No ethics professor could invent a thornier conundrum than that posed by recent legal actions against the controversial rap group the 2 Live Crew. There are so many sides to this issue — questions of free speech, misogyny, artistry, racism, commerce, and banality — that most thoughtful people don’t know quite where to stand.
Leaping enthusiastically into the debate, Luther Campbell and his bandmates have produced an up-to-the-minute video self-portrait, directed with styleless efficiency by filmmaker Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization). Combining video clips (two too lewd for broadcast) and unexpurgated live performances with news footage, interviews, TV appearances, and assorted comments by interested parties, Banned in the U.S.A. thoroughly confuses the band with the issues its existence raises. By focusing on the indefensible attempts to censor the group, Spheeris neglects the basic question of the 2 Live Crew’s creative merit. Whatever value this mix of news, views, and music has as an informational document, the Crew’s crude pandering and second-rate rapping remain on the far side of entertainment.
Judging by the ample concert footage — which has all the erotic appeal of a spitting contest — the band’s sophomoric onstage patter is ugly and demeaning but hardly a threat to public safety. Far more frightening is the audience’s enthusiastic response to such base stimulation. The tape’s most disturbing segment chronicles a show in Dallas, where the group’s refusal to perform (after a financial quarrel with the venue’s management) and the club’s unwillingness to refund tickets results in a violent chair-smashing melee. With typical pop-star callousness, the Crew shrugs off responsibility for the interracial crowd’s treatment and behavior. Lofty moral issues may be on the boil, but the smell of money hangs in the air. C