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Racial Dialogue the ‘Bulworth’ Way

I want to punch Warren Beatty in the mouth. Or shake his hand. I really haven’t decided which.

--Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald

Yo, check it out: Just two days before the California primary and still nobody has taken a politically incorrect hint from rappin’ Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth.

Prosecutor-in-chief Dan Lungren, unlike Bulworth, has not appeared at an African American church in Los Angeles to give black folk hell for drinking malt liquor and defending a running back who stabbed his ex-wife. Jane Harman, she of the phat wallet, and Al Checchi, whose wallet is the phattest of all, haven’t derided Hollywood’s “big Jews” for getting rich off such crappy movies. Gray Davis, the mack daddy of traditional fund-raising, hasn’t donned hip-hop gear to sing about money, sex, race and democracy.

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Not that I’m holding my breath. The most Bulworthian politician in California is expected to be elected mayor of Oakland--and even Jerry Brown can’t rap, can he?

“Bulworth"--produced, directed, written by and starring Warren Beatty with consultation from the Suge Knight of Death Row Records--has many messages, but the most obvious might be this: Politics is all about a bunch of pimps and ho’s, selling something more precious than sex.

“Bulworth” has proven to be one of those rare, edgy films that demands more than the usual thumbs up, thumbs down judgment, commanding attention on op-ed pages. “The fact is,” a New York Times editorial declared, “the movie pretty well nails the truth of campaign finance.”

When asked about the film’s message, Beatty has cannily quoted Samuel Goldwyn’s famous line that if you want to deliver a message, send a telegram. Message? This is just entertainment, he suggests. But the message, ultimately, is always in the mind of the beholder.

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The film did not leave me feeling any violent tendencies toward Beatty. “Bulworth” made me laugh and think, providing provocative questions rather than pat answers. To laugh and think is a good combination. Goodness knows what I might feel if I were black, like Pitts. Or if I were Jewish. Now if I were Latino, I know I’d be ticked. But more about that later.

What I’m trying to do here, thanks to “Bulworth,” is engage in what President Clinton likes to call a “meaningful dialogue about race.” Politics and Hollywood share a certain cynical outlook. But it seems like good news to find a smart political farce trafficking in stereotypes and insensitivity to be marketed to white and black audiences. Such films can provoke more meaningful, spontaneous dialogue than the formal, stilted efforts of a blue-ribbon commission. Some of the most important dialogue takes place silently, between the ears.

People who write newspaper columns sometimes put their inner dialogue in print. I had only mild curiosity about “Bulworth” until, on a recent visit to Washington, I happened upon a column by Donna Britt of the Washington Post. Britt, who is African American, interviewed Beatty and offered this sardonic take on his reactions to her objections:

“My gripes about his film’s stereotyping of blacks are anti-art. Craving complexity in black characters is ‘propaganda.’ My mistake . . .

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“The moment Bulworth brings his newfound idealism to the black ghetto, Beatty’s mean farce thickens with stereotypes: The loud, shallow girls. The pusher who’s the ‘hood’s smartest soul. The sex-talking grandma. It’s ‘Network’ meets ‘Booty Call.’ ”

Britt, I think, felt like slapping Beatty’s handsome face. Yet she also expressed ambivalence, praising the film’s examination of media hypocrisy, corporate power and the manipulation of racial issues. It was at times hilarious, she said, and made her think.

That night, a friend and I found ourselves in a racially mixed audience crowded into the shoe-box theater of a suburban mall. The audience as a whole seemed entertained and not scandalized. There were clearly four thumbs up on our side of the aisle, two white, two black.

Yet I thought something was missing, strikingly so. Bulworth campaigns in a Los Angeles that seems astoundingly devoid of Latinos. The ethnic minority that is fast becoming a majority in L.A. is invisible, as if irrelevant. That may be more insulting than having Bulworth deliver some sort of rude riff. A couple of friends were struck by this too; one said he expected more “equal opportunity insults.” Fact is, I counted more celebrity cameos than Latino faces in “Bulworth.”

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This may all be dismissed as Beatty’s artistic license, a calculated decision to simplify the story and focus attention on white-black relations. The film released in 1998 and set in 1996 Los Angeles seems caught in a time warp, ignoring the roiling debate over illegal immigration and brewing battle over bilingual education. In Bulworth’s two-tone world--and for that matter, Beatty’s film--affirmative action seems only to apply to blacks.

Rather than deal with the present and future, the dialogue dwells on the past. It so happens that Frank Capra III was Beatty’s first assistant director, and “Bulworth” indeed seems like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” updated and turned inside out. Clearly Bulworth must have been an idealistic young man back in the ‘60s, before he sold his soul and rapped his way to redemption. His Capitol office is decorated with actual photos of the young Beatty alongside Bobby Kennedy. But didn’t Kennedy also march with Cesar Chavez?

Sad, but it occurs to me that many more registered voters will go to the flicks this summer and than go to the polls for free on Tuesday. Sad too that they may find in “Bulworth” more reason for cynicism, more reason to not cast a ballot. Still, I’d be inclined to shake Warren Beatty’s hand. And just out of curiosity, I’d ask him if he plans to vote Tuesday, and for whom, and why.

I’m still trying to figure that out myself.

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Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times’ Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311, or via e-mail at scott.harris@latimes.com. Please include a phone number.


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