Hi, Mom! and the masochism of the white liberal
By Thomas M. Sipos
Some films have universal themes. Others are too topical, becoming irrelevant to newer audiences as the decades pass by. Then there are those films which were topical when released, became irrelevant, but appear fresh once again as current events reignite old issues.
Hi, Mom! (1970) satirized the leftist radicals and their white liberal enablers of the late 1960s. But its observations will seem surprisingly on point even to those only familiar with this past decade's new wave of wokeness.
Brian De Palma directed Hi, Mom!, having co-written it with Charles Hirsch. Neither men are Martin Scorsese or Paul Schrader. That's noteworthy, because some have commented that Hi, Mom! can be seen as an unofficial prequel to Taxi Driver (1976).
Both films star Robert De Niro as a recently returned Vietnam vet living in New York City. De Niro's character has a different name in each film, but Jon Rubin (his name in Hi, Mom!) is a mentally unstable con man. He might be lying about his name and/or his veteran status. It's certainly conceivable that over the next six years, the clean-cut Rubin will degenerate into the grungy Travis Bickle.
Hi, Mom! is an episodic film with three core storylines. There's Rubin's early attempts at breaking into the porn industry. (Bickle is also porn obsessed.) There's his attempts to woe the nice but sexually starved Judy Bishop (Jennifer Salt), mostly to gain access to her apartment. In this, Rubin proves to be a consummate liar and master manipulator. (As is Bickle.) But the funniest segment is when Rubin joins the cast of a radical theater company. (Bickle also dreams of Hollywood style fame.)
Their play is called Be Black, Baby. It's an avant-garde interactive play, where the audience becomes part of the play. Some call this style "living theater." The cast is composed of black radicals, and one white radical who likely sees himself as "a brother." The audience is a handful of affluent white liberals who want to virtue signal their politics without suffering any discomfort.
Alas, the whole point of Be Black, Baby is to discomfort whites. The play, which is performed mostly in the dark stairwells of a dilapidated, abandoned building, is a progression of white humiliation. The cast offers soul food to the audience on paper plates. "If you want to be black, you have to eat black." An older Jewish gentleman politely demurs eating pig's feet (not kosher), but the cast insists, pressing the plate at him. "You want to be black, don't you?"
Of course he does. He nibbles at the pig's feet, nodding his approval.
Then the cast paints the white audience in blackface. A prissy blond woman pleads that she has enough, no more. But the cast continues applying makeup, so she will "be nice and black."
And then things take a turn for the worse and get very ugly. I don't want to spoil the surprises, but just know there are several. The ending to Be Black, Baby is perhaps the funniest satire of the white liberal mindset that I've even seen. The black cast's reaction to their audience of white victims is also priceless.
Although Hi, Mom!'s political insights are as relevant today as in 1970, it also remains a time capsule of its era. One of the film's pleasures is revisiting the gritty Manhattan streets of that time, before Mayor Giuliani cleaned up things in the 1990s and the Disney Store replaced Time Square's porn shops.
On second thought, you don't need to see Hi, Mom! for that. If you want to know what New York looked like in the 1970s, you can visit the city today. Not only its politics, but its urban decay, has made a vibrant comeback.
Hi, Mom! is available for free on YouTube. If its storytelling seems slow and unfocused at first, give it time. You don't want to miss Be Black, Baby.
Thomas M. Sipos writes satirical novels and film criticism. His website is CommunistVampires.com.