police officers.
The sullying of Moorehouse’s name ensures that the press will taint his activist legacy. Yet, as this vignette makes clear, it is Clarence’s job to make sure history is rewritten. Clarence’s culpability in allowing Moorehouse’s death to go uninvestigated creates a mental and spiritual dilemma for him.
He descends into a personal hell — becoming an alcoholic and recluse. We are led to believe that Moorehouse’s ghost coerces Clarence into bringing the three officers to his grave. There, revenge is enacted, and the three officers die a brutal death. In the end, Clarence is seen strapped into a straitjacket in a ten-by-ten-foot cell. We are never told how he gets from the cell to the coffin. But the master narrative fills in this gap: more than likely, Clarence is executed because he is charged with the death of the three officers.
Simms’s next tale revolves around the twisted corpse of a professional domestic batterer, Carl (David Alan Grier), whose soft-spoken and calm exterior (he obsessively wears a shirt and tie) masks the grotesque monster within. Carl’s constant abuse is obvious on the body of Walter (Brandon Hammond), the son of the woman Carl is dating. Despite the pleas of his teacher and the school nurse, Walter cannot find words to express the brutality he witnesses each night. Subsequently, Carl’s comeuppance comes at the hands of this fragile young boy, whose enchanted childhood drawings give him the power to destroy the monster who beats him and his mom nightly.
The third tale centres on an enchanted object, a wooden doll. As Simms explains, this doll once held the soul of a slave who was massacred at a plantation by a master who did not want to free his slaves after the Civil War. He, along with hundreds of other men, women, and children, was lynched and burned. Their restless spirits were then housed in wooden dolls made by dollmaker Miss Cobbs (who is also a conjurer).
A former Klansman turned politician, Duke Metger (Corbin Bernsen),2 moves into the house as a political stunt to garner votes. He even employs as his public-relations expert an up and coming young buppie named Rhodie (Roger Smith), who, as his name suggests, will go along with just about anything as long as the price is right. Rhodie dies in the house of his ancestors after tripping over one of the dolls that lies unseen at the top of the stairs. The ironic nature of his death, along with that of Metger (who is eaten alive by the dolls while draped in the American flag he tries to hide behind), serves as a reminder of the reprisal exacted from those who desecrate the memory of the ancestors.
Simms’s final anecdote leads the three young men to the coffin of a young man they know as Jerome (Lamont Bentley), aka Crazy K. Jerome’s life unfolds through a series of flashbacks that parallel his violent gang life with his days in prison and his inability to be rehabilitated through an experimental program run by Dr Cushing (Rosalind Cash). Through a visual montage that interweaves shots of historical violence against blacks with those depicting gang violence, Cushing hopes to persuade the hardened Crazy K into changing his evil ways. Her motherly wit, reminiscent of the African griots of the past, manipulates time and violence becomes the language reinvented and translated in the “chamber chair” of her makeshift laboratory. As her name suggests, Cushing attempts to mitigate the nefarious effects of poverty and nihilism on Crazy K’s psyche, but her hopes to negotiate a treaty between him and his hood prove futile. Even the ghostly apparitions of those Jerome has killed in the past (including a young girl of ten) do not move him.
This arrogance leads to his subsequent death at the hands of other gang members (the three who hold Simms hostage at his funeral home) who, likewise, lack the power of discernment. And in a marvellous twist that demonstrates the preeminence of karma and the intracultural power of the trickster, these three young men meet their own perverted fate at the hands of the demoniacally transformed Simms when the last three coffins in the basement of the mortuary contain mirror images of themselves.
The eerie appearance of Mr Simms masks the interrogative relationship between his character and role in the film. While Simms’s behaviour (i.e., character) seems based on the perceptions of an old “crazy” man who appears to have lost touch with his surroundings and his people, his role as an elder foreshadows the ingenuity he uses to outwit and condemn his captors.
As Elizabeth Ammons reminds us, the essence of tricksterism is “change, contradiction, adaptation, surprise” (Ammons and White-Parks 1994, xii). Simms’s eccentric and seemingly loony demeanour signals a return to the southern trickster, whose tales of revenge against obstinate slave masters peppered the plantation literature of the previous century. Simms’s character extends this paradigm, directing attention to the socioeconomic elements of deprivation and cynicism that enslave so many young black men in urban centres.