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COMMENTARY

Beatty, Lee and Their Worlds of Blackness

June 13, 1998|STANLEY CROUCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The inordinate success, both personal and corporate, in one part of our society and the social failures in the areas of integration, public education and cultural quality make the theme of redemption inevitable. So much has changed for the better and so much has yet to be done. Redemption, even so, is central to our society because the social contract under which we live allows us to redeem ourselves any time we truly face up to short-sighted, prejudicial and corrupt policies. When government gives us the blues, we use government to blow the blues away.

So it is quite understandable that two recent American films, Spike Lee's "He Got Game" and Warren Beatty's "Bulworth," take on the subjects of redemption, corruption and selling out. One has the all-American goods in a renewed set of brilliantly layered variations; theother is good old boy radical-left paternalism, a reshaping of the Tarzan spirit in skid cap, gutter rhymes and dark glasses.

Lee's tale is rooted in our biblical tradition, our folk myths and our inevitable American questions about how we relate to the marketplace and to ourselves. It is an inventive, dramatic and witty allegory. This new work outstrips a career that began with bumptious satire and often lost itself in the agit-prop narrows of a cinematic black nationalism that guaranteed ebony and ivory were always at odds in very obvious and cardboard ways. In fact, the decision to involve Denzel Washington's character in an interracial romance that is not sneered at by the material itself may well have cost the filmmaker success at the box office, since so many black women across the country shouted at the screen in outrage and apparently discouraged others from seeing the film.

Beatty's film exhibits no actual courage at all. Touted over and over by the critical establishment as some kind of political breakthrough, "Bulworth," for all its topical references, is in the long line of 30 years of American films in which we are told that the CIA is a Diablo ex machina, that Washington is an auction block parading one whorish politician after another, no matter the party, and that big business will murder to keep its hustle going.

These "insights" are spouted by a California senator named Jay Bulworth who rises from the ashes of his incinerated integrity by hanging out with some black people and getting crude oil soul injections--a politicized update of all those westerns and jungle and South Sea island movies about a mighty, mighty white man who is inducted into the tribe of embattled natives and ends up becoming not just their spokesman but their chief, even outdoing the young tribes men at their own stuff and Cultural critic Stanley Crouch's new book is "Always in Pursuit" (Fresh American Perspectives). He is also the author of "Notes of a Hanging Judge" and "The All-American Skin Game."

sweeping up the prettiest native maiden along the way.

Going native nowadays means Bulworth must take on the dress and manner of a rapper in order to get his point across. He is so able to "keep it real," as the cornball "street brothers" say, that when Bulworth repeats facile things that black people have told him, they themselves are amazed and act as though what they said must actually mean something now that a famous white man is saying them on television! Bulworth converts even the dope-dealing blacks with their own words. What a friend they have in their self-made Jesus.

*

Though Beatty's contrived dip in the tar bucket has been praised as proof of his revitalization, Lee is the one who has not only extended himself but vastly increased the breadth of his evocative powers. With "Do the Right Thing" far behind him, Lee no longer revels in the major social tragedy of the last 30 years--the corrupting and coarsening of Negro American popular culture through the mass media celebration of the most crude and ignorant black people as the truly "authentic." Like the slave trade, the culprits are black and white but the victims are overwhelmingly black. From the blaxploitation films of the '70s to the rap videos that equally glorify ruthless materialism, mindless hedonism and self-debasement of one sort or another, too many black people have been programmed to willfully underplay their intellectual abilities and display as much rudeness as possible in order to avoid "acting white."

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