We are all Bulworths now. Hollywood is urging white—and, yes, overwhelmingly male—moviegoers to make contact with their inner wiggers.
As befits an age that by now must be more than a few "posts" beyond modernism, this new and welcome flexibility in racial identity is a matter of high vicariousness, with absurdly white performers such as Steve Martin and Jamie Kennedy standing in for multiplex audiences who may find full-throttle tours of racial exoticism a bit too alien or threatening. (And as a bonus, the unrelenting oafishness of Kennedy or Martin's minstrelsy reassures white viewers that by no means are their own more private and mildly clumsy reckonings with our everyday racial divisions that lame.) More, and bigger, wigger-style productions are in the pipeline as well, with Hollywood Homicide, a buddy-cop film that tracks Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett's adventures in L.A.'s hip-hop underground, and Against the Ropes, a biopic of Detroit housewife-turned-boxing-promoter Jackie Kallen, starring Meg Ryan. Meanwhile, the truly stout-hearted racial spectator can still hunt down the DVD of white rapper Eminem's solemn biopic 8 Mile, the only recent big cinematic white-boy statement on race that is not packaged as a fish-out-of-water farce.
Farce is a healthy response to the tortured etiquettes that even the best-intentioned reckonings with racism can impose on our public conduct and off-hour entertainments. It is no small breakthrough that audiences can greet what had formerly been rigidly racialized codes of behavior and representation as fodder for absurdist sendups by both blacks and whites. The farce-ification of race, among other things, suggests that filmgoers can be counted on to see through the commodified trappings of screen blackness—the fake-menacing gangsta-go-round of drugs, hip-hop, violent depravity and single-parent family pathologies. It also points to a shift from adamantine group identity to individual self-invention, in which any persona—from street-life thug to middle class striver to jet-setting dandy—is available to anybody, black or white, willing to look foolish in public.
When it works best, this formula can produce a welcome lowering of racial guards all around and a frank reckoning with the stupid, overdetermined social order that mints out advantage and esteems cultural styles on a flat bipolar grid of pigmentation. As I waited in line to catch Steve Martin's Bringing Down the House, a black moviegoer in front of me lingered in brief confusion over the title of its Multiplex neighbor, a lily-white Animal House update with the misleadingly ghetto-sounding name Old School. As his (white) date explained the plot of the Will Farrell vehicle to him, he protested, "I just want to see that movie that makes fun of white guys acting black!"
As well he might. The traditional vehicle for race-conscious cinema aimed at white viewers, after all, is the Message Picture, a longstanding tradition of earnest briefs about the state of white liberalism, which were produced with greatest thematic fastidiousness (if also great cinematic clumsiness) by the late Stanley Kramer of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? fame. From Kramer's early 60s heyday onward, most white-produced movies touched the sore spot of race gingerly, with self-conscious kid gloves, even if, in the process of congratulating themselves for their own enlightenment, they also spun out much racist pap—be it in the lurid stereotyped sensationalism of the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues or the operatic white-man's-burden cinema of Alan Parker (e.g., Mississippi Burning and Angel Heart). Who wouldn't rather see Eugene Levy professing his admiration for Queen Latifah's booty?
Nevertheless, navigating the substance of America's racial dilemma remains a tricky business, and the present minstrel boomlet—as seen in Bringing Down the House, Kennedy's Malibu's Most Wanted and (in more complicated fashion) Chris Rock's Head of State—doesn't overturn old Hollywood race pieties so much as wildly overinflate them. The brisk trade in wiggery sends up white stuffiness and fear, while leaving intact the central (and yes, racist) premise of most selective white dalliances with black culture: the use of blackness as an absolute cultural gold standard, the point at which a bogus magical authenticity is conferred on whites, and from which any black deviationist tendency is hunted down and punished. Even as malaise-ridden white characters are lifted out of their funks—and into Da Funk—by their contact with blackness, black characters are ruthlessly confined to its cultural coordinates, even when it's clear that "blackness" is not always the surest path to self-improvement.
Consider Queen Latifah's ex-con-cum-nanny character, Charlene Morton, the fanciful creature who anchors the exceedingly slight craft that is Bringing Down the House, which held down the No. 1 box office spot for a woeful month-plus in the early spring. Charlene's broad ghetto character affords much obvious, and tiresome, performative sport for the rich Angeleno honkies surrounding her—she's loud, sexually uninhibited, abrasively truth-telling, violent and of course steeped in mysteriously won yet reliably sage folk wisdom. She is, in short, the sort of black woman who can only set up shop in the imagination of a white screen writer—and to make matters worse, this same screenwriter expects us to accept that she is choosing this persona as a means of, well, keepin' it real. When Steve Martin's uptight tax attorney character, Peter Sanderson, notes that, appearances to the contrary, she has "pockets of intelligence" and could be made a presentable job prospect or college student, she'll have none of it. She briefly mimics a snatch of lawyerly official-ese, and says, back in character, "I don' need your approval! I'm satisfied with who I am!" And then, even deeper back in character, she slips into her familiar, comfortably harmless shtick of colorfully assailing his own unbearable whiteness: "I get a wedgie just walking into your office!" You expect George Jefferson to walk in at any moment.
All of these white-tinted forays into black experience have a moment like this, where the path leading from black identity into mainstream whiteness abruptly becomes a no-crossing zone. In Chris Rock's Head of State, the only recent wigger-ish farce that occasionally rises to the level of genuine mirth, this racial tug of war takes place within the central character, Mays Gilliam, who is improbably thrust into the role of Democratic presidential nominee in 2004. His campaign handlers predictably try to keep him on a script of blandly pious feel-good Americanism—and just as predictably, he must discover his true message and identity by asserting his unassailable blackness. Indeed, he becomes more black as a presidential candidate than he was as a mere alderman in a heavily black D.C. inner-city ward, in what can only be taken as Rock's own slantwise comment on the kind of broad mugging that all versions of black celebrity, political and otherwise, seem to demand. He shunts off his business suit for a Dr. Dre-style black denim ensemble, with an American flag emblazoned on the back of his jacket; he starts wearing medallions and rakish poor-boy caps, and his two campaign slogans are "That Ain't Right!" and "Ya Heard?" Throughout his campaign travels, Mays is also pursued by his ex-girlfriend, a Buppie on the make (played, in a truly epic turn of cinematic self-hating, by Mike Tyson's ex-wife Robin Givens), delusionally planning their wedding, and serving as a not-so-subtle reminder that hewing too close to white trappings of success will make you literally insane.
Initially at least, Gilliam's message is even truer to his ghetto origins: He derides the deterioration of affordable health care and housing, the decline of public schools, the looting of company pension plans—the same fantasy platform, in short, that Warren Beatty gave his own wigger political alter ego Bulworth. But as the campaign progresses, Gilliam drops much of the political program and harps instead on the effluvia of lifestyle purity. In a climactic debate with the opposition candidate—a button-down incumbent vice president-cum-nitwit campaigning under the slogan "God Bless America, and No Place Else"—Gilliam carries the day with an assault not on the man's platform but on his honky inauthenticity: "How can you help the poor if you've never been poor? How can you be against crime if you've never been robbed? How can you be against drugs if you never smoked the chronic?" Before you know it, he's riffing, in high Latifah form, on how "if America were a woman, she'd be a big-titty woman." Mercifully, the film ends before Rock—a brilliant and refreshingly stereotype-resistant comedian in real life—morphs entirely into Redd Foxx.
An election is also the backdrop for the execrable Jamie Kennedy vehicle, Malibu's Most Wanted. Kennedy plays Brad (a.k.a. B-Rad) Glickman, whose father is running for governor of California. B-Rad has assembled his own privileged wigger posse, has recorded his own hip-hop CD, wears a backward-tilted coach visor and is given to truly awful freestyle rapping, which Kennedy (who co-wrote the movie) is clearly convinced grows funnier by sheer force of repetition. (In its sophomoric fixations on race, this film has buried the lead: A Jew is poised to become the governor of the nation's largest state, even if he is being played by Ryan O'Neal, who clearly must fire his agent now.) Dad's campaign handlers are afraid that the idiot son's wigger antics will cost the governership and so they hire a pair of classically trained (and seemingly gay) black actors to depict hard-core violent gangstas to "scare the black out of him." Predictably the scheme doesn't take. Instead, through a series of never-comical misunderstandings, B-Rad becomes an unlikely gang hero; the ambiguously gay thespian ghetto poseurs are subjected to serial humiliations and—I hope you're sitting down—assaults on their masculinity. And naturally, uptight Dad Glickman comes to accept young B-Rad for what he is—and not incidentally wins the election on the strength of such B-Rad-penned appeals to "street" voters as "Glickman stands up for the bitches and 'hos."
I need not go on. Except to note that, as this weird effort to ventriloquize a grossly caricatured blackness has captivated Hollywood producers, TV viewers have begun a quiet rebellion. For the first time since such viewing habits have been measured, reports the survey group Initiative Media, white and black audiences share two Top Ten shows in common. Researchers theorize that the gradual convergence of racial viewing groups is due largely to multicultural casting in serial night-time dramas such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation—but that's the very sort of self-congratulation that entertainment producers lavish on themselves for no good reason. (For the record, CSI's sole black recurring character, Warrick, is a troubled loner saddled with a gambling addiction, which makes him a standout audience draw in a show whose main appeal is to morbid curiosity.) Moreover, the other race-crossing entry is ABC's Monday Night Football, and no sane researcher would claim that Al Michaels or Hank Williams Jr. is a stalking horse for a new multicultural America. And finally, if this programmer-centric view of racial progress were valid, Fox's ghastly study in racial hypersensitivity Boston Public would command a huge viewership across the racial boards; with all due praise to American taste, it does not.
No, what's truly interesting about Initiative Media's survey is that it discloses a striking genre divide between black and white viewing households. Black viewers gravitate overwhelmingly to sitcom treatments of conventional middle-class black life that are anything but ghetto-fied scarefests: The Parkers, The Bernie Mac Show, One on One, My Wife and Kids, etc. White households, meanwhile, gorge themselves mainly on workplace and police procedurals (Law and Order and its umpteen variations, CSI and ER) with a smattering of ultrawhite reality-defying sitcoms (Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Will and Grace) and a handful of gruesome reality shows (Survivor and The Bachelor).
There is, in other words, a considerable irony here: Black viewers are finding entertainment in the very sort of bland family fare that is allegedly a hallmark of tame mainstream whiteness—Bernie Mac may swear and ogle more than Dick Van Dyke did, but he is otherwise the garden-variety put-upon sitcom dad. And white viewers seek out allegedly gritty reality and "ripped from the headlines" fare designed to persuade them that their own social world—or, for that matter, human nature—is much worse than it actually is. (Note, for example, that among the leading white shows, only Everybody Loves Raymond is a traditional family sitcom, and that it seethes with dark Hobbesian resentment.) Hollywood's wigger industry makes it all too plain which of these viewing tendencies has the upper hand; lurid white fascination with ghetto life only seems to increase as black homeownership, employment, and college graduation all continue to increase. It's hard to see how this weird symbiosis can be broken—unless, that is, some truly daring entertainment executive sends the wiggers packing and reverses the reigning racial polarities with a straight-up celebration of the many mad flavors of Oreos.