“All the world is a stage. We have our roles to play. All the men and women merely players. They all have their specific entrances and exits.” –Percival Jenkins (Andre Benjamin)

Andre Benjamin/Andre 3000 and Antwan Patton/Big Boi, the duo known as Outkast to hip hop fans (and creators of the seminal The Love Below/Speakerboxxx CD) star in the movie, Idlewild. I probably went into Idlewild with expectations that the movie couldn’t live up to. The commercials and previews seemed to promise a throwback musical filled with energetic dance sequences, sort of like a hip hop Moulin Rouge. Heck, even a movie that played like an extended Outkast video would have made me happy.

Part of my expectations began with the title itself. Idlewild was a historic landmark city … in Michigan. It was a haven of black entertainment during the era of segregation, where legendary black performers played before black audiences. It wasn’t the stepping stone to a greater market, it was a destination unto itself. The location was probably switched to Georgia because of Outkast’s ties to the state.

“God don’t make no mistakes.” —Percival

Like The Love Below/Speakerboxxx, Andre and Antwan spend most of the movie doing their own thing and pursuing their own stories and rarely come together on screen. The two come from different sides of the tracks, yet are united by music.

Percival Jenkins follows in his father’s footsteps, putting aside his dreams to be a musician in favor of a career as a mortician. Rather than study dead bodies all day, he can’t help but lived inside himself, having a sort of “Secret Life of Negro Mitty”-type of imagination. Andre seems more interested in singing than rapping these days anyway, every bit as eccentric as the character he portrays. Rooster (Antwan Patton) grew up among high rollers with fast money and faster women, admiring gangsters since they represent freedom outside the law, the so-called high life. The fact that their life typically happens to end in violence or imprisonment more times than not doesn’t seem to factor into things.

“You need the Spirit in your life.” –Zora (Malinda Williams)

Like us, both men were looking for their role to play – following the life you were born into vs. following the life you were meant to lead: funeral home director or musician; gangster linked musician or family man. Both need something outside and larger than themselves to touch and reach their souls.

The unforgiven or the unwilling, live a life of sinning
And expect to be as pure as an infant in the beginning but …
What about repenting/what about detention?
What about you eating dinner in the devil’s kitchen?
What about repenting/what about committing the same sin over again and again?

Sometimes life can keep you down
With your face all in the dirt
now if you feel that left behind
You need to get up and go to church
–“Church” (Big Boi)

Rooster inherits the Prohibition era night club, the Syncopated Church, and has to overcome his own worst nature, from drunken dalliances with showgirls to his love of money that entangles him with gangsta “businessmen”. Church, however, also allows Percival the opportunity to hone his craft and pursue his true calling – as well as provide the excuse for musical numbers meant to dazzle us with their style. The performances and vision of the director, again, promise much, and when allowed to shine, deliver. The movie, however, gets bogged down with the gravitas of the often cumbersome “plot”. Between pursuing their dreams/life callings, dodging the machinations of the sleazy underworld, and squeezing in room for romance, the movie barely has room for the music.

My friend Rod Garvin breaks it down this way: Christ spent a lot of time in the company of the blues artists of His day and some added a few gospel tracks to their album as result. The question is can we party in “Idlewild” without losing our souls? There are some places that are just too idle and too wild and we may have to avoid them all together. Oftentimes the problem is the weakness of our own flesh (I can bear witness to that). Whether we’re singing the blues, gospel or both, we all need a greater serving of salvation. Idlewild shows us that the path of redemption begins wherever we are, but in order to fully experience it, at some point we have to leave Egypt behind.

“You’re the angel that God told me to wait for.” –Mother Hopkins (Cicely Tyson)

A mix of past and present, Idlewild and Outkast, Idlewild is directed with a certain whimsy, stopping shy of attaining a sense of magic (more quirky than magic). The dreamy quality of the movie blends nicely with joy and energy that the music and dance injects – with not enough of either.

Idlewild is not the movie we were promised, though a star-studded affair to be sure: Ving Rhames, Macy Gray, Tisha Campbell, Patti LaBelle, Cicely Tyson, Bill Nunn, Terrance Howard. Though, for childhood friends, Andre and Antwan sure don’t share much screen time, which disappoints. The movie was an enjoyable period piece, in fact, just not quite something like The Cotton Club and more like an Outkast video that runs a little too long. It’s a slice of African American pop culture … maybe I just hate overcoming expectations when I’m trying to enjoy a movie.

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