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From Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales to Black Sheep: The Compelling Contradictions of Penelope Spheeris

When I think about the career of director Penelope Spheeris, I’m reminded of Walt Whitman’s line: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” But poetry I don’t really enjoy aside, it’s difficult to think of a filmmaker with such a bafflingly diverse catalog of projects.

Spheeris’s first major credit as a director was a long-lost film she made with Richard Pryor known as Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales. Although it was never released, the film is reportedly about a group of Black Panthers who kidnap a white man and force him to stand trial for America’s long history of racial crimes. Twenty-five years later she made The Little Rascals movie. That’s range.

Spheeris’s second project was a short film titled I Don’t Know that follows the “relationship between a lesbian and a transgender man who prefers to identify somewhere in between male and female.” This was 50 years ago, and a movie with this subject matter would still draw outrage from some folks (assholes) today.

But what’s so great about Spheeris is how open she is to the humanity of others — especially those who aren’t generally able to find acceptance outside of their small inner circle of outcasts. And this is no more apparent than in Spheeris’s most acclaimed work, the Decline of Western Civilization series.

This trilogy of documentaries focuses on pivotal music scenes and the subcultures that fostered them. The first entry sets its attention on the Los Angeles punk scene of the late ’70s. The grimy intimacy and exuberant anger on display in this film run contrary to its follow-up, which chronicles the decadence, dimwittedness, and swagger of the ’80s heavy metal scene on Sunset Strip.

Despite a few moments of insight from the more cerebral rockers like Dave Mustaine and Lemmy, the second installment in the Decline series mines the shallowness of the hair metal fad to find some humanity underneath all the leather, makeup, and Aqua Net. The moment that always gets mentioned is when the guitarist for the band W.A.S.P. is shown in his pool chugging a bottle of vodka while his mother looks on.

Of course, Spheeris’s time with the metalheads led to her biggest break: Wayne’s World, and from there the realm of major studio comedies. There was a period in the ’90s when Spheeris was red hot. One moment she was making alien abduction documentaries and Megadeth videos, the next she was given the reins to the major Hollywood revivals of The Beverly Hillbillies and The Little Rascals.

These were big family-friendly comedies wherein not a single person was kidnapped and tried in court for America’s long history of racial discrimination. Spheeris had effortlessly shifted from interviewing female prison inmates to making movies that my grandparents were excited to go buy on VHS.

That brings us to Black Sheep, the spiritual successor to Tommy Boy, starring Chris Farley and David Spade. Much like Tommy Boy, Black Sheep is one of those movies that sticks with a certain generation of people. Those who grew up with these movies can still recite each line as they rewatch them.

Black Sheep would sadly be the last movie in which Farley and Spade shared leading roles. But even after so much time has passed, they still feel like the ’90s iteration of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and their “Road pictures” series of comedies.

Black Sheep wasn’t Spheeris’s last major film, but it’s definitely a point where life in show business became untenable for the filmmaker. And the individuals to blame probably won’t come as a surprise.

Spheeris followed up Black Sheep and her third Decline of Western Civilization film with the 1998 comedy Senseless. In interviews, she has described this as the project that caused her to lose all affection for the film industry. She attributes much of this to her time spent alongside the Weinstein Brothers. While Spheeris’s experience with the Weinsteins doesn’t seem to have been as unspeakably heinous as other women’s, it was an experience that she describes as the breaking point.

While working on Senseless, Spheeris continuously butted heads with the Weinsteins, who kept rewriting the script and demanding more changes during filming. Despite Spheeris’s best efforts, Senseless was a dud. She took the fall. And as a female director, Spheeris says you don’t get second chances.

The more I read about Spheeris and the unfortunate circumstances that led to her leaving the film industry, I look differently at the incredible amount of diversity and contradiction between her projects.

She didn’t just happen to ably handle a wide range of film genres. As a woman in the director’s chair, she had to take on every opportunity she was offered, and she had to be great at all of it.

“I have done a lot of different kinds of genres and a lot of different types of subject matter, but I did those because I just took whatever job I could get,” Spheeris said in a 2019 interview with AV Club. “Because as a woman in the film business, you really don’t get to pick and choose.”

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Dustin Waters is a writer from Macon, Ga, currently living in D.C. After years as a beat reporter in the Lowcountry, he now focuses his time on historical oddities, trashy movies, and the merits of professional wrestling.

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