Ghetto Supastar: Warren Beatty's Bulworth and the Politics of Race and Space
Massood, Paula J., Literature/Film Quarterly
"Is 'Bulworth' a Hollywood film about politics or a political film about Hollywood?" (Gates 65). This is the question posed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in reference to Warren Beatty's Bulworth. While neither Gates nor Beatty answers this query, the question points to two central aspects of Bulworth that will be important here. First. it indicates Beatty's intertwined concerns with both politics and Hollywood. Second, and more important, the question points to the difficulty that many commentators, not only Gates, had in easily defining the film, a difficulty that extends beyond Bulworth's politics to its genre as well.
Variously identified as a political drama, a political comedy, a political drama-comedy, a tragic farce, a satire, and a black comedy, Bulworth defies easy labeling.1 The film is perhaps best defined as a generic hybrid that links politics with popular culture, yet it is surprising that critics, while emphasizing Bulworth's self-referential critiques of Hollywood and its links to the star's other films, failed to see the film's roots-African American film-- making from the early nineties. While Beatty's not unrelated association with Russell Simmons, Suge Knight, and gangsta rappers has been discussed in detail, often centering on issues of authenticity and appropriation, what has been overlooked is Bulworth's references to the conventions of the hood genre as a whole, and to certain films in particular. My suggestion here is that it's in Bulworth's relationship to hood films that we might be able to understand the film's meditations on the politics of race, space, and representation. Furthermore, it is the film's deviations from its connections to the hood film that undermine Beatty's political project.
During the early nineties a number of young, African American filmmakers made films that were similar in theme and style. Referred to as hood films, New Jack Cinema, New Black Realism, or Black Urban Realism, films like Matty Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991), John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991), and Allen and Albert Hughes's Menace II Society (1993) featured young male protagonists, coming of age (or not) in the inner city. The films also formalized a set of spatio-temporal conventions that can be understood in terms of Mikhail Bakhtin's chronotope, as a form of "materialized history" where temporal relationships are literalized by the objects, spaces, or persons with which they intersect (247). As defined by these films, the hood chronotope is distinguished by a temporal immediacy aided by location shooting and references to facets of African American popular culture (the youth fashions, language, and-especially-music) contemporaneous with the films' releases.
According to Bakhtin, chronotopes are associated with specific genres, defining them, enabling them, and establishing boundaries between various "intrageneric subcategories" (Clark and Holquist 250). Yet chronotopes can exist as motifs or traces in other genres as well, often serving as an "aura" of another genre, a reminder of another place and another time (Morson and Emerson 375). When such a situation occurs, Bakhtin stresses, chronotopes 11 are mutually inclusive, they co-exist, they may be interwoven with, replace, or oppose one another, contradict one another or find themselves in ever more complex relationships" (252). If we understand Bulworth's intertextual references to African American popular culture-especially rap-as a chronotopic motif instantiated to both enable and dialogue with the film's discourses on politics and the politics of discourse, we can begin to account for the many textual contradictions identified by Gates and other commentators. If nothing else, we might be better equipped to address accusations of appropriation leveled at Beatty.
Bulworth's references to the hood chronotope range from the subtle and sensitive to the blatant and embarrassing. Some of the more subtle references appear fleetingly during the first few moments of the film, but what they establish is crucial for understanding the film's exploration of the American political system in general and race politics in particular. The film opens with two title sequences, introducing the date-1996-and the context-Senator Jay Billington Bulworth's desultory campaign for re-election. What follows is a seemingly innocuous long shot of the United States Capitol building in Washington with a street sign reading "Do Not Enter" prominently placed in the foreground. While this shot has been read, rather awkwardly, by Stuart Klawans of The Nation as an allusion to Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, my reading is both more modest and more immediate. This establishing shot is a direct quotation of the opening shot of Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, with its stop sign in the foreground and a plane taking-off in the far background [Figs. 1 & 2]. If this connection appears too coincidental, then we should consider as well that Singleton's film follows this establishing shot with a long shot of a street with signs reading "One Way" and "Do Not Enter" prominently placed in the foreground. This shot cuts immediately to a fast-paced montage sequence focusing on three shots of bullet-ridden posters advertising Reagan's re-election campaign [Figs. 3 & 41. The only text in these shots reads, "Four More Years, Reagan/Bush" and the images are accompanied by nondiegetic gunfire on the soundtrack. In Singleton's film, these references comment on the restrictions placed on African American mobility in Los Angeles and the government's (Reagan's, the LAPD's) complicity in the enforcement of the boundaries delimiting the hood and African American political and economic advancement, a fact noted by Manthia Diawara when he observes that "Signs... play an important role in limiting movement of people in South Central Los Angeles" (Diawara 22).
In Bulworth the establishing shot is not only a direct quotation of the Singleton film, but its combination of signifiers foreshadows Senator Bulworth's eventual act of bearing witness in a South Central church when he admits to its congregation that politicians will not respond to the concerns of African American constituents until they can match corporate contributions to political campaigns, echoing Reagan's abandonment of such areas during both his terms as Governor of California and as president. Additionally, this shot foreshadows Nina's (Bulworth's fly-girl love interest) words when she identifies the causes of despair in the hood as governmental disinterest and the removal of an industrial base from the inner city. Thus through the connections between such shots in Bulworth and in hood films like Boy&, the implication is that the situation in the hood is determined by what happens in Washington and elsewhere, places off limits to the very residents most effected by their decisions. In this way. we can see Bulworth continuing the discussion begun by the earlier films, and significantly, by establishing Washington's position in the foreground, arguing that in order to understand what's happening in South Central, we have to understand what's happening in Washington.
The next scene in Bulworth is connected to this establishing shot through a sound bridge featuring Bulworth's commentary in a political advertisement indicating his shift from the left to a significantly more conservative position. Bulworth's voice-over accompanies shots of pictures of crucial Civil Rights figures; Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Huey Newton, and Robert Kennedy. It's obvious that these photos are meant to align Bulworth with his liberal past, as many of the images include a younger Bulworth in them as well. In addition, they supply a possible cause for his emotional collapse in their suggestion that his politics no longer resemble what they once did, just as Bulworth no longer resembles the young man in the pictures. What is most interesting here is Beatty's choice to include the photo of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King standing together; an image over which the camera lingers before moving on. In choosing this photo, Beatty not only refers to the lost political opportunities and figures from the past, but he also connects the film to a recent moment in African American popular culture, namely Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, a film that, like Bulworth, has as its central narrative focus the links between politics and representation [Figs. 5 & 6].
Appearing earlier than hood films and dealing with different subject matter, Lee's film is not a hood film; however, it helped to establish conventions that would be later used by a younger generation of African American directors, in particular, location shooting in a recognizable city space, the use of referents from contemporary popular culture (especially Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" as the anthem for the film's politics), and a concern with African American representation and agency, Many who are familiar with Lee's film will recall that this same picture of MLK and Malcolm X with graffiti-like adornments was sold by Smiley throughout the film, and it is this picture that adorns the walls of Sal's Pizzeria as it burns near the film's conclusion. Additionally, just as we are introduced to Bulworth through the images on his wall, so, too, is the collection of pictures on the "Wall of Fame" in Sal's Pizzeria the determinant of identity in Do The Right Thing's small corner of Bed-- Stuy, Brooklyn. Much has been made of the ambiguity of Lee's film; for example, that it never provides a clear-cut answer to its demand that someone, somewhere, do the right thing. While the connections between the two films are slight-though Bulworth's soundtrack also features Public Enemy and is suggestive of the liberating potential of Black musical expression for the city's silenced African American population-I can't help but hear echoes of Lee's film in Bulworth's focus on moral, economic, and political transformation, and the Senator's desire to do the right thing.
The use of the photos as a signifier for the lost politics of the sixties has been read by critics both as a form of nostalgia on Beatty's part and as an indictment of the present state of American politics.2 Yet it is also interesting to view the photos in the context of the hood chronotope's temporal dimension, as there are similarities between the two. As I mentioned earlier, hood films are characterized by a temporal immediacy: they speak of the moment for their intended audience. Additionally, many of the hood films reference a political past, a past often aligned with the main protagonist's past. For example, Boyz identifies two different time periods, the earlier section from 1984 and the later, contemporary time frame of 1991, both of which are aligned with Tre's experiences. The Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society contains a similar temporal structure. The early parts of the film are identified by Caine's voice-over as occurring first during the 1965 Watts Rebellion and then during the 1970s. Again, the past is identified as Caine's past. In both Boyz and Menace the individual histories are also community histories, with the historical moment directly related to the immediate events taking place in the narratives. In Boyz, Tre's present situation is connected to Reagan's politics, and in Menace, Caine's present is linked to urban rebellion and the rise of drugs in the seventies. All of this is situated in the context of specific South Central neighborhoods.
In Bulworth we see a similar temporal framework. While the film is set in 1996, its soundtrack propels the film into the present of the film's release date, thus signifying an immediacy similar to the use of rap music in hood films. In fact, following the marketing strategies of hood films. the film's soundtrack was released first, and songs like "Ghetto Supastar" were in heavy rotation by the film's release date.3 The use of rap music, both Bulworth's rap and the music on the soundtrack, links the film's politics-both past and present-with contemporary African American politics. According to Beatty, rappers are "trying to break through a system," . . . "they have to be heard. And they will not be heard with the academic word" (qtd. in Hirschenberg 53, 62). The narrative is set in 1996, yet the photographs, Nina's childhood experiences with the Black Panthers, and the presence of Amiri Baraka as the homeless griot connect the present situation in African American communities and the politics of the past; specifically, the Civil Rights movement, Black Nationalism, and the Black Arts Movement of the seventies (in which Baraka was a motivating force). Additionally, Beatty sees a direct link between the rappers' potential as catalysts for change and the politics of the sixties: "the same people who are objecting to rap music now would in the sixties have been objecting to Huey Newton or Bobby Seale or Eldridge Cleaver or Stokely Carmichael" (qtd. in Gates 63). As Pras suggests in "Ghetto Supastar," the featured single off the film's soundtrack, "I'ma teach this cat how to live in the ghetto. Keepin' it retro-spective from the get go," the past and present of the ghetto are intertwined, and these connections are often made through music (Michel).
Furthermore, as with the examples from Boyz and Menace, the historical and the present are connected to an individual's experiences. This reading makes sense, as well, if we remember that hood films often focus on coming-of-age narratives. While Bulworth certainly isn't concerned with Senator Bulworth's biological coming-of-age, it is structured around his political coming-of-age. But how are we to read this transformation, especially since, unlike the hood films' protagonists, Bulworth's history is not directly connected to the South Central community within which and upon which his political enlightenment occurs? In fact, if anything Bulworth is more closely aligned with the Beverly Hills community he disparages than he is with South Central. Perhaps this is why Bulworth's metamorphosis from an aging white neo-conservative Democrat to a Phat Farm-wearing rapper seems so awkward and self-conscious, because in doing so, he's not so much appropriating African American culture as he is claiming a certain history to add cogency to his political point while overlooking crucial differences in agency and access to power.
An example from Bulworth will illustrate my point here, especially in suggesting the film's connections to and deviations from the hood chronotope. Over the course of the film, Bulworth makes four separate trips to South Central. His first visit coincides with his first public "breakdown," as he tells the congregation of a Black church the truth about American politics. The second time. his visit to an after hours club, marks the beginning of Bulworth's transformation into the rapping personality he will become for almost the remainder of the film. This is also the visit that links him to Nina, as it is here that we see the two dancing together and Bulworth explicitly states his interest in "Nina! Nina! The prettiest girl, I e-ver seen-a (qtd. in Klawans 33). While these visits are pivotal moments in Bulworth's political transformation, I'd like to focus on the remaining two visits as I believe they point to a textual breakdown of what has been to this point Beatty's knowledgeable use of popular culture references, as well as suggesting that the film's generic hybridity-or generic miscegenation-might not be as unproblematic as Bulworth's suggestion that the only way to achieve racial harmony is for "everyone to fuck everyone else" (qtd. in Alter 66).
During both Bulworth's remaining visits to South Central, he travels to Nina's family's house. Each visit is introduced by the same establishing shot: graffiti covered walls mark the entrance to the hood, ironically accompanied by Witchdoctor's "Holiday" on the soundtrack, echoing "everyday is a holiday" [Figs. 7 & 8]. The entrance is threatening in appearance, its protective walls, gates, and barbed wire suggestive of a fortress. The danger of the space is further suggested by the fact that the shots are filmed first at dusk and then at night, transforming Compton into both a literal and figurative "dark city." The suggested threat is extended by the ubiquitous presence of the LAPD, signified by the sound of helicopters, the sight of their searchlights flooding the yard around Nina's house, and the appearance of a police cruiser.4 The particular choice of raise-en-scene can be read in two different ways. First, Beatty uses readily available iconography-the walls, the graffiti, the sound of helicopters and rap music-established by hood films as his own shorthand introduction to South Central. Additionally, such iconography self-consciously plays on and confirms white suburbia's fear of the Black city: it is presented as an intimidating place and as a possible threat to Bulworth.
Yet the neighborhood is also a haven for and the site of his final transformations. In his first visit, Bulworth dons the fashions of a homeboy and walks the streets of Compton. But the potential for threat suggested by the earlier shot of the "hood gates" is allayed once he meets pre-pubescent runners for the local drug lord and treats them to ice cream cones. In fact, the scene suggests that the only threat found in the neighborhood comes from the LAPD, as two white cops harass the group, echoing the harassment that Tre receives in Boyz and Caine receives in Menace. Unlike the treatment that both Tre and Caine experience, however, the threat is nullified when Bulworth reveals his "true" identity to the cops and forces them to apologize to the kids. This action perfectly illustrates Bulworth's freedom to cross borders; he's accepted by the kids because of his clothes and money, and his authority is accepted by the police because of his status as a white Senator. Furthermore, the LAPD's clemency toward Bulworth contradicts with the film's earlier criticisms of the white political establishment's responsibility for the conditions of the inner city. Bulworth's complicity in the status quo is even more explicit in his second trip, when, after a long sleep, he emerges dressed in his original suit and tie and is no longer rapping. While he is ultimately punished for his transgressions, it is because he went into South Central, not that he returned.
As this suggests, these trips into South Central are indicative of the film's divergence from the concerns of the hood films upon which Bulworth relies for much of its meaning, a significant departure that involves the very same issues of power and space that the film has henceforth been examining. As Mike Davis has shown in City of Quartz, since the 1960s and the Watts Rebellion, Los Angeles has been transformed into a fortress city with neighborhoods like Compton experiencing a form of "spatial apartheid" (Davis 230). It is a carceral city that maintains strict border controls and limits on the movement of its residents, especially those in South Central. Thus the notion of the "hood gate" suggested by the establishing shots of Compton can be expanded upon and read in contemporary terms of containment. Mobility and agency are central concerns of the hood narrative, and the style and technique of the films, especially location shooting, is intended as a metaphor for mobility. But Beatty's concern with authenticity-as indicated in his immersion into rap culture-curiously fails him here, for what he overlooks in his establishment of the space is the fact that Bulworth has the freedom to move in and out of this area in ways not available to its residents. Perhaps this is where the "Hollywood film about politics" portion of Bulworth overtakes the narrative, because the film's lack of recognition about Bulworth's privileged agency and access to power reveals its failure to fully encompass the issues raised both by hood films and by rap music. Furthermore, this blind spot is revealed textually as well, as the shots of Compton are devoid of the immediacy of the hood films-shockingly, the hood appears to be shot on a studio back lot.
Bulworth's rapping performances and his budding love affair with Nina made the film vulnerable to criticisms claiming that Beatty appropriated African American popular culture, or in more vigorous critiques, that his performance was nothing more than a racial masquerade. But, as I've been suggesting, the issue is much more complex than this because Bulworth attempts to bring together African American concerns and American politics in ways that are sensitive to the political arguments put forth by both African American directors and rap musicians. Yet, for all its similarities, Bulworth is not a hood film, and my discussion of the film's treatment of Compton indicates that even in its reliance on the hood chronotope, Beatty's film cannot but be identified with a tradition in American film and literature that, according to Toni Morrison, constructs a racialized other as "a sometime allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence" in order to talk about what it means to be American (Morrison 17).
In Playing in the Darkness, Morrison argues that this Africanist presence in American literature
became the means of thinking about body, mind, chaos, kindness, and love; provided the occasion for exercises in the absence of restraint, the presence of restraint, the contemplation of freedom and of aggression, permitted opportunities for the exploration of ethics and morality, for meeting the obligations of the social contract, for bearing the cross of religion and following out the ramifications of power. (47-48)
Bulworth is about one man's political transformation, as well as his coming to terms with his own-and the political system's-abuse of ethics, morals, and power. The elements that enable his journey to moral and ethical enlightenment are connected to African American culture, from the very first frames of the film with the "Do Not Enter" sign through its concluding moments when Baraka's face fills the screen. But we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that Bulworth's immersion into African American culture somehow aligns him with the protagonists in hood films, as his transformation is wholly individual, forming what Morrison calls, in another context, "an extraordinary mediation on the. self' (17). Bulworth's soul searching, finally, never extends to a self-conscious examination of his own ability and mobility to enter and exit the South Central community at will, a freedom that we know from films like Boyz and Menace, is denied-sometimes violently-to many residents of the hood. Furthermore, this freedom to cross borders also exists on the level of genre, as the film uses many conventions of the hood film in its narrative about a Senator's political coming-of-age. But, just as Bulworth re-dons his suit and tie at the end of the film, so, too, can Bulworth (and Bulworth) pull back from the ghetto and return to being just what it is, a Hollywood film about politics, with Beatty, as always, the superstar.
1 These adjectives appear in almost every review of the film, including those in The New York Times. The Village Voice, The Nation, Newsweek, People, and Variety.
2 In a compelling analysis of Beatty's star imagery and Bulworth, Lucia Bozzola suggests that the photos of Malcolm X, King, and Kennedy also foreshadow Senator Bulworth's assassination. Bozzola made this observation in "`I'm Too Old For You': Bulworth and Beatty at the Doorstep of the New Millennium." a paper presented on a panel dedicated to Bulworth at the 1999 Society for Cinema Studies Conference.
3 The soundtrack was released a week before the film and debuted at No. 21. This sort of marketing strategy is not limited to these films, but often the soundtrack is intimately linked to the f Im, primarily through the use of rappers as performers. Recent examples of this sort of casting falls outside of the hood genre, however they rely on the rap personalities to add an element of "hipness" to the film; examples include Will Smith's performance in Wild Wild West and LL Cool I's in Deep Blue. Ironically, the videos for the songs associated with these films received more press than the films themselves. My thanks to Alex Keller for bringing this to my attention regarding Wild Wild West.
4 The use of sound to indicate the presence of the LAPD is Beatty's quotation of many hood film references to police presence. Often, as is the case with Boyz and Menace, the sound of the helicopters is enough to suggest the Foucauldian surveillance techniques practiced by the police. White-directed films dealing with similar subject matter often show the helicopters or, more important, film the community from the point of view of individuals in the helicopters. This practice was established by Colors in 1988 and has, with few exceptions, continued.
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Clark, Katerina and Michael Holquist. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1984. Davis, Mike. City of Quartz. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Diawara, Manthia. "Black American Cinema: The New Realism." Black American Cinema. Ed. Manthia Diawara. New York: Routledge, 1993. 22.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. "The White Negro." The New Yorker 11 May 1998: 65.
Hirschenberg, Lynn. "Warren Beatty is Trying to Say Something." The New York Times Magazine 10 May 1998: 2062.
Klawans, Stuart. "Citizen Beatty." The Nation 15/22 May 1998: 32-34.
Michel, Pras, O1' Dirty Bastard, and Mya. "Ghetto Supastar (That is What You Are)." Bulworth, a Film by Warren Beatty. Interscope Records, 1998.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: A Creation ofa Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.
Paula J. Massood
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Ghetto Supastar: Warren Beatty's Bulworth and the Politics of Race and Space. Contributors: Massood, Paula J. - Author. Journal title: Literature/Film Quarterly. Volume: 30. Issue: 4 Publication date: January 1, 2002. Page number: 287+. © Salisbury University 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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