“……where my niggas at?!”
Joe, played by Rob Corddry on HBO’s newest weekly dramatic comedy, Ballers, stands at the masthead of a raucous house-party corporately sponsored by the sports agency that he and Spencer, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s character that partners with Joe, work for. As far as the eye can see before him is a large gathering of largely (and large) black professional athletes and a horde of scantily-clad, tight-dress wearing women. As he has the entire crowds brief attention, a staple cliche reaction immediately occurs upon his pronouncement to them all; the music stops and the faces drop. A cut-scene shifts to Joe being pendulum-ed between the four arms of two athletes, and on a hard count of three, he’s unceremoniously tossed into the mansion pool; his punishment for speaking out-of-turn.
The next morning (and next scene), finds Joe sprawled, fetal-like on the table of the expensive yacht that they’ve borrowed to impress the professional athletes that they spent the night prior wooing as potential clients. The set-shot establishes the expected aftermath of a party wrought with women, booze, music and drugs: there’s a litter of debris all around him to show that Things Got Out of Control.
The phone rings, and it’s the Rock on the other end, recounting Joe’s snafu with the crowd and caps it off with threatening (albeit in a manner that feels pretty toothless; 8 episodes in and Ballers has already established the black males characters as broken and neutered several times over): “…if you ever use the N-bomb again, I’ll kill you.”
The entire scenes above probably collectively accounted for about 3mins of the episode, but you’re left wondering how Joe, a white-middled aged man who has just drunkenly uttered the ultimate racial epithet to a weight- and height-class of dozens of wealthy, seemingly powerful black men, has not only emerged largely unscathed (aside from some perhaps still-drying wet clothes and presumably a wicked hangover) but also the combination of the crowd and the dunking hadn’t sobered him up enough that he either a) still felt comfortable to sleep soundly amongst the offended and angry tonnage of angry black men as the night raged on b) doesn’t even occur to him, or the Rock for that matter, to ever actually apologize.
Fittingly, Corddry, perhaps voices over the phone what a lot of people in the audience might feel considering a scene like this: “….you mean that was real?”.
Later, when the two partners are called into the agency’s CEO’s office to account for footage of the party that he discovered happened that night, we see a montage of smart-phone footage that captures a lot of Joe’s indiscretions that night representing the agency: drunkenly playing dice with the partygoers; “motor-boating” one of the (black) female partiers; loutishly flaunting boorish behavior in front of the crowd. Naturally, the CEO is incensed at this behavior–it could’ve cost the company, his reputation and the potential to snag millions in client deals and contacts–in one fell swoop. But you’ll be incensed too; for some reason, the party-wide pronouncement (made at the height of the party and on the heels of a semi-violent scene prior to it involving The Rock) doesn’t make the cut; an odd omission for the smartphone partiers and the show.
As an aside, the incident doesn’t even warrant an allusion in HBO’s official description of the episode; an almost inside-outside meta statement that seems to say, “….what’s the big deal?”, but left me uttering the same thing Corddry said on the phone, “….you mean that was real?”.
In a different type of weekly installment, a similar thing plays out in Camden, NJ. This one airs itself virtually every Friday, where at the stroke of “pre-game” the city’s downtown starts teeming with hordes of people. This influx of people are concert-goers, headed on a pilgrimage to the Camden Waterfront, one of the area’s premier concert venues. On these afternoons the entire area becomes teeming with a disproportionate number of 20-30s something whites, and, most notably, is the soundtrack that they choose as their pre-game and sometimes destination music: hip-hop.
It’s because of society’s allowance (and at times, persistence) to let hip-hop usurp rock and pop as the key ringtones of American life, that on these Friday’s you’ll see Corddry’s Ballers scene (and character) played out in copy, on loop: it is no leap to imagine that somewhere, on more than one occasion, amongst the throngs of crowded Rutgers, Camden Aquarium and School District parking lots, in-between the revelry of the upcoming show; the varied and multi-colored disguises for drinking liquor; the shirt-less boys tossing footballs and the almost-shirtless women; the drunken fistfights and arguments; as the black-bass of Khalifa, Kanye, Big Sean, Drake, Nicki (who about a week ago just did her regional stop at the Waterfront as part of the “Pinkprint Tour”; aptly named for a largely white crowd?) booms from the yawning mouths of open car doors, backseats and speaker pods, you’ll hear and see these people pantomiming to some lyrical variation of “…..where my niggas at?” and you, like me, like Corddry, like maybe (hopefully) even some fictional character in that Ballers scene party crowd will shake their head in disbelief and say, “…you mean that was real?”.
In true form though, Camden, like Ballers, has graduated into being a name/term heavily associated with ‘blackness’ or ‘black people’ and so, in both cases they both struggle with the ability to “go there”. With Camden, most of the region’s populace won’t find reason to literally go there due to its perilous relationship with crime and poverty (themselves their own way of soft-branding black people) without proper incentive. In HBO’s Ballers, the same inability to “go there” happens, too; while seemingly to engage in issues of race (tonally unavoidable on a heavily black-cast show), the show stops just short of entering, preferring to instead stay in the parking lot of its own creative choices, partying and leaving a trail of confusion, debris and messiness.
Like the CEO viewing the smart-phone footage though, these concert-gatherings, with their routinely drunken acts of poor judgment, vandalism, and occasional violence won’t quite make the “final cut” on what the public sees though, and so the wider moments, perhaps even the truer ones about these experiences, get left on the cutting room floor (or app?). In both instances, I’m sure if either Joe or Average Joe were truly asked about their word choices, they’d most likely guffaw at either the implicit or explicit approach around racism; because after all, if I’m only saying “nigga” (little “n” thereby connoting coolness, brotherhood, fun) vs “Nigger” (big “N” thereby meaning blatant discrimination, violence and intentional harm), what’s a little nigga between friends? After all, as in The Rock’s character exchange with Corddry’s Joe, the threat of “…next time” means that the gauntlet of acceptance has already been laid; if Spencer (The Rock) truly felt empowered and insulted enough to do something when Joe uttered those words, the consequences would’ve been dealt then.
Instead we’re left with the mess of the after-party, with The Rock, and Camden and points and experiences in-between left cleaning the mess. It’s a long, hard, sometimes lonely-feeling laborious process that you can’t blame some folks for looking down, around and up at the wreckage left behind, muttering:
“…..where my niggas at?”.