Warren Beatty, Trent Lott: Soul Brothers

<i> Karen Grigsby Bates is a regular contributor to this page</i>

Under normal conditions, most sane people wouldn’t consider Trent Lott and Warren Beatty homeboys, but I found myself thinking about the former a lot while watching “Bulworth,” a movie in which the latter acted, wrote and directed.

Lott, you see, is one of the Singing Senators, a quartet of men who have been known to warble their four-part harmonies in public--everything from slave spirituals to ‘50s doo-wop. I heard them first on a National Public Radio broadcast a couple of years ago. They were at the Kennedy Center and the snippet that aired showcased an all-spirituals series. It struck me then, as now, how signally psychedelic it was to listen to a white, conservative Mississippi senator singing lustily about a sweet chariot comin’ for to carry him home.

The song that was giving him such pleasure had been conceived, hundreds of years ago, in someone else’s pain, sung mournfully and in longing for a freedom that was far too long in coming. Lott’s ancestors may or may not have owned slaves who sang such songs, but for sure his generic Southern conservatism has contributed a new generation of misery and restriction to some of those slaves’ descendants. Given his legislative hostility to black Americans, it’s just a little odd to see him so enjoy that aspect of black culture.

Beatty’s fictional senator, Jay Bulworth, didn’t decide to go back a couple hundred years for his dose of black culture; he jumped into the here and now after listening to his own platitudes (“we stand at the edge of a new millennium”) once too often made him bug out. To end the tedium of a job and a life that he can no longer tolerate, Bulworth arranges to be assassinated in a few days’ time. In the interim, he commits professional suicide by telling the truth--actually, by rapping the truth. Which is where he and the real-life senator from Mississippi start to resemble each other.


Each has appropriated an aspect of black culture--one old and rural, the other contemporary and urban--that has helped to shape American cultural life, yet neither has much understanding of or appreciation for the people from whom this culture springs. For Lott, it’s much easier to admire dead darkies whose songs hearken back to a time when Everyone Knew His Place than it is to grapple with the complexities of political equity in the age of multiculturalism. His fondness for the Negro in Antiquity does not extend to our present reality.

Bulworth’s creator has done his research--some of it, anyway. Beatty spent hours interviewing and hanging out with various rap artists and impresarios, most prominent among them Suge Knight, the former head of Death Row Records who’s now serving time for a felony assault. (Interesting whom liberal white folks consult when they want to know more about Real Black Life.) According to people who know--and I don’t profess to be one of them--he got the music right. And he articulated some of the issues community activists have been raising for years: the inadequacies of public schools, the lure of drug money in poor communities, the ability of the haves to set the have-nots against one another using the obvious, easy wedge of race.

But with his homeboy clothes and arthritic rapping, Beatty’s Bulworth is merely being a more modern minstrel. Instead of appearing in blackface, he’s presented himself in blackvoice. The effect, intended or not, is the same: patronizing, condescending. Because in the end, Lott isn’t toting any barges or lifting any bales, he’s just singing about doing it. And in the end, Beatty can kick off his Filas, toss away his wraparound shades, doff his knitted cap and step back into his privileged life. He did a good job of talking the talk. But talk was all it was.