“The first and fatal charm of National Repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing – denouncing – the conduct of others.” -CS Lewis, God in the Dock
The last half decade has marked the rise of black cinema in a large way! Black-made films have existed since the beginning of Cinema but mainstream hits made and starring Black Americans have never had more exposure than in the past several years.
Movies like Get Out, Black Panther, Blackkklansman, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, Queen and Slim, Judas and the Blach Messiah and the like have defined the pop culture conversations and helped raise new stars and filmmakers to roles of incredible prominence!
As a cinephile, I can’t stress just how important and wonderful that is! It’s wonderful that cinema has a new generation of fresh voices being heard by mainstream audiences for the first time!
As much as I appreciate the importance of this, I do think there are negative side effects to the rise. A closer inspection on the products of “Black art” reveals unsettling trends that speak to the anti-liberal and radical themes running throughout the subtext of these works. By proxy, these themes reflect some of the more dangerous impulses floating around mainstream discourses on the topic of racism.
Reactionary and Progressive Art
It’s can be shocking to realize just how deeply “reactionary” most of “progressive” art truly is.
Before you object, Allow me to define my terms. I’m going to use somewhat archaic and detached definitions of these words that generally take on partisan implications. Reactionary generally means “racist” or “bigoted” forms of modern conservatism.
When I say “reactionary”, I generally mean “that which we retreat into in moments of collective fear and xenophobia”. In this sense, when I say “Progressive” I mean “that which builds up civilization, unites disparate groups of people and forges a better world.” I don’t mean progressive in the political sense of the word in this instance.
A “reactionary” liberal is an individual who allows himself to fall back into casual bigotry, tribal/racial group identity, fear of other groups of people and actively advocates forms of defacto segregation.
Not all forms of this are pernicious. A black student who chooses to hangout with other black people he relates to is not a pernicious bigot. A militant black nationalist demanding the forceful separation of the races could alternatively and reasonably be interpreted as “problematic”.
In either case, my point is that a “reactionary” is merely someone who indulges their inner tribalist. This is a tendency we all engage in as humans (read Jonathan Haidt’s novel The Righteous Mind for further elucidation) but it is a tendency most people agree needs to be kept somewhat at bay.
When a multi-racial society is trying to manage the interests of multiple ethnic groups and regional interests, we need shared unifying principals that transcend transient qualities like race, sex and religion. If disparate groups don’t share values, they’re going to retreat into their ethnic communities and radical political ideologies VERY fast.
In recent years, I fear that the reactionary instinct had found a major home in modern mainstream Hollywood in “black” left-wing cinema.
Again, The rise of black cinema has been, by almost all regards, a wonderful development. I’m inclined to agree! It’s a great thing that talented young black directors are getting a chance to prove themselves on the mainstream stage. We’ve discovered some unimaginable talent in recent years like Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins and Steve McQueen!
At the same time though, the rise of “Black Cinema” had coincided with the proliferation of the modern progressive left. Most of these films aren’t just films made by black directors. These films are made explicitly by young progressives who represent themselves as the face of Black America. Their worldview reflects the popular ideas floating around progressive intellectual spaces and further suggests that their perspective is THE perspective of Black Americans.
In 2021, our discussions on racism reflect the whims of the radical left. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter have all but totally been taken over by a cabal of self-proclaimed “trained Marxists” and black racialists who defend domestic terrorists and believe that modern society must be torn apart at the roots to abolish the social construct known as “whiteness” (see the works of Robin Diangelo and Ibram X Kendi).
I could go on for hours about these activists but the important thing to understand is that their vision of racial harmony is precluded by the belief that America is an unceasingly racist country, bound by white supremacy and that all Black Americans are universally victims of a system that purposely disenfranchises them.
Now, there are certainly merits to this worldview. I understand that these beliefs and movements don’t manifest in a vacuum. #BLM was an organic movement born to try and address the problem of police brutality and I won’t address the entire movement with the fruit of it’s most destructive elements.
That said, All you have to do to consider just how damaging this ideology is is to consider how this ideology would sound if you reversed the axis. Consider the following statement where white and black have been switched:
“Africa is an unceasingly racist system that discriminated against whites to protect the interests of the black race and actively encourages their destruction, disenfranchisement and genocide. In order to preserve the most oppressed among us, we need to abolish blackness and destroy black supremacy.”
The words take on a different meaning when divorced from their loaded rhetoric. The Black identity movement’s rhetoric is nearly the exact same as the white nationalist movement’s talking points.
Films that come out of this movement tend to bear the marks of cultural hostility, distrust and racial disdain that mark the black identity movement. Naturally, these films aren’t all the same. They’re all written to address different aspects of the “Black” experience from the rage that inspires revolutionaries to the grace that inspires forgiveness and love.
That said, the most popular films on this lot are generally the ones that put racial identity on a pedestal and take joy in asking very challenging questions to their “white” audiences. Less radical films like Green Book aren’t getting the critical praise that avowedly Marxist flicks like Sorry to Bother you are.
Green Book, which nominally downplayed the immorality of its white lead, was treated like a racist Trumpian screed by progressive Twitter who saw it as implicitly racist.
The problem with these films isn’t that they aren’t well meaning or well made. The problem is that they’re deeply lacking in introspection. These films affirm all of the far-left’s modern prejudices about race, capitalism and white supremacy but don’t offer the benefit of the doubt. They presume that the enemies of “blackness” abound and that they are actively gunning for black people.
These problems are more complex than these films depict. Not every problem in the black community is caused by external oppression and casual bigotry.
How do I know this? How can I, as a white man, dare to say such provocative things?
I defer entirely to statistics. At the height of segregation, black unemployment was equal to that of white Americans. On almost all important quality of life statistics, Black Americans were roughly on par with whites until the Great Society reforms of the late 1960s.
As Thomas Sowell writes in Basic Economics:
“The history of black workers in the United States illustrates the point. As already noted, from the late nineteenth-century on through the middle of the twentieth century, the labor force participation rate of American blacks was slightly higher than that of American whites. In other words, blacks were just as employable at the wages they received as whites were at their very different wages… The wide gap between the unemployment rates of black and white teenagers dates from the escalation of the minimum wage and the spread of its coverage in the 1950s. The usual explanations of high unemployment among black teenagers—inexperience, less education, lack of skills, racism—cannot explain their rising unemployment, since all these things were worse during the earlier period when black teenage unemployment was much lower. Taking the more normal year of 1948 as a basis for comparison, black male teenage unemployment then was less than half of what it would be at any time during the decade of the 1960s and less than one-third of what it would be in the 1970s. Unemployment among 16 and 17-year-old black males was no higher than among white males of the same age in 1948.”
In other words, Black Americans have seen a persistent decline in their employment and prosperity since the 1950s that doesn’t correlate with any sort of rise in white supremacy so much as it correlates with widespread economic and cultural problems.
Black culture doesn’t just have a white supremacy problem. It has MULTIPLE problems. Many of these problems stem from progressive attempts to break the back of the “white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”, ala bell hooks, but devastated the black family by subsidizing single parenthood.
In this case, the reactionary instinct inherent in these films merely works to affirm a form of pernicious casual xenophobia against the countrymen of Black Americans. These stories affirm that the white community is ACTIVELY hostile against them and that there is no hope of breaking the glass ceilings holding them down so long as white supremacy continues to reign supreme.
I would never deny that racism, law inequalities and systemic poverty do harm the Black community but nobody in life ever improved their circumstances by refusing to look inward and consider how to navigate within a set of horrific circumstances. These films are pernicious because they reinforce that that very prejudice.
They’re reactionary. They don’t fix problems.
The epitome of this phenomena is clearly it’s progenitor. 2017’s Get Out is the Rosetta Stone of modern “Black” cinema and remains one of the most critically acclaimed and successful horror films of the last decade. It’s not hard to see why. It’s scary, funny and weird and channels the spirit of great horror writers like Rod Sterling, George Romero and John Carpenter. It was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the last decade and won an Oscar for its screenwriting.
I’d also argue that Get Out might be the most reactionary and distrustful film of the past decade.
As anyone who has seen the film knows, the film is one of the most politically charged pieces of cinema to come out of late. The story specifically targets the casual racism of rich white liberals and all but completely accused them of being complicit in murder via their attempts to consume and culturally appropriate black experiences.
The story surrounds a cult of white doctors and scientists who transplant the brains of dying white people into the bodies of young black men so they can enjoy the perceived “benefits” of being black. This comes at the expense of the black person who’s soul is literally shoved out of the reach of the black body as they’re turned into living observers trapped inside their own bodies.
The story starts with the main character Chris visiting his white girlfriend’s parents in a WASPy neighborhood only to slowly realize the subtle tells and micro aggressions are signs of a greater conspiracy against him. He can’t even trust his own girlfriend who turns out has been a kind of honey potter who exclusively sleeps with black men to draw them into her parents trap.
You can see the seeded layers of distrust baked into the narrative. Chris is the only person in the scenario capable of seeing just how WRONG things are before it becomes clear that he’s in mortal danger. There don’t even turn out to be any nominally “good” white people. They all exist to predate on the black body, use it sexually and wear it as a puppet to increase their good liberal social standing.
One wonders what complicated feelings of distrust director Jordan Peele harbors against his white wife…
If we’re being honest, this exactly the kind of experience we see rooted in films that explore the “Black American experience”. Get Out wasn’t just a successful film in 2017. It was THE successful film of 2017.
Despite being the central target of derision, liberal white film critics LOVED the film. It was THE centerpiece of post-2016 election film discussion and seemingly captured the hearts and minds of millions who held it up as the exemplar of racism in the post-Obama world. The very people that Get Out MOST castigates as predatory monsters, white liberals, held it up as a work of unquestionable dogma.
FilmJoy’s Movies With Mikey declared that seeing the film “made him a better Person”. Bob Chipman declared it to be the most culturally significant film of its year. FilmCritHulk even declared it “the movie of the moment. The movie of the year. The movie of the decade.” The movie even had a 100% Critic score on Rotten Tomatoes (until Armund White’s review knocked it down to 99%) and IMDB awarded it one of the highest scores of all time next to films like Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz.
It wasn’t enough to say that Get Out was a great work of science fiction or to say that it was a great debut feature for a promising young visionary director who happened to be black. The white liberal establishment all but publicly gave the film a tongue bath.
Did any of these people even realize that Get Out was about them or did they take sexual joy in being called “white supremacists…?”
Four years later, it doesn’t really matter what the answer to that question was at the time. The same instincts that defined Jordan Peele’s scathing polemic of American predation against the Black identity have become the mainstream of American politics. It’s merely taken for granted that all problems in the black community are external.
As much as Get Out does an excellent job of dramatizing the internal experience of what it’s like to be an average black person feeling uncomfortable in modern America, it’s not a film of solutions. There is no “I have a dream” moment. There is only destruction. Chris’s story ends with him murdering the predatory white family and escaping with the help of a black friend back to his home.
While this is part and parcel with genre films like They Live or Snow Piercer, the irresolution is a problem. Films like Get Out aren’t asking us to fix problems. They’re asking white audiences to understand the “black (progressive) perspective” and to submit to it quietly.
Films like this exist to curb discussions about white people’s objections to racial identity and the preservation of the status quo by ripping apart nominal conservatives and institutionalists as complicit with anti-black violence.
We can’t run a society on double standards. We can’t just carve our entire racial blocks and permit them to write violence wish fulfillment fantasies if it’s wrong for “white people” to do the same. Society is right to criticize white violence and racism. At the same time, we lack the language to criticize the reverse. Double standards create grievances and give ammunition to dangerous far-right movements like the Alt-Right to use as red meat to radicalize people who recognize the double standards.
In that regard, films like Get Out are deeply solipsistic. They’re the black equivalent of populist steam-venting films like Death Wish, Dirty Harry and Joker that scream adolescently into the void. The difference is that “white rage” is bad and “black suffering” is valid. One of those things is virtuous and gets you book/film deals. The other gets you fired from your job.
Get Out is the epitome of a culture screaming out for justice but the reversal is oppression by its very definition.
If Black Americans want to help fix their problem, they need to start looking internally. I know “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric is seen as dismissive in progressive circles but that’s not what I’m asking. Black people merely need to start by looking at their own lives and circumstances first and asking what kind of movement they could potentially have if they disregarded the fear of reprisal.
Black cinema could do an amazing thing by helping us imagine a world without the problems of racism. It can show us what a post-racial world could really look like. It could show us how we all have incredible social mobility and freedom once we recognize that it our limitations are artificial and placed upon us.
This brings me to the other major breakout of modern Black art! The trend of Hollywood’s embrace is of black identity is even more interesting when you place it in contrast with the other major cultural touchstone that’s popped out of black culture in the past decade: Hamilton.
The musical sensation technically preceded the “black cinema” genre’s popularization by two years but it’s prominence speaks to a very different outlook having been born as a story conceived during the relative optimism of Obama’s second term.
With the release of the original stage production on Disney+ in July of last year, the musical gained a second life with its status as one of the great stories of American Revolution now saved for posterity for modern audiences to view at home!
Hamilton has gained a reputation as something of a double sided coin. It’s both a deeply authentic expression of America’s Black and Hispanic subcultural art AND an expression of cringy white liberals to use as a means of virtue signaling.
It’s almost become a widespread cliche that white liberals LOVE Hamilton. In Rian Johnson’s 2019 film Knives Out, Don Johnson’s hyper conservative character is given a moment where he quotes “Immigrants, We get the job done” and brags about seeing Hamilton as a status symbol. He then immediately turns around and starts complaining about illegal immigrants…
By itself though, Hamilton is an intensely literate and multilayered work of art. Hamilton exists as a kind of spiritual successor to American musicals like 1776 and more or less sincerely plays out the events of the lives of the founding fathers earnestly.
The novelty of the musical has always been its non-white casting. I recalling conservative critics of rap and diversity, like Ben Shapiro, completely dismissing the musical at it’s face for its superficial and purposeful segregation of white actors and actresses when it came out in 2015.
In hindsight, the diverse casting was a purposeful aspect of the play’s story and themes. While the narrative of the lives of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson is played totally straight, there is purposeful meaning to seeing them played by relatively relatively obscure Black and Latino actors.
The casting wasn’t merely intended as some kind of “color blind casting”. It’s important to note that the only major white character in the play is the play’s villain King George III. One could read racial malice into that casting but his portrayal is completely absurd. He plays the character as a disgruntled gay ex-boyfriend who launches the American Revolution as a kind of Mean Girls prank.
Certainly the waves of white British soldiers facing off against our revolutionaries of color has some weight to it but the subtext doesn’t read like militant racialism. The story of Hamilton reads more like a story of self realization and independence. The colonies want a separation against their oppressive rulers but they’re fully prepared to take on the burden of what that means. They want to build a new identity on their own terms through the American Revolution.
The Black vs. White subtext is there but it’s almost irrelevant to the core story of the musical. The identitarianism really doesn’t stick once you remove all the aesthetic decisions. Take out the rap and the race-mixed casting and you’re left with a very straightforward musical about the rise and fall of one of America’s most underrated founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. It’s, first and foremost, a classical tragedy about a uniquely powerful and talented man who is undone by his sexual misconduct and his obsession with his legacy.
It’s interesting then just to realize what the racial subtext adds to this story. Black cultural artifacts like rap and hiphop are similarly obsessed with these themes of life, death, identity, sex, God, etc.
In essence, Hamilton becomes a story about the Minority American subculture finding it’s story and independence within the ideas of the American founding ideals itself. The question of “overcoming oppression” is resolved in the first act and the second act is entirely devoted to watching the characters grow and spiral as the rubber hits the road.
In that, it probably is the most overly pro-American piece of art in decades AND it manages to do so while incorporating the Black and Hispanic identities into the equation of that identity. Considering how much modern racial activism is solely dedicated to driving a wedge between minorities and American culture, that’s no small feat!
Hamilton says that the American story isn’t just a white story. The American story can be embraced by anyone!
Hamilton’s Progressive Critics
Sadly, I doubt the film is going to cause any sort of great patriotic reexamination within the greater progressive black community at large. The filmed version of the musical dropped over the summer last year during the George Floyd protests and was met by far-left audiences with a massive shrug. Most of them didn’t want to start suddenly validating the history of “Slave owners” like the founding fathers overnight.
As a progressive colleague over at Geeks Under Grace put it:
“As wonderful as Hamilton is to experience, its exposure on Disney+ comes with odd timing. When LMM wrote this musical, it was during a time of hope. From 2010, LMM urgently wrote Hamilton so that it would premiere before Obama exited his presidency. Then, it seemed that the country was moving toward diversity meaning more than a perfunctory goal for employers to meet so that they do not catch a discrimination case. But this was before the next POTUS ordered ICE to hunt and lock brown children in cages or declare defenders of Confederate statues to be very fine people as they chant “Blood and Soil.”… Though the country has recently taken a step backwards on the route to progress, Hamilton manages to make me forget that characters like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison owned slavesHamilton Review, GeeksUnderGrace.com
When the film premiered last July, Lin Manuel-Miranda was so inculcated with negative criticism on Twitter that he had to briefly private his Twitter.
“Basically what the supposedly color-blindcasting does, is it gives Hamilton, the show, the ability to say, ‘Oh, we’re not just telling old, white history,'” historian Lyra Monteiro said in a 2016 Slate interview. “‘This isn’t your stuffy old-school history that’s just praising white people. Look, we’ve got people of color in the cast. This is everybody’s story.’ Which, it isn’t. It’s still white history. And no amount of casting people of color disguises the fact that they’re erasing people of color from the actual narrative.”Oprah Magazine, July 6th, 2020
Given how much the 1619 Project vision of American identity has taken hold on the far left within the past year, I don’t for see a beloved blockbuster musical from five years ago changing hearts and minds among the most radical. The predominate narrative in America today says America is an unforgivably racist country that warped its entire law and morality to specifically oppress blacks and slaves.
No nuance. No good white people. America is unforgivable. Only oppressors, the oppressed and the coming revolution.
That said, I do think there is something encouraging about the musical’s proliferation. I’ve written a lot about the need for positivist racial discourse and the need for cross-cultural dialog and relationship building. I think we see good examples of that in films like Glory and Green Book that explore how walls can be torn down through mutual respect.
People bond through shared experiences and value sets and the only way to build better white-black relations is to emphasize the things we have in common. Sadly, today’s “anti-racists” activists think they can fix everybody by making them MORE obsessed with race.
Hummel’s Maxim #1: All Thing Beget Themselves
Racial thinking begets racial thinking. Racism begets racism. Hatred begets hatred. Festering egotism and an unwillingness to forgive or offer grace begets the graduate erosion of racial relations.
It’s not surprising then how deeply those projects like Green Book have been utterly ignored or scorned by the far-left because it’s a “white” story by a “white” director. Hamilton though is a tougher nut to crack. It’s a story by a Hispanic artist who had a story to tell. In doing so, he crafted the biggest breakout musical on Broadway history in decades.
In an age where the black identity is treated as a poor beaten thing in need of retribution, we need narratives that teach people how to find themselves within the context of being a downtrodden and alienated minority.
Hamilton does that! It shows that we have the power to improve our circumstances, develop into something independent and still live as flawed humans in a system that’s improved merely because we were brave.
My only concern with Hamilton is that I don’t know how deeply the musical has penetrated the Black-American subculture. I have met numerous people of color who adore the musical as a work of storytelling but the reaction among the modern progressive left has been fairly lukewarm. In 2020, a musical about the American Revolution doesn’t speak to the temperament of a subculture swayed by the whims of #BlackLivesMatter, the George Floyd Protests and the 1619 Project. For understandable reasons, many Black Americans aren’t feeling comfortable with the state of American institutions and history. They aren’t in the mood for a nostalgic piece about the history of the country, properly understood.
How useful is a musical like this going to be as a bridge builder in our modern climate? If it’s biggest fans are guilty white virtue signaling liberals, how can it make a difference? How many of it’s fans are merely indulgent movie watchers drawn in by the curious novelty of color-swapped casting, rap music and it’s scandalous adultary laden story.
It’s a sign of the times I guess. We don’t live in a moment of bridge building and mutual understanding. We live in a moment of collective identity and widespread fear of the dreaded “other”. Our times carries the spirit of the sentiment “f*ck you, got mine” (which we saw recently with the Gamestop stock situation where all sides of the political aisle celebrated hundreds of ephemeral Wall Street hedge funds being nearly bankrupted).
It’s disconcerting then that the more reactionary Get Out is the film of choice for this generation of audiences. That film’s anxiety about the horrors of white predation seems to speak more to the paranoia of our moment and the implicit in-group preferences that guard of identities. Everyone is out for themselves.
Sadly, a story like Hamilton may be TOO progressive for this moment of disintegration. In a moment when we need to be thinking about building a better society, we’ve collectively decided to affirm our worst instincts.