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Act Da Fool: Strange Fruit Meet High Fashion

I have just finished watching, for the umpteenth time, the short film Act Da Fool, by critically acclaimed independent filmmaker Harmony Korine. With each viewing, I am more flabbergasted.  

Set in a Nashville housing project, as well as a school for the blind—and “a school for kleptomaniacs”—the film is apparently the centerpiece for Proenza Schouler’s Fall 2010 clothing line, introduced last week to coincide with Fashion Week in New York City.  

The short opens with some Proenza Schouler pieces hanging from the limbs of southern trees, bringing to mind the “Strange Fruit” of which Billie Holiday sang.  

With a debris-strewn, filthy backdrop, five beautiful African American teenage girls, rocking outfits that likely cost more than they were paid, provide a voyeur’s window into their pitiable existence. “It just had to be that way,” insists Korine, when asked about the setting.

“We are a gang of fools. We can act like wild animals,” the young narrator tells us.  

Throughout, the young girls are swigging 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, in one scene standing on a railroad track. One girl spray-paints “COKE” onto the trash dumpster, while the narrator theorizes that the earth is a “ball of s—… and everyone is gonna die sooner or later,” which explains why she “loves cigarettes sooo much.”

Near the beginning, in a dimly-lit, creepy scene, she is seated beside her “father.” “I used to call my dad Saint Nick,” she shares, “cause he fat as hell and he always walking around with a red hat on.” I guess this is supposed to explain the fact that the man, clad in a dingy “wife-beater” shirt—and inexplicably swinging a loaf of bread like a pendulum—is wearing a Santa hat.

“It’s us against the world,” explains the childish narrator, against the scene of the girls in a wig shop, holding and surrounded by wig heads with European hair.

I could go on and on, with a frame-by-frame analysis, but I think you get the picture.  

When asked about Act Da Fool, Korine seems proud of his disgraceful production, which he characterizes as a “religious movie,” his “version of ‘The Ten Commandments.’”

“The patterns and paint drips on their clothes spoke to me,” he explains. And what, you must wonder, did Proenza Schouler’s garments say to Korine?  

“It said ‘go f— up the world, burn s—, blow it up, eat mud, snort glue, drink a lot of malt liquor and eat fried chicken, watch some strippers throw down the booty and find god.’”

Really? Seriously? 

And what better way to convey this foolishness than with young Black girls, right?  

Korine explains the science of his casting process as follows. “I just asked around. I wanted to know who the greatest living delinquents were. These girls appeared.”

Wow. At this point, you have to wonder if Korine has been sniffing some of that glue and slamming down forties, like the Proenza Schouler clothes apparently demand.”

And what does the House of Proenza Schouler have to say about Act Da Fool? In a word, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, the design team behind the label, are “psyched,” as they’re really excited about showing a more comprehensive perspective of the collection.

They believe that “he [Korine] is trying to find the beauty in what society has refused. It’s really kind of inspiring, actually really positive,” proclaims Hernandez.

According to the designers, their new line conjures up images of “school, youth, [and] schoolyards.” Hence the choice of young girls, clothed in uniform-like garb, I suppose.

“The girls are searching for some sort of happiness. They’ve been beaten down, disenfranchised … yet they still find something to believe in: the stars, friendship, and themselves,” explains Hernandez. “At first glance, it could come across as dark and depressing, but there’s really, like, an optimistic message there,” concludes McCollough.

Optimistic? This is nothing less than naked exploitation at its worst, modern-day minstrelsy. But what more should we expect from Korine, who has, in a previous work, The Diary of Anne Frank Part II, featured a man in black-face?

In the article, “In time for Fashion Week: The Debasing, Exploitation of Young Black Girls,” Sharon D. Toomer pretty much summarizes my thinking on the manner. “This advertisement masked as a short film for a fashion line was commissioned and created by White men with no visible understanding of the real conditions in communities of abject poverty, and it has effectively turned a crisis facing Black girls into an opportunity to further degrade, demean and humiliate this vulnerable segment of America.”

Toomer suggests that people of color—and all people of conscience—contact the many high-end department stores that carry the Proenza Schouler line and remind them of the $26.9 billion that Black shoppers spend annually “and that 85 percent of the brand purchasing decision by Black consumers are made by Black women.”  

“Certainly,” continues Toomer, the retailers “are responsible stewards of their brand and will not take lightly the association with any designer or entity that debases underage girls. We imagine it is the same kind of guilt by association stewards of the brand Gillette had to think through before dropping golf legend Tiger Woods as a product endorser for his treatment of women earlier this year.”

Proenza Schouler fashions are featured in Barney’s, Neiman Marcus, Bergdoff Goodman, Nordstrom, and they also have a Target line.

Finally, I would hope that the many organizations that exist to protect the rights of African Americans, women and children—like the NAACP, the National Action Network, the National Organization of Women, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Children’s Defense Fund, not to mention the organizations of the Pan-Hellenic Council—will weigh in on this outrageous marketing scheme.

 Enough is enough.


Dr. Pamela Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic and associate professor of English composition & Africana literature at Virginia State University.

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