The Culture of 'Chocolate City'

The Culture of 'Chocolate City'

By Armond White


Male-stripper drama. You need more?

By Armond White

The phrase Chocolate City became part of popular lingo exactly 40 years ago, when George Clinton’s funk band Parliament released an album of the same name to celebrate the citizenry of Washington, D.C., achieving Black majority. That phrase now resonates in two events: nearby majority-Black Baltimore’s recent, too-familiar civil unrest and a new movie also titled Chocolate City, opening this week.

Look how that term Chocolate City has come to have double resonance — though not exactly celebratory —pertaining to both Black American political status and social image. On the streets of Baltimore, it signifies an ironic lack of political leverage and maybe even less on-screen.

The film is a male-stripper drama patterned after the 2012 box office hit Magic Mike (“Feel the Magic!” the Chocolate City trailer says, begging comparison). Its characters are Black dancers imitating the Magic Mike cast at an African-American strip club named Chocolate City. This is Jim Crow marketing (separate-but-equal sex exploitation), which is politically troubling in itself. But the problem goes deeper precisely because the Chocolate City title also rips off a pop-culture landmark: It’s a chip off the chocolate block of Parliament’s legendary 1975 R & B album, but the thrill is gone. As on the streets of Baltimore, only desperation is left.

The Detroit-based Clinton first imagined the Chocolate City theme to parallel the social realities of Black American life following the 1960s riots. He idealized a renewed sense of self-identity, self-appreciation and sustenance when changes in D.C.’s census were reflected in an increase of Black elected officials. Clinton’s audacious comic pride answered “white flight” to the suburbs that left many American cities to their unenfranchised Black denizens.

Always a creative, disarming wit, Clinton depicted this new taste of political empowerment with sassy, musical funk and via Parliament’s cover art — a chocolate medallion in the shape of an enlarged candy coin embossed with images of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Capitol building. These brown-toned landmarks specifically symbolized the demographic statistics by which D.C.’s population had become largely Black.

Clinton’s Chocolate City phrase was also idiomatically prescient; it anticipated the hip-hop-era term urban, the euphemism that stated an ethnic stereotype in a seemingly neutral manner. But such political correctness was no match for Parliament’s sweet-tooth ingenuity. Neither is sexual innuendo: The skin-trade movie Chocolate City limits African-American culture to narrow-minded assumptions about sexuality and commercial manipulation — a striptease that strips ethnic community pride down to the lowest common denominator.

Parliament’s title track, a classic example of what listeners enjoyed as P-Funk, featured a charming boast: 

You don’t need the bullet when you got the ballot / And when they come to march on you / Tell them to make sure they got their James Brown pass / And don’t be surprised if Ali is in the White House / And Reverend Ike, Secretary of the Treasure / Richard Pryor, Minister of Education / Stevie Wonder, Secretary of Fine Arts / And Miss Aretha Franklin, the First Lady / A chocolate city is no dream / It’s my piece of the rock.

That freestyle pre-rap riff went beyond the realities of the Obama White House to celebrate cultural richness and name-check achievement — not just power. Today, to call a Black burlesque film Chocolate City implies sexual prowess too single-mindedly, too blatantly.

Has the attainment of Obama-era political authority cost Black pop culture its sense of humor? Does the reality of fractious Baltimore signify a lack of Black pride that Clinton wouldn’t dare contemplate?

In the film, a young dancer is given a hasty, feckless stage name: “Call him Sexy Chocolate!” The context makes the name redundant, and the context is humorless. It reduces what was perhaps the most memorable joke of Eddie Murphy’s early film career in 1988’s Coming to America: A fashion-show scene (modeled after Ebony magazine’s annual Fashion Fair) introduced a parody funk band going by the hilarious name Sexual Chocolate (they play “The Greatest Love of All,” Whitney Houston’s ’80s anthem for narcissistic buppies — a black political watershed).

Murphy’s gag (one of several outré characterizations) seemed to capture Clinton’s brashness while also spelling out the cultural exploitation that typically describes African-Americans in terms of food imagery. Actor-turned-producer Jean-Claude La Marre, who specialized in straight-to-DVD movies that he also directed, seeks a similar box office breakthrough with Chocolate City; he aims low with a title that flips cultural heritage. La Marre’s emphasis on stereotypical Black sexuality avoids Clinton’s political humor and Murphy’s fondness for burlesque to focus on age-old ethnic categorization. He subtly, and unhelpfully, cheapens the value of the term Chocolate City.

As fans of Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic oeuvre will recall, Black pop artists used to be more clever in their imaginings of ethnic empire. Clinton and Murphy proved as much when their good-natured fantasies of Black utopia expressed all-American ideals and mocked the racist idealization of Black sexuality. They could cajole the assumption of power, prowess, sexuality and taste without melting down cultural standards.

Remember the history of Chocolate City for either any civics test or pop-culture quiz.