In our introduction to an historic In Focus dedicated to African American film and media studies, scholars Beretta Smith-Shomade, Racquel Gates, and I deploy the trope of the “roll call,” punctuating our essay by naming the scholars whose work has pioneered and transformed the field. Cinematically, the practice is modeled by Samuel L. Jackson’s radio DJ persona “Senor Mr. Love Daddy” from Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing (Love Daddy’s visage graces the cover of the fall issue of Cinema Journal). To extend our meditation, I turn to another of Lee’s films, Get on the Bus (1996), which chronicles the experiences of a group of African American men traveling to the 1995 Million Man March on the National Mall in Washington, DC. On the bus en route to the march, the men engage in a different yet related “roll call,” this one the kind of group participatory schoolyard, school bus, front stoop, or street corner chant that African American children all over the country would likely recognize.
Moving in and out of the spotlight and affirming one another with shouts, laughter, smiles, nods, and the continuing communal framing and calling to self-definition via the chant itself, this group of black men playfully anticipate the calling to accountability and group identity that the Million Man March itself intended to represent. Interestingly, the “Shabooya roll call” chant has been taken up in two subsequent film and television moments. First here in 2006’s Bring It On: All Or Nothing, and next here in a moment of clearly intended ironic homage from the “Work Bus” episode of NBC’s The Office (2012). So the roll call is borrowed first in the white guilt-ridden angst of cultural appropriation that is the seeming stock-in-trade of the Bring it On Franchise of films (Hayden Panettiere’s expression of awestruck confusion, discomfort, and fascination says all this and more) and then in the self-deprecating humor of middle American whiteness that constitutes The Office. These restagings of a ritual tied to African American cultural practices, and their shared emphasis on the anxiety/humor that results when white people get black culture “wrong,” whether formally, ethically, or well, culturally, remind us that from Fred Astaire to Iggy Azalea the stakes of cultural appropriation have less to do with black identity than with white agency and access.