Ghetto Supastar: Warren Beatty's Bulworth and the Politics of Race and Space

By Massood, Paula J. | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

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. …

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