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Bebe's Kids
A rarity in animation, Bebe's Kids provides a range of black characters
Bebe's Kids
Hyperion Pictures
Directed by Bruce W. Smith
USA, 1992
Black culture as portrayed in the media has had a rough time of it over the decades. From the dawn of cinema and the decades thereafter, blacks were largely relegated to the role of obsequious servant, fierce or equally obsequious native, slave, or just one of the gang--the stupid one. There were notable exceptions, but they were few and far between.

With civil rights in the 1960s and extensive media attention on blacks, the situation reversed: in the incredibly clichéd blaxploitation movies of the 60s and 70s, and in just about any black-white buddy film from then until now, blacks were incredibly streetwise, painfully hip, notorious lady-killers, and the white protagonists became the chronically unhip, I-can't-dance foils.

The mid-80s saw a resurgence in black awareness. Blacks once again donned African (or African-style) clothing, and once again a name change came into effect: we became African-Americans or African-Canadians (unlike the passing of the word "Negro", however, "black" is still acceptable, which allows me to write this article without an ungodly number of hyphens.) With this came an increase in the number of black directors and black-created films. These usually came in one of two flavors: either Afrocentric comedies with largely insular jokes, or more serious films about the black condition. More often than not, at least one message of some kind is attached to the film.

With this in mind, my anxiety level for Bebe's Kids was twice what it normally is for a new release of an animated feature film. Under normal circumstances, I view new animated features with some caution since the animation boom is still tenuous, and every new release becomes a new data point with which to extrapolate the future of feature animation in North America. Bebe's Kids had two crosses to bear, for it to work; it had to succeed as a cartoon, and it also had to succeed as a black film.

Did it work? I'm still not quite sure.

As a cartoon, technically speaking, it wasn't too bad. The character designs were interesting; they had a fairly unique style, and I liked the squiggle that passed for a broader, flatter nose. Not all the black characters were painted the same color, which is nice--it's about time someone realized that some of us have a bit more pigment than others. Technically speaking, Bebe's Kids' only problem is that it was animated at several different studios around the world, and the animation quality varies wildly. There were times when I liked how they animated various characters' walks (no Fat Albert strut cycles here!), and others where I marvelled at the shoddiness of the work. Some pieces near the end were monstrously bad.

Storywise, the film has its good and bad points. In a nutshell, it can be described thusly: Robin (a cartoonified version of the late comedian Robin Harris) is at a funeral, where he meets Jameka, the departed's secretary. Taken by her lovely eyes and a body that could stop traffic, he immediately turns on the charm. She agrees to go on a date with him, if he'll take her and her somewhat introverted son Leon to the Funworld amusement park. Things take that slow turn for the worse when Jameka's unseen friend, Bebe, leaves her three kids with Jameka for the day. Not only are these kids getting in the way of Robin's plans for a nice date, but they're little monsters as well, their battle cry being "We don't die, we multiply!"

After the group gets to Funworld, the movie splits into two stories: how the Bebe's kids, in the process of having fun, drive everybody crazy and/or cause massive amounts of destruction, and how Robin and Jameka get to know each other better. Woven between these two ideas is Leon's struggle for acceptance as an "Oreo" among Bebe's streetwise offspring. Looking at it analytically, the constant flipping between the two main stories shouldn't have worked, but it didn't bother me at all while watching.

The film is not without its messages, which generally manage to keep from degenerating into typical heavy-handed cartoon preaching. Some topics which are covered include irresponsible single parenting, the stereotyping of streetwise black kids as dangerous hoodlums, or middle-class or non-streetwise black kids as somehow not being black enough, the sexist views which some black men still hold towards black women, and the artificiality of certain theme parks. Obviously, these run the gamut from the serious to the tongue in cheek.

However, it is at this point that I begin to run into problems with this film. The MPAA graced Bebe's Kids with a PG-13 rating, which is highly unusual for a cartoon without any outright sexual references. With this in mind, why are some of the film's sequences--particularly those involving certain messages--so obviously oriented towards children? I enjoyed the first half of the movie because the humor and situations were aimed squarely at a black audience at least in its teens, when out of nowhere we're presented with a dangerously saccharine scene with the kids deciding to have fun their own way. And the Abraham Lincoln quasi-Animatronic robot--well, I'd rather forget about it. The bit near the end where people we've never seen flee in terror, screaming, "It's Bebe's kids!"--pointless and distracting.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Bebe's Kids is that it is unapologetically black--unlike, say, the unrelentingly upper-middle class Cosby Show. The dialogue is often colored (pardon the expression) with the older, easygoing black English from the older folks, and the sassier hip-hop street slang from the younger characters. There are countless references to black popular culture, for both the old and young. Bebe's Kids does an admirable job of depicting several aspects of black life without preaching or apologizing.

Overall, I would recommend Bebe's Kids, not only because it was entertaining but because it shows that some studios are willing to expand the horizons of animated features in North America. In terms of content and style, this is a very different film from what we're used to. I'd like to see more films like this.

Originally appeared in fps #3 (September 1993)