Even at the height of Hollywood’s political consciousness, which ended in the notorious Cold War repression of the Hollywood Ten and many others in the industry, American movies usually rendered their politics in code. But there’s nothing coded or coy about Bulworth. Whether you like the movie or not, whether you like its humor or not, its politics is definitely in your face. And, as far as it goes, that politics is much more left than anything we’ve seen in the U.S. for a very long time.
The movie has naturally provoked a lot of mixed reactions, even, or especially, on the left, but it’s not our intention here to add yet another review of the film. The story here isn’t the movie itself—its politics, its portrayal of black people, its content or its style—so much as the way it has been talked about and what that tells us about (if readers will pardon the expression) American political culture.
In her piece on the movie in the Nation (July 6, 1998), Patricia J. Williams, who on the whole liked the film for all its shortcomings, remarked that “despite the range of Bulworth’s controversial aspects, the most-discussed issue in the media has been not its take on healthcare or the insurance industry or campaign finance but the interracial relationship between the sixtyish Bulworth [played by Warren Beatty] and the balefully beautiful and very young flygirl played by Halle Berry. Most editorializing about the movie has treated Berry as though she were Beatty’s own black Monica Lewinsky.”
Now that observation, for a start, says a lot about political discourse in the U.S. Warren Beatty talks about healthcare, campaign finance, and even more fundamentally, race and class. The media give us Monica Lewinksy. So the standard approach to this movie is just another expression of what passes for political debate in mainstream U.S. culture. Whether the issue is healthcare, race and class, or U.S. imperialism, the media can always find ways to trivialize or change the subject.
But in the case of Bulworth, the Lewinsky figure is black, and that means the critics can’t avoid the issue of race. So how do they tackle it? Williams tells us how she kept getting calls from reporters asking for her reaction to the interracial relationship. They would ask “Isn’t it novel! exciting! touching! revolting!.” In other words, the message for them came down to how we feel about miscegenation. Racists will display shock and horror, but for some liberals, it seems to be the answer not just to racism but to social disunity in general. Even Warren Beatty has said that the answer is “fucking everyone until they’re all the same color”—which, as Williams suggests, is just an earthier rendition of Arthur Schlesinger’s “we can count on sex and love to defeat those who would disunite America.” “Fine, if it’s true,” Williams observes, but the simple truth is that, in the face of brutal social and political realities, “’procreative racial deconstruction,’ as Beatty calls it, means diddly.”
There’s more, though, to Bulworth than that. The movie is important not least because, as Williams emphasizes, “it’s about racism’s intersection with America’s deep, and growing, class divide.” That’s not a theme we would expect to find prominently displayed in the American press, so we shouldn’t be surprised that in commentaries on Bulworth it gets lost in the drama of interracial love and sex.
Like other social problems, the problem of racism is often trivialized in American political discourse, but at least it gets talked about—quite a lot, actually. It’s apparently much easier, though, to talk about race than about class, let alone their intersections. Race is the open wound in U.S. society. Class is its dirty secret.
We wish we could say that the left is different, that we do know how to talk about both race and class. But on the whole that simply isn’t so, at any rate not now. Critics these days love to attack the “old” left for reducing racism to material causes, and no doubt some of the more “reductionist” versions of Marxism have given an inadequate analysis of race and class. But at least Marxists have tried to tackle the complex relations between them, and some have done so in very nuanced and sophisticated ways. Monthly Review Press, in fact, will soon be reissuing a classic of that genre, Oliver Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race.
But today, too many people on the post-Marxist and postmodernist left are inclined to evade the issue. Race and class are treated as personal “identities,” in a particular sense that seems to suggest they are just conditions of the individual psyche instead of complex social relations with material roots and interconnections. Or, more precisely, race is often treated as an identity and class as a figment of the Marxist imagination. How far away is this from the trivializing discourse that “constructs” U.S. politics as Monica Lewinsky, and race in the United States as sex between Warren Beatty and Halle Berry, while it “deconstructs” class out of existence altogether? Can’t we do better than that?
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