August 2006 Archives
Just reviewed a remarkable book called Black Like You, by John Strausbaugh. It's a history of that verboten topic, blackface entertainment, and a demonstration that it is far from kaput in today's popular culture. I will paste the review below, but first let me recommend, as a companion piece, Bamboozled (2000), Spike Lee's remake of The Producers, in which a black television executive (Damon Wayans) tries to get out of a network contract by pitching an idea guaranteed to offend everyone: a nineteenth-century minstrel show, complete with burnt cork and exaggerated red lips, dancing pickaninnies, a band called the "Alabama Porch Monkeys," and plenty of watermelon.
When Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show is a hit, the network hires a consultant to spin the fact that it is profiting from obnoxious racial stereotypes. It's too bad the spin doctor is herself stereotyped as an arrogant Jew, because her lines perfectly capture the defensive game of the entertainment industry: "The biggest thing in public relations is to smile. Wear Kente cloth. Invoke the spirit of Martin Luther King. Use the word 'community' a lot. Mantan is a satire. If they can't take a joke, then fuck 'em."
Bamboozled is not just about network television. In his DVD commentary, Lee says, "In my opinion, this gangsta rap is a twenty-first century version of minstrel shows. And what's sad is these brothers don't even know it." For people conversant with both minstrelsy and the recent history of hip hop, Bamboozled is a brilliant satire.
Unfortunately, there aren't that many people conversant with both, so the general discussion of hip-hop is singularly lacking in historical perspective. Looking at its current decline into vulgar, racist entertainments like crunk, it is tempting to project a "rise and fall" scenario, in which minstrelsy aided the rise, and hip hop the fall, of classical African-American culture. At the moment I resist such a scenario. But unless a few more music lovers step forward and call crunk by its right name, the process started by blackface minstrelsy may well end in something even worse.
Read my review, which ends with some comments about the sorry state of hip-hop:
Having finally finished watching the 1988 classic miniseries War and Remembrance (based on Herman Wouk's best-selling novel), I come away with mixed feelings. On the plus side, the production remains impressive. Rather than overdose on special effects, ABC put its money where it mattered: on finding the right locations and framing every scene as effectively as possible for the small screen. It's a study in that elusive and rare artistic virtue: economy.
But there's also a minus side. You must have a strong stomach to watch this second installment of Wouk's World War II saga, because unlike the first, The Winds of War, which focuses on the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, War and Remembrance focuses on the war itself -- and above all, on the Holocaust. It is hard to believe that anyone made a fuss about broadcasting Schindler's List, when this made-for-TV series was, in its down-to-earth way, even more graphic.
Some argue that aesthetic considerations are inappropriate to the topic of the Holocaust. But this is unconvincing, because unless you are an art-for-art's-sake purist (which I am not), the aesthetic is intertwined with the moral. So from that perspective, let me offer some praise and criticism for this landmark in popular American understanding of World War II.
First I would praise an aspect of the film that may seem perverse: the way it introduces the Holocaust not from the perspective of the victims but from that of a camp commander at Auschwitz who is nervously preparing for a visit by Heinrich Himmler. By foregrounding the commander's petty concerns, these scenes throw an especially stark light on the evil being done. The later scenes, in which three of the main characters are sent to Theresienstadt, and thence to Auschwitz, are certainly gut-wrenching. But because they focus on just three faces in the crowd, their overall impact is somehow less.
As for my criticism, it is pretty simple. So intent is this film on remembering the Holocaust, it forgets other dimensions of the massive suffering that occurred during the war. Just to cite one example, it does not even mention the Warsaw Uprising of August-October 1944, in which the Polish Home Army fought the Nazis for 63 days. After crushing the uprising, killing 18,000 Polish soldiers and executing over 250,000 civilians, including virtually the entire educated class, the Nazis systematically destroyed between 85 and 90 percent of the city. And all the while, the Soviet army sat a few hundred metres away, on the east bank of the Vistula, and watched. When it came to breaking Poland, Stalin and Hitler were of like mind.
One would think, given the vast sweep of this miniseries, that this and other atrocities committed by Stalin would have been mentioned, at least. But no, Wouk's burly, vodka-drining Russians seems taken from a Popular Front propaganda film of the late 1930s. This is too bad, because the last thing Wouk would have wanted was for his powerful work of popular remembrance to be dismissed as a case of special pleading.