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."
Unlike Beatty, who so wants his hero to become a messianic "whigger" that he cannot challenge any of that reductive "blackness," only pander to it, Lee is looking to regenerate recognition of the charismatic influence that unbrutalized Afro Americans have long had on our national popular culture, on our way of taking ideas and transforming them into richer ways of living. Traditionally, the Negro has mediated between the raw and the refined levels of our culture, reinterpreting and remaking, helping supply the country with better and better means of recognizing its own vernacular uniqueness and flexibility, usually through an imaginative, improvised vitality, a sense of the individual and the collective, a pliant ritual of down-home awareness, majesty and humbling spirituality.
"He Got Game" uses basketball to symbolize the elastic possibilities of the democratic proposition--the individual, the team, the individual. The enormous amounts of money, privilege and fame that surround the sport raise the ongoing issue facing the nature of civilization in our society, which is whether or not we will continually fight to bring morality, ethics and the profit motive together.
That is what Jesus Shuttleworth, the film's protagonist, has to learn how to do. The kid can go for the gold that symbolizes all of the expensive consumer addictions to prominence through brand-name surfaces; or he can first seek out the development of the inner life represented by a college education and its connection to forgiving his father for the accidental killing of the athlete's mother.
The film opens with a thematic and spiritual overture: a montage of American kids, black and white, rural and urban, either playing alone or on teams. The railroads that once connected us have been replaced by a rubber ball bouncing on concrete, on wood, and dropping through the metal hoop and the cloth net. The loneliness and isolation of practice is preparation for the very best that one can do within the mutating force of the collective.
The visual overture's music is Aaron Copland's "John Henry," giving an epic dimension and setting the narrative in the arena of myth, the American tale of a contemporary Negro super hero whose ability to drive to the hoop must face the automated challenge of a hammering machine of celebrity. As the camera settles on the bronze statue of Michael Jordan in flight in front of Chicago's importantly titled United Center and Copland's powerhouse dissonance rings out, Lee is letting us know that the greatest basketball player of all time is our contemporary John Henry and that our country needs flesh and blood heroes, they whose mythic deeds enlarge the frame of our ideals through pure human achievement, improvisation within the parameters of the rules, each hero a succeeding Icarus who rises toward the sun of objective recognition with the whole world in his hand.
Using the exceptional palette of techniques that make him the grand virtuoso of his generation, Lee is able to more successfully combine drama and satire than he ever has before, counterpointing the humanity of his central characters--from children to adults--with the comic and ominous gargoyles that tempt and threaten them in the wilderness of Coney Island, a crumbling dream world where Jesus attends Abraham Lincoln High School and becomes nationally famous on its basketball team, the Rail-Splitters. The open opportunity associated with Copland's music pulls the big sky of the western and the heartland, the sorrow and the glory of the country, onto those basketball courts. The rapping Public Enemy--its enormous artistic and technical limitations appropriately embarrassing in contrast to Copland's--supplies the crabbed, hostile yammering of the streets.
Human or demon, the characters and caricatures surrounding Jesus are black, white, Italian and Latino. They arrive from the college and professional worlds of big-money sports; they are family, friends and lovers, most of them trying to manipulate Jesus for their own economic benefit. Support or betrayal can come from anywhere.
Pulling timeless power up from the past is an antidote to the sullied compromises and trends that function as parasites, sucking away the blood of one's humanity. Consequently, the many references to teaching, to learning fundamentals, and the emphasis on a college education are both allusions to how Lincoln the common man distinguished himself, and reiterations of the Negro American tradition of uplift from the inside out.
The empathetic, loving, demanding and cruel taskmaster that was Jesus' father when he taught him the game of basketball is also Negro history itself, a thing of inspiration and horror, magic and disillusionment, compassion and sadism--the source from which the individual must pick the most profound forces and avoid the soul shriveling that comes of hysterical self-pity, cynicism and bitterness. Discipline, wariness, compassion and good judgment are of absolute importance.
None of that is important to Beatty or to his film. What he wants to do is show just how willing he is to accept black people as "they are." Somehow, they are always down there below Bulworth and below the supposed entire white world. A couple of colored folks show up in media but there are no black people who are the equals of the senator. After all, if they were, he couldn't save them. He couldn't be the white man so capable of leading them to the promised land that they can shout, almost down on one collective knee, "Bulworth, you my nigger." I guess that's a "gender-bending" political update of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."
Beatty's conception of his black characters is rooted in the dehumanizations of videos and sitcoms, but one of the shocks of "He Got Game" is what Ray Allen, an actual basketball star, does under Lee's direction. He creates a young man so complex and given to such a subtle range of responses that Jesus, so full of conflicting ideas and feelings, is an antidote to the cardboard "inner-city" cutouts we get in "Bulworth." Lee's Jesus is a young man who personally knows the world of the flesh and the devil. So his integrity in face of temptation doesn't read as that of a candy box goody-goody. He has bent the rules, encouraged his girlfriend to get an abortion, uses foul language, and dips into a decadent bacchanal. Jesus, like his father Jake, is what historian Stephen Ambrose says Americans have sought in the wake of Watergate, the imperfect hero--like Meriwether Lewis--the one who stands up, finally, and gets the challenging job done, against all odds.
From Denzel Washington--as Jake, the father of Jesus--Lee draws one of the great performances of the last decade, something quite different but equal to the startlingly original job this actor did in Carl Franklin's "Devil in a Blue Dress." Pathetic, arrogant, insecure, stoic, brutish, tender, suspicious, disciplined, sadistic, fatherly and choking with the desire for his son to forgive him, this character has classic American dimensions, wide like the country but intensified by the laser precision of an ethnic authority so fundamentally human that it bores through all walls of class and social division. When Jake says to Jesus, "You better get that hate out of your heart, boy, or you'll end up just another nigger, like your father," he means something far deeper than what Bulworth is called with affection. He is telling his son that part of becoming a man is learning to accept your pain and calling upon the courage to redeem yourself from bitterness through forgiveness. In a time as splintered as ours, there could be no more powerful statement.
Where Warren Beatty has taken us backward, Spike Lee has brought us up to date. In deciding to create a coalition with Aaron Copland, the Brooklyn Jew who set the tone for the cinematic sound of America, Lee has stepped beyond what we expect of him and brought all of us back into the tragic, sacrificial myths of John Henry and Abraham Lincoln as well as into the fierce, bruised optimism that equally defines our nation. Lee is as surprising right now as Lyndon Johnson was when he, who had once run on a segregated ticket, became the greatest civil rights legislator since Lincoln. Let us hope that Lee's box-office failure doesn't push him into a Vietnam of dismay.