|still from the film Idiocracy.|
Scene from August Wilson's masterpiece, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom:
TOLEDO: Everybody come from different places in Africa, right? Come from different tribes and things. Soonawhile they began to make one big stew. You had the carrots, the peas, and potatoes and whatnot over here. And over there, you had the meat, the nuts, the okra, corn... and then you mix it up and let it cook right through to get the flavors flowing together... then you got one thing. You got a stew.
Now you take and eat the stew. You take and make your history with that stew. Alright. Now it's over. Your history's over and you done ate the stew. But you look around and you see some carrots over here, some potatoes over there. You can't eat it all. So what you got? You got some leftovers. That's what it is. You got some leftovers and you can't do nonting with it. You already making you another history... coooking you another meal, and you don't need them leftovers no more. What to do?
See, we's the leftovers. The colored man is the leftovers. Now what's the colored man gonna do with himself? That's what we waiting to find out. But first we gotta know we the leftovers.
Now, who knows that? You find me a nigger that knows that and I'll turn any which-a-way you want me to. I'll bend over for you. You ain't gonna find that. And that's what the problem is. The problem ain't the white man. the white man, know you just a leftover. 'Cause he the one who done the eating and know what he done ate. But we don't now that we been took and made history out of. Done went and filled the white man's belly and now he's full and tired and wants you to get out the way and let him be by himself.
Because the movies remain our best hope of reaching those American ideals we often claim but rarely engage in daily life. The movie theater remains a temple, even if it has doubled as a slaughterhouse in its checkered past and is presently little more than a cattle car for blinkered superstore shoppers.
The darkened theater can still be a place where we all shed our petty concerns to share something unshakably true, spiritual, life-affirming. The benefit of restoring and keeping this practice, over time, is a society less obsessed with status, property and petty chauvinism, more mindful and appreciative of its freedoms.
I can't think of another public space that can produce such communion and understanding. Concert halls, arenas and public parks are all far behind the movies in that regard. Not everybody goes to see the Rolling Stones, but eerrrbody saw Titanic.
There is a way to restore the movie theater's status as a place of fellowship-- not in the Christian church sense, where you turn to hug the congregant beside you, but in the nondenominational, interfaith, hands-free sense of feeling the same jolt of spiritual chain lightning come down from the screen that your neighbors in the theater are experiencing. The visual language that used to produce this kind of magic is gone, but we can get it back.
The 1970's, the last decade that American mainstream commercial cinema flourished as an auteur-driven popular art form, was also the age when Black people came to know and celebrate themselves. It didn't matter that the FBI had spent the past two decades subverting virtually every movement dedicated to black progress (while criminalizing and dismantling a whole range of progressive causes); African-Americans were beginning to step out from the shadows and claim a grounded, self-propelled culture. It was a bold, proud time, even for the poorest of us. We finally had a sense of hope and direction that we'd always envied in our immigrant, WASP and Native American neighbors, who could draw from centuries of the kind of cultural continuity we'd been denied since the slave ships.
Fun while it lasted.
By the 1980's, the same era that, in the wake of studio-killing debacles like Heaven's Gate, Ho'wood passed ultimate creative control of movies from filmmakers to corporate executives, the mass of poor, under-educated black people were also feeling a certain rug slip from under them. There was a new drug in town, and, some say, the CIA played a significant role in insuring that it flooded the inner cities as efficiently as KFC franchises.
So, while Ho'wood spent the '80s outlawing art in the name of record box office, record numbers of Negroes fell into drug abuse, disease and incarceration (even as they continued to enjoy their still-novel visibility on the pop culture landscape). The '90s represented a holding pattern, for both Ho'wood and black people. The major studios continued to do steady business centered around tentpole movies; black people continued to languish in the rubble of the Crack Explosion and other disasters.
Here in the future, few are counting on the mass of Leftovers to contribute anything significant to society, but I have an absurd amount of faith in them (us, actually). In Toledo's era, maybe the Leftovers weren't aware of their status, but today I can testify that many of us do see the big picture, in all its frightening dimensions. We know what we're up against. We know, or at least sense, what we've lost.
Just as Robert Moses' single-minded urban planning determined New York City's destiny as a high-speed conveyor belt for tourists and commuters--locals be damned-- so has the movie business shaped a cultural landscape that exalts highly educated, highly specialized urban professionals. These are the folks who keep the machine running, our movies tell us, and we should all try to emulate their ethics and lifestyle-- or else get out of their way. As with Moses the master builder's efforts, the result is a mass of folks crammed together yet too busy working to fulfill their proscribed roles to indulge meaningful communication beyond their demographic profiles. Like an apartment building bordering a noisy expressway, the movies we have breed hostility and claustrophobia.
A popular NY Times commercial asks the viewer to "be part of a great conversation" by subscribing to the paper, but we Leftovers know he doesn't mean us. The higher you go up the social ladder, liberal or conservative, the less interest in cultivating a truly integrated civil society you will find.
As one crazy old man put it:
So, how can the Leftovers, of all people, mobilize against this trend, revive the American Dream (as something more than the longest "long con" in history), save the movies and save the world?
We'll get to that in Part III. It's time for my medication.