PRINT April 1989

The Cave

Invisibility Blues

FOR ALL ITS REPETITIVE valorization of the campy ’50s and the glorious ’60s in film and TV, Hollywood has yet to have its own Civil Rights Movement. This legacy means that viewers are inevitably unable to locate any substantive treatment of black agency even in those films and TV shows that ostensibly focus on black topics. Instead, what you’ll find lately—which is, I suppose, much better than nothing—is black music.

During the ’50s in Harlem, Charlie Parker’s trickster alto sax provided the catalyst for bebop and for the counter-cultural scene that developed around it. By the time cultural nationalism and Black Power rolled around in the ’60s, Bird had become a cultural icon among black intellectuals and artists, equaled in stature only by Billie Holiday and John Coltrane, not only for his art but for his political anger. Even when his music, his natty style in dressing, his existential alienation, and his troubling addiction to drugs seemed to fade into the margins as irrelevant to Black Power’s affirmation, Bird’s shadow lingered still to remind us of black creativity’s crucial element, its profound deformation of white cultural hegemony.

The beauty of the movie Bird, directed by Clint Eastwood, is, of course, the music. The heresy of bebop in concert with fellow conspirators Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, and Max Roach (other artists embellished the original recordings for the film) still rattles the corpses that customarily assail our ears in movie houses and elsewhere. The horror, which the film sublimely advances, is the notion that this tortured black artist, played by Forest Whitaker, could have sprung full grown from the head of a white Zeus, issuing, as he seems to, from no black community, no black family, no black woman that he wouldn’t have been better off without.

If it is true, as Parker himself claimed, that he was addicted to heroin from the age of twelve, this is perhaps the most important fact we can know about him after we know that he was what’s called in the West “a musical genius.” Yet in Bird, no more substantial reason seems to emerge to explain Parker’s precipitous decline and death from drug addiction at 35 than that he is a black man trapped in a white man’s movie. Parker as rootless, alienated from the black community, family, and bourgeois existence, which he undoubtedly was, might have made a fascinating film. It is not really these issues that are explored in Bird, however, but rather the parasiticlike concept that Parker’s life is only significant to the degree that it illustrates the antithesis of what it means to be white, male, and privileged. (The same seems true of the Bud Powell/Dexter Gordon character in ’Round Midnight.) On the other hand, because we view the film through the body of Parker’s music—awesome, lush, and on an entirely different trajectory—our objections are silenced.

I WAS PREPARED not to like Mississippi Burning because of director Alan Parker’s statement to the effect that only a movie that focused on whites in the Civil Rights Movement—in this case, the two FBI agents who investigated the deaths of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in 1964—would be viable in a Hollywood film. My problem with this statement was not that it wasn’t true. Rather, what made me think I wouldn’t like the movie was that Parker was still so certain that he would be able to rise above Hollywood’s conceptual apartheid to make the politically correct film. So I knew what to expect: that familiar blend of racism, heterosexism, and passive-aggressive white-male chauvinism without which, say, The Color Purple would have been impossible to make.

But what I didn’t expect was to find myself submerged, almost from the outset, in the dense, rich voice of Mahalia Jackson, perhaps the greatest black gospel singer ever recorded, singing a classic of the black church, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Of all the issues this film evades, it is least of all concerned with the plight of black women, and yet black women’s singing voices are pervasive throughout and remain a constant cue. Above all, the supremely passionate voice of Mahalia—whose synthesis of blues and gospel in the ’40s and ’50s was an innovation comparable to Bird’s, but in the realm of black women’s music—is designed to tear down your resistance to Parker’s apartheid esthetics before the film has properly begun. Never mind Martin Luther King’s pragmatic brand of black Christianity, for instance, as exemplified in a Nina Simone singing “Mississippi Goddamn!” Parker prefers to ground his film’s authority in a much larger though politically regressive tradition in the black church of hopelessness and despair. When the film ends with “Take a Walk With Jesus” as the final solution, the old and recurring representation of blacks as pious, silent, and monolithically “good” is reconsolidated. Gospel music, then, particularly the extraordinarily sorrowful singing of black women, ends up confirming the suspicion that substantive change in racial politics doesn’t have a prayer.

When their car is stopped by the KKK and various police, Schwerner or Goodman says to the other two, including the black Chaney sitting in the back, “Don’t say anything, let me talk,” which is precisely Parker’s formula for dealing with blacks in the Civil Rights Movement. A shot of Chaney’s face begins the film’s endless stream of silent black faces, all eyes, fear, and unknowable blackness. The murders and violence that follow have an ominous and chilling effect as one watches the dismal politics of the rural South in 1964 reconsolidated and reinscribed in the dismal global esthetics of Hollywood in 1989. Blackness, or black flesh, becomes the end point of an intrusive, proprietary gaze. Black eyes, heads, legs, sexual organs (or T&A, as in Parker’s Angel Heart and Fame) become artifacts or art objects, reified and/or literally detached (as in the film’s fascination with lynchings and mutilation) in order to facilitate their manipulation as units of entertainment, much the way Jean-Paul Goude photographed Grace Jones, or Leni Riefenstahl photographed the Nuba. In the globalization of American culture’s most resistant form of neoimperialism, an unanalyzable visualization of black flesh thus indefinitely substitutes for a discussion of racism long overdue.

But when Gene Hackman, as Agent Anderson, tells Willem Dafoe, as Agent Ward, a story about his father’s racism and then offers this explanation: he was “an old man just so full of hate that he didn’t know being poor was what was killing him,” we have finally located the problem with white left-liberal conceptualizations of the ’50s, the ’60s, and the Rainbow in art and politics. In these conceptualizations, racism is marginalized while the economic is privileged, and racism’s psychological unconscious is erased. The problem is with the notion that, in a racist empire, whites who trivialize racism and sexism can, nevertheless, provide progressive intellectual and creative leadership. Meanwhile, in the field of representation, most black people, even Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, are trapped in their roles as art objects who never really speak, by which I mean they have not yet fundamentally altered the exclusionary patterns that currently characterize the production of knowledge and the structure of global communications. That black people are able to become a dominant presence in the field of American music, especially that music used in television and film, is, as I’ve already said, better than nothing at all, but hardly perestroika.

Michele Wallace is a cultural critic and writer. She is assistant professor of women’s studies and American studies at the State University of New York, Buffalo.