Last week, when I was thinking up a cute title for my skin care article, immediately Bebe’s Kids came to mind. “Here’s some lotion for your ashy ankles.” It was the line Jamika (Vanessa Bell Calloway) slung at Robin’s ex wife Dorothea (Myra J.) after the two finally confront Dorothea and her friend in the bathroom. Seeing how a couple readers responded to the title, I was reassured that Bebe’s Kids was not just my movie, it was the movie for black kids running around in the ’90’s. While it bordered on completely inappropriate for children, I know this is probably the only movie I can quote and sing…or rap, from beginning to end. But as much as love to love this movie, I did not know most of these behind the scenes secrets. So hopefully, you’ll learn something as well.
Robin Harris was the way to blowing up. He had already agreed to film a live version of Bebe’s Kids based on his popular stand up routine. But when Harris passed away in 1990, Reginald Hudlin, who was working with Harris and ended up producing the film, didn’t want the idea to end with his death. Before Harris passed he promised the role of Jamika, his love interest, to actress Vanessa Bell Calloway.
If you don’t remember Robin delivering the routine, check it out here:
Though it might be hard to believe that it took this long; (Bebe’s Kids came out in 1992), this was the first animated film to feature an all African American cast.
Many thought Robin Harris voiced the eponymous character but he had actually already passed away before the film was made, so Faizon Love voiced Robin’s character. And he did his job so well, people were unable to distinguish between the two.
Budget was unknown but thought to be very small
It’s believed that the budget was super small, but the exact number is not known so there’s no telling if the $3 million it made on the first weekend and the $7 million it ultimately ended making in North America, made the movie a commercial success.
Severely toned down
Initially, the movie was written for an adult audience. And at the last minute the studios told the writers and creators that it had to be toned down for children. Now, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that didn’t really happen. This film is littered with adult humor that I personally discovered more and more of as I got older. But be that as it may, I knew I still loved it as a young one.
Bruce W. Smith was only 30 years old when he directed Bebe’s Kids, his first film. Before then Smith worked on “Garfield” specials and even animated a toon scene in the wildly successful, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. So it’s not hard to understand why the Hudlin brothers wanted to work with this talented animator.
What he’s been doing since?
And Smith has been very busy since the release of Bebe’s Kids. After that he worked with Michael Jordan in the blockbuster Space Jam. Then he went on to create”The Proud Family” for the Disney channel after Nickelodeon rejected it. He also worked on a host of Disney movies, including The Emperor’s New Groove and Tarzan. After that Smith made history when he animated the character of Dr. Facilier for The Princess and The Frog. He was the first African American animator in Disney history to supervise the creation of an African American character.
Where the art came from…
The shapes and animation of the film was largely influenced by Kenyan art. And the colors were those used heavily during the Harlem Renaissance. In an interview with the LA Times, Smith spoke about how Tom Wilhite, the president of the production company, brought him a book from the Harlem renaissance. “There was a different sense about color and its roots which was very Afro-centric, full of reddish-browns, deep greens and blues. There’s nothing quite like it.”
Though Smith animated and directed the film, Warrington and Reginald Hudlin, the brothers behind Boomerang, were behind the scenes. Reginald adapted Robin Harris’ BeBe routine into a screenplay and his brother was the executive producer.
The Deeper Message
While Bebe’s Kids may seem like a silly movie, there really were moments that tugged at your heart strings. The part where Robin has to decide if he’s going to leave the kids in that dirty apartment, with no supervision and no food, you really realize why they behaved the way they did. Their lives were not easy and they used an opportunity away from the house to live it up, even if they terrorized a couple of other folks in the process. Smith, spoke about Robin’s decision to go back and get the kids in an interview with the LA Times:“There comes a point when everyone’s gonna have to take responsibility. That’s what Robin does in ‘Bebe’s Kids.’ He may not like them. They get on his nerves. But he realizes that they need someone to guide them.” In that same article, Wilhite, one of the movie’s producers spoke about why the family structure represented through Bebe’s Kids was so important for the time. “I think the depiction of family that came out of the Reagan years is an out-of-touch portrait. Non-conventional families can be just as powerful as conventional families in the shaping of an adult.”
There were mixed reviews. Some liked the fresh story Bebe’s Kids told, others didn’t think the movie had anything to say. In fact, a reviewer at People called the movie: “Ugly, chaotic and bordering on being both antiblack and antiwhite.” As if that weren’t enough, the reviewer continued by saying “The animation is primitive, and the kids are offensively violent.”
OOoo does anybody else find that disrespectful? Maybe the mainstream (read: white) audience just wasn’t ready for Bebe’s Kids.
I’m not the only one who thinks white audiences might not have identified this movie because they didn’t understand it, an animator, Lennie Grave, said: “In my opinion, everybody in the black community knows everything about everyone else. The young know about the old, men know about women, and vice versa. Frankness is very common. But it’s a difficult world for whites to empathize with. In this film we broke a lot of barriers. We tried to create a climate of empathy instead of a climate of opinion.”
While I wouldn’t argue that all black people understand each other, I would say there’s a closeness that we share that can’t be denied; and perhaps that lack of understanding from white audiences made them virtually unable to relate to the movie.
You Get It
One reviewer for the Sun Sentinel did make a salient point though: “Significantly, there is more than a passing sense that white American society does not make it easy on people with black skin, whether they are children or grown-ups. Screenwriter Reginald Hudlin puts Robin in the clutches of a not- so-nice white Fun World patrolman. The kids wind up questioned, followed, threatened, called names and hounded by three security guards.”
Yeah, Bebe’s children misbehaved; but the way they were stereotyped, hassled and even low key abused in this movie, was out of order. If you listen to those songs, there are messages about how these theme parks are quick to take your money for admission, and spend the duration of your time there racially profiling your kids.
What does Hudlin think of it now?
While audiences loved the movie, despite the negative reviews from critics, Hudlin has his own thoughts on the film. What he would have done better and what he appreciates about the movie and the impact it had on the younger generation.
“I look back on it and I’m frustrated because I did it to the best of my ability at the time but now that I have kids of my own I go ‘Oooh, now I know how to make a kids movie.’ So that’s one of things… I can’t wait to revisit that arena and do it with a deeper understanding of how to make entertainment for that audience. But at the same time I’m so glad. I run into people all the time, people who may have been too young to have seen House Party or Boomerang but when I mention Bebe’s Kids I always get laughs like ‘Oh my God, I wouldn’t leave for school unless I’d watched that movie at least once in the morning. My parents hated the movie because I loved it so much.’ I was like wow! Really? Ok it worked.