It was that tumultuous year of 1968, when Andy Warhol said, "In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes." The year of this utterance is instructive. It was a time when people my age, people who were in college in the late 1960s and early 70s, dared to believe they could change the world, dared to believe they could become instrumental in eliminating poverty, racism and war. The idealistic spirit of the times was galvanized in the quixotic presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy and only somewhat diluted by the hard-headed professionalism in the rival campaign of the immensely charismatic Robert Kennedy. But here's what Warhol knew about us that we would have vehemently denied at the time. There was a profound narcissism mixed in with our idealism. We could change the world for the better, we believed, and we could become famous doing it.
Some years ago I did an interview with Woody Allen, long before the aura of disrepute had settled over him in the fallout over the Soon-Yi Previn affair, at a time when he was still my unalloyed hero. Among the questions I asked him that day was how he accounted for his success. This is a question I frequently ask celebrities, and I'm usually told one of two things: either God-given talent or hard work. Those who say the former are typically thought to be conceited, but sometimes they aren't. They often tell me this with a shrug of apparently genuine humility, a separation of self from achievement. In direct contrast, those who say the latter think they're being modest, but they usually aren't; really they're exhibiting their secret pride, awarding themselves the credit for their accomplishments by virtue of their supreme effort.
Allen could have given me either of these answers. He certainly has been blessed with astonishing, God-given talent. He was already publishing jokes and humor columns in daily newspapers when he was still in high school. He has made a handsome living from his instinctive and distinctive wit since he was a teenager. And certainly, few in the filmmaking industry have ever worked harder. Allen has written and directed nineteen features in the last twenty years, a productivity unrivaled by any other major American director. But Allen ascribed his success to neither talent nor effort. There were plenty of other people in this world as funny as he was, he assured me, plenty of other storytellers with tales to tell as good or better than his. And there were plenty of other people who worked every bit as hard as he did and came away with a lot less to show for it. So how did he account for his success? Luck. That was the answer. He'd had it. Other worthy people hadn't. Allen may not be wise in the conduct of his private life, but in his humble understanding of his artistic achievement, wealth and fame, I think he is wise indeed.
Tiger Woods is another American who has been blessed with surpassing God-given talent honed on the wheel of ceaseless practice. At the Masters Golf Championship this April, at the tender age of twenty-one, he established himself as the game's greatest current player. On his way to the title, the youngest champion in history by nearly two years, he broke the tournament record for lowest number of strokes and greatest margin of victory. He is handsome, charismatic, seemingly happy, fathomlessly rich (forty some odd million dollars and counting), and I find myself feeling sorry for him. I find myself feeling sorry for him because of the countless number of times our media felt the need to remind listeners and readers that Woods was the first black man ever to have won either this tournament or any of the other three so-called major golf championships.
1997 is the fiftieth anniversary of that stirring season the great Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. In the years since, so many of our sports heroes have been black, from Willie Mays to Henry Aaron, Wilma Rudolph, Jim Brown, Rafer Johnson, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Michael Jordan, each with a legitimate claim to have been the best in history at his or her sports event or sports position. Thus, it is profoundly sad to me this late in our history, a half century since Robinson disproved the ludicrously racist notion that blacks could not compete successfully against whites, that Tiger Woods has to be identified as a black champion. He shouldn't have to carry that burden, the burden of our nation's obsession with race and with firsts: the first black major league manager, the first black coach to win an NCAA basketball championship, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
And yet, I am not judging the media. I am aware of the importance the African-American community places on such firsts, each representing an opening to members of their race a place previously and undeservedly closed. African Americans understandably share an identity, born of the shared history of discrimination. In the 1930s black Americans felt each blow suffered by boxer Joe Louis, and savored each of his many triumphs. In the 1940s, African Americans had the same kind of investment in the basehits and stolen bases of Jackie Robinson.
I am, moreover, informed by the tearful testimony of talented black golfer Charles Sifford who won P.G.A. events in the 1960s but was excluded throughout his career from competing in the Masters. It means a lot to Sifford that a black man has finally won a major golf championship. He watched the tournament on television and cried as Tiger Woods strode up the eighteenth fairway, his victory already assured. And I am further informed by the actions of Lee Elder, the first black man allowed to compete in the Masters in 1975. At his own expense, Elder journeyed to the Augusta, Georgia, site of the Masters to walk the fairways of Augusta National in Woods' gallery, just to be present in case the young man won, in case this young man became the first black person to win.
Dissing the Critic
Odd as it may seem, I find myself thinking repeatedly of Andy Warhol, Woody Allen and Tiger Woods as I try to organize my thoughts about John Singleton's recent film Rosewood. I am used to stirring controversy with the columns I write for Gambit, the newsweekly in my hometown of New Orleans. There's a right-wing contingent in the area that likes to send me hate mail on a regular basis. And I've been attacked from the left as well. A group of feminist readers accused me of sexism for admitting that Woody Allen had been a hero of mine prior to 1992, even though the purpose of my Gambit essay, "Say It Ain't So," was to confess my belated understanding of the difference between the artist and his art. My column on Rosewood, however, was the first to elicit attacks from the right and the left simultaneously.
Singleton's Rosewood tells the horrific story of the wanton murder in 1923 of scores of African Americans by a band of marauding, central-Florida whites. The picture's most telling moment arrives, however, in a confrontation between two groups of white people. Drunk on the blood lust of what they consider righteous violence, the murderers try to pass out of the county where they live and where they have mercilessly killed their black neighbors, but they are kept from doing so by an armed contingent of whites from the next county over who don't want the violence spreading into their own area. The second group of whites obviously knows the heinous nature of what the first group is doing, and they act to restrict the atrocities to one region. Critically though, the second group pitilessly takes no action whatsoever to punish the murderers or to protect those surviving black people still hiding in the first county.
Scripted by Gregory Poirier and based on actual events, Rosewood is the story of two towns, two groups of human beings and the hideous face of racism in America. The more prosperous of the two towns is Rosewood. All its residents are land owners. Some are teachers; others are musicians. They pride themselves on keeping their property well maintained. Not far from Rosewood is the town of Sumner where the homes are unpainted shanties and the residents are poor and indifferent to civic virtue. With the exception of one family, all the residents of Rosewood are black; Sumner is populated exclusively by white people.
Echoing the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, trouble flames up between the residents of these two towns when a Sumner white woman named Fannie Taylor (Catherine Kellner) claims to have been beaten up by an unidentified black man. Within minutes, the whole town declares that she's been raped, though that's a claim she never makes. In fact, Fannie has been beaten by her white lover, and she's made up the story of the black man to account for her bruises when her husband comes home. Sheriff Walker (Michael Rooker) suspects Fannie's story from the outset, but he's intimidated by all the local hotheads. And pretty soon blood is running in the streets of Rosewood. The first to die are not themselves suspects. They are accused by the mob merely of having information and refusing to divulge it.
By happenstance, there is a black stranger in Rosewood at this time, a hardy World War I veteran named Mann (Ving Rhames). But he's innocent of everything except wanting a place he can call home. Mann is visiting with the family of Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle) at the time Fannie makes her accusations, and this fact brings all of them into harm's way. Sylvester's mother Sarah (Esther Rolle) is gunned down by the mob, and the Carrier house is burned. At first Mann tries to run, but eventually he turns and fights, striving to save as many people as he can. Mann's only local ally is Rosewood's lone white adult male, John Wright (John Voight), the local store owner. Wright is hardly devoid of racist attitudes of his own. But he possesses genuine respect and affection for his black neighbors, and he can't sit by and watch them slaughtered. Reluctantly at first, a Florida Oskar Schindler, Wright offers his neighbors sanctuary in his attic. Eventually, he joins with Mann in an attempt to spirit the survivors out of the county.
Poirier's script isn't everywhere as tight as it might be. We could use some accounting for how Mann earned the huge roll of cash he plans to use to buy land in Rosewood. And the story would benefit from an explanation for why no one knows the identity of Fannie's white lover. In addition to these failings, I think the filmmakers made too many concessions to Hollywood convention. The romance that blooms literally overnight between Mann and Sylvester's cousin Scrappie (Elise Neal) diminishes the core seriousness of this story. The adventure plotting of the rescue attempt at the end is weak and sometimes baldly manipulative. And Mann's escape from a lynch mob is purely preposterous. In short, Singleton's determination to make a conventionally entertaining movie probably kept him from making a film of enduring greatness.
But that's not at all to say that this picture doesn't possess a host of virtues. It most certainly does. Its character development is unusually complex. Sheriff Walker, for instance, is a man who knows better than he acts. He's a racist, but his bigotry hasn't blinded him as it has some of his townfolks. And in this regard he is even more culpable. He thinks more about his political career than he does about upholding justice. He abets the mob in running wild even when he suspects that Fannie is lying. John Wright is comparably complex. Ultimately, he does the right thing, but not without considerable flirtation with cowardice. Even Fannie is depicted as something other than a one-dimensional monster. She never intends for her lie to result in a river of blood. But once she unleashes the torrent, she cringes in self-pity rather than stepping forward and trying to stop this local holocaust.
And whatever Rosewood's incidental flaws, Singleton reminds us, as we must remind ourselves ceaselessly, how horribly inhumanely human beings are capable of treating one another. The white mob's butchering of the black corpses recalls comparably unspeakable acts by American soldiers in Vietnam. And as is so often true, the very institutions which are supposed to teach us to love one another fail at their most important responsibility. The mob leaders use the occasion of a baptismal service at the Sumner church to recruit and arm their fellow murderers.
Race hatred is not a genetic trait. It is taught by one generation to the next. Thus, it is important to acknowledge Singleton's theme that the way things are and have been are not the way they have to be. Most of the white characters in Rosewood are despicable villains. But crucially, not all are. John Wright isn't. Neither are his wife and two children. Nor are the white owners of the train which Wright and Mann employ to spirit the survivors to safety. These two white men risk their livelihood and their lives solely in the interest of doing the right thing. And in his closing, Singleton offers a stubborn emblem of hope, a teenage white child who rejects the hatred and cruelty of his murderous father. It is bracing to behold that a young, angry black filmmaker still believes in the possibility of reconciliation. People can change. Things don't have to be as they have so long been. But child of the sixties that I am, I find myself losing faith. My naive generation actually believed that racial distinction and discrimination would be banished in our lifetime. And now our children are older than we were then, and in so many ways things remain as they were; in certain terrifying ways, of course, they have even grown worse.
With only minor changes, I published the paragraphs in section II above as my Gambit column in the second week of March this year and on Friday that week used the column as the basis of my commentary for "Steppin' Out," an arts and entertainment panel discussion that airs weekly on WYES-TV, New Orleans' PBS affiliate. The first call came in Friday night and was received by my answering machine. Whether the call was a response to the printed column or the television broadcast, I couldn't tell.
The caller, a male, presumably white, said, "It's disgusting liberals like you who are at the root of the problems in this country. Have been for forty years. Propagating lies. You and I both know that only six to eight people died in Rosewood, two of them white, both of them defending their property against niggers with shotguns. Men like you are why the blacks run our city now, why no self-respecting white person lives in New Orleans anymore. Lies and lies and lies defending lies. Everything now has to show how the blacks are victims and the whites are murderers. Well your nigger-loving ass and I both know that it's blacks killing whites in this world and people like you letting them get away with it."
On Saturday night, a female caller, also presumably white, expressed a comparable opinion in comparable language. The next week, I received three letters about this movie, all typed, all unsigned. One read, "Well, you've done it again. You always get it exactly wrong, so I can hardly pretend to be surprised. But I do think your Rose Wood review is just about the worse. Fortunately, no one in this city (no white person that is) is stupid enough to believe anything you write." Another revisited the claim that only six black people died at Rosewood, and the third said only, "What makes a white man take sides against his own race?"
Two comments: First, the claim that only six black people died at Rosewood derives from an official State of Florida report from the era, which Singleton acknowledges at the end of his film. That the death toll was much higher, however, possibly greater than 100 has been established by TV's Sixty Minutes among other investigators. Second, I do not want to overestimate the outpouring of attack I received over this review. I suspect that the phone calls and letters all came from the same two people.
Still, the combination of venom and dismay in the words of my white critics speaks volumes about the contemporary state of race relations and the hardened attitudes some whites take. According to them, the problems in society are the result of black deception and criminality and the collaboration of white liberals like me. White racism plays no part. Insofar as it exists, it is justifiable as an analysis proceeding from ascertainable black inferiority. The people who hold to these views are akin to those who deny the historical fact of the Holocaust as a fabrication of Zionists. I am not comfortable, of course, that I have drawn the attention and elicited the anger of people who harbor such attitudes, but if you can judge a man by his enemies, these are the ones I would choose.
They are, alas, not the only ones whose ire I attracted with my commentary about Rosewood. On the Sunday after my column appeared in Gambit and my comments about the film were first aired on WYES, I was stopped coming out of a multiplex showing of the Clint Eastwood thriller, Absolute Power, by a burly, well-dressed black man with a shaved head. I judged him to be in his early-to-middle thirties. In size and appearance, he resembled Rosewood star Ving Rhames. This gentleman had just emerged from Rosewood, which was playing in an auditorium down the hall from the one where I'd seen Absolute Power.
"You're Rick Barton, aren't you?" he said to me.
"Yes," I said, "How are you." I slowed down so that we fell into step.
"I saw your review of Rosewood," he said.
"Oh?" I replied. "Yes."
"Why didn't you like it?" he wanted to know, his tone declarative, but as yet mild.
"But I did like it," I protested. "I gave it a good review."
"You said that it wasn't great."
"Well," I said, "I don't think it is. But few films are. I use the term great very sparingly."
"Did you think Schindler's List was great?"
"Yes," I said, "I did."
He responded to that with a snort. "Film about killing Jews was great," he said, his tone contemptuous now. "Not one about killing African Americans."
"It's not the subject matter," I replied. "It's how the filmmaker handles the subject matter."
"So why, in your opinion, isn't Rosewood great?" he wanted to know. We had stopped now in the lobby and stood facing each other.
I reviewed for him the places and ways that I thought the film fell short, placing particular emphasis on what I presumed were Singleton's overriding commercial aspirations and on Ving Rhames' preposterous escape from a lynchman's noose near the film's climax.
"Are you saying that an African-American director can't have commercial aspirations?" he responded with a discernible edge in his voice. "That an African-American director can't become Steven Spielberg?"
"Well, of course not," I replied. "I am not saying anything like that at all. Singleton made a choice; that's all I'm saying. In commercial terms, the film may do better because of that choice for all I know."
"Because, in your judgment, he sacrificed aspirations of greatness for box-office considerations."
"Yes," I said. "Because he chose to be manipulative and because he resorted to the fantastic."
"So you're saying African-American audiences are susceptible to manipulation and that they believe in fantasy?"
"You're putting words in my mouth," I responded. "I didn't say anything of the kind."
"Why I believe you did indeed," he said.
I knew by this point that we were on a failed mission of communication. But I slogged on. "Look," I said. "American cinema is big business. Very big business. John Singleton has succeeded in that business, and I suspect he will continue to succeed. And I'm not about to tell him what factors to consider when he films and edits a movie. But it's my job to judge the artistic merits of the film he puts on the screen. That's it, there's no hidden agenda."
"There's always a hidden agenda."
"Obviously we disagree."
"There's always a hidden agenda when a white man writes about black issues."
"Then you think that a white critic isn't capable of reviewing a movie made by an African American?"
"I'd say that's exactly what I think."
"Then you don't know what I wrote about Singleton's Boyz N the Hood or Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing or dockers?"
"No," he said. "Don't care either. I'll know everything I need to know about you with one question. Do you think O.J. was guilty?"
I didn't answer automatically, as I searched for some way out of this obvious trap. But finally I said, "Yes I do."
He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow, the hint of a smile playing across his lips. "See," he said. Then he turned and walked away.
Ours is an age of entitlement. Conservative politicians like to attack what they consider the entitlement mentality of minorities and the impoverished who they think have been damaged by the programs of the welfare state. But the entitlement mentality is rampant in contemporary American society. I know practically no one who thinks he or she has been fairly rewarded for his or her talents and hard work. In substantial part, I think this is because we are all so aware of the obscene riches bestowed on our nation's celebrities. Movie stars Jim Carrey, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson make $20 million per starring role. Michael Jordan makes $25 million per NBA season. Tiger Woods makes $40 million just for turning professional. Week after week we read accounts of journeyman athletes rejecting million-dollar contracts, holding out for more. Week after week we read of corporate executives who earn tens of millions per year, of a failed movie studio executive who received a severance package of nearly $100 million after only one year on the job.
Awed by these sums, those of us in the middle class chafe about the restraints of our comfortable lifestyles. We compare ourselves routinely with those who have more, infrequently with those who have less. A friend of mine sells her novel for $750,000 and complains when her book doesn't make the New York Times best seller list. Another friend wins a major national literary award and complains that his work still isn't adequately appreciated. And lest I seem to point only at the sins of others, let me confess my own. I enjoy a modest literary success and sink into a depression that I don't enjoy a major literary success. All of us forget about those of our friends, every bit as talented as we, who can't get their work published at all in a publication industry that has been captured by the blockbuster mentality of Hollywood. All of us live well, have good jobs, own homes and automobiles, enjoy luxuries unknown in the world of our own parents. And still we feel sorry for ourselves. For the middle-aged generation that was young in the 1960s, Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame is not nearly long enough.
The problem for African Americans is compounded by the historical facts of slavery and segregation. These are not nearly so long in the past as to be easily forgotten. Moreover, as incidents at Denny's and Texaco demonstrate, as the harassing phone calls on my answering machine prove, as Fuzzy Zoeller's insensitive joking about Tiger Woods emphasizes, the cancer of racism persists. But that does not mean that every failure by a person of color is the result of discrimination. And nothing save the stubborn fact of racism itself has caused as much tension between the races as the charge of racism when it is unwarranted.
In the wake of the Masters, columnist William Raspberry reflected on Tiger Woods' victory and wondered whether Tiger would eventually "transcend race." Raspberry listed Colin Powell, Bryant Gumbel, Arthur Ashe, Bill Cosby and Ron Brown as prominent African Americans who are accepted by all their countrymen for themselves alone and not as representatives of their race. In the 1960s we dared to dream of a time when all men, whatever their color, would transcend race. And those of us who came of age in the 1960s dared to believe that we would experience such universal transcendence in our lifetimes. Such is the naivete of youth, of course. But even as Jimmy Carter was about to surrender the White House to Ronald Reagan, I would not have believed that tension between the races would be as high as it is as we near the end of the century. I fervently believe that we all need to throw off Warhol's narcissistic nonsense. And I fervently believe that we need to heed Woody Allen's counsel about the role of luck in our lives. And I most fervently believe that the great majority of us need to count our blessings. And in gratitude for the vastness of our blessings, we need to rededicate ourselves to the ideals we embraced in our youth, that racism and poverty can both be defeated.
But I admit to a greater pessimism than I have ever before felt. The twin responses to my review of Rosewood make me heartsick and underscore for me just how divided and angry we are. Paranoia about race war is supposedly the preserve of the lunatic right-wing fringe. Like most Americans I don't really fear such an eventuality. Our prosperity is too great a shield. But in a society as armed and angry as ours, I have actually come to have nightmares about such an unthinkable thing. Besides our prosperity, what makes us different from the people in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in Northern Ireland? There are certainly members of both races with enough hatred in their hearts to justify armed combat.
In my youth I believed that the someday we would overcome would arrive in my own lifetime. Today, I no longer have confidence it will ever arrive. Ours is a bloody planet and a heartless century. The residents of Sumner murder their neighbors in Rosewood. Turks murder Armenians. Germans murder Jews. Serbs murders Bosnians. Tutsis murder Hutus. And I admit, as my hair grays and my eyesight weakens, as the century of my birth draws to a close, my youthful faith in fundamental human decency drains away like water cupped in enfeebled hands.