Zebrahead (1992): Drazan’s Interracial Romance, Starring Mark Rapaport and N’Bushe Wright

While most black-themed movies of the 1990s were made by Afro-Americans director, some bold white filmmakers, such as Anthony Drazan, rejected the argument that only blacks could–or should–tackle specifically “black” topics.

“If you deal with a subject in a responsible fashion,” Drazan said, “then why should you be prevented from exploring it” citing Mark Twain, as one of many white artists to have shown fascination with and understanding of African-American culture.

But theory is one thing and practice another, and in its current shape, Drazan’s Zebrahead is a mixed bag.  While benefiting from the casting of young, fresh, unknown actors in the leads, the plot, which echoes Romeo and Juliet (and West Side Story), is rather stale and conventional, without much energizing of the original material.

Our Grade: B- (**1/2 out of *****)

The romance between a Jewish boy named Zack (Mark Rapaport) and his black girlfriend Nikki (N’Bushe Wright) predictably alienates their classmates.

Inspired by black culture, Zack finds emotional nourishment in it–his love for Nikki is an extension of his love of black folklore, art, and music.

Zack takes Nikki to a party given by his white friends and she accidentally overhears him indulging in a casual racist remark. This incident forces Zack to realize that his familiarity with black culture can’t erase overnight long-held wounds of rage and prejudice.

Though the film contains no sex or nudity, and has only one violent scene, Drazan feared that a love story about a white boy and a black might still be taboo.

The film is semi-personal, partly based on his memoirs of growing up in a racially-mixed Long Island neighborhood. The inspiration for the character of Dee, Zack’s best friend, comes from Drazan’s black buddy.

Drazan went to the NYU Film School with Spike Lee, but he said he refused to see Jungle Fever, which also dealt with interracial romance, because he didn’t want to be affected by it.

The first draft for Zebrahead, written in 1987, set the story in the 1970s, during Drazan’s high-school years, but later, the story was made more contemporary. To tap into today’s hip-hop consciousness, Drazan hung out at high schools and interviewed students.

Produced with the support of vet director Oliver Stone, who receives a presentation credit, Zebrahead got a big push from Sony’s Triumph Releasing, which earmarked $2.8 million to promote the film, more than its budget ($2.5 million).

The movie received warm reception on the festival circuit, with one jab–a negative review in the N.Y. Times.

Despite hopes for the movie to gain youth appeal, Zebrahead became a commercial failure.