The New York Times Magazine for May 10 ran the picture of a meditative Warren Beatty on its cover, hand propped on fist like Rodin’s Thinker. The story inside, by Lynn Hirschberg, stressed the political seriousness of Beatty’s new film Bulworth, and the cover itself proclaimed that it is “a movie espousing Jesse Jackson’s politics.” That sounds plausible. After all, an early pan shot finds a Jackson sticker among the title character’s political memorabilia. Before long, Senator Jay Billington Bulworth starts speaking in rhymed political slogans, which used to be a Jackson trademark. And some of the ideological points made sound like Jackson’s—e.g., that economic disparity is growing in America while jobs drain off to other countries.
People whose judgment I respect have endorsed the idea of Bulworth’s profundity. Jules Feiffer, who has written some good movies himself, calls it “the only truly radical film to come out of mainstream Hollywood.” If that is true, the wonder is that Beatty was able to make and release the film through Twentieth Century Fox, not that Rupert Murdoch’s company has shown little enthusiasm for advertising it. “How could Murdoch care for it?” Feiffer asks. “It’s pure Wobbly. That’s the wonder of it.” Margo Jefferson, in her cultural column for the Times, finds it a “passionate, intelligent work.” So what’s not to like?
Jesse Jackson, of all people, finds plenty not to like. Though he does not go to movies very often, he had heard about Bulworth from his son, the Illinois congressman, who gave it an unfavorable review on television. A Chicago publicist arranged for Beatty to lend the senior Jackson a print of the film so they could discuss it. The special screening was set up for Pentecost Sunday. My wife and I attended the First Methodist Church in Chicago, a large structure just across from the city’s signature Picasso sculpture, to hear Jackson preach. After the service, he invited a group of us to go with him to the screening room. Jim Wall, the editor of The Christian Century, was in the group, but he begged off, since he had already seen Bulworth. But since Wall is a movie reviewer as well as his magazine’s general editor, he gave me an important tip. Others have referred to Beatty’s earlier political film, Reds, in discussing Bulworth. Wall said I should think, instead, of Mickey One, the Arthur Penn movie Beatty starred in back in 1965.
Mickey One presents Beatty as a stand-up comic and jazz musician (Stan Getz supplies some solos). Mickey is caught in a Kafkaesque situation. The mob has put out a contract on his life, but he is not sure why. “All I know is I’m guilty,” he says. Asked what he is guilty of, he replies, “Guilty of not being innocent.” On the run, he becomes shabby and unshaven, till he meets an impecunious but stylish Polish woman. He keeps encountering on the street a Fellini-type mute, a happy junkman who signals that he should rejoice. Though Mickey knows that performing again will give away his whereabouts, he cannot resist doing what makes him feel alive. He knows the spotlight will kill him, but he steps into its targeting circumference as the film ends, the glare of publicity as deadly as any rain of bullets.
In Bulworth, Beatty is again a man with a contract on his life. He runs through exposed situations with the same comic stiff-legged scamper that Mickey used. He becomes shabby and unshaven, meets Nina, an impecunious but stylish black woman, and repeatedly encounters a street person (played by Amiri Baraka, the former Leroi Jones) who gives him the enigmatic advice “Gotta be a spirit, don’t be a ghost.” In a series of what seem to be suicidal TV appearances, Bulworth infuriates his own financial backers, and one of them shoots him from ambush at the end.
These echoes of Penn’s Kafka-cum-Fellini work indicate that Beatty is trying for a symbolic resonance unlike the documentary-melodrama of Reds. It is true that he uses again Bertolucci’s great cameraman Vittorio Storaro, who won an Academy Award for his filming of Reds. In that movie, Stor- aro formed his palette from the title, giving hints of reds to other colors everywhere in the film. In Bulworth, Storaro lights and shades every exquisite plane on the face of Nina (Halle Berry), the way William Daniels used to make Garbo’s face glow from the shadows.
At the screening room, Jackson, though fresh from lunch, went for the popcorn and passed it around to Rainbow Coalition staffers and their guests. Then he sank deep into his chair and concentrated in silence while those around him laughed or gasped at sensational parts of the story. The story begins in Senator Bulworth’s office, where he has sequestered himself, not sleeping or eating for days, as he plans his own death. He has sold out his earlier liberalism, ruined his family, and become disgusted with his own poses and empty rhetoric. He hires an assassin through an unwitting intermediary. While shrinking involuntarily from the bullet that might come at him anywhere, he feels giddily liberated from pretense and begins denouncing the media, the politicians, and the purchasers of both. He pursues Nina and thinks she is helping him, though she is actually a member of the hit team hired to kill him. She is justified in this murder attempt, we are encouraged to believe, because she is only doing it for her brother, who needs the money from the crime to escape a predatory black gang leader, L.D. (Don Cheadle). Bulworth becomes a white rapper, and the soundtrack is full of songs devoted to pussy and dick fantasies, which Bulworth plays while deejaying in a night club. Nina is also excused for being a murderer by her ideological doctrines, derived from a Black Panther mother, which she recites in agitprop.
Margo Jefferson thinks the satire of blacks is no worse than that directed at Bulworth’s political flunkies and his sleazy lobbyist manipulators. But we are not taken into the families of those cartoonish villains—we do not see their children toting guns, peddling drugs, or confined to Obscenespeak. Jefferson believes Senator Bulworth has a right to mimic black rappers, since he has finally seen their pain. But what Bulworth sees is their liberating hedonism. His initiation into the rap culture comes when Nina’s friends debate the size of Arsenio Hall’s penis. It is the joy of the blacks that Bulworth thinks he discovers. More basic than the agitprop he recites verbatim after Nina is the doctrine he proclaims on TV—his creed of the omnidirectional fuck as the universal solvent: “We’ve all just got to keep fucking each other until we are the same color.” Lynn Hirschberg wrote in the Times that Beatty immersed himself in rapper culture, and that “it was mostly Beatty’s reputation as a world-class romancer of women that gave him street credibility in the rap world.” At the end of the movie, Beatty tells Nina that he feels inferior because he is white, and she gives him the ultimate accolade, “You’re my nigger.” As a nigger, of course, he has to be killed.
When Jackson rose while the house lights were going up, he spoke more in sorrow than in anger, saying he respected Beatty’s record in progressive politics. But Beatty was pleading for an authenticity based on black spontaneity, and “I don’t find the people I know in this movie. I don’t find Jesse Jr., I don’t find Jonathan [another son], who got his MBA from the Kellogg School. I don’t find the people who work every day. We’re not all rappers. Most of the early rappers are dead because they lived a deadly lifestyle. We don’t all have guns. We’re not all murderers. We don’t call ourselves niggers all the time—that is below our dignity. Some politicians exploit our churches, but not all. If no politician can be trusted, why should we register to vote, or work to improve our school system? I know other people were satirized here, but they got the scalpel. We got the meat axe.”
When I spoke with Jackson a week later, he expressed sorrow that “an attractive and talented young actress” would play the murderous Nina. “A young Cicely Tyson would not have done that. People forget that black actors of integrity gave up money in the past rather than play demeaning roles.” I asked him what he thought of Amiri Baraka’s part in the film. “I expressed my views to him, and he said that the film was just lighthearted. He also said that the best parts were left on the cutting room floor.” (When actors say that, they usually mean their part was cut down.) Jackson has also spoken to Beatty, and they have apparently agreed, respectfully, to disagree.
If I were Jesse Jackson, and I had spent years going around to high schools urging blacks to stay in school, to study harder, to stay off drugs, to vote, I suppose I would be saddened by a movie that seems to say these things are pointless under a corrupt system, and the only authentic black reaction is rage, obscenity, and sex. I would agree with him that an obliterative cynicism is not an achievement or a daring exercise in truth-telling, but the easiest and deadliest temptation there is for young blacks. But in aesthetic terms my own criticism of the movie would be quite different. Despair is not the only counsel of this show. There is a hopeful aspect to it; but it is as soft as the gooiest Frank Capra fantasy, and as phony.
The great plot turnaround occurs because Bulworth, in his rapper’s garb, confronts some drug-peddling children, treats them to ice cream cones, and stands up for them against the cops. This makes the dread crime lord L.D. conclude that, hey, if one senator is going to be a truth-teller, then he’ll change his evil ways, let Nina’s brother off if he’ll work for the senator, and bless the interracial union of Bulworth and Nina. Of course, that dream gets smashed when the sole truth-teller is shot. But it was a goofy and escapist dream all along. The sentimentalist’s approach is not made more respectable when it is delivered interlaced with obscenities. “All we have to do is love one another” is not made a more profound bit of political analysis when it is phrased as “All we have to do is fuck one another.”
July 16, 1998