Thursday, May 12, 2016

Black and Brown and Done All Over

About ten years or more ago I read a feature in the New York Times profiling some firm or other's attempt to cash in on Chicano gang aesthetics and culture in the same way black gang culture had been commercialized years before (most brilliantly perhaps in NWA's groundbreaking records, which were frankly sold as marketing innovations--"fuck the crossover, let them cross over to us" they declared). What ever happened to that effort? It fizzled. Seeing as the glorification of gang violence must have a feedback effect increasing gang violence, Chicanos are fortunate, perhaps, to not be as interesting to white people--and to Chicanos--as blacks are.

On the West Coast Hispanic still means Mexicans. "Chicano" may be a politically freighted term, but I like it--it distinguishes the native-born Mestizo from Mexican nationals. And come to think of it, you don't really hear the word that much anymore--they're squabbling over Hispanic v Latino, or Latino/a--and I suspect you don't hear the term as much because it distinguishes Mexican Americans from Mexican nationals and immigrants, and the narrative effort is all toward getting Hispanics to think of themselves as a homogeneous group, like blacks, united with others against American whites--whites globally, to be honest. Not to be too melodramatic about it. But then that's the thing, isn't it? It's getting harder to achieve melodrama.

But the follow-up profile, detailing the failure of this putsch, to that NYT story never showed up--and I do remember at the time a noticeable broader effort to--not normalize, but romanticize and cash in on Chicano culture, and implicitly, just as in the case of blacks before, cash in on the violence that is so much a part of that romance. And it all, as in that profile I can't find, was so blithe, optimistic even. But I suspect people then still expected a resolution to the black problem; we don't expect that anymore. And the cashing in just goes on.

Before that cynical effort, in the late eighties, there was a smaller commercial/cultural bloom for Chicanos with the film La Bamba (Which crossed the border into Mexico: I recall the title song blaring from cars in San Felipe, Baja that boozy summer.) Indeed, you can trace the Chicano cultural/commercial narrative's failing optimism arc across the peaks that are movie releases, rising with La Bamba and Stand and Deliver (1987, 1988)--the latter a sort of companion piece to Morgan Freeman's 1989 black uplift film Lean on Me--; optimistic, ultimately patriotic stories about Mexican Americans making the American Immigrant Journey, with Southern California standing in for New York and Ellis Island; and falling with Machete (2010) which I haven't seen, but will safely assume is neither optimistic or implicitly patriotic. And we won't see optimism again.

Of course in those same late eighties was born gangsta rap and the same hardening of black and brown attitudes that wasn't going unnoticed entirely--1988's Colors about black and Mexican gangs fighting in LA was sufficiently pessimistic, but, like those success-story films document the last, best effort to write a wholesome narrative of upward mobility for black and brown, documents the coming phase that would replace it, as one of the last films to allow a franker, non-self conscious white perspective on the problem of race.

It's hard to imagine such as Dennis Hopper's film, told from the point of view of two white cops, both admirable, being made now without being hobbled by critical race theory chains. My favorite moment from the film wouldn't occur to a filmmaker today--the two white cops are sitting in the back of a black community meeting between an earnest ex-gangbanger/social worker and residents. As the meeting breaks down in the predictable cycle of threats and recriminations (much milder of course than what we would expect today, notably), the scene ends with the two white cops breaking into grins at the predictable black hijinks:



Black and brown attitudes were hardening under cultural happy talk and the oblivious machinations of American commerce as the nineties came along, shocking complacent whites when exploding into our consciousness with the Rodney King riot. People forget that after the initial explosion of the first day, the riot was dominated by Mestizo Angelenos looting the retail stock of south central LA and beyond side-by-side with blacks who had been attacking them on the streets the day before. But the shock, to whites--at least in my experience and forgotten now like our shock at the maliciousness of LA's blacks--was at the mendacity of the Mexicans, so many of whom had to be legal and illegal immigrants. People were showing their true colors; that of blacks, terrifying, of browns, tawdry. Of course we never spoke of it because we'd already been relieved of our point of view; pre civil rights the news reports would have taken for granted their point of view was white American. There was at least some implicit recognition of a valid white American point of view left when the Rodney King riot started (and may have been killed off by it). Now that much isn't possible of course, and is keenly watched for by the narrative police.

But there's a lot of ruin in a degrading right to speak freely. It's taken us a while to get from the enforced politeness of Seventies television, exemplified for me by the Norman Lear sitcom, to the grim self-abasement of the present.
 Of course it isn't that there's no "freedom of speech" regarding race--now non-whites are encouraged to outdo one another speaking their minds, such as they are, about race. It's really a question of point of view--who's allowed their own point of view, who isn't. Another way of saying whites aren't allowed an identity in identity politics is that whites aren't allowed an explicit point of view.

Leftists' struggle with "intersectionality" is largely trying to order the hierarchy of point of view in their growing production. Ideally, the order the Left would will places Whites at the center of a sort of reverse panopticon, surrounding by the interrogating, relentless gaze of immobilizing points of view. But the various mobs they employ just can't help themselves in hating each other.

Anyway, I was surprised at the relatively late date of this video I came upon of Michael Richards apologizing for having called an obnoxious heckler the Dread Word in 2006:



It's as if you can see here the precise moment white people were no longer permitted to laugh about race, as the audience assumes a gag is in play and Seinfeld, worried for his friend, has to chide them to stop laughing. Richards nearly panics (ironically, the comedian panics at the sound of laughter), seeing the hole he's in about to be filled up with dirt, and compensates, perhaps, for it by prostrating himself with the sort of manic effusion so common now, where an artful enough apology draws its own reviews--Jonah Hill's successful abjection (2014, "faggot", paparazzi) got raves, sagging Johnny Depp's offering out of Australia (albeit for dog-smuggling, not hate speech) this year was a mini-flop in the series of flops he's enduring.

Richards might have been trying to lift or even reference the Lenny Bruce routine from Bob Fosse's Lenny:



Imagine trying to pull that off today! If the blacks hadn't torn him to shreds the internets would the next day. And the hopeful "imagine" conclusion: if we just open up (our speech!) our troubles will go away! The "hip" and "controversial" Bruce had no clue! He was trafficking in kitsch the whole time! It's all so, what's the word...?

Losing the right and eventually the ability to laugh is tantamount to losing the right or ability to think clearly about something. Maybe that has something to do with the way that right to speak and ability to think about race, for whites, is being reclaimed on alt right Twitter, with joy and humor.

2 comments:

Dave Pinsen said...

That was painful to watch. I hope it was cathartic for him when they riffed on it during the Seinfeld reunion on Curbed Your Enthusiasm.

Really, so unnecessary. He was heckled by rude, obnoxious people, and, in anger, he went for their most obvious characteristic. If the hecklers happened to be fat white guys, he might have gone after their weight instead.

For a guy who made millions of people laugh for years to be treated like that -- by the hecklers and everyone else -- was cruel. Have some respect. If anyone's entitled to an off night, ffs, Michael Richards is.

Dennis Dale said...

I liked that bit of redemption via CYE too. God bless Larry David for bringing back a bit of irreverence--doesn't seem to be spreading though.
I updated above about Richards.