I have taught AP English Language and Composition for three years now. I always run a comparison between Malcolm X’s “Ballot and the Bullet” and MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” They are both remarkable pieces and highlight the assimilationist v. separatist approaches to America’s cultural and racial problems.
Malcolm X’s piece is a treat to read. It is full of invective (those damn “crackers!”) and defiance. The anger is palpable. Rhetorically he pulls no punches. The black man has gotten a raw deal for too long. The whites have given him window dressing rights. Fuck the police. The relationship is irreconcilable—probably. The choice (bullets or the ballot?) haunts the speech. There is much that resonates with the current atmosphere especially in light of events in Dallas.
The Revenant has some things going for it. For one, the cinematography is beautiful. Tom Hardy proves, yet again, he has acting chops. Leonardo DiCaprio, after much grunting and groaning over the years to get an Oscar, gets a role where he literally grunts and groans his way the whole movie to achieve the allusive gold (really, I want to see the script). The script itself is fine and there are great, dramatic moments throughout, but on the whole it needed editing (over two and a half hours long). What irritated me most, though, was the eye-rolling, ahistoric, cliché moralism of the film.
Yes, it is the historian in me that is annoyed, but it isn’t over presentism (see every Ridley Scott movie) or pedantic historical inaccuracies. Rather, what irks me is the Zinnian tripe in which the white man is the invading oppressor and the red man is the oppressed (not the first time I’ve gone after Zinn the “historian”). Granted, Zinn presents a fun and simplistic morality tale and as with most morality tales there is a kernel of truth, but in the end, it is just that: a tale, which as expected, has sparked equally obnoxious right wing backlashes. It is a truism among historians that bringing politics into the study of history leads to bad history. And bad history begets more bad history, which, not surprisingly, worms its way into our films. I had hoped a skilled director would have handled the topic with more care, but alas.
There was a particularly nasty piece of drivel published on Salon yesterday, all about the myth of “meritocracy.” According to Ms. Cooper (AKA, “professorcrunk”), the entire construct of society as we know it is pejorative towards black people, tearing down any semblance of objectivity, and building its entire assumption about the world, emotion, feeling, and success around whiteness — in particular, MALE whiteness. Crunky gives no solution to the perceived slight from society, which means that, had she been born in Athens and run around in a white toga, she’d probably have been forced to take the hemlock.
I’m most fascinated by Crunky’s assertion that “The United States was not built on a system of meritocracy. It was built on a system of denied access.” The reality is that Crunky’s argument is old and gutless. She wouldn’t be happy unless Matt Damon had his money, cinema contracts, and good looks stripped and given to Tyrell Damon. But Crunky doesn’t need to pick on Matt Damon if she wants to point out celebrities who are steeping society in a furtherance of WHITENESS. Shaq recently admitted that he turned down a major business opportunity with Starbucks because he believed “black people don’t drink coffee.” This should actually make Crunky HAPPY, since Shaq is admitting that the “universal” – AKA, WHITE – assumption that everyone (again, WHITE PEOPLE) likes coffee actually destroys the individuality of demographics that prefer sweet tea, or Ovaltine.
At the beginning of summer I picked up David Halberstam’s The Fifties. Halberstam, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his journalism in Vietnam, put his research skills to work during the next four decades of his life writing books on history. The Fifties puts his talents on display as he effortlessly and colorfully takes us on a fantastic trip through one of America’s most storied decades. It’s a joy to read a work that is not only well-researched but well-written.
One thing about good history is that it has a tendency to surprise you. When a writer inhabits the past fully, leaving behind his 21st century prejudices, unique and unexpected things begin to pop out of the woodwork. One particular historical nugget caught my eye in Halberstam’s work: his account of Earl Warren. And then I thought of my whipping boy, Howard Zinn, and couldn’t resist taking him to task yet again.
I recently subscribed to Foreign Policy and just the other day got the first print edition. There is something pleasant and old-fashioned about getting a journal in hardcopy. Unfortunately this month’s issue isn’t online yet for some inexplicable reason, which is unfortunate because I was frankly startled and encouraged by an exchange between Joshua Oppenheimer and David Rieff. Both men have done work on the subject of genocide, international affairs, and humanitarian aid. While Rieff has written some books, Oppenheimer may be the better known of the two as his chilling documentary The Act of Killing was nominated for Best Documentary in 2012. All that to say, here’s some excerpts and thoughts from an exchange between Oppenheimer and Rieff.
Joshua Oppenheimer: The task of cinema in intervening in and exploring theses issues is to actually immerse us in these problems… Most human rights documentaries… replicate that most basic form of narrative escapism, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. That is reassuring because we inevitably identify with the good guys. But it’s problematic because it makes it difficult to understand—not in the sense to excuse, but to understand how human being do these sort of things to each other … If we don’t accept the uncomfortable proposition that every perpetrator of virtually every act of evil in our history has been a human being like us, then we actually foreclose the possibility of understanding how we do this to one another and therefore make it impossible to figure out we might prevent these things.