BULWORTH: REVOLUTION HOLLYWOOD STYLE

reviewed by Ralph Dumain

18 July 1999:

More amazing than the relentless brazenness of the lumpen stereotypes of black people was the presence of Amiri Baraka in this film, whose bit part recurred throughout the film, but who actually got the last scene to himself, without Warren Beatty. Remarkably altruistic for Beatty; you never know what white liberals will do. But Baraka doesn't appear as he is in his better moments, an educated, articulate man who could explain the class structure of capitalism far more eloquently than Warren Beatty, but as an old raggedy homeless fart speaking in code. Baraka keeps saying, "You gotta be a spirit" in every cameo; sometimes he adds "You can't be a ghost". Street-level prophecy.

The marriage of the white elite and black gangsta culture is a marriage made in LA. Who else would find such rubbish palatable as a radical critique of the American power structure? I don't even think Beatty and his fellow Hollywood liberals know what they have done. They've enacted a covert ideological structure unknown to themselves that actually undermines their overt revolutionary intent.

The covert message is that the uptight, constipated, inauthentic bourgeois white man secretly longs for the uninhibited bestiality of ghetto life, and that the latent yet irresistible temptation to become a party animal and enjoy an environment saturated with foul language, drugs, and the never-ending booty call could finally overcome him in his moments of exhaustion calling him to fight for his right to party and then fight the power. In the symbolic algebra of this film, blackness = poverty, and poverty = mothafucka this mothafucka that = criminality = animal instinct = the voice of truth = revolutionary impulse.

I guess one shouldn't be surprised, because Bulworth is supposed to be a 60's liberal turned 90's neoconservative, so turning to the romance of the black lumpenproletariat might as well be the same as returning to one's roots, so that the Beatty types can re-enact the same stupidities they committed 30 years ago.

There is not one black character in this flick that is not an obnoxious stereotype. They are all comical, primitive innocents, spontaneously acting out their ghetto shtik 24-7 without any regard to circumstance or propriety, as if their consciousness of their own lives and their world were bounded by the parameters of a UPN sitcom. But because their vulgarity and their style are so irresistible, no matter how lowlife they are, they represent the uninhibited, authentic existence that everyone wants. Just show 'em a little love, and they'll drop their inconvenient gangsta ways and we can all par-tay together.

The reconciliation hoped for is epitomized by the penultimate scene, in which Halle Berry, who was hired to set up Bulworth for a hit while pretending to seduce him, and having changed her mind, joins Bulworth outside so that he can show her off as his ghetto girlfriend, expresses her devotion to him by saying to him before they kiss in front of the reporters: "You're my nigger." There is no greater enthusiast for interracial mating than myself, but I found this comment unspeakably offensive. It sums up everything that is offensive about the whole film. Given that both parties belong to criminal classes, perhaps this is an appropriate characterization of this particular liaison, but as a metaphor for interracial or any other kind of love or rapprochement, it is repellent, and sums up the slumming mentality of the whole movie with perverse exactitude.

One can only wonder what could have made Beatty and his friends think they could influence anyone politically in this manner. It seems they have provided their conservative opposition with even more fuel. There's something about the naivete of their attempts to elicit sympathy for the underclass of South Central or anywhere else that bears analysis, a recurring naivete which I spotted also in the horrid TV series South Central. These fools think that if you can show people completely degraded and then complain about how degraded their conditions are, you will elicit sympathy for them. In reality, the effect is the opposite: when presented with degraded people, what is elicited is not sympathy but the desire to finish them off once and for all. I know that's what I feel like doing in such cases. There's nothing cute about little tykes wearing dark glasses, sporting automatic weapons, and calling everybody "motherfucker", even when Bulworth buys them all ice cream cones. You've got to be crazy to think you're going to get some sympathy for these monsters just because a couple of white cops pull up and one of them smashes up their ice cream cones while they're calling him "motherfucker." This is not the most convincing indictment of police racism or police brutality: as nasty as they are, a rational person (i.e. anyone but a white liberal or a white radical) could only root for the white cops to blast each and every one of them out of existence and not a minute too soon. But Beatty would have us believe all you have to do is buy them ice cream cones and then par-tay. They're all so cute, and they're all alike, too. All working class black families sit down to dinner together and toss the word "motherfucker" around every three seconds, with all the women and children present. I can just imagine the reaction Warren Beatty as himself would get sitting down with a real black family about to attack his plate of barbecue and greens, spouting the word "motherfucker" at the dinner table.

There could be something wrong with my sense of humor. Surely this comic book portrayal of black people and the political process is intended to be comical, a political satire. Problem is, it does have serious intent to make a point about politics, class, and the political manipulation of race, and undermines its own ostensible intent by indulging in a particularly provincial form of entertainment industry narcissism. The narcissist sees his perception of the world as everyone's, and what lies outside of his assumptions does not exist, for him. That's why he is always puzzled when others do not react as he expects them to.

But the biggest puzzle remains: how did Baraka get mixed up in this?

[Note: I followed my original review with additional comments to a friend.]

23 July 1999:

I've forwarded you my review of Bulworth. It's really important to see how insidiously reactionary this film is, in spite of Beatty's radical intentions. Far from undermining the mysticism of race, this film is entirely predicated on it. It's a minstrel show cum UPN sitcom with a militant edge, but who's kidding whom? Blacks are used for their entertainment value, and they are stripped of all but the most elementary forms of social understanding. Halle Berry's character is total bullshit.

[Note: As might be expected, this review went over the heads of many of the white lefties I know. A black friend of mine forwarded me a defense of this film on the part of his white girl friend. I launched into a harsh, graphic counterattack.]

18 August 1999:

Your girlfriend is so totally naive I don't know where to begin to disabuse her of her illusions. Pardon my French, but can young people be this stupid? Most of my white leftie friends really liked the movie, so desperate are they as is your gal for political affirmation. And this is precisely the trap: people like that get caught in an ideological web, not realizing that the same ethos in which they feel comfortable plays right into the hands of the right wing who hate and capitalize off of the very things the naive liberals and lefties find so endearing.

The Halle Berry character is total bullshit, totally contrived and unrealistic. Her social type would be the very kind to rat out and betray the Panthers, not to articulate their ideology. People like that are not politically conscious or articulate; that's why they do what they do with so few qualms. This scenario is another dubious example of how the white left romanticizes blacks.

Secondly, no black woman who is open-minded enough to fall in love with a white man would ever in a million years say to him "you're my nigger". I've known more interracial couples than you and your girlfriend will ever live to see, and they do not talk like this. Such talk is demeaning. It's part of the overall racial pornography of the movie. Perhaps girlfriend loves this shit because she is so young and stupid she naturally gravitates to hiphop imagery and assumes everything is copacetic, but other people look at this image of blackness and find it utterly repulsive. That's why I say it's fuel for the right. I can imagine Rush Limbaugh making hay out this movie, guffawing at the stupidity, gullibility, and amorality of white liberals. Who cares what Rush thinks, you say? His attitude is a given. Problem is, Rush would be right this time, and if you live in such a totally subjective universe that you can't smell your own shit, you deserve exactly what is coming to you down the line.

© 1999, 2000 Ralph Dumain
Edited and uploaded 29 July 2000


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