"Crossing the Line," a new documentary that premieres at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Wednesday night, is about race, humor, and what it's like to be born of a mélange of ethnic cultures. Its focus is the large number of stand-up comics who draw on the world's perceptions of them and create what one artist calls a "beautiful world of hybrid humor."
The 86-minute film includes interviews with 18 multiracial comedians, people such as Tim Babb, who has a black parent and a white parent and describes himself as "pseudo black," and Shawn Felipe, who says that because he's a mix of French, Thai, Filipino, and Spanish most people think he's Mexican. The documentary homes in on how often multiethnic people feel the world just doesn't get them.
Traveling with many labels, they say, can leave you with none. For some, that's a burden. "Neither side wants to claim you," says Mike Moto, a comedian identified as "Japanese/Yugoslavian-American." "It's almost like you're damaged goods."
For others, it's a blessing. "By my parents choosing each other, they say, 'Don't worry about the history of us, because we broke it,' " notes Teina Manu, who is half Samoan and half white. "[My mom says,] 'I was white forever, he was brown forever, we got together so that's done. You don't need to chase that history down.' It starts here: This is new history."
Stand-up comic Kevin "Squishy Man" Barber claims one of the most extreme pedigrees. His mother's father, he says, was a Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan. His father was a member of the Black Panther party. "When you talk about 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner'? That was an understatement, to say the least."
The film's genesis is a doctoral thesis about multiracial comedians written by co-producer Darby Li Po Price about 10 years ago. One of his interviewees was Teja Arboleda, the film's other co-producer, as well as its director and narrator. Arboleda now lives in Dedham and is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art.
Back when they first talked, "I suggested that we do a documentary," says Arboleda. "And then he ended up on the West Coast, and the idea fell away for a long time." A year and a half ago, they picked it up again.
Arboleda was inspired in part by today's radio "shock jocks" and what he calls "gutter-level humor." High-profile implosions such as Michael Richards's use of the n-word on stage and Don Imus's reference to female basketball players last April as "nappy-headed ho's" fueled the question of who gets to use what kinds of language.
For instance, Don Rickles, who made his career in ethnic insults? "I've seen some of him, and I deeply disrespect him," Arboleda says. "I can't seem to find that anchor for him that allows him to say the things he does." Compare that to Yayne Abeba, a curvy woman who is half Native American and half Ethiopian. Her African side, she says on stage in the film, "explains my weight problem. Apparently, my metabolism? It was only meant to handle, like, a cup of water and handful of lentils per day."
From her mouth, the joke is funny. If someone said it about her? Maybe funny, maybe not.
Arboleda's point of view, and it comes through strongly in the movie, is that "from a cultural standpoint, you kind of have to take some responsibility for how what you say affects other people." It's not necessary, he says, to denigrate other people to get a laugh.
The producers are shopping the film around for distribution, and have a shorter version for schools. Information is at enter tainingdiversity.com.
"Crossing the Line" screens at the Coolidge at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a Q&A with Arboleda and Harvard law professor Randall L. Kennedy, author of the 2002 book "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word."
SCREENINGS OF NOTE: Two French movies are at the Museum of Fine Arts this week: Italian director Paolo Virzì's 2006 historical comedy "Napoleon and Me," starring Monica Bellucci and, as Napolean, the ubiquitous Daniel Auteuil, plays Thursday at 8 p.m. and Friday at 6 p.m.
And "Family Hero," which was a hit at this year's Boston French Film Festival, returns for a run that extends into the first week of January. It stars Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Lanvin as members of a family thrown together after a death; some of them inherit a cabaret whose future hangs in the balance. This week, it plays today at 3:30 p.m., Wednesday and Friday at 8 p.m., and Thursday at 6 p.m. Information on both films is at 617-267-9300 and mfa.org/film.
Leslie Brokaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.